Before every new WOW expansion there's a patch which lays the foundation for the next round of adventuring in Azeorth and beyond. This week's release of Patch 6.0.2 introduces extensive changes to the game's combat stats, plenty of interface tweaks across the board, and a new dungeon and quest-line to help players get accustomed to the Warlords of Draenor expansion before it arrives next month. Here's what jumped out at us as while we were poking around in the new content.
A rather uninspiring quest-line introduces WOW's next chapter
WOW's questing has come on leaps and bounds since 2004, but there's still an overwhelming dependence on point-to-point adventuring. While it serves a certain purpose nevertheless, there's nothing about the brief quest-line which introduces the next chapter of the game's grand story that suggests things will be radically different in Warlords of Draenor. The Iron Horde are storming through the Blasted Lands' Dark Portal to make their first tentative claims on Azeroth, and you're part of the vanguard monitoring the enemy's arrival.
The way the story unfolds from here is very firmly rooted in the core questing structure that was established in Mists of Pandaria - embark on a few exploratory sorties to pick off a specific type of target, interact with an object in some way, then do away with a trio of factional figureheads. It's very familiar ground, in other words, and if Warlords of Draenor evolves the questing concept further then it seems like a missed opportunity not to showcase it here.
The new Upper Blackrock Spire is fun but a little too breezy
Fortunately, there's more enjoyment to be had from the re-imagining of Upper Blackrock Spire. The fabled dungeon that birthed WOW's most enduring legend Leeroy Jenkins has been revitalised as a Level 100 adventure in Warlords of Draenor, but it's available as a Level 90 encounter until the expansion's release date. It's a dungeon that's both familiar and refreshing, with the same gloomy nooks, crannies, and objectives from its original incarnation, albeit with a couple of bosses that lean further away from the tank-and-spank philosophy that dominated much of WOW's vanilla-era group content.
With that said, a decently geared party will find little challenge here, and you can largely bluster your way through both the trash and boss fights of the dungeon - even when you stumble and trigger the obvious wipe mechanics. Blizzard has struggled to combine accessibility of the most primitive party content with a satisfying sense of challenge throughout WOW's life. Let's hope it's not a sign of things to come, and the Heroic flavour of this Level 100 dungeon offers up a little more reward beyond the typical trinkets.
Everybody's weaker but as powerful as they were before
It comes as something of a shock when you first mouse over your equipment and see all those hard-earned stats starkly reduced to something you might previously have associated with the very worst kind of quest reward, from the game's earliest days. Where once my Druid could count its essential stats in the thousands, what's left after the universal stat-squishing amounts to a mere smattering of stamina, combined with the most anaemic agility rating. It's left me with a character that seems by comparison to be more feeble than feral.
The normalisation is something that's been applied to friends and foes across the board though, so the net effect on paper is to simply render everything different but while remaining exactly the same in a relative sense. I say on paper, because I actually suspect that Blizzard has opted to tune Pandaria's monsters down just a little more than the others, in order to take some of the sting out of what instinctively feels like a nerf to character development.
Blizzard has made new gameplay out of storage systems
The new toybox storage system introduced with Patch 6.0.2 allows you to hang onto the ridiculous menagerie of toys and trinkets gathered over years of loyal service, while freeing up essential bank space for something a little more immediately useful than the remnants of a WOW Christmas past. It would have been thoroughly unlike Blizzard not to find some way of squeezing a little compulsive content out of this ostensibly functional feature though, and so it won't surprise anyone to learn that it's the greyed-out toys you're missing that command your attention first and foremost. It might feel like a rather cheap way of fashioning new gameplay from old, but WOW is nothing if not a game of incremental goals.
A less convincing change to the interface is the addition of the shimmering outlines that are now etched onto just about every object of interest in the world by default. Click on a person, collectible item or monster and they acquire a sort of comic book shading around them. It's a lot easier to pick out particular quest items and creatures as a result, but it's also rather jarring, and undermines WOW's immersive strength as a place that first and foremost persists as a world in its own right. In-game chat is currently filled with uncharitable comparisons to less elegant massively multiplayer online games, but I suspect we'll all either get over it through familiarity, switch it off, or find it to be a reasonable trade-off when it comes to working through the Draenor questing content.
The new Dungeon Finder has blown WOW's old content wide open
More notable than these interface tweaks is the added functionality the patch has introduced to WOW's Dungeon Finder system. Whereas previously you could only use the tool to access a rather limited section of the game's sprawling content - the most current dungeons, basic Scenarios and public raids - more power has been handed over to the community, so that like-minded players can find each other and finish off a greater variety of content.
You might, for example, want to clear out an old and not particularly popular raid for an achievement, or for the chance of winning a unique mount. The new system means that you're more or less free to set the parameters for participation as you see fit, and then bring people together who are happy to group up on those terms. Even during the patch's daytime launch period there was a bustling crowd posting plenty of adventuring opportunities, so the system works in principle. It remains to be seen whether that enthusiasm remains when there's a new continent of content to plough through though.