Is Dragon Soul a “Good Raid?”
Leave it to me to be looking backward during a week when everyone else is happily discussing WoW’s future, but Squelchy suggested that I write this post at least a month ago now and it’s about time I get around to it. (He’s also threatened to write a defamatory post about me should my analysis of Dragon Soul not go his way … so here goes nothing.)
Back in the fall, I wrote a long post that asked, What Makes a “Good” Raid? With the help of several friends and guildmates, I tried to look at what makes raiding an enjoyable experience – not necessarily from a fight mechanic standpoint, but primarily from a focus on story, environment, excitement, and fun. If you haven’t read the post, I’d recommend taking a moment to do so before reading on – I’ll be using the criteria I established in that post to discuss the Dragon Soul raid.
My requirements for a good raid were as follows:
- A raid should feel like what it is.
- A raid should feel like what it is and still be surprising.
- A raid should have fun and challenging boss mechanics.
- A raid should include a villain we want to kill.
How does Dragon Soul measure up to these standards? Let’s take a look.
A raid should feel like what it is.
Dragon Soul is our final, epic confrontation with Deathwing – the insane menace who “broke the world” at the beginning of the Cataclysm, and who will settle for nothing less than the complete destruction of Azeroth. We face his minions, both dragonkin and those beings bound to the Old Gods, as we serve the Dragon Aspects in a desperate race to use the Dragon Soul to defeat Deathwing for good.
That’s one hell of a dramatic setup, when you really think about it. We’re asked to help some of the most powerful beings on Azeroth – beings who don’t particularly like to throw themselves into our mortal affairs without a very good reason – to defeat an enemy that we absolutely cannot reason with. To even get close to Deathwing we must first defeat his strongest lieutenants, who are champions of the chaotic Old Gods. The problem with all this high drama for me, though, is that somewhere along the way I completely lose any sense of who we’re killing or why they matter.
If there was one word I’d choose to describe the encounters leading up to the confrontation with Deathwing, it would be disjointed. We first fight an earth elemental, then two faceless ones, a shaman who has joined the Twilight Cult, a twilight dragon, and finally a tauren drake rider and his Vrykul (do they have contractual obligations to show up in every raid set in Northrend?!) henchmen. Am I the only person who looks at that list and can’t make any sense of it? We get an earth elemental because of Deathwing’s prior assignment as aspect of Earth, I suppose, although we spent all that time in Deepholm getting the earth elementals on our side – at least that’s what I assumed since Therazane lets me buy shoulder enchants from her quartermaster now.
The faceless ones are now open confirmation of what was strongly hinted at throughout the expansion, namely that the source of Deathwing’s corruption is one (or more) of the Old Gods. I suppose this aspect of the story is what falls apart the most for me. We knew an Old God was in Deathwing’s head, even before Cataclysm came out. We have seen the evidence of the Old Gods presence in nearly all of the Cataclysm zones, but really have never been explicitly told which Old God is behind this corruption, or if they’re all in on it, and to what extent they are truly in control of Deathwing’s actions or merely planting the seeds. Throughout Cataclysm I’ve found myself frustrated with the way that Deathwing, the Twilight’s Hammer, and the Old Gods have been held up next to each other to show us that they are connected … but nothing is ever really explained to us. I might chalk this up to subtlety in storytelling if Blizzard had much taste for that sort of thing, but they usually do like to bang us over the head with the information once they decide reveal part of a plotline. I had hoped that the Dragon Soul raid would finally blend all of these hints and information together to give us a full picture of what has been going on in Azeroth for the last year, but it just doesn’t happen.
I’ve worried before over Blizzard’s relatively new-found reliance on out-of-game media to tell the bulk of Cataclysm’s narrative, but this final raid tier has been the biggest example of how much less interesting the game can be when we have no context for what we’re doing. Children of Wrath had an excellent post back in December on this problem, pointing out that there are many reasons why WoW players may choose not to read the books or comics, but who still very much want to understand what’s happening in-game. For me, his final point in the post is the one that rings most true: I love reading and I spend a ton of time doing it, but I just don’t have a lot of love for the WoW books. Of the several books released during this expansion cycle, the only one I read was The Shattering. I’ve read enough excerpts and synopses of Twilight of the Aspects to know that I am missing some of the Old God’s part in Deathwing’s story by not reading it – but I’ve also read enough about that book to believe it doesn’t hold all the answers I’m looking for, either. For me, one of the biggest failures of Cataclysm’s story will be the lack of a clear explanation for Deathwing’s corruption, and what exactly is the state of the Old Gods after his defeat.
All this long off-topic rant to say that without the context that (maybe?) is provided in the Twilight of the Aspects novel, the Dragon Soul raid makes hardly any sense to me. Even beyond the lack of explanation and closure as to the Old God’s role in the story, the hodgepodge of enemies just seems strange. The raid switches scenes four fights in so that we can hop over to the Eye of Eternity to “charge” the Focusing Iris so that the Dragon Soul won’t blow Thrall into a million little green pieces when he uses it on Deathwing, and this is one of the most jarring and bizarre transitions I’ve ever seen. Narratively it’s weird, thematically and visually it’s a huge departure from the scenery surrounding Wyrmrest Temple, and this all amounts to a pretty confusing experience even if you’re someone who has paid close attention to the Aspects’ dialogue throughout.
Previous raiding tiers provided us with instances that may have had a great variety between bosses (think of the spread in Naxxramas or Ulduar), but which had some unifying characteristics that kept the experience of the raid cohesive. Ulduar has us fighting Mimiron’s creations in one hallway, while facing Freya’s sprites and ancients in the next, but it all works together under the story that unfolds. Ulduar, Naxx, and Icecrown Citadel were all examples of winged raid instances, which seems like it would be a tedious and boring way to lay out a raid at first glance. Yet it is the raids that haven’t followed this model – Crusader’s Coliseum and now Dragon Soul – that end up feeling like a random series of fights rather than a more natural progression. Variety in our enemies has worked in previous raiding content, but Dragon Soul simply cannot tie all the threads together in a successful way.
So does the Dragon Soul raid feel like what it is – that being a last-ditch effort to save the world from Deathwing? By the end it does. The Madness of Deathwing fight is the most emotionally and narratively effective in the instance. Fighting Deathwing in the Maelstrom – the very place where he first emerged to shatter the world and the home of the Old God who corrupted him (we think) - makes for a neat little lore circle that gives me the warm fuzzies. But all the time that we spend fighting enemies who don’t quite make sense within the story and running around a Northrend leveling zone felt decidedly out of place. For this standard, the actual Deathwing fights get my “yes” vote, while everything else in the raid instance is a definite “no.”
A raid should feel like what it is and still be surprising.
Oh my, do I have thoughts about this one and (spoiler) they’re pretty much all bad.
I don’t know who at Blizzard said at some meeting, “Hey gang, know what would be awesome? Setting our BRAND NEW raid instance in a recycled setting. Everybody loved Dragonblight, right? Let’s bring that shit back!” Just know, unnamed Blizzard developer who came up with this plan, that the Aspect of Time owes me a kinda gigantic favor. I am more than willing to cash it in to go back in time and shake the crazy out of you.
You know what’s awesome about a new raid tier? That it’s NEW. It’s new content, which means that players have a reasonable expectation that they will see new places, new people, new boss abilities, and overcome new challenges. Instead, what we got were 8 new boss fights with between 6 and 7 of them completely set in places we have already seen. Wyrmrest Temple (Morchok and Ultraxion), maws of Old Gods (Yor’sahj and Zonozz), Eye of Eternity (Hagara), and the Skybreaker (hello, Skyfire!) are all environments that we have fully experienced in-game and, in the case of the last two places mentioned, in a raid instance before. Deathwing’s back for the Spine encounter is something completely new to us, and – while we have seen plenty of the Maelstrom in cut scenes as we quested through the Cataclysm zone – the Madness encounter is the first time we really get to see the Maelstrom up close and interact with the environment there. For me, this recycling of old models and settings was the single most disappointing thing about the current raid tier, and a large part of what has contributed to making it feel so stale so quickly.
So, yes, Dragon Soul’s setting was something of a surprise but definitely not in a good way. I am worried that this may be something that turns into a trend for Blizzard rather than a one-time horrible mistake, as we’ve recently been told that the final instance in Mists will take place in Orgrimmar. Hey Horde players, you know that place where you hang out every day? The place you’ll probably be standing in just moments before the “Kill Garrosh” raid group forms up for the night? Well good news! Your flying mounts get to sit this trip out, because you’re not going anywhere.
What good I can say about the new environments in the Dragon Soul patch is that the settings the developers created for the 5 man dungeons are just amazing. I’ve been excited to see the Well of Eternity and ancient night elf civilization since I first read anything about it, and its namesake dungeon certainly did not disappoint. Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling as I made my way through Well of Eternity for the first time that it is developed enough and large enough to really have deserved a place as a raid instance. It’s unfortunate to see an environment so grand in scope and beautiful in design relegated to a dungeon that no one will ever bother with once we are out of the current patch.
If Blizzard takes anything away from the Dragon Soul instance, I can only pray that it is the realization that players want to see new things. If we must kill Garrosh in Orgrimmar (which, I feel, just proves that Blizzard can’t deal with grey characters), then send him to some freaky demonic stronghold below the city that we’ve never seen before. Familiarity is fine – the complete recycling of old environments isn’t.
A raid should have fun and challenging boss mechanics.
Dragon Soul has been a particularly strange raid for fight mechanics, and some of the oddities can probably be traced to the advent of LFR. As Squelchy discussed when he was on the Twisted Nether Blogcast a few weeks ago, Dragon Soul’s raid mechanics had to be such that only one or two key abilities could be removed and the fight would then be translatable to the difficulty level needed for LFR. With Dragon Soul being Blizzard’s first attempt to create a raid instance that can be experienced in 3 widely different levels of difficulty, there was bound to be some strangeness along the way.
From a healing standpoint, I found most of the Dragon Soul mechanics to be a bit disappointing, if only because most fights amount to knowing when the biggest burst of raid-wide damage will be and saving my cooldowns until then. But looking at the fights as a whole, I can see a few moments that stand out as really unique raiding experiences.
The Spine of Deathwing fight is, obviously, the most unusual experience in this raid tier. It has some amazing potential to be an incredibly visually unique fight, although WoW’s camera tends to work against itself here. Because the armor plates on Deathwing’s back serve as walls for the purpose of the camera’s definitions, the easiest way to actually be able to see what’s going on is to put the camera directly above your character’s head, effectively killing any view you would have of the sky flying past you or of Deathwing turning back to gloat. (Screenshots like the one above are only achievable when you completely space during a barrel roll and get chucked off. This has happened to me a grand total of once.) It makes for a claustrophobic experience, which I suppose probably would be the case if you were standing on the back of a giant dragon, trying desperately both to kill it and not fall to your death in the process. The Spine fight is a fantastic idea that, while I don’t particularly enjoy any mechanics of the actual fight, I can appreciate for how unique of a concept it is.
The Madness fight is great for giving us a chance to fight an enemy on a scale we’ve never experienced before. Deathwing is huge and, by this point in the raid, messy. All kinds of Old God goop is seeping out of him and we have to figure out how to even combat such a giant foe who’s sort of coming apart at the seams. The dragon Aspects are at our back, urging us onward and providing us with all the power they can muster. (Thrall is there too, though he seems to prefer trolling to actually being helpful.) Tales of a Priest has also written an assesment of Dragon Soul – one that’s probably much more favorable than mine – and explains the emotional impact of this scene, along with the impact of the Aspects’ situation throughout the raid. Like Derevka, I was pretty excited to see the epic conclusion of Deathwing’s battle against the Aspects, or I thought I would be until it actually happened.
A raid should include a villain we want to kill.
Six months after I wrote my original post on this topic, I’m willing to amend this last point somewhat. Now, I’d posit that a raid should either include a villain we want to kill, or it should center upon a story that is emotionally engaging to us – ideally, it should include both of these things. Problem is that Dragon Soul doesn’t really accomplish either.
I went into patch 4.3 not having the slightest idea why I wanted to kill Deathwing, but hopeful that the 5 man dungeons and the Dragon Soul raid itself would explain all that to me. It’s not that Deathwing’s destruction hasn’t taken an emotional impact on me – it’s impossible to quest through the new Darkshore without feeling horrible about everything that’s happened – but it’s just so difficult to identify that destruction with the fallen Aspect. So much of the death and chaos we see in the places affected by Deathwing’s rise from the Maelstrom don’t look or feel as if a giant evil dragon was the cause of what happened there. In the case of Darkshore, the place looks mostly like it’s been ravaged by earthquakes or typhoons … because it has. And while Deathwing’s rise may have been the reason those natural disasters occurred, they’re still natural disasters and it’s pretty difficult to muster up a lust for vengeance against, what – the sea for acting how it should? Azeroth’s earth elementals for being pissed off at their home breaking apart? Really, even Deathwing himself comes out of the entire expansion feeling more like a force of nature than a sentient being, and maybe this has been the point all along. Maybe we were never really supposed to think of Deathwing as anything more than the most powerful instrument of the Old Gods, and asking for him to be a proper villain doesn’t fit the story Blizzard is trying to tell.
So if Deathwing isn’t the centerpiece of the Dragon Soul raid’s story, who is?
(The picture is misleading because there’s another person in it. Rest assured – the story isn’t about Thrall and Aggra; the story is about Thrall. Aggra, despite having the most basic framework for a future as a strong and interesting female character, will never achieve any of this because she lacks any back-story or personality that is independent of the green lug beside her. This, however, is another rant for another day.)
The focus of Dragon Soul isn’t on the villain – it’s on the hero. Oddly, this raid is also the first time that the hero hasn’t been us. Compare our role in Dragon Soul to what happened in ICC. The final fight against Arthas is a giant reveal which explains why the Lich King has encountered us in Northrend again and again, but each time he has allowed us to live. It explains why we have been able to fight against someone so powerful that he eventually kills all of our party in a single blow. We have only been spared so the Lich King can watch us, test us. He has been grooming us to become his most powerful lieutenants, and the end of ICC he finally kills us because he has decided it is now time to resurrect us as Scourge. The entire story, Arthas’ entire plan, focuses on us (specifically us, as individual characters). We were the ones who found out the truth about Drakuru, who defeated Anub’arak, who foiled the Lich King and his minions over and over again. No one could replace us, because the Lich King wanted us to be there. We are the Light’s vaunted Justice.
The experience of Dragon Soul is entirely different. While the Aspects still refer to us as “heroes,” as individuals we’re not really essential to their plan. We are helping them clear the way to the top of Wyrmrest Temple at first, and then protecting them as they begin to channel their powers into the Dragon Soul. I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to say that we’re basically there as a distraction – something to keep Deathwing’s forces busy while the Aspects prepare to do the real work. As such, we’re completely replaceable; any other group of strong adventurers could provide equally competent distraction. Our presence in Dragon Soul isn’t the one that matters … Thrall’s is.
I’ll point you to Children of Wrath once again for some additional commentary on “the problem with Thrall.” There, the author describes Thrall as “a storyline singularity. A black hole that warps those around him such that even the most basic literary laws simply don’t hold anymore,” citing the way that Thrall stole Staghelm’s plotline (a plotline that had spent 7 years in the making) out from under him in the quest that leads up to the Firelands as one example. Deathwing was the second casualty to Thrall’s story in this expansion, as the so-called “world shaman” takes center stage in 1 of the 3 new dungeons introduced in this patch, and as the unquestionable focal point of the Dragon Soul raid. But I’d say that Thrall goes even one step further than merely upstaging the character who has his picture on the front of the Cataclysm box. In the Dragon Soul raid, Thrall manages to actually upstage us, the players, in the story. We aren’t the essential element, he is. We aren’t the hero, he is. The final note of Cataclsym’s story is that Thrall is having a baby, Thrall’s legacy will go on. Far from the “Age of Mortals,” Dragon Soul left me feeling like we’d entered the age of one mortal in particular.
Meanwhile Deathwing’s rotting corpse has returned to the Maelstrom, though we understand no more about his motivations or what happened to him than we did a year ago. Dragon Soul resolves nothing of Cataclysm’s story except that it achieves Deathwing’s demise. Instead, we are given a completely new story (Thrall as Aspect of the Earth and savior of Azeroth) which mostly plays out in the back half of the instance. Because we get this story in its entirety, we get none of Deathwing’s story and none of whichever Old God was influencing him. All we get is more Thrall.
In the end, I can’t possibly say that Dragon Soul is a “good raid.” Much of its failure is in that it simply tries to do too much: too many places, too much variety in our enemies without clear explanation, and a new story that is too large and complex to be revealed and resolved within the scope of the raid. The concept of the three unities is outdated in theatre, but I think it’s a pretty sound policy for raid design, and one that might have helped Dragon Soul get anywhere close to effective storytelling.
Looking Forward to Mists
As much as I would like to blame Thrall for the lack of thematic unity in Cataclysm, the truth is that the story of the entire expansion has been all over the place. While I can understand why Blizzard wanted to experiment with an expansion model that wasn’t so clearly about just one thing as was the case in both Burning Crusade and Wrath, the end result was just variety for variety’s sake. The Cataclysm leveling zones are so spread out and so diverse that there are hardly any strings to hold them all together, and by the final patch it ends up as a bit of a tangled mess that’s just going to stay tangled.
ICC, despite the things I may dislike about it, really worked for me as the capstone of the entire Wrath expansion. That instance was successful from a story standpoint because it took everything we learned about Arthas and the Scourge throughout the expansion and resolved it, while still giving us a little bit of new information to take away (namely, Bolvar’s new place on the Frozen Throne). In contrast, the Dragon Soul raid fails because it has too much it needs to do if it’s really going to cap off the Cataclysm expansion. There were already a ton of loose strings to tie up thanks to the strange diversity of Cataclysm’s plotlines, and so much that has been left on the table regarding Deathwing’s story. Actually summing up any one of these plot lines would have been a daunting task had Blizzard attempted it – trying to bring all of them to a satisfying conclusion would have been impossible.
One of the items we’ve heard about Mists so far is that the entire story will be contained within the box. The stories within the expansion will come to an end within the cycle of patch 5.0, and subsequent patches will have self-contained stories as well. I’m not totally sold on this plan, as I do like the BC and Wrath models that allowed a story to run its course during the life of an expansion, but I would greatly prefer this to Cataclysm’s strategy of simply introducing more and more plot elements without much continuity or resolution. I’ll give this my “Cautiously Optimistic” stamp.
What we have recently seen of the new raid instances that will launch with Mists looks extremely visually interesting and different from the Warcraft we know, which will be a welcome change from the familiarity of Dragon Soul. We need an expansion that will really bring a sense of wonder back into the physical world of Azeroth, and Mists may just be equipped to do that. Inspiring environments are only half of the equation, though. WoW must find its way back to a focus on practical storytelling that recognizes the limits of the medium, and which strives to introduce new stories and reasonably resolve them within, if not a single patch cycle, than at least within the course of an expansion. Where Dragon Soul failed thanks to salvaged settings and shoddy narrative, I can only hope that Mists will deliver WoW more gracefully into its next chapter.