One thing I tend to enjoy a lot at the beginning of an expansion lately and then fall out of over the course of an expansion, dungeon gameplay scratches a very particular itch that has a growing audience in World of Warcraft due to the emergence of Mythic Keystones.
Let me clarify what I feel about dungeons – I used to absolutely love them, and in some ways, I still do. However, at a certain point on a raiding main, dungeons don’t offer any real reward unless you are pushing high keystones, and if you are a Heroic raider, it takes a very high level of keystone to equal the rewards you might get from raiding. Couple that with a general lack of a solid dedicated group to run with and a bit of timer anxiety, and dungeon play basically serves a limited niche for me – get in at the start of the expansion, get up to Mythic, get my baseline epic set for raiding, and then transition fully into raiding on my main for most of the rest of the expansion. Without Justice or Valor point systems, and without other incentives to run dungeons through the lifespan of an expansion on my main, I tend to fall out of dungeons pretty fast. I do run them on alts occasionally, but yeah – I haven’t been a big dungeon person past the first few months of the last couple of expansions.
Given that, some of my feedback is going to miss the mark for those of you who love Mythic Plus, but generally, I think I have something interesting to share about dungeon design in Shadowlands that will even work for those folks, so here we go!
Firstly – I’ve played 5 of the 8 dungeons in the expansion. I’ve completed Spires of Ascension, Halls of Atonement, Mists of Tirna Scithe, and Theater of Pain. Yes, that is 4 dungeons. I’ve also played Necrotic Wake twice, but the third boss has been bugged both times and so I’ve been unable to fully complete the dungeon. Ouch!
Rather than breaking down each dungeon individually, I want to comment on some general trends about Shadowlands dungeons I’ve observed from playing each of these. Keep in mind that these impressions are from Normal, and thus higher difficulty modes might bring more things to discuss. For now, though, testing anything besides Normal and Mythic Plus on beta isn’t doable because you can’t get enough gear to run Heroic and no one is really organizing groups for regular Mythic, but I have seen one group in Trade on beta for a keystone!
So, let’s discuss the trends I notice:
Dungeons are Visually Stunning: It rarely needs to be said with WoW, but as the gameplay has left a lot to be desired in recent years, I feel like I want to give Blizzard the points they’ve earned for art – the dungeons are visually impressive and really awesome to look at. Spires of Ascension is my favorite because it is basically higher in the sky than the Kyrian sanctum and has the same visual style with more lush vegetation. Theater of Pain captures Maldraxxus in all of its…uh…green-ness, and Halls of Atonement feels like a vampire-infused WoW take on Dark Souls art style, like much of Revendreth.
Normal Bosses Are Fun Enough: Dungeons have mechanics and things feel valuable for learning on higher difficulties. Granted, once you aren’t running on a test character with a gimped item level, a lot of this will fade away as you can brute force most bosses, but mechanics generally happen earlier in fights than they traditionally have which does help get them into Normal more often.
Loot Progression is Back to Older Levels: Gear goes from item level 157 on Normal at level 60, to 170 on Heroic, to 183 on Mythic. This sounds like a minor point, but by getting away from Warforging and Titanforging and squishing down levels, item levels, and stats, using a slower progression means that power growth should be constrained a bit more than we are used to from current expansions. 2 levels a tier turns into something like 40 item levels less growth over the course of an expansion like BfA, which should keep power bloat down and hopefully let us go a couple of expansions without additional squish. (Yes, this is very much a “Blizzard solution for a problem created by Blizzard” situation, but hey.)
Mythic Plus Players Are Going to be Annoyed By Mechanics Designed to Slow Them Down: Every dungeon, and I do mean every dungeon, I’ve run so far on beta has some sort of mechanic that cannot be sped past or moved around, usually through means of forced non-controlled transport. Spires of Ascension has Kyrian taxis between the series of platforms that make up the dungeon. Necrotic Wake has a similar mechanic between the second and third bosses. Theater of Pain has RP events and a long-ish teleporting sequence that requires being teleported between platforms with a special animation. Mists of Tirna Scithe has a sequence for the trash between the first and second boss that requires solving puzzles to navigate a maze between pulls, and failing to correctly solve it teleports the whole party to the beginning of the maze section, even if one player does it – troll alert. Halls of Atonement shows you the first boss pretty quickly after zoning in, but you have to find the trash mobs carrying its anima and kill them, which means that you can’t just cut a path to the boss directly. Let me be clear – these mechanics are much better than the BfA use of excessive trash mobs with punishing mechanics to pad out those timer runs, but once that timer is on, the dumb mage spamming your party chat with incorrect ideas about how to solve the mist puzzles in Tirna Scithe is going to be your worst enemy!
Dungeon Theming is Strong, With Exceptions: I really like the ways in which the zones tie into their dungeons. Tirna Scithe feels like it belongs in Ardenweald. Spires of Ascension creates the perfect endgame cap to the Bastion experience, and limited spoiler here – Necrotic Wake also fits well in Bastion. Theater of Pain revisits the first place you go in Maldraxxus and captures the feeling the quests tried a little less effectively to convey. The only one I’ve seen so far (and I haven’t played this one, mind you) that doesn’t fit is De Other Side. It is, without spoiling too much, a troll dungeon, and the portal for it is a random island over a narrow bridge in Ardenweald. You run around this beautiful fae forest in eternal twilight, and then cross a bridge, and randomly, here is a tight corner of the zone, completely out of the way, with a troll building holding a portal tucked in.
AoE Target Caps Are Designed Around: One of the earliest “controversies” of Shadowlands datamining was that many AoE abilities across the game were capped off at 5 targets. This was designed to limit the success of excessive AoE pulls that ignore mechanics, or at least, that was the stated intent. A lot of people thought that this would slow down Mythic Plus and was in-fact the primary design intent. However, most trash pulls in the Shadowlands dungeons I’ve played thus far are 5 or less mobs, so AoE caps don’t pose a huge threat. Sure, there are some places where a self-proclaimed hero tank might overpull and get you in trouble when mobs don’t die because of overcapping the pull and then keeps doing it without any reflection and causes about 3 wipes in your Theater of Pain run because he can’t stop pulling and no I’m not mad. Wait, what was I saying? Oh right, with most pulls being set to 3-5 mobs, AoE caps only matter if you try to pull off ridiculous stunts, and even then, those are still doable with some smart use of AoE CC mechanics like stuns.
Overall? I think dungeons are in decent shape this expansion. They have some fun mechanics and are all set in beautiful locations that capture the themes of the places they are trying to represent. Reward mechanics so far, however, feel hit or miss. The biggest problem I’ve had with dungeons post-MoP is that there just isn’t enough reward to keep a non-keystone player pushing dungeons for long. Eventually, you’re going to hit a gear cap, and unless the final-design versions of mechanics like anima and Soulbinds push you to run dungeons like AP systems have the last two expansions, there just won’t be a reason to run unless you are doing keystones.
On the other hand, keystone players are in for an interesting ride. I think Blizzard did internalize the feedback about trash in BfA dungeons and has improved on it, but the flipside is the replacement mechanics designed to keep the timer stressful through taking away player control might almost be more frustrating, depending on how you feel about stalling tactics like that.
Overall, dungeons in Shadowlands skew positive for me, even with the disclaimer I noted up top. I like the dungeons I’ve played so far, and I look forward to seeing how they play on higher difficulties. Notes on Mythic slowdowns and AoE situations aside, I think dungeon players will be fairly happy with what they get in Shadowlands.