Having finished Thrallmar (21/40) with a fair few runs of heroic Ramps and Furnace (still only 7/8 on my Judgement lookalike - Omor, will you ever drop the shoulders?), I've started work on Keepers of Time. Farming mostly Old Durnholde (BM is a fair bit faster, but Durnholde pays a fair bit better), I had to (of course) take old Don Carlos' challenge and steal his hat. I had, however, still set my instances to heroic, and wouldn't you know? I suddenly had not only Don Carlos' hat, but Don Carlos' Famous hat. It is quite awesome, and I've started wearing it to heroics.
Turning in the quest, however, I remembered one of the reasons I play this game. As I rode through Tanaris to the gallows stand, I noticed a patch of blood, gore and rusted weaponry. Between the wastewalker camps, the (for a desert) quite colourful fauna, mountain ranges and troll ruins, a single patch of fresh combat lied waiting for me, with a thousand stories to tell - and only a dead skull for a mouth. Over two years, at least a dozen characters levelled through the zone and heaven knows how many random visits to Tanaris - and I still manage to find something new.
Vengeance on my hands, 'twasn't me, I swear...
This discovery, however, also made me think. Apart from the two weekly raids and the daily/weekly frost badges (sigh), World of Warcraft is more and more turning into a single-player game for me. Running Trial of the Crusader? No, not if I don't have to. Naxxramas or Sartharion? I'd rather avoid it, unless we're doing achievements. Random dungeons or battlegrounds? Dear Lord, please don't make me do more than I absolutely have to. There's so much hate, blaming and unreasonable demand being placed on everyone from the safe anonymity of anyone - "you only have the Revered Ashen Verdict ring? you fail nub". And it is in this context that I start to realize that the game designers and myself aren't playing the same game anymore.
Recently, Kalgan posted in a blue that he thought Ulduar was overtuned. Eyonix stated, when asked if the "everyone should be able see content"-thesis kinda backfired when people suddenly skipped three whole tiers and went straight into Icecrown Citadel, that "yes, we're fine with that, however, we do have many improvements planned for how we approach many aspects of raiding in Cataclysm".
I know I'm jumping to conclusions here, but bear with me. To me, Ulduar was quite possibly THE greatest instance in the history of the game. I know I have a lot of pro, top end and hardcore raiders with me when I say this, which again suggests that of people playing the game, both casually and progression-oriented, Ulduar was something that combined brilliant game design, exceptional challenges and enjoyable content for everyone alike. Ulduar had not two bosses that were alike, whereas Icecrown Citadel is more or less built around the same general design (more on this later). Ulduar had an end boss that any decent player with a decent guild could defeat in Yogg-Saron; it also had a version of that same boss that stood for four months for the truly hardcore in Yogg-Saron without watcher aid. On top of this, it had Algalon the Observer for the dedicated progression guilds. It even had a normalmode "guildkiller" in Mimiron. It had epic trash - not too much, not too hard, but hard enough that when overgearing, you still remember and consider how it's done - and do it that way.
And now, if I read the game designers right, they're kinda killing Ulduar. Just like Naxx40 is something people now just speak of in distant whispers, I fear for Ulduar. Everyday, I do a random heroic with some recently dinged level 80, decked out in tier 9, with either a Quel'delar variant or a weapon from one of the Icecrown five-man dungeons. All of which - naturally - outgears Ulduar equipment by a considerable amount. Most of them wear their "the Patient" title proudly, yet a few still sports "of the Nightfall" - which a quick check reveals that they got post-3.3 anyway. And once a week, they head into a PuG for Icecrown Citadel, aiming for 4/12, since any progress onwards requires not only bringing a full raid of randoms through Frogger 2.0, but also possibly wiping on a boss (or heaven forbid, the trash - I've seen enough careless tanks pull both of the Val'kyr at the same time). Blizzard have effectively managed to compress Wrath of the Lich King into three zones - Icecrown, Wintergrasp and Dalaran - that you never have to leave anymore. And of all zones they could have chosen, they ended up with the most boring options.
Let's have a quick look at how Icecrown Citadel is actually designed. Think of a boss, any boss, and check the list for either of the following: Cleaves that must be soaked, add phases, moving from stuff on the floor, the "pop cooldown X at ability Y"-factor and tank switch at X stacks of the debuff. All quite normal elements for the weathered raider, but in Icecrown, it more and more appear as these few elements are not only part of certain encounters, but the basic formula every encounter is based upon. I can't think of a single boss in Icecrown (sans the Gunship Battle, but is that even a boss - REALLY?) that does not have at least two of these elements, more often than not, three or four. Even Professor Putricide, oft hailed as one of the best designed encounter of the instance, has four of these elements as core mechanics of the fight. The most interesting bosses of the instance by far are Blood Princes and Dreamwalker, simply because they diverge just slightly from the formula. But are they really exciting bosses? From a melee perspective; nah, it's pretty much just running between adds and dodging shit on the floor here, too.
Then you think back to Mimiron, who you'd tank solo. No forced tankswap here, no need - he was hard anyway. Or Yogg-Saron - the interesting way of letting adds be the core mechanic of an encounter. Or Algalon, where cleave was a thing of the past - what if, instead, you have the whole raid soak his damage, to make the fight interesting on the healers? Or Hodir, bringing new life to the whole "don't stand in the fire"-thesis by making whether or not to be in or out of the fire a key to success. Or simply Freya. Wonderful, amazing Freya.
Ulduar was one of the best things you ever did, Blizzard. The only encounter, both raidwise and dungeonwise, that comes close of the entire expansion, are the Val'kyr twins - had this fight had a decent tuning (more damage from balls, higher or even separate health pools, shorter time between special abilities), they could have been a third classic twins encounter. Now, they're just free loot. But hey, they're better loot than Ulduar. So why bother going Ulduar at all, right?
Wrong. At least in my book. When I read "we do have many improvements planned for how we approach many aspects of raiding in Cataclysm", I pray that this means for multiple tiers of Ulduars. I pray this means old content will still be relevant, accessible and in some cases even necessary (not unlike how like having The Sun Eater in Sunwell Plateau was a must). I do't really think it will. But I hope.
Because let's face it - single-player World of Warcraft is only really interesting for just that long. And not a minute longer.
When we're on the topic of Ulduar; we've gone and downed Lootmobile+4. Took around five tries, and the killing attempt was quite a mess, but he's down. Only Vezax and Yogg left for our drakes now!