If you followed the various info releases relating to planned features for Wrath of the Lich King during its development, you may remember when Oculus was first mentioned and the sorts of things that were said about it.
- For the first time ever in a dungeon, players would be able to FLY.
- And not just fly, but fly on DRAGONS. There’d be genuine dragon vs. dragon combat!
- Any party member would be able to take on any role regardless of gear or spec via the dragon they chose to ride. Healers could DPS, tanks could heal, DPS could fly loop-de-loops around Malygos’ minions! This was, remember, in the days before dual-spec.
- Importantly after some infamous TBC bombing quests (which to be fair were pretty fun when they were toned down a bit), the dragon mounts would not be “on rails” – players would be able to freely explore the instance and fly anywhere at any time.
- And equally importantly, we were assured that it wouldn’t be a “gimmick” instance – we’d have time spent doing normal dungeon clearing as well as time spent on the dragons; also, there wouldn’t just be a “dragon phase”.
Given all that, a lot of players were very excited. Read that list again and don’t think about Oculus as you’ve experienced it: doesn’t it sound like a pretty good instance? Something that should be a lot of fun and quite refreshing after normal heroic grinding?
So why do most people hate it so much?
I want to think a bit about how we go from the list above -which is, by the way, technically entirely true of the Oculus – to the reviled and dreaded pariah instance of this expansion.
We’d never been able to actually fly in dungeons before. We’d been able to ride our ground mounts in several places like Zul’Gurub, Ahn’Qiraj and the Caverns of Time, but that was purely for expediting travel through the instance. Naturally the prospect of being able to use our hard-won flying abilities in a dungeon was quite exciting.
Except… we couldn’t actually use our own flying mounts in Oculus. Silly as it sounds, I think this is really important. Instead of feeling free when you enter the instance, you feel tramlined more than ever: there are great big massive drops on either side of you and you’re obliged to go through the annoying dragon trash on foot even though, were you outside in the same scenery, you could just fly from place to place on your favourite proto-drake or whatever. The ridiculous thing is that you can ride your normal ground mount the moment you enter.
Directing people through the instance could be accomplished in far better ways than removing their ability to fly in an instance which is all about flying. Remember the hated but wonderful Monstrous Kaliris or Legion Flak Cannons, or even the stealth dragons with dismounting breaths of doom?
I also wonder if it detracts from the flying-feel that we start off way above the ground instead of being able to fly up there in the first place and get some sense of the height. You get a great sense of the height of Oculus in Coldarra; you don’t when actually in the instance.
Next problem! You don’t get your ability to ride dragons at first. Well fair enough, you have to rescue them. That’s fine. But the moment you summon your dragon you learn to hate it. You have to talk to an NPC and figure out which dragonflight it represents while clicking through a rather obscure series of dialogue options (I dunno about you, but I have to read the text three times before I figure out where to click the polite equivalent of “just gimme my damned drake already!”). Then you have to find an item in your inventory and click it. Then you throw up a flare. Then the dragon flaps down to you and then you make an exaggerated hop-float onto its back and then you are finally mounted.
All this takes seven or eight ages of the World. Civilisations rise and fall, mountains collapse into the sea and glaciers cover the land in a series of ice ages before you are actually astride your mythical beast-o’-flyin’.
And now – bear with me here – suddenly you don’t have any of your class abilities anymore and your dragon mount appears to have just hit “Create” at the character selection screen because he knows about two spells, one of which is useless. The dragons don’t have “roles” at all, because the tank dragon can’t actually do anything to stop other dragons getting aggro or taking damage, the healer dragon can’t actually heal anything except itself (and its main nuke does so much ridiculous self-harm that it can’t really be used on the single target drake fights) and the DPS dragon is the only one with any actually useful abilities.
You only get your dragons’ key abilities just before the last boss. When most of the instance is over. Until then it’s the equivalent of running through Durotar on your level 2 hunter entreating the gods for your next rank of Raptor Strike.
Of course, there is a reason for this: the design team realise that not everyone can handle swapping to an entirely new set of abilities that well and want to give players time to learn. The NPCs explain the drakes’ abilities and you get the most “complicated” ones only after having a lot of time to spam the more boring ones. But the pacing is just all wrong and the dragons aren’t actually any fun to fly without their role-defining abilities… because until that point you’re essentially just five guys mindlessly mashing your damage buttons instead of an actual, genuine team like you signed up for.
Dragon on Dragon action
That neatly brings me to the next sub-point: fighting the dragon trash on your dragon mounts isn’t actually any fun. There are MILLIONS of the damn things and they are ALL IDENTICAL. And they have vast aggro radii and sit there spamming something that isn’t but actually is Frost Bolt and you have to mow through vast swathes of them to get to the parts of the instance that matter.
They are, in fact, the worst possible kind of trash. They serve no purpose except to get in your way and make moving through the instance slow. Well, that and to train you in the use of your dragons’ one ability that’s actually worthwhile against them.
Later on you meet “many whelps” but by then you’re so jaded by the whole experience that you can’t see the funny side.
So fighting dragons while riding on other dragons is, in fact, amazingly rendered rather boring and annoying.
In the interests of being constructive, how could this be better? Well, I like Malygos’ phase 2 hoverdisks, where you can fly about at great speed while still using your class abilities. And I do actually like the Oculus drakes’ abilities and synergy when they all unlock, so one obvious solution would be to unlock them much sooner. But then the trash would need to be more diverse and more strategically arranged to benefit from these abilities and make them worth using. Trash might actually be fun if we did something other than mash the nuke button until everything’s dead.
…except, until you actually reach Eregos, roles are limited to:
- Ruby: low damage nuke, can stop taking damage for a while after taking damage for a while.
- Emerald: low damage DoT and high damage nuke that nearly kills you.
- Amber: big meaty nuke that hits for insane amounts when paired with Time Stop. Oh, did we mention that Time Stop is an amazing CC/damage reduction ability too.
HMM I WONDER WHICH DRAGON WE SHOULD USE FOR THE TRASH GUYS.
(Cue five-amber groups mowing through the pointless dragon trash until they reach Eregos.)
…upon which time suddenly the tank-rider has to learn to tank and the healer-rider has to learn to heal, for the first time, on the final boss fight.
Freedom to explore
Except the instance is filled with a sea of identical and pointless dragon trash mobs which will either:
- frost bolt spam you to death or
- slow you down to the point that you don’t want to explore anymore.
Also if, despite this, you foolishly try to actually fly anywhere you either:
- hit an invisible wall and can’t fly any further while your drake mount makes irritated wheezing noises or
- hit an invisible barrier between the sky and the ground that says “OK you die now” and instantly drop dead beyond all hope of resurrection, forcing you to corpse-run back into the instance while your team mocks you.
I think it’s hilarious, considering point 2, that when you dismount mid-air you are oh-so-helpfully provided with a parachute
No “dragon phase”
There are two problems here. Firstly, the process of mounting and using dragons is so time-consuming, irritating, unrewarding and grindy that you stop wanting to use them in the first place – but they’re an integral and inescapable part of the instance. Secondly, the non-dragon bits are hard. Or, they were hard when we all reached level 80 for the first time.
Let me elaborate a bit on point two. Oculus plays like a TBC-style heroic instance – pulls where there were a lot of mobs which are difficult to control and which do a lot of damage. In TBC, we would’ve made excellent use of the very helpful Line-of-Sight obstructions on the lower level inner ring and the wonderful choke point which allows crowd-control to operate before the tank wades in to get aggro without risk of breaking the CC. Unfortunately for Oculus, WotLK instance running philosophy dispenses with crowd control, sensible LoS pulling and waiting for tanks to get mobs under control and just wades in and AoEs everything in sight. Naturally, this rendered these trash pulls even harder than they were supposed to be. Furthermore, as all the trash made heavy use of magical damage and AoE, it especially emphasised raw health pools and raw AoE healing power at a time when most players were still gearing up and getting used to new ways of healing and gearing.
So the dragon-riding trash is boring, and the non-dragon-riding trash is freakishly hard. Then the final boss is extra specially hard because you’ve only just got your drakes’ final abilities and it turns out they don’t scale with gear.
The latter issue has of course been changed, rendering the instance much easier even before all the nerfs. But the fact remains that the difficulty of the instance and the weird balance of the dragon-ridey-bits meant that nobody cared that there was no “dragon phase” – they just didn’t want to go there period.
Could it have worked?
It’s easy to say stuff like this in hindsight, isn’t it? I remember fighting Teron Gorefiend in Black Temple back in TBC, and feeling very upset with the encounter designers for demanding that every member of your 25-man raid group had to be able to, basically, competently play a frost mage kiting four mobs: a handful of our raiders just could not do it and it seemed unfair to expect them to after they reached level 70 on, say, a melee DPS class. Oculus’ drake design seems to have been made with that lesson in mind, giving players a chance to get used to their basic abilities before giving them new ones, and making sure that the initial encounters in the dragon-vehicles were relatively easy. It’s only with hindsight that we can say that the precise implementation of this learned lesson didn’t actually work – though whether this could have been discovered before release is another matter entirely.
But yes, I think it could have worked – and I think if Blizzard were to design a new Oculus-style dungeon for Cataclysm, it could be really fun. If you look at the list of problems I’ve highlighted (though they’re not the only problems), there are solutions to all of them. Whether those solutions would work or not we wouldn’t know until we tried: the point is that there are avenues for improvement; it’s not a hopeless case.
I really enjoyed the Flame Leviathan boss fight in Ulduar, and the way it catered to different levels of ability and offered varying degrees of challenge. Flame Leviathan also gave us the ability to mix vehicle fighting with normal fighting, as demolisher gunners got launched onto the top of the Leviathan to manually take out its turrets. Putricide in ICC has a similar interaction, with the Mutated Abomination performing a crucial role in a “vehicle” while the rest of the raid works with it using their normal abilities.
So these kinds of encounters and designs can work and can be a lot of fun. We can already see where Blizzard’s learned from there mistakes – as well as where they’ve made new mistakes to learn from (hello, Trial of the Champion jousting). I’d actually be kind of sad if we don’t see more vehicle use and “free-flight” style instance design in Cataclysm. But perhaps, to the developers’ minds, the risk of getting it wrong outweighs the benefits of getting it right?
What do you think?