Choice is something Blizzard developers have been striving to give the players in World of Warcraft for years. Be it through one’s race, spec, talents, gear, and ultimately class players theoretically have a large amount of say in the manner they approach the game. Further from the personal and toon-based choices are more superfluous ones such as; where will I level, how will I level, what will I do with my in-game free time, will I bother crafting, is PvP for me? With the coming of patch 4.3 players will gain even more ways to adjust their style of play be it through transmogrifying old favorites onto new gear, taking part in the Darkmoon Faire and its games, dabbling in casual raiding with the Raid Finder, or hunting for new achievements. Throughout the core of the WoW experience there lies an undercurrent of how much choice players have and how important that quality is to the game.
This is all well and good, except for the feeling I get that beyond my class any choice I make is utterly without consequence…except for doing my job sub-optimally.
Take that with a grain of salt, of course, but the more I play around with all the “options” available to me while I wait for 4.3 to launch (I’m not going through Northrend until they reduce the experience needed!) the more I get not a sense of déjà vu but utter despair at how little even the most drastic choices make. Beyond aesthetic and environmental disparities and a few ultimately inconsequential stat and ability differences my race, starting location, and method of leveling and play really just boil down to a concrete core of melting through content at super speeds. Over the last few weeks I’ve literally played through every race’s starting levels (anywhere between 15 and 30 levels) with the only thing making the trek more interesting is my choice of class and the varied race stories.
Now-now, I’m not discounting the importance of story or exclaiming these experiences are bad, and this may seem a lot like complaining or just stating the obvious, but I assure you it isn’t. All of these things and more are meaningful choices for how one experiences the game, but almost none of them sans class choice truly impacts how one plays the game. Even the difference between PvP and PvE, while play-styles ultimately diverge greatly, is overshadowed by the fact that if you’re a hunter you’re a ranged DPS, if you’re a rogue you’re melee DPS, if you’re a priest you’re (probably) a healer, et cetera. Compare this to Rift where every class can effectively do three things (unless Warlords are still fail-support characters) and even then the most important choice the player will ever make in WoW becomes somewhat… lackluster.
Where is all of this going? Towards Talents 2.0.
The express purpose of the new talent system is to eliminate cookie cutters and introduce true choice and diversity into player builds, or so says Blizzard. Ignoring conspiracy theories of how this dumbs down the game or is marketing to tweens or whatever, this has the serious implication of truly fulfilling Blizzard’s goal of meaningful choice…or just making everyone a cookie. First off now everyone has the same set of default abilities to work with dependent on their class. After that every member of the class who is a certain spec will have additional abilities for that spec. Furthermore you get to choose six spells from each tier in the new talents.
Truly remarkable specialization, right?
Well, that depends on how good of a job Blizzard will do with their arrangement of those “optional” talents. Now much to my own dismay my main is a mage so I’ll stick to those talents in my example. How well does Blizzard do with the Mage’s “temporary, work in progress, not set-in-stone” talents? Let’s find out!
Mage Tier 1: Ring of Frost | Cone of Cold | Frostjaw
Three crowd controls of which two are AOE, two are instant, and two are “hard.” Tier one actually looks to promise a legitimate choice free of the min-max paradigm. Depending on the fight and situation obviously one spell will be best for each scenario, but for a raid it obvious one will be best regardless as far as DPS goes… that being Cone of Cold as it is the only one that does damage. So far so good.
Mage Tier 2: Greater Invisibility | Cauterize | Cold Snap
While a dead mage does no damage, Cold Snap would be the obvious choice for DPS in a raid scenario assuming competence of the mage. Even with Cold Snap nerfed to only three spell cool-downs it would get you your water elemental back and another frost nova…both of which do more damage than cauterizing a wound or going invisible. Not the best tier in terms of choices for every scenario.
Mage Tier 3: Presence of Mind | Scorch | Arcane Flows
Well…evaluation of every tier from this point on will likely depend on one’s spec. If Blizzard carries over the spec damage type and utility bonuses (I’m sure they will) then taking any fire spell when you aren’t spec’d into fire will result in lack-luster DPS, which means min-maxers will rule the day. It would seem that from this tier alone fire will still be the dominant damage on the move spec…unless you like working around cool-downs for doing mobile damage. If you’re fire you’re taking scorch, if you’re not pick your poison…or just pick scorch.
Mage Tier 4: Mana Shield | Blazing Speed | Ice Barrier
No point in talking too much here. Ice Barrier will probably be best most of the time…maybe even for PvP. I can see reasons you’d take the others for PvP but in a raid? Not much choice here.
Mage Tier 5: Sickly Polymorph | Heavy Polymorph | Double Polymorph
Again, not much choice here. If you’re fighting other players I can see the allure of Heavy Polymorph, but in almost every other scenario (even in PvP) I’d rather have two sheep. In a dungeon why not make trash even easier with a second CC from your mage…or god knows how many more if you’re running more than one mage. Sickly Polymorph might enable mages to 1v1 anything without ever taking damage…depending on how fast HP regens with that 10% effect and of course that wouldn’t matter too much outside of solo content.
Mage Tier 6: Blast Wave | Dragon’s Breath | Slow
Well…a good tier for fire mages at least. If I’m frost and my fire spells don’t get a bonus 25% damage, I’ll never use either of those spells for DPS purposes… and being frost I’m not lacking in the crowd control or anything… and if I’m arcane I might have Slow auto apply on my main nuke. So then why would I take them… not that Blast Wave of Dragon’s Breath are bad or anything but, yeah!
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not hating on min-maxers or anything of that sort. I min-max myself and anyone looking to succeed in a competitive scene does the same. But beyond the first tier of spells for the mage there isn’t really any true choice injected into the system, especially considering you can change these on the fly with a reagent. For all intents and purposes it looks like (at least for mages) the new talents won’t open up that many actual selections for players. I can’t speak for the other talents as I’m not nearly as well versed for the other classes, but I’m sure a similar picture can be seen in at least a couple tiers for every class.
Needless to say I have more choice at the moment to simply pick bad talents than I will have in Pandaria. So what if not taking my spec’s main talents completely gimps my DPS, at least I have true free will! At least I’m not a slave to the system (beyond being the class that I am of course!). At the end of the day if I want to really change up my gameplay I need to tap into my inner-altaholic and rough out the leveling process 8 more times. At least in that area WoW is still king, but as far as the developer’s dreams of imposing truly meaningful choice into the game the preliminary analysis seems to say that those dreams will remain just that.
In the meantime feel free to prove me wrong, I’ll be working on that Shaman tank!