Chains of Domination hit the PTR yesterday, which I’ve already written a little bit about.
Today, though, after some more hours put in (until a quest bug stopped forward progress and a DH navigation fun session found a spot in Korthia where the game crashes 100% of the time!) I can speak a little bit more to the negatives of the patch so far.
Because the game is still very obviously rolling out content and changes in the PTR, I’m going to avoid saying things are directly broken based on that. Instead, I’m going to lean on the design language and the way things feel to play and are expressed through those means. While tuning is very likely to change, the core concepts are pretty well defined, and that has both good and bad sides.
Korthia, In General
I want to start with this – I kind of like Korthia, in that it is visually different but still feels fitting in the Maw, and it has a cool aesthetic (what if Oribos was wrecked?) which is a treat to run around and stare at.
There are a few problems with how it is presented, though.
The first is that Blizzard is trying really hard to strike this weird balance – Korthia is just a subzone of the Maw, but in the game, it also…clearly isn’t? It has it’s own transition and zone naming, so people on your guild roster and friends list in Korthia show up as there and not the Maw. This isn’t a problem on its own, but Blizzard kind of tried to wiggle out of a problem here. If you say “new zone” people think of large landmasses with sprawling new gameplay areas to check out. Korthia is…small. Maybe slightly smaller than Mechagon, in that there is still travel time from edge to edge, but it’s not huge by any measure. By calling it a subzone, it sets an expectation of it being small, and that’s fine, but then it is actually it’s own zone – the world map for the Maw can’t fit it (although the Korthia map on PTR is the overhead screenshot style for now) because it anchors to the southeastern side of the Beastwarrens, right on the edge of the Maw map and to the point where the map would have to scrunch the Maw into a corner to fit Korthia.
The smallness of the zone compounds a different problem – the quest density and gameplay design makes you notice how small it is. There is a central valley to the zone that packs in almost all of the quests I’ve gotten so far, and on the surface, I get it – this valley is gorgeous, has clear views to the ruined city of the First Ones and the horizon in the other direction showcases the Maw in a new light. However, this then also highlights how small the zone is – you do most of your gameplay in a region smaller than a battleground map.
Gameplay design here is also sort of…not great? I have a weird relationship with it so far, because the quests are very standard WoW solo quests – grab 8 MacGuffins, kill 10 Mawsworn Badguys, fill this bar with the anima of dead enemies each of which has a different value making the whole thing an irritating chore, and shuffle between where some Keeper NPCs are hanging out and the main encampment for the combined Covenant forces. So the quest design isn’t exceptionally good – it’s the kind of thing WoW has been built on for ages. It isn’t bad, it’s just dull – you get some combat time, it makes you look at the zone from a couple of different angles, but otherwise, very bog-standard checklist questing.
However, it then brings in a model that a lot of people weren’t fond of from Black Empire assaults.
Korthia’s core gameplay loop is daily quests – not world quests, not Callings or Emissaries, but dailies. There is a weekly quest that awards 5% progress per daily quest (at least for the ones I’ve done thus far) and there are about 5 dailies up per day. This means that, at minimum, you have to spend around 45 minutes in Korthia 4 times per week to get the Death’s Advance reputation (yep, new faction alert!) and keep progressing. This is…annoying, given that A. most of the dailies use that same little valley and so they get repetitive pretty damn fast and B. unlike most other modes of play in Shadowlands, this is not front-loaded with reward or easy to stack up and run through every few days. If you want progress in Korthia, you’ll need to be on 4 times a week minimum, with a reward cache waiting at the end that obscures the true value of the task. I can’t make informed commentary on if the cache then makes this mode of gameplay worthwhile, but it doesn’t feel as good as some other systems in Shadowlands do.
A few other bloggers and I made the comment that Shadowlands gameplay felt better than expected because content rewards were frontloaded, meaning that the early part of your time investment was worth the most. Korthia inverts this, and it is worse for it. I found myself falling on the word “chore” even already on PTR, because all I had in sight for the day was a smidge of gold and reputation – the cache felt so far away once I depleted the dailies in Korthia and realized I had several more days of questing before getting the “real” reward for my efforts. Working towards goals long-term is fine, hell, it is a cornerstone of MMO gameplay, but this content isn’t meant to be perpetually rewarding and so it felt pretty awful to have a mystery carrot dangling over my head that I could only bite into, good or bad, after 4 days of effort. If the rewards are higher-level gear or incredibly high odds of fun cosmetic items or a ton of good stuff, then I might be fine with the reward, but the philosophy on reward in WoW is extremely clear – world content is never going to reward me like even a dungeon can, much less the raids I really enjoy, so this just feels weirdly punitive and stands against everything the Shadowlands early design did right, in my opinion.
Oh, and also, while I hit a quest bug wall so I can’t be sure, I have yet to uncover any new means of gaining Renown, which means that currently, I can’t even judge the new Renown progression in an informed way because it just isn’t there, seemingly.
The Merging of Covenant Campaigns
For the story freaks, the idea of merging the Covenant campaigns this early sucks, and at first, I was sort of arm’s-length to that argument. I cared, but also kind of didn’t provided the gameplay on-offer was good. However, the more it has marinated, the more I dislike this rush to merge the story. Each covenant had a few loose threads to tie up, and doing them in a combined story setting feels like it will truncate the story that could have been told while also confusing players in other Covenants who haven’t met those characters or had that involvement. So far, there’s not enough story content playable on PTR to make an actual judgment short of the feeling of it, but the very first quest scenario you do for the patch is all-out in Ardenweald and everyone is there – even the Covenant-neutral characters like Bolvar and Jaina are running around Ardenweald with you. The story chapters in the quest log and the datamining suggest that each zone will likely get some chapter of the campaign, but still – it feels like that WoD-style rush to the finish line, a feeling that is getting harder to shake.
Anima Is Still…Drought-y
So you get more Anima now, great. The hotfix on live was incredible for two reasons – it looks like it hits the core feedback from players while still not actually doing much of anything. This hotfix continues into 9.1, with the addition of two ranks of World Quest Anima Increase being on the Renown charts for the new ranks. It is unclear how much more Anima we’re talking about here, so pardon me for not being terribly enthusiastic. The worst case is that it will be like the hotfix, where each world quest will give an additional token per rank – which, at least for World Quests, could end up giving us 250 anima tokens for big world quests if it works out that way. Otherwise, so far the drought still is in effect and quest rewards remain largely unimpressive. Once the Renown ranks are implemented fully and we can earn the increases to World Quests, I’ll be revisiting this. Until then, it still seems like Blizzard made a set of cosmetics that honestly would take 6 years of Shadowlands gameplay to unlock all of, and in that case…no thanks, I’ll pass.
Enhanced Conduits Are a Cool Idea, But Incredibly Unclear And Needlessly Complicated
This one is hard to dig into fully because it is still in development, but I want to put this feedback forward because it sucks right now despite seeming mostly-baked.
Once you unlock the new rows on your Soulbinds through new Renown, you then start unlocking Enhanced Conduits for all of the 6 rows of socketable Conduits on each Soulbind. Enhanced Conduits are what they sound like – once a slot has the enhancement option unlocked, you can activate the enhancement and it buffs the Conduit slotted in there, no matter the slot type or Conduit. There’s just one problem…nothing about how this system works other than the activation is explained. Each Conduit gains a different value from Enhancement, so it is unclear how that works out until you slot in a Conduit and then compare it against the value of the Conduit in the listing on the right of the Soulbind window. Some gain very small boosts and others larger ones, and it is unclear if this tuning is automated (+10% value) or manually designed and tuned.
But here’s the other problem I have with this approach – Conduits are a system that took early confusion and stuck the landing. Instead of having “ranks” exposed to players, Blizzard just assigns each rank to an item level and you get an item level, which makes it a very easy idea for WoW players to grasp and run with – higher ilvl always wins here. The enhancements, however, then take that system and add all of this extra cruft on top – now you have different item levels, but if you enhance a lower-level conduit, it now matches the higher level un-enhanced, and then you’ll have a fairly large window in which some but not all conduit slots are enhanced so now you have to mix-up your soulbind tree week-to-week until everything reaches full power, but then will there still be conduit upgrades, and if so, where is the new source or will I have to continue grabbing Stygia in the Maw and hitting up Ve’nari twice a week for my conduit gambles, and so the whole things has these extra layers added that could just be better served by more ranks of conduits or just having the power baked-in to start.
And to be clear, I know that this system isn’t actually that complicated. It is a very simple layer added on top. My beef with it is conceptual – that it is a clear timesink designed to pad out Renown rewards and does so in an obtuse and weird way, by layering on power in unpredictable ways. When the first datamining came out yesterday, I thought my favorite Havoc conduit was nerfed, but then, it turns out they tuned down the higher ranks because the enhancement brings them back…to where they were in the first place. Which is, like, okay, fine, but also, was it really necessary to build this on just for me to restore the power that you designed there in the first place?
Inconsistency of Rewards
The last two bosses of the Sanctum of Domination raid drop higher item level loot, and that’s great. I genuinely like this mode of progression, because it feels like our time spent in Normal suits a purpose, and I like that being rewarded.
However, a vast swath of characters cannot get the highest item level weapon possible from the raid because the itemization isn’t there. If you’re a hunter, you get a weapon and a special cloak/quiver (except Survival, the spec we all forget). If you’re a caster using a staff, you’re good! If you’re a rogue, great news! If you use a shield, you get…a better offhand, so hooray (sort of!)! Two-handed sword users, rejoice! Everyone else? Nothing for you, sorry. I know in the past that Blizzard has done this kind of thing and it has been sort of brushed off, but here, it feels really bad, especially knowing that a lot of the current meta specs get higher item level weapons here. MM Hunters, Mages, Boomkins, Unholy DKs – all gain a lot of power from being able to equip higher item level weapons, and all those specs benefit from the weapons on-offer in this higher item level bracket.
Castle Nathria skipped this dilemma by dropping weapon tokens, and while that approach has its own failings as well, it at least meant that everyone could get a 194/207/220/233 weapon from raiding, which increases power drastically given that for casters, the MH weapon has massively-skewed Intellect to offer a ton of spell power, while for most non-casters, the increase in raw stats and weapon damage helps bring up damage output and improve gameplay feel. I’m not going to advocate for tokens necessarily – I like that there are multiple unique weapon models coming out of the new raid – but I do find myself wanting everyone to have access to boosted weapons, because it feels like gear access will just exacerbate the inevitable lack of balance.
To be clear, the patch is still early days and much remains to be seen, so I don’t want to be reactionary or too much of a doomsayer on it, but I think there are clear issues with the core design concepts in use here and I think some of them (Korthia’s reward design in particular) stick out like sore thumbs that will push people away.
I also want to say that I do feel like my impressions have been pushed to negative more than I would have expected due to the delays. An expansion launch takes longer but is far more packed with content and new things to see, so even when the gameplay is samey, it never hits like this did for me. I think that the delay has soured perception at least a bit, because I find myself looking at some of it and thinking “that’s it?” which is more down to the fact that we’ve been in Shadowlands for 5 months and the PTR so far is a fairly small zone, a batch of new quests, and peeping the dungeon journal. As PTR fills out with more content, I think that might change, but I do think that a lot of players are going to have similarly negative reactions, because the longest ever wait for a first content patch being…this…is going to rub people the wrong way. I want to set that aside because I know that COVID-19 impacts are difficult to deal with and this is likely the first content nearly fully made with WFH employees, but at the same time, it still feels too much like an appetizer and not a meaty patch full of stuff to sink your teeth into.
At the same time, for me as a raider-first, the content I really will engage with over the long-term isn’t even there for testing yet, and provided that Blizzard hits their average quality for PvE content, I’ll likely still be well-occupied and happy overall.
So in short, Chains of Domination is a land of contrasts.