Saturday, November 29, 2008

Spirit Beast Naming: Apologetic Correction

I did chat with, among others, Sean Riley about a name for my freshly-tamed spirit beast. But the name I used came not from Sean but from Ian Watson, long-time active fan and support of fans of White Wolf games. This isn't the first time I've gone to Ian for good name advice and I hope it won't be the last. :)

Thanks, Ian!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Loque'hanak? Yes We Can

Loque'hanak the Spirit Beast is not the rarest tamable beast in the game at the moment, but she is unique in her own way. She's the only member of the spirit beast family in play right now, tamable or otherwise. She's...well, you can see her looks, and she's got the family ability to cast Spirit Strikes. These hit for arcane damage right away, and then the same amount again 10 seconds later. (This is going to take some care, if I take her instancing, to avoid messing up crowd control.)

Special thanks to Sean Riley of Blogatelle for suggesting the name Ørlög, meaning "primal law", and the accompanying quote "To understand Ørlög is to understand the threads of wyrd." That's good for a spirit beast, I'm thinking.

Loque'hanak, 1

Loque'hanak, 2

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Death Knight, Part 3

Last time, I left off with Cleitus surveying the changed landscape of Havenshire. New commanders enter into the picture now (along with another look at that falling-to-the-Scourge taint in earth and sky)...

Noth the Plaguebringer

...including one familiar to many WoW players, Baron Rivendare, usually seen in his stronghold at the end of the undead wing of Stratholme:

Baron Rivendare

It turns out that I'm regrettably short on screenshots for many of the specific quests that follow. But then they're more interesting to play than might show in pictures, too: they take the death knight against various opponents in the same general context. There's the slaughter of any available defenders and citizens within New Avalon's walls, then the unraveling of some mysteries about what the Scarlet Crusaders are up to. It emerges piece by piece that the leaders and select followers are heading off on an unknown mission. The death knight has to torture information out of Scarlet troops, then get shipping records to clarify what's going on, and finally go in disguise to get documents from the general on the spot, so as to learn that the leaders are following a vision given to General Abbendis to the then-still-mysterious lands of Northrend.

Along the way, the death knight is also pushed to demonstrate their allegiance to the Lich king and the Scourge, including executing prisoners, one of whom has some significance for the death knight. This is the night elf version, which is more poignant than the blood elf one, though the overall thrust is the same:

Yazmina's Last Words

Yazmina Slain

This is Cleitus in disguise so as to go get the General's documents. It's a good thing that the Scarlets are so zelaous that they will just assume that the glowing eyes and bloody runeforged sword are, er, tokens of holiness or something. The Scarlet Crusade is better at the courage thing than the clue thing.

Cleitus the Scarlet

The Scarlet scheme revealed, Cleitus returns to the Ebon Hold once more to deliver the news and find out what's next. The third wave brings the end to New Avalon. The Light King is now down at ground level to direct the assault:

Lich King in Phase 3

The weapon of choice for this last wave is the undead wyrm. The death knight gets to rain down fire from above:

New Avalon Burns

In terms of mechanics, the dragon works much like the cannon (and therefore like other vehicles, including trucks ("It flies like a truck." "Fine. What is a truck?")), with the death knight tilting and panning the dragon to aim its fiery breath:

Dragon Targeting

The defenders aren't helpless. They have large ballistas, squads of riflemen, and mages all doing their best. It's quite a challenge.

But the outcome is never really in doubt. The defenders slain, Scourge troops move in for the slaughter, and the Lich King dispatches the death knights on hand to help with an assault on Light's Hope Chapel, a nearby stronghold for both the Scarlet Crusade and the Argent Dawn. It's an eclectic force, too, with some of the very largest things I've yet seen in the game:

Mustering Against Light's Hope

As Mograine gives the word to begin the assault, many, many, many ghouls pull themselves out of the ground, wave after wave of them:

Emerging Ghouls

The ensuing fight is a glorious rumble. At least, it is until the Scourge's forces find themselves unable to advance, thanks to one man:

Tirion in Death Knight Fight

Cleitus had no idea who this guy was, but I do. He's one of the two main characters in Chris Metzen's short novel Of Blood and Honor. In that story, set after the collapse of the Horde and the closing of the Dark Portal at the end of the Second War, paladin Tirion spares the life of elderly orc Eitrigg, who in turn saves him from the emerging Scarlet Crusade's kill-them-all zeal. Eitrigg is in WoW time the senior advisor to Horde leader Thrall and giver of good counsel at some key moments. Tirion, on the other hand, appears in WoW in a quiet exile in the middle of the Plaguelands, where he sets characters on a remarkable quest chain I'll write up another time. It ends with Tirion paying a large tragic price for having stood by a long time and vowing to re-make the collapsed Order of the Silver Hand.

Now he's here, having brought together members of the Argent Dawn and the Scarlet Crusade into a new organization, the Argent Crusade. And he's got access to the power of something hidden beneath the chapel, strong enough to confront Mograine with a vision of himself as he was as a boy, yearning to fight the undead along with his father. Mograine realizes that he doesn't matter to the Lich King any more than, say, the victims of New Avalon, and gets more than a little annoyed. At this point, enter the Lich King himself to deliver a smackdown on Tirion:

Tirion vs Lich King

To everyone's surprise, except perhaps Tirion's, it doesn't work. The death knights present now turn on the Lich King, since being disposable trash isn't really what they were after. The Lich King flees without admitting that that's what he's doing, and Tirion speaks once again, telling those who remain that even now there's a chance for them to do their world some good.

But first there'll be some cleanup to do, which I'll cover in the fourth and last part of this.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Death Knight, Part 2

First, a quick supplement to the first post. The gryphon seen more clearly:

Undead Gryphon

Death knights get distinctive mounts. First Cleitus had to steal a horse from the Scarlet Crusade's corral...


...then cross into the shadowlands to defeat one of the dark lords who transform living horses into things that can withstand the undead, demons, and their environments...


...and finally, having impressed the master horseman, could summon his own deathcharger, as seen here against the Ebon Hold:


The first phase of the assault is straightforward. Death knights slaughter defenders of Havenshire, the farms outside New Avalon proper, and Havenshire citizens, and gather up the magical arrows shot by the skeletons seen previously. The interesting thing here is that it's straightforwardly bad deeds—the citizens try to flee, beg for mercy, the whole deal. There is no question but that at this point, Cleitus and his comrades are completely on the wrong side.

"Pulling" is MMO jargon for anything a player has their character do to make one or more enemies c'mon over here for a fight. It can be an arrow or gunshot, or a spell, or a shouted taunt, or any of a number of things. Death knights have a very literal pull in the spell Death Grip:

Death Grip

It yanks the victim through the air to land right in front of the death knight. There may be a day when I grow tired of it, but that day is for sure not this day.

Then comes gathering reinforcements, Scourge style. Cleitus got a poison gas dispenser and directions to a nearby mine. Sometimes the gas just kills a living subject and unleashes a vengeful ghost, but sometimes it makes obedient ghouls, and at the end of successful questing, every death knight has a coterie:

Temporary Legion of Minions

The ghoul master at the Scourge base breaks them down into parts for later use while the death knight gets on with other chores. Specifically, it's time for some mass destruction. This was my introduction to the wonderful world of large weapons in the Lich King era. Cleitus infiltrated a Scarlet Crusade dock...

Cleitus, Hidden

...seized control of an available cannon, and went to work:

Cannon, 1

Scarlet soldiers swarm up to make him stop, of course, but the cannon turns out to have an electrical-discharge defense to help repel boarders:
Cannon, 2

A hundred soldiers gunned down and it's time for Cleitus to leave, with the last blue sky Havenshire will ever see:

Last Blue Sky

These are the trainers waiting for him and his comrades back up in Ebon Hold. Each specializes in one of the three talent trees available to death knights. The lich Amal'thazad, master of cold:


The necromancer Lord Thorval, master of blood:

Lord Thorval

The blood knight Lady Alistra, mistress of the unholy:

Lady Alistra

When Cleitus returned to the ground, the old camp lay largely abandoned. Remaining soldiers pointed him to a new forward base, and he saw that Havenshire had been conquered, the front line now at New Avalon itself:

Phase 2

This is the phasing I've written about before. As I played, I shared the changed space with all the other players who'd started characters at about the same time—within a span of a few hours, I gather, and so long as we were doing the same set of quests. Those who finished them up went on to phase 3 just as we'd all left phase 1 and those working on it behind, when our characters carried reports of early victories back up to Ebon Hold.

It's a wonderful addition to the WoW arsenal, and I'm very grateful to the other MMOs who showed it could be done, and done well.

To be continued, of course.

Death Knight, Part 1

You've faced the rising power of the Scourge and its master the Lich King, and you've realized that you, at least, are not going to stop it. Maybe you fell fighting it and then joined its ranks, keeping more of your mind than most undead. Maybe you despaired of life's prospects and joined up with it out of a sense of inevitability. Maybe you embraced the darkness willingly. One way or another, you find yourself in the heart of the Scourge's growing empire, the floating necropolis known as the Ebon Hold, and facing your new overlord very directly.

That's the setup for the new death knight character class. I'll be illustrating my experience with it via my blood elf Cleitus, supplemented occasionally with pictures taken while playing night elf Syyind.

This is what I saw first: a balcony of the Ebon Hold, with valkyries on either side and the Lich King himself straight ahead:

Cleitus, Starting

Cleitus, in the standard regalia of the new death knight initiate (with helm and cloak hidden, as is my wont):

Cleitus in Starting Regalia

One of the valkyries:


And the Lich King him/itself, who acknowledges the new recruit...

Cleitus and the Lich King

...and sends them off to Highlord Darion Mograine, who handles a lot of the actual operations of the Hold:

Darion Mograine

(One nice touch is that the Lich King is often talking while nobody is at hand, sometimes to himself and sometimes obviously giving orders or receiving reports telepathically. His voice is a presence in the character's mind from time to time throughout the starting sequence.)

Training gets right underway with the character taking an available sword, learning the basics of runeforging to make it magical, and adding runic power. The death knight gets a whole bunch of new graphics of supreme coolness, like this flaring and cooling pattern after successful runeforging:


The new recruit wastes little time with the sword unbloodied; the next step (which I didn't end up with good shots of) is to select any of several shackled unworthy initiates...

Unworthy Initiate

...and duel them down. (The target gets time to retrieve weapon and armor, but even so, it's a pretty harsh setup.)

Then it's time to spy out the targets of the Lich King's next assault, on the Scarlet Crusade-built enclave of New Avalon in the eastern Plaguelands:

Scrying Orb

Scrying with the Orb

And then it's down to the launching point for the invasion. Yes, that is a skeletal gryphon with blue fel energy glowing in its chest cavity, as with the dragon in the Lich King trailer.

First Descent

The invasion's launching point looks like what you'd expect a Scourge gathering to look like:

Prince Valanar

Scourge Archers

New Avalon is, at this point, still in good shape:

Cleitus Outstanding in His Field

Notice the contrast between the tainted sky and blighted ground around the Scourge camp and the field where Cleitus stands, down the slope from those archers. That's all going to change, thanks to Cleitus and the army he's with.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Happy Fourth Anniversary of WoW, Everyone!

Tivara's Cub, 1

Tivara's Cub, 2

First Week Supplemental: Oh, Yeah, The Other Thing

Sure enough, I forgot something.

Quest Instructions. One of my favorite new addons this year was Lightheaded, because it gathered up Wowhead entries' comments and made them available next to the quest log. Coordinates, special advice, it's all there in Lightheaded. One of my greatest pleasures in addon management this week was going ahead and turning it off because I didn't need it. The clarity and completeness of quest texts has really improved in Lich King. I've needed to go look up something on Wowhead...twice? Maybe three times now. With hundreds of quest done, that's an awfully good success rate, I figure. NPCs describe the position of things, assets you'll need to have along, and tricky complications to be aware of in pretty full, useful language.

Reflections on My First Week with the Lich King

Summary: Delighted.

Slightly longer summary: Really delighted.

Let me break out some specific topics.

Presentation. There's more graphical detail, and it's outstanding. For a great demonstration of this, check out Andromache's post on the subject and be sure to click the picture of his dwarf to get the larger version. There's also no problem I've yet seen with clashing colors and patterns that led some people to describe early Outland gear as all being "of the assclown" in addition to any other properties it had. Early Northrend gear is subdued but brighter colors come in as one goes along, making for a pleasing progression. The music is also a pleasure, very rich and enjoyable—I've got the game music on a lot more than I never did before.

When Tivara first landed in Borean Tundra, I really did gasp a time or two while looking at the scenery. Then came the Howling Fjord, and I thought, "Wow, this is just amazing." Then I saw Utgarde Keep and thought, "This is just really amazing, one of the best-looking instances ever." Then I saw the Nexus and thought, "They've outdone themselves, this is maybe the best-looking instance ever." Wyrmrest Temple and environs: "Astounding." Azjol'Nerub: "This is brilliant. I have never seen so utterly breathtaking, amazing an instance. How can they top this?" Dunno yet, but I'm looking forward to finding out. :)

Participation. Be it noted that I have a sometimes-pathological loathing for a lot of jargon, and am prepared to go some distance to avoid many popular buzzwords. "Interactive" has gotten my goat recently, since I think it folds together concepts that deserve separate consideration. WoW hasn't gotten any more interactive in the sense that you do things other than pick up quests, perform their tasks, turn them in, and so on. What has changed is the kinds of situations that Blizzard presents for players and their characters, the range of available responses, and the reactions that our choices provoke from bystanders of all sorts.

The nature of the story has changed. Any player character who's made it to Northrend is presumed to have what it most NPCs, but not by all. Some are always going to be scornful, while others can be won over. But most authorities are prepared to grant some respect to someone who's come through everything PCs have to get that far, and a lot of folks are outright grateful for help. Furthermore, characters aren't just left to their own devices. There's a lot of tool use, from specialized implements of torture to tanks to drive and dragons to fly upon. Characters often join in battles already underway, and contribute to their success (or failure), and summon aid, and rescue trapped comrades, and so on.

Activity. WoW has always had some fun stuff going on that doesn't depend on the characters, and indeed much that can be seen only when characters can avoid triggering hostilities. There are herds of gazelles in the Barrens, and skeletal guards who throw some of their own bones for their demonic hounds to chase, and on and on. But the expansion pack drives the level of independent action way up. Many more NPCs move around, rather than just standing or sitting in one place. This evening, Tivara fought some trolls on the eastern coast of Northrend, and the ones at water level were fishing rather than patrolling. More predatory animals hunt prey; more prey dodges and fights back. It's an even more vivid world to just sit and watch sometimes.

Plots and Phasing. Plotting is hard in an MMO environment—world-changing payoffs would break or at least drastically change the game for everyone who comes along later. One of the things that make Blizzard such a success is that it learns from others. Other MMOs introduced various ways to make significant parts of the world behave like the dungeons and other features inside instanced areas. Blizzard's version is called phasing, and what it does is this: it changes the environment and NPCs shown to you in a particular area depending on your character's status. In the death knight starting quest sequences, for instances, first you see the town of New Avalon with blue skies and green fields and the assault just beginning; after winning some milestone victories, you see the northern reaches burned and sacked but the southern ones still intact; finally you see it all in flames and ruins.

(Yes, of course I have screen shots, but this is a text post. Stop sniggering like that, I can too write with nothing more visual than the occasional emoticon.)

They use the same technique in Northrend to dazzling effect at least once. Quests all over the Dragonblight in the mid-70s level range lead to a cut-scene movie of a particularly epic battle and then use phasing to let those who've seen the fight see its aftermath, on the spot and elsewhere. (I'm being vague because it's really, really, really worth getting to see the events unspoiled.) Your character spends an hour or more in customized versions of familiar places as well as the battlefield, with strategic consequences. And even though the phasing ends and you resume seeing the regular versions, the things that happen matter to future quests.

Continuity and Visibility. The storylines in Outland weren't as disconnected from developments back home on Azeroth as they often seemed, but the connections were often buried deep, and there's a lot that I personally never saw because they were made manifest in play only deep inside the endgame raid instances. Blizzard's people paid attention to the complaints about this. Now the action is up front and accessible, and there are a lot of connections both big and small to what's come before. There are a lot of faces that'll be familiar to players, if they paid attention early on—I was profoundly pleased to find Gryan Stoutmantle running an Alliance outpost in the Grizzly Hills, years after my level 10-20 Alliance characters helped his force clear out bandits in Westfall, and like that. And these people have stories, too, with their own advancing careers and agendas, families and friends to be concerned about, and all the rest. So the whole enterprise really feels like ongoing developments in places and with people we have a prior history with.

All I need now is to find Mankrik and my joy will be complete. :)

Upgrades. The curve of niftiness was really too steep in Burning Crusade—it's fun to get new things, but it's hard when gear you put in serious play time and effort to acquire for your character becomes useless in, literally, minutes into the first zone of the newly accessible territory. The upgrading in Lich King, on the other hand, has been very satisfying. As Tivara closes in on the last few bars to 76, she's ditched about half the gear she came to Northrend with. This feels right, partly because it's pretty much all been rewards for completing whole chains of quests or major single-quest achievements.

High-End Craft Learning. There's a really nifty new mechanism for acquiring high-end recipes for cooking, patterns for leatherworking, and so on. (I assume this applies to the other professions too, but these are the only ones I have direct experience.) Past skill level 400 (out of a currently possible 450), you don't just go out and buy new recipes. For leatherworking, you trade in sets of heavy borean leather or arctic fur; for cooking, you perform daily cooking quests—fixing up dishes with a couple recipes or a recipe and some gathered extras and delivering them to commissioning clients spread across Dalaran. This gives you a cooking commendation award token and a bag of rewards including spices you'll use in future cooking, and sets of tokens let you buy recipes. So progression in the craft hinges on actually using it more. This is a relatively small thing overall, but it really caught my fancy and felt significant.

And, no doubt, more will come to mind as soon as I press the Publish button.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Pure Scenery: The Grizzly Hills

The Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountains are some of my favorite scenery in the whole world. All I really have to say about these scenes is, "Isn't this beautiful?"