Friday, October 30, 2020

I Found A Fox


From character creation to level thirty-five in World of Warcraft Retail took me a fraction over twenty hours. Thirty-five is the new ninety. It puts my shaman just two levels behind my highest level character, the dwarf hunter I played during the Wrath of the Lich King era. He took something like three or four months to get to seventy. 

So, levelling certainly is fast. It's also surprsingly fun, although it's a very different kind of fun to the deep, immersive, compelling experience many of us in this corner of the blogosphere (Can spheres have corners?) were celebrating when Classic was fresh and new, around this time last year.


It doesn't quite feel like playing the same game. Leveling in Classic is very much about building your character while meeting people and making acquaintances. Retail is more about following a series of stories. The surprise for me was that some of those stories are not at all bad.

Much has been said about the trivialization of the leveling process in WoW. It's frequently derided as being challenge-free. It's supposed to be next to impossible for your character to die or run out of mana. That's certainly true at the beginning but by the mid-twenties my shaman found herself out of mana once or twice and in the thirties she began to have to make tactical decisions on what to fight and what to leave alone. It would be an exaggeration to say that leveling has become difficult in any way but it does start to require some thought and attention after a while. 


The idea that the game is any way prescriptive or on-rails for the solo player also fails to hold up to close examination. When I started I had every intention of leveling via Exile's Reach and a single expansion but that hasn't happened. 

Instead I've found myself following my inevitable pattern of dotting about the map here, there and anywhere. My shaman's path to thirty-five went roughly as follows: Exile's Reach - Zuldazar - Terrokar Forest - Valley of the Four Winds - Vale of Eternal Blossoms - Jade Forest - Kun'Lai Summit - Townlong Steppes - Vol'Dun


Not one of those zones has she completed. Instead she's left a trail of half-finished - or barely-started - quests behind her everywhere she's been. The game has a structure involving breadcrumb trails to quest hubs, it's true, but it doesn't seem to give much of a damn whether you follow them or not. I've stayed as long as the local story interested me or until another narrative crossed my path and drew me away. 

My journal has filled up and quests have been deleted on an almost hourly basis. I've had no compunction in dropping storylines that didn't seem to be going anywhere or to which I couldn't imagine myself returning but to the writers' credit, there haven't been many that outstayed their welcome or that I didn't find at least moderately entertaining for as long as I stuck with them.


Pandaria, as several people have suggested, is particularly good. The narrative is coherent, cohesive and, perhaps most surprising of all, convincing. It moves with logic and concision at a comprehensible pace. Characters make statements that seem sensible, then act on them accordingly. 

There's a minimum of clowning and a modicum of bathos. Humorous characters are gently amusing, serious characters are controlled and disciplined. All in all it's an impressive achievement.

Visually, it's a feast. The art team has done a magnicicent job of rendering a variety of biomes while holding to a convincing and (within the terms of fantasy gaming) naturalistic geography. I took a vast number of screenshots and did a great deal of gawping.


After thirty-five levels I'm coming round to the shaman class. Combat could not be described as thrilling but as the spellbook and the talent tree slowly fill out at least a few options for variety begin to present themselves. 

Out of combat is better. I love the spirit wolf form, especially with the specialization that adds to the speed buff. Being able to heal up after combat (or a fall) with a couple of casts is a massive improvement on drinking potions or sitting down to eat and drink. 


Best of all is the water-striding spell that lets the shaman run across lakes and seas as if they were dry land. I only wish that had turned up a few levels earlier. The impact was muted by the fact she could already ride flying mounts by then. Still, it'll come into its own in Battle for Azeroth zones. She won't be doing any flying there.

One sign of the immensely increased speed of levelling is that I didn't run into any inventory problems until she was already past thirty. She was going too fast to bother with any professions so she wasn't wighed down by crafting materials and everything she got seemed to be either meant for selling to vendors or for using there and then.


When her bags did finally fill up, mostly with cast-off armor and weaponry, she simply portalled back to Orgrimmar and threw it all in the vault. That's the only time she's visited a bank since she started. I doubt that's ever happened in any MMORPG I've ever played before.

Thirty-five was, of course, my target for starting the Vulpera access quests. Or, I should say, for completing the Vol'Dun zone storyline, since that seems to amount to the same thing. I'll have more to say about that another day but for now I'll just mention that she's currently camped next to the fox that starts it all off. I'm hoping to get it done tomorrow. 


After that, I had imagined making a Vulpera (a hunter, most likely) and leaving the shaman in semi-retirement, her job done. I've rather taken to her, though, and there are several unfiished storylines back in pandaland I'd like to see through to their conclusion. I think I might let her have a few days off and then come back to take her all the way to fifty before my month's subscription runs out.

Whether I renew it probably rests on the slight shoulders of that Vulpera, as yet unborn. It would be a bit silly to go to all this effort to get her and then not play her for a good while, though, wouldn't it? And I am having fun. More than I expected.

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