16 Jan 2012

The Best Raids: Past, Present Or Future?

Last week a subject cropped up in one of the article discussions: is Warcraft raiding getting steadily better all the time, or has it reached a peak and is in decline. Answering this by itself can go either way – more people than ever are able to experience tier 13 due to the predicted arrival of LFR, but by contrast I’m observing more raidgroups than ever struggle with recruitment and retention.

Talk to your fellow raiders about the tiers that they’ve done and it’s likey that you’ll get some interesting answers depending on how long they’ve been playing. I did a similar straw poll on twitter recently. The top two raids were Ulduar and Karazhan by some margin, with Sunwell grabbing the third spot. Raids from Vanilla and Cataclysm barely got a mention.

I’ve asked the same question before and I constantly get the same answers. Ulduar, Karazhan and Sunwell. I’ve been trying to think why these instances are so well loved by so many raiders, and I can only think of a couple of reasons.

The first is the story. Karazhan started off with an attunement quest before you could even get into the place. It unfolded a bit of the lore, told you about the Violet Eye and introduced some of the people you’d be likely to meet. There was also the reoccurring chain to introduce Nightbane as a summonable boss.

More than that, both raids continue with the story as you get inside the instance. After using the entire Storm Peaks questline as a warm up for Ulduar, your entry feels like you’re going in there with a job to do. The first four bosses are fairly standard scene-setting loot fodder, but it’s only when you enter inside the complex and find the corrupted Watchers that you begin to realise just how bad things are. The subtle scenery changes during the Descent into Madness further help to propel the story along.

There are clear comparisons between what Blizzard’s done in the past with wrapping their raids in story and what we’re seeing with the Dragon Soul raid, yet the enthusiasm just doesn’t seem to be there as much. By all rights we got exactly what we asked for – varied combat mechanics, rich encounters and a leading story that’s taken the entire expansion to tell. Plus we have a range of difficulty options from LFR through to Heroic. So what gives?

Ultimately I think it’s a symptom of general Warcraft-weariness. It almost doesn’t matter if a new raid dungeon was released tomorrow that was technically, conceptually and artistically better than anything that had gone before, as I doubt if our hearts would really let us move on from the heady days of The Burning Crusade and Wrath. Nostalgia is like that.

It’s one of the reasons I’m quietly optimistic about Mists of Pandaria. What Warcraft needs right now is a good kick up the arse – for both the franchise and the playerbase. Blizzard needs to prove to us that eight years on it’s still relevant and innovative and fresh as it was when we were killing bears in Dun Morogh all those years ago. Likewise as players we need to be willing to move on from our rose tinted memories and look at the game in a new light.

It’s why I think almost any game is going to get a chance against Warcraft at the moment. Not because they’re any better or worse, but because they don’t have to compete against the memories players have of their own game’s history. And it’s why I think we’re going to see more radical changes as we come closer to the beta for Mists of Pandaria, as Blizzard tries to break with history without alienating players.

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