Overwhelming tedium in the Oculus

2nd June 2009 – 5.12 pm

Having the Baconeers turn up in Northrend allows me to take a break from trying to find Sapphire, my warrior, emissaries of the Argent Crusade in an effort to raise her reputation with them. I have effectively completed the Argent Tournament, becoming an exalted champion for each of the five Alliance cities, and was looking forwards to my new title without realising that I also need to attain exlated reputation with the Argent Crusade themselves. I suppose it is a typical attitude of the host nation, really. But with the rest of the guild around we can find adventure as a group in one of the 80th level dungeons.

A fairly quick run through the Culling of Stratholme in the Caverns of Time becomes an enjoyable romp after my death knight takes over from the enthusiastic but inexperienced tank, even if I have to brush up on my death knight tanking rotation after so much PvP in Wintergrasp. I end up using icy touch, plague strike, pestilence, and death and decay, getting the death knight's diseases on all the mobs and generating high amounts of threat with death and decay. Whether death and decay is cast first or last is a matter of experience based on how mobile the mobs are likely to be. A static group can be caught in death and decay first, but a potentially mobile group is better pulled with frost strike and death and decay used to lock them in to place next to the death knight.

Apart from the initial spells I then concentrate mostly on keeping diseases up, dumping runic power with frost strikes, and using howling blast in place of obliterate, to damage multiple mobs instead of one, all of which holds aggro well enough for me in the guild group as well as producing a handy amount of DPS. Once we pass the main streets of ever-spawning weakling zombies we romp through the instance and clear quite easily. With our priest now almost reached 80th level a second instance run is suggested, to push her to the level cap. I would be content with just the one successful run, so I can get some more drumming practice, but am happy to continue. Finding out that the suggested instance is the Oculus really ought to have changed my mind.

I have only been to the Oculus once, with Sapphire tanking, and, upon my word, it was boring. I don't relish returning to it, the only lure being to cross it off my death knight's Northrend dungeoneer achievement list. Revisiting the instance it is a shame that I have the impression of it as being remarkably dull, because on reflection there is plenty that is interesting and challenging. The trash mobs fought conventionally are engaging enough and the two bosses fought on the ground are, to be fair, excellent encounters. The first needs good situational awareness of the entire disc in which the battle takes place, having to avoid changing electrical arcs that take time to charge, the second requiring constant movement around a ring and occasional retreats to avoid a huge blast. Both battles involve high mobility and are suitably different from other stationary fights to be worthwhile repeating for the challenge.

The fun and challenging boss fights might raise the question of how I found the instance to be boring initially, and it is a good question. The problem arises when travelling between boss or minion fights, having to take flight on the back of a dragon. Or, rather, when having to fight whilst on the back of that dragon. There are more trash mobs flying between the aerial platforms and these need to be defeated with the dragons in mounted combat. This is where my experience of tanking—and presumably the same applies to DPS and healers—the many levels I have gained in learning to use two dozen or so abilities, the synergies I can exploit and the nuances involved in mitigating damage against me and maximising it towards my foes whilst maintaining a relevant amount of threat, is all bundled up and thrown out of the window in favour of repeatedly pressing one attack button until the mob falls. It's absurdly simplistic.

I understand that it is not feasible to manufacture a complex mounted combat class with even a dozen abilities that can be mastered within a couple of minutes, and is part of the reason why death knights still journey through several hours of combat to learn their basic spells and mechanics to a minimal level, but surely it must be possible to create a more dynamic fight than 'press this button'. Even when the penultimate Oculus boss is defeated and the dragons gain their 'full' powers it is only one more ability for the tank to use, and one that is a taunt of ten second duration with a ten second cool-down. It hardly takes a genius to work out the obvious—and only—tactic for the final fight, particularly as the tooltip for the taunt strongly suggests mitigating the damage with the evasion ability. You don't say.

The final fight is as anticlimactic as World of Warcraft can get. Press the attack button repeatedly, use taunt at every cool-down and keep evasion up. There is no subtlety, no strategy, there is not even any movement required. Just mash the keyboard until the big dragon falls from the sky in front of you, which can take a couple of minutes of drudgery. It is staggeringly monotonous and a genuine shame for the final fight to be this way, because it is an appallingly dull climax to a chain of otherwise interesting conventional battles. It is also likely to be the memory that will linger with a player longest after leaving the Oculus, but it needn't be. Playing through the instance with a more critical eye the second time, expecting a fair bit of tedium from my first visit, I have to admit that I would really enjoy returning to fight everything in there except for all of the flying sections. I might even endure the clearing of the flying trash mobs to fight the intermediate bosses before skipping out without encountering the final boss to actually come away from the Oculus with a positive experience.

It is good that Blizzard have taken new approaches to combat to try to keep the excitement fresh, but it doesn't work in this case. The sad part is that it solely is owing to the dearth of options available whilst engaged in mounted combat. Giving players such limited options is a terrible mistake, particularly when, even with two dozen abilities and powers and combined interactions to use, viable strategies can be determined within a couple of combats and optimal ones with only a little more practice.

At least it looks like Blizzard has improved with the Argent Tournament, offering more options—only just, but still more—for combat and defence and guiding the player through what each ability does and how it is effectively used. Positioning and movement is also important when jousting, with a melee and ranged abilities. It makes me wonder why the mounted combat sections of the Oculus were not designed in a similar manner. Start the first mounted battle in the instance with the core abilities, enough to survive but not too many to be overwhelmed, and have the dragon give guidance through the first wave of flying mobs. Defeat the first boss and gain a couple of new abilities, helpful against the next wave of trash mobs, repeating until the final boss is reached with at least a handful of abilities that require more than a leper gnome's intelligence to use.

As it stands, the climactic battle in the Oculus is less an epic confrontation between a mighty dragon and heroes controlling flying drakes than a dreary waste of time. For an instance that involves highly mobile combat where situational awareness and coordination become vital to survival the tedium of the woefully static flying sections becomes heightened. My suggestion is to defeat the last boss once for the achievement and ignore him afterwards, unless you are desperate for the loot. The Oculus will become far more entertaining as a result.

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