All About Esotericus
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I'll admit I was skeptical. When my mage first breathed life in Elwynn Forest almost six years ago, horrors such as Hogger ensured that he died at least five times before Level 10. When he first blinked into Hellfire Peninsula in 2007, Fel Reavers squashed him at least twice before Level 61. Northrend was kinder, and his first death occurred after I foolishly attempted to solo Prince Valanar atop Naxxanar at Level 71. Playing in the World of Warcraft: Cataclysm beta, however, he was eight bars into Level 83 before he even fell under 60% health. By then, he had never grouped and never even bothered to train First Aid. I wanted to attribute this success to acquired skill or just plain dumb luck, but in the end I couldn't shake the feeling that World of Warcraft had simply become too easy.
It's a concern shared by many Vanilla-flavored veterans such as myself, and newer players no doubt get sick of hearing about the way things used to be. Back in our day, we like to say, epics were actually epic and exalted reputations were actually deserving of the name. I spent virtually all my time in Vanilla in Risen on Alleria, which achieved some substantial notoriety through such achievements as the U.S. first kill of Kel'Thuzad (back when he wasn't a pushover) and the world's first successful execution of Heigan's dance. And we fought hard for all of it. Being in a high-end raiding guild in those days meant sacrificing both evenings and relationships for the all-important server first, and this in an era without achievements. Raiding meant hours of testing strategies, possibly receiving one upgrade every two weeks, and working in sync with a group of raiders whose skills and personal quirks you knew as well as your own. I can't say I'm proud of all that time I gave to Blizzard, but I remember some runs through Blackrock Depths in 2005 much more than I remember whole months in later expansions.
By contrast, owing to the use of tokens, smaller raids, and plenty of epics in instances, Wrath of the Lich King allowed me to become extremely powerful even with only a fair amount of commitment to my guild. I can't say I frown on this too much: the casual focus allowed me to enjoy WoW while holding down a full time job and dating (and eventually marrying) my future wife. At times, however, it seemed a little extreme. Indeed, these days, most of us can fairly confidently enter Icecrown Citadel with a random group of people we've never met before, amass a stash of epic loot and tokens, and possibly even down the Lich King himself. The argument could be made that certain heroic encounters in the recent expansions are much more difficult than anything we faced in our beloved 40-mans, but the fact remains that it takes much less effort to get to that point.
At first glance, this nod to casuals seems taken to extremes in Cataclysm's UI, and players on live received their first glance at these changes yesterday. Gone are the days when you had to spend hours looking for a quest objective à la Mankrik's wife. Instead, taking a cue from several popular addons such as Questhelper, the names of enemies in your quest log are highlighted in bright red or yellow above their heads (as in PVP) and, a carry-over from WOTLK, their locations are conveniently marked on your maps. Formerly fairly complicated stats such as defense have been removed, and when certain spell procs are ready (such as my mage's Hot Streak), a handy graphical notice pops up around your avatar to let you know it's time to let loose. Flying mounts occasionally seem to remove the challenge of fighting your way to an objective, and health increases astronomically at each level, so at Level 85 I had just under 75,000 hit points as a mage. All in all, however, questing itself in Cataclysm is a thoroughly enjoyable affair (more on that later), particularly owing to the heavy use of phasing, and I'll be quick to say that I believe the upcoming expansion has some of the most interesting and memorable quest lines ever implemented in the game. I was having a great time, but I couldn't help but feel I'd be heading back to the same old grind once I reached Level 85 and that the dumbed down stats and interface would make gearing up and improving my stats feel more like Mafia Wars than World of Warcraft 1.0.
So you can imagine my surprise when I first entered a Cataclysm instance and found my perfectly capable group almost wiping on the first pull. I was floored, literally and figuratively. In my case, it was the Stonecore, a level 82-84 instance carved into the side of the Temple of Earth in Deepholm. Long accustomed to the Northrend drudgery of AOEing trash mobs on the way to a boss, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself needing to whip out my long-neglected Polymorph spell to keep things under control before each pull, which is closer to how it was in Vanilla (as opposed to the AOE Thunderclap fest. etc. in WOTLK). Even more surprisingly, I found myself staying in my frost spec to keep from dying. By the end, our Level 85 tank with an ICC title had been smacked around the map, we had wiped three times, I was having to think, and I was loving every second of it. And, mind you, this wasn't even heroic. That's a whole other exciting nightmare.
With some easier exceptions (hello, Vortex Pinnacle) on the way to Level 85, this scenario was repeated many times over, from Blackrock Caverns to the revamped heroic Deadmines. Friendships were forged in instances, much as they were in the old days, from having to rely on the skill of another player as well as your own for survival. And as for questing? By Level 84 I was somewhat struggling to complete quests, and I often had to strategize when approaching a group of quest-related enemies. While this is partially related to fewer implemented upgrades at this stage of the beta, there seemed little doubt that Blizzard was making you work for those last couple of levels regardless. In other words, Blizzard seemed to ease you into the new changes, making you prepared for the heavy hitters when you encountered them. This is WoW as it used to be and should be, and by the time I was traipsing across the Twilight Highlands, I couldn't care less that I knew where to find the mob from the map. If Blizzard can keep this up, then I'll be playing again for a long time.
At this point, then, Cataclysm appears to be neither too casual nor too hardcore, but more of the perfect medium that I believe Blizzard's been looking for this whole time. For former diehards such as myself who've reluctantly enjoyed the more casual side of WoW over the last couple of years, this seems like just the thing we need to fully enjoy the game again. Whether or not the game will remain as challenging come live release remains to be seen, but so far it looks like making everyone happy sometimes just takes destroying the world and remaking it. To old hardcore players, I say: come back, there's a lot of stuff here worth checking out. To casual players, I say: it's a little more challenging, but not enough to frighten you away. To my wife, I say: Don't worry, I'll never miss dinner for a raid.
My wife is awesome. As one of my birthday presents in June, she brought home a huge stack of comic books dating from 1988-1989 that someone had left in the giveaway pile near her office. Surprisingly, almost all of these were in mint condition, and whoever left them apparently once had a devoted crush on the Uncanny X-Man, Web of Spiderman, and the Inferno crossover storyline, which featured more character transformations than an episode of Transformers. Best of all, several issues from the pile are worth about $40 today, so it turned out to be a much better birthday present than either of us had realized.
Choosing a controller used to be serious business.
It's possible I already have many of these comic books along with hundreds of others in a big box in a closet in my parents' house almost 1,200 miles away, but I haven't opened it in years. Alone they sit, collecting dust and value, until the day when I'll undertake an epic quest to hunt them down and transmute them into the magical force that will annihilate the tyranny of my graduate student loans. Hopefully, anyway. Back in 1988, however, comic books made up one of the twin suns of my world. I was nine years old, a wheeler and dealer of comics books like these, and, perhaps above all, a rabid gamer. For me and thousands of other similarly geeky 80s kids with Coke-bottle glasses, comic books and video games went hand in hand.
(Left) Pre-Internet game ordering! Note the mislabeled games.
Looking through these comic books today, I'm reminded that the 80s were such a great time to be a kid. Comic art was suddenly filled with groundbreaking art and stories, cartoons took on a life of their own, toy companies were in an arms race to outdo one another, kids were still extremely interested in paper-and-pen D&D-like games (and board games, to boot), and video games were visibly evolving as every month went by. Everything was new, fresh, and full of wonder, and there were world-shaking product releases several times a year as technology advanced astronomically in several fields.
Today, it's shocking that these ads for the video games in these comic books are "only" twenty-two years old. Flipping through, it's easy to smile at the claims of "jaw-dropping graphics" and LCD games being cutting edge, but at the time, we read these ads with wide-eyed wonder before exploding into movement and begging our parents to get The Next Big Thing. Looking through them is a rare opportunity to drop into the early days of the video game industry, when gamers and game companies explored and perfected the interactivity between games and players and when 8-bit and Nintendo were undisputed kings.
In 1988, "arcade-like graphics" was one of the big hooks. As anyone who grew up during the period knows, however, this was sometimes quite a stretch and it seemed like the developers were all too aware of this. Sadly, In an age before the Internet, ads in comic books (and magazines like Nintendo Power, if you were lucky) provided some of the only means to find out what a game looked like aside from playing it at your buddy's house, and knowing this, it seemed like developers took every step possible to avoid putting screenshots of NES arcade ports in an ad. Take the above. In the ads for Operation: Wolf, Gun.Smoke., and 1943: The Battle For Midway, the advertisers play up the success of the games in the arcades ("The World's #1 Arcade Game!" "Players pumped in millions of quarters!") while neglecting to show you how poorly the graphics of the NES version compared to what we played at the mall. Only Gun.Smoke has the guts to do so—"With all the dazzling graphics"—but they've made the screenshots extremely small to avoid the awkward comparisons and taken your attention away from the game itself with the tough-guy photo. Turtle freak that I was, I remember feeling mixed emotions upon receiving TMNT: The Arcade Game. While the game replicated much of the feel of the arcade version, it failed to take my breath away like the arcade game, which looked like Michelangelo was about to hop out of the screen and stuff a slice of pizza in my mouth. Until console games were able to capture the arcade magic, the arcades would still hold an advantage over games at home. Largely kept in the dark when it came to how an arcade port looked in the days before the Internet, we were, in many ways, a hostage audience.
Obviously, this wasn't such a bad thing, and many console-native games, such as The Adventures of Bayou Billy, played up just how awesome they seemed by plastering the page with screenshots and highlighting all the different gameplay methods that could be found in one game. These console-native games were among the favorites, partially because we had nothing to compare them to and because they were built around the system. Arcade games ported to the NES, however, seemed like wimpy, pimply cosplay versions of godly animated superheroes. Other games, such as Metal Gear, played up how just much there was to pick up and use, which had a lot of impact in an age when many of us still had the minimalist Ataris hooked up to the TV.
The year 1988 was the twilight before the dawn of GameBoy, which would redefine portable games forever. Portable games existed during this period (including in watch form), but they were such simple affairs that they almost seem embarrassing today, even knowing how much I wanted them when I was a kid. Among the most notable of these were the Nintendo Game and Watch and the Tiger LCD video games, both of which featured an LCD screen (similar to a digital watch) with a permanent background that could be used to give you the "feeling" of the real game. While these could be fun, most of the time they were annoying affairs that required a second for each fractured movement, resulting in much clenched teeth and yelling of "I TOTALLY got that, stupid game!" Worse, since I was a little Texas boy, on a couple of occasions I realized that they didn't like heat very well after pulling them out of my roasting bag and seeing the ink smeared over the screen. I remember switching it on anyway and simply watching Mario, the only thing still visible on the screen, jump up and down, while I pressed the buttons determined to play even if I couldn't see past the smear. Nintendo's ad made it seem like the advances of the Game Boy were already here; the Tiger games appealed to you through the art on the device.
I may upload and write about a few more of these at a later date, but for now I leave you with this awesome artifact: In the days before Everquest and World of Warcraft, some people did their fantasy gaming on the phone. Now that's hardcore.
Any other thoughts on all this? I'd like to hear them!
This has nothing to do with video games, but I recently designed a series of labels for my wife's fragrance line on Etsy that I'm quite proud of. You can see how they turned out above.
As you can tell, a lot of the stuff she sells is very influenced by Steampunk, so I wanted to give the fragrance bottle a late 1800s apothecary feel (with just a touch of modern elegance).I design a lot of things for work, but this is one of the few projects I've done recently that I think are worthy of sharing.
Also, shameless promotion: if you'd like, check out the jewelry and fragrances at my wife's Etsy shop here. Buy something. Find a girl. Score.
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