Surely one of the long awaited features of the latest patch from Blizzard has been the introduction of the Sunwell Isle. This area just north of the Blood Elf capital of Silvermoon is supposedly the culmination of the Burning Crusade expansion story arc. Expectations have been high for this patch, which is seen as the last major content patch before the release of the upcoming expansion.
I realize that many people who play WoW are quite happy with the new patch as it means access to more daily quests, fresh content and new loot — that’s perfectly understandable. From a design standpoint, I have mixed feelings about the new patch. To be fair, the focus of this article isn’t about content that I haven’t personally experienced such as heroic Magister’s Terrace or the Sunwell raid. Instead, it’s going to be about my impressions of the casual content on Sunwell Isle that I’ve experienced first hand, with an emphasis on lore and immersion: the good, the bad and the ugly.
Giving Casual Players More Access to Central WoW Figures
Finally mere morals can gaze upon the dreaded visage of one of the central figures in WoW lore: Kael’thas Sunstrider. He can be defeated in both a normal and heroic 5 person instance. I suppose this is a breakthrough of sorts for WoW, as the devs finally realize (discussed at the 2007 Blizzcon) that it’s important to include non-raiders in the story arc. Previously to the release of patch 2.4 the only way players could interact and participate with major lore figures was to kill them with the company of 24 other players deep within instanced fortresses such as the Serpentshrine Caverns and the Black Temple. However, the overlord of the Burning Legion Kil’jaeden will only be accessible by elite raiding guilds within the 25 person instance called the Sunwell.
Dynamic Quest Hubs
One of the good things about this patch and Sunwell Isle is the implementation of dynamic quest hubs. Players start off with a few daily quests and as players on the server keep completing those quests new daily quests and conveniences like inns are unlocked with the addition of more vendors. I think this is a great idea because it allows the players to finally take part in the future of their virtual world — if just for a few weeks. In the original WoW, the closest Blizzard ever came to implementing this was the server wide war effort in opening the gates of Ahn’Qiraj.
To date, that event remains as Blizzard’s finest hour regarding dynamic content. It gave everyone on the server from low levels to high levels, from casuals to raiders a chance to contribute and participate in a momentous event that would change the world forever. Instead of just catering to bored level 70 players, Blizzard should have put in a few quests for all levels in the major cities of Azeroth in order to herald the opening of Sunwell Isle.
In Game Cinematics
At one point in Magister’s Terrace you can click on an item that gives you a cinematic of what lies ahead in the Sunwell raid. The player even gets to glimpse what may be Kil’jaeden. (Sadly this is as close as most people will ever get to seeing this bad guy in-game). This is a refreshing idea to include them in MMO’s as it puts some much needed focus on the lore. It also helps give the player motivation to someday aspire to raiding the Sunwell. As well, the cinematic acts as a nice change of pace from the combat that is the main thrust of most instances. Well done Blizzard!
More Bombing Runs
Players love bombing runs as evidenced by the popularity of those quests in the Burning Crusade expansion. The bombing run quests are a much appreciated change of pace. One bombing run gives the player a spectator’s glimpse into the war that is raging on between the Scourge and the Demons. Kudos to Blizzard for the nice touches after you take off with the Dawnblade forces taunting you with shouts and trying to attack you on your flying mount. This quest is really well done. The only problem I had with it is that on full servers it takes many runs to complete the quest due to all the competition from fellow players. My only concern is that bombing runs are starting to get a bit hackneyed — especially if they include more of them in WotLK expansion.
Magister’s Terrace Surprise
Every now and then Blizzard throws in a surprise to keep players on their toes. In Magister’s Terrace the 3rd boss encounter is unlike anything anyone has experienced. Meet boss Priestess Delrissa and her named friends. When my group first engaged this boss, we approached as a typical tank and spank encounter. We failed miserably. Apparently, these NPC’s have no threat table and act like a pseudo five person PVP group. For this battle, the ability to use every means of crowd control at a group’s disposal is paramount. Hats off to Blizzard designers for changing things up and making players look at encounters differently. While I still think the tank and spank approach to combat is the bread and butter of class based MMO’s (as all of the classes are designed for this), this is still a nice change of pace.
My only concern with this change up is most players ended up reading forum strats on how to beat this encounter. Also it worries me that Blizzard is starting a trend to depart from from the tank and spank PVE model. Since the game is based around those mechanics, Blizzard should only occasionally depart from it.
With such a large concentration of daily quests available on Sunwell Isle, there’s been a massive influx of people. There’s a certain sense of magic and chaos when you have such a high density of people that really makes a MMO shine. After all, MMO’s are really are all about people and it’s nice to see a people band together to achieve greater goals such as the unlocking of a few badge vendors.
Magister’s Terrace Trash
Some of the NPC groups in Magister’s Terrace are excessively large which makes for very difficult pulls if you have limited crowd control classes. Many groups are dying more to trash then dying to bosses such as Selin Fireheart and Vexallus. This in turn has the effect of making certain crowd control classes like mages more desirable. Not all classes have equal efficacy at crowd control. Blizzard needs to do more to ensure that instances don’t encourage the “perfect group” which ends up excluding certain classes.
I feel that mob pulling should be elevated to more of an art form in WoW. Alert and intelligent pullers should be rewarded. One way to make this happen is to have more mobs patrol away from a group of mobs every so often so that a puller brings back a smaller amount of NPC’s back to their group. Another way would be to have certain mobs fall asleep at their camp spot which would make for smaller pulls.
Same Old Song and Dance Plot Device
It seems that Kael Sunstrider has been corrupted by Kil’jaeden— the current leader of the Burning Legion. Is it just me or has this plot device becoming overused in Warcraft lore? Almost every bad guy throughout Warcraft lore gets “possessed” by some evil entity and proceeds to wreck utter havoc and destruction on Azeroth. I’m starting to wonder if Chris Metzen is a one-trick pony in his ability to create varied and interesting lore for Warcraft.
The Wretched Wretched
I expected the forests beyond the main Blood elf settlements to somehow reflect the despair and plight of the mana addicted outcast Blood elves known as the Wretched. The vampire-like Wretched are basically mana junkies who for some strange reason all seem to be male. They feel out of place here with no real connection their surroundings. Why aren’t the Wretched feeding off of mana wurms or off each other? On a positive note, sometimes you will encounter a pair of them which are making gestures to each other — something that helped infuse NPC’s in the Scarlet Monastery with believability.
I feel that Blizzard has missed a golden opportunity for some interesting quests here that could have involved helping the Wretched kick their mana addiction. Unfortunately, their prime raison d’etre is to act as fodder for one of the new daily quests on the island. I’m really getting tired of Blizzard requiring that I always kill something in order to solve a problem or complete a quest. More non-violent quests would be welcome in WoW.
No Wildlife on Quel’Danas
It took me a few days to realize that there is no wildlife or beasts of any sort on the island. One would expect to find beasts among the quaint trees and pastures of Quel’Danas but Blizzard seems to have forgotten to include them which is perplexing. Even the critters which populate every other area in WoW are absent. There is not even a storyline that explains the complete extinction of the wildlife here.
However, according to WoW Wiki this island is the home and refuge of the Dragonhawks. With the exception of the two dragonhawk flying mounts at the docks, there are none to be found anywhere. A lack of beasts means that there is no skinning on the island which is unfair to skinners as there are ample locations of herbs and ore for other profession gatherers.
What of the hawkstriders that are the Blood elf mounts? No one really knows where they come from. I believe they could have easily been worked into the lore of this island. Quel’Danas Isle could have been where they are born and raised. Blizzard could have created some quests that involved these beasts and the resident Blood elves. Again more missed opportunities.
Outland Ore and Herbs Don’t Belong in Azeroth
Blizzard has decided to place ore and herbs that are indigenous (up until now) in various locations on Sunwell Island. This really destroys the immersion as Outland ore and herbs should be found only in the Outland. It makes no sense that these minerals and plants would exist in Azeroth. The designers could have easily created a new ore type and new herbs that could be used in new recipes found on mobs and vendors. This is just another missed opportunity on the part of Blizzard and reeks of plain laziness.
While both bombing quests are somewhat fun, the rest of the quests are basically collect and kill type quests which because they are daily quests get old really fast.
The Sentinel quest for one could have been much better. Blizzard should have given players control over the Sentinels that they liberate. Sadly they mutter a few emotes then vanish.
The Naga ore quest could also have been made much more interesting. As well, there should have been some way to explain the back-story of the slave murlocs. Again, another lost opportunity on the part of Blizzard quest designers to do something special.
It’s almost as if the designers are afraid of creating lasting impact on the world. I really miss the high quality of the quests in the original WoW. Exceptionally written quests that included characters like Morladim, Stalvan Mistmantle, the Embalmer and Sven all come to mind from those days. They had a certain flair and magic which included great character deepening techniques that helped to emotionally involve the player.
The Naga treasure chests aren’t detectable by the dwarven treasure seeking ability. The undead mobs at or near the Dead Scar have no cash or loot. All of the blood elves have the exact same face and they are all male. This really detracts from the sense of immersion when you feel you are killing the same foe over and over again.
Art Direction by Crayola
The visual style of Sunwell Isle seems like it was created using the Crayola crayon(tm) colors. The Blood elves have the same blinding bright palettes as the trees and the buildings — which makes for eye discomfort. Even inside Magister’s Terrace it’s hard to distinguish the blood elves from their surroundings which makes pulling mobs perilous. One of the worst areas for this in WoW vanilla was the gloomy and unpopular Swamp of Sorrows where the Broken humanoids and many of the beasts are indistinguishable from the land around them.
It’s a major art faux pas in video games when you have the denizens of an area blending in with their environment like this. For my money, the art in Sunwell Isle seems like a carbon copy of the Blood elf starting lands. Blizzard made $500 million plus in profits last year from WoW, surely they can hire more artists instead of continually resorting to repurposing old art assets?
Theme Park Look and Feel
With the exception of the Dead Scar, much of Sunwell Isle feels like you are in a well-groomed Disney theme park. The landscape is full of rolling hills and pretty trees with no signs of the typical Blizzard polish and attention to detail. There are scant few trappings of life such as humanoid camps, crates, treasure chests or campfires. The beaches are pristine with no signs of wreckage, debris or even shells. Most of the underwater areas are empty. The entire area on the southwest coast of the island is utterly lifeless. Regrettably, Blizzard has repurposed most of the ivory white structures from the Blood elf starting lands which further contributes to the Magic Kingdom feel of the island. The only thing missing is the popcorn and cotton candy.
What’s missing are the non-instanced caves and mini-dungeons that used to be included in the original WoW. They could have easily put a few of these in to give the island some more depth.
More Guards on Strike
Nothing infuriates me more then when NPC guards in MMO’s serve no purpose other then to act as eye candy. Guards should attack anything in sight that is not of their faction — that has always been their function from the earliest of MMO’s. Lately though, Blizzard has created more useless guards in WoW and Sunwell Isle is no exception. The guards there refuse to help anyone who is in combat with the enemy. Even Shattered Sun Offensive troops will not lift a finger to help someone who may be running for their life with a pack of demons chasing them. There are even troops poised for battle on the docks who are directly facing enemy forces yet do nothing when the enemy is near or breaks their lines.
When NPC’s are engaged in battle with other NPC’s it helps to create a world that is alive and dynamic. This has been used to great effect back in the original EverQuest when the Freeport Militia guard Sargent Slate would go on patrol in East Commons and slaughter everything in his path. Blizzard has used this with great success in the past. Notable examples include: the Scarlet Crusade fighting the Scourge in Eastern Plaguelands; Toshley Station in Blade’s Edge Mountains where the gnomes face a Starship Troopers style invasion of Ravagers.
The reason Blizzard may be doing this is to prevent players from training bosses to guards. If this is the case then there are many ways to prevent this such as keeping shorter leashes on certain elite NPC’s or giving kill credit to whomever does the most damage — the players or the NPC’s. Still, I think players should be able to train any mob to guards if that is what they wish to do. If someone has the time, skill and inclination to do this, then they should be allowed to. The lack of active guards seems like another wasted opportunity to make Sunwell Isle come to life. After all, this island is supposed to be embroiled in a heated war and the NPC’s should be reflecting this whenever possible.
Overall Sunwell Isle gets a C plus. While there are some fun daily quests such as the two bombing runs, there really isn’t anything new or unique in the quest offerings. Blizzard missed many opportunities to flesh out the story of the island via quests. My impression is that this whole area was rushed and didn’t get the famous Blizzard polish that we’ve all grown accustomed to. I suspect that in time the players will grow weary of Sunwell Isle once the novelty of the new badge loot and new dailies has faded. It would be great to see some kind of mechanism for the forces of Kael to retake Sunwell Isle in some form of ongoing tug of war but I’m not holding my breath with Blizzard at the helm.
As far as the inclusion of more daily quests and upping the limit to 25, I’m not sold on the idea. More is not necessarily better. More quests and gold don’t make for a better MMO. While the average player may be elated the prospect of being able to generate easy gold, they may be unaware of the long term downsides. Daily quests while a seemingly harmless pacifier for bored level 70 players have the potential to do great harm to the economy. They have also changed how we play MMO’s by essentially bribing players to play your game with guaranteed cash for quests. I’m worried that Blizzard has watered down the MMORPG experience that is capable of allowing players to achieve great things by adventuring together and reduced it into a online job where players do the same predictable tasks each day.