Filesystem Checkwits strike Stratholme

23rd March 2010 – 5.33 pm

With the key to Scholomance forged and ready to be used, it's the perfect time to visit Stratholme. A full evening of dungeon-delving seems suited to the more expansive Stratholme, its two effective 'halves' offering greater options within the one dungeon, although the multiple diversions to visit all of the many bosses in Scholomance may prove to be equally time-involving. But first I have to work out why I am riding in to Tirisfal Glades. It seems I remember that I need to get to a flight point in the Plaguelands and head north-west, but I get my east and west confused again and start in the Western Plaguelands when I wanted the eastern zone. My woeful navigation wouldn't be as embarrassing if I hadn't started almost on top of Light's Hope Chapel in the Eastern Plaguelands, where I need to ride from, having used my death gate to return me to Acherus. Luckily, I can re-use the death gate ability and start my journey again, admitting my mistake to no one.

The gates to Stratholme are easily found, once headed in the right direction, and the diminished Filesystem Checkwits assemble before venturing inside. The gates close behind us once we are in, preventing any easy exit, unlike just about every other dungeon. I remember when I first discovered Stratholme in the Plaguelands and poked my nose through the dungeon door to see what awaited me, only to find that, because the gates blocked the exit, my exploratory efforts were rewarded with my having to return to Stormwind by using my hearthstone. I can't remember if I could use the hearthstone immediately or had to wait for some of its then one-hour cool-down to expire. But at least I had it, even if returning to the Plaguelands meant a long and interrupted sequence of gryphon rides back north. Making dungeon entrances one-way is an interesting idea, but it makes unknown swirly portals less enticing to explore.

Our Argent Dawn commission trinkets are donned, allowing us to gather scourgestones for redundant faction reputation, and we start hacking through the early skeletons and zombies that infest the broken and burnt city of Stratholme. I also realise that my death knight's frost presence may be useful, the tanking presence granting increased armour and, more importantly, greater threat generation to enable me to hold the mobs' attentions. It's brilliant how the death knight's presences don't change the abilities available, only their relative effectiveness, even if most death knight mistakes come from tanking in blood presence or trying to DPS in frost. My demeanour becoming even more frosty helps focus the mobs on me and we start ploughing through the undead. We find Fras Siabi and try to buy some cigars from him for some Argent Dawn lackey, but Fras wants them to himself. Demonstrating how 'smoking kills', we slaughter him and take the cigars anyway.

I make an executive decision to tackle the undead side of Stratholme first, culminating with Baron Rivendare, now moonlighting between here and Naxxramas in Northrend like a surgeon putting in his hours with the NHS. The plan would work better if we don't go the wrong way, turning a corner to find the Scarlet Bastion. Oh well, let's introduce the Scarlet Crusade to the light whilst we're here. The courtyard is soon cleared—even with Livya continually being charged and knocked back twenty feet by the crimson guardsmen—heralding the appearance of Timmy the Cruel. Surely this is a different Timmy from the kid in Stormwind selling the white kitten. But it doesn't make sense that he wants to get rid of a cute white kitten, nor that he pretends there is only one but keeps coming back several hours apart. Timmy the Cruel and Timmy in Stormwind are one and the same, alternating between chewing on adventurers and threatening to throw cute kittens in to canals if no one buys them. What a bastard.

Once inside, the confined quarters of the Scarlet Bastion alternately makes fighting easier and more awkward, providing better-defined pulls and combat areas, whilst preventing us from seeing what lies around the corner and causing line-of-sight problems when the mobs flee to get help. At least the strictly linear path means we can't go astray, with only the single diversion to visit Cannon Master Willy, the boss who apparently creates a big enough impression that everyone remembers the fight with the cannons but not quite big enough to let people remember he's in the scarlet side of Stratholme. Not only did I long forget about Cannon Master Willey, Livya mentions how she had forgotten this is where he is, sharing the delusion I once had that he must be somewhere really well hidden in Scarlet Monastery. This makes me wonder how many others there are confused about the cannon master's location, which isn't helped by him lurking in an ante-chamber that can be avoided for a quicker run at the main boss. But we defeat Willey, taking the unconventional approach of ignoring loading and firing the cannons and engaging the reinforcements in melee combat instead.

The once-important strategy to defeat Cannon Master Willey is not the only fight that is grossly simplified by the powerful changes to class talent trees, caused by the twice-increased level cap and efforts to address overall class utility, as well as the general nerfing of all old content. The final boss of Stratholme's scarlet side, Balnazzar, feels little different than the similar fight with Arcanist Doan in the Scarlet Monastery's Library, and further fights in Stratholme, culminating with defeating Baron Rivendare himself, have all become straightforward to the point of blandness. Gone are the days of needing to know what special abilities and powers the bosses have, in what order to kill them and their minions, and how and when to avoid their biggest attacks. Healers can now heal all of the damage across the whole party without running out of mana, and the DPS drops the boss's health quicker than ever. Having to throw yourself at the boss a couple of times to learn how the encounter works can be frustrating, and raid encounters may take the idea of specific mechanics several steps too far, but I, for one, miss the days of needing a strategy and having to stick to it.

It seems that the only spanners the mobs can throw in to the works are the various controlling status effects that get piled on to characters, which only add levels of frustration. Being stunned, silenced and immobilised may well complicate encounters, but it does so by removing power from the character. Working your way up through dozens of levels to gain new abilities makes you feel more powerful as a character, which seems to be the whole point of a game involving progression, so it makes no sense to then remove these powers in an unsubtle attempt to prevent encounters becoming too easy. Spending most of the time in combat polymorphed in to a frog was not fun in Zul'Farrak, and spending half the time unable to do anything because I am stunned for five seconds several times a fight gets boring quickly in Stratholme. I am here to be active and heroic, not passive and ineffective. To counter this negativity, an interesting use of a status effects is when corpses spew toxic clouds that must be moved out of, requiring characters to be active and agile to avoid taking additional and maybe fatal damage, instead of preventing the character from taking action. More effects like this that require active participation, rather than needing a specific class to dispel the effects, or simply enduring them, would increase the level of enjoyment considerably.

We defeat the archivist in the Scarlet Bastion, setting fire to his archive and, unfortunately, Qattara in tree-form, moving on to kill Balnazzar with no problems. Fighting our way back out of the Bastion, through the undead that have moved in now the Scarlet Crusade have been driven out, lets us get back to the undead side of the city. Magistrate Bathilas is encountered and we pluck the key to the city from his even deader corpse, although there is only one to share between us. Even though the key is needed for the 'keymaster' achievement, one is enough to open the rest of the gates to reach the Baron, as well as offering an escape route through the back door that can now be unlocked. Postmaster Malown is also summoned, after opening the previous postboxes and Livya repeatedly getting lynched by angry postmen, and the postmaster drops his trousers for us. It's not terribly impressive, and I instead pay a visit to the chapel where I hand in my medallion of faith to Aurius, a paladin inside who is willing to assist us in fighting Baron Rivendare. It looks like we accidentally adopted a more sensible strategy by completing the scarlet side first, where the medallion is found inside a chest.

Opening the gate to the undead side of Stratholme now has Baron Rivendare shouting a challenge to us, starting the forty-five minute timer to get to and defeat him before he kills an NPC, part of an old quest to gain the tier 0·5 class armour. We don't need the armour, but the timer sets us a target. There are undead creatures crawling, flying, and lurking everywhere to start with, although Livya's succubus is keen to set a good pace from the start, grabbing extra mobs to join the fight whenever possible. 'Don't blame my woman', says Livya, '...hey, what's she doing? She just ran off and aggroed everything!' Even in the openness the streets afford, the undead are so prevalent that it would be difficult to get a clean pull of a single group, but it is clear we can cope with two or more groups at a time anyway. Baroness Anastasi is the first of the undead bosses we encounter, guarding one of the three ziggurats needed to be disabled to open the way to Baron Rivendare himself. The Baroness is known to dominate party members, and it was once a valid strategy to use all powerful abilities with long cool-downs before or right at the start of the fight in order to prevent her from doing the same and hitting allies with our most powerful spells. But now it doesn't seem to matter. Livya is controlled, I hit the demonic spirit out of her, and the Baroness is defeated before she can control anyone else. Thirty-two minutes remaining.

The packed streets and my casual attitude to combat cause multiple groups to aggro on our way to the second ziggurat, and Livya's succubus runs off to help in her special way by grabbing even more mobs. It's fine, though, as it makes reaching Maleki the Pallid quicker. The boss of this ziggurat encases me in ice, but he is immune to my hungering cold and so doesn't feel the same chill in return, but as far as status effects go that one doesn't last quite so long as to be annoying. Livya continues to DPS and Qattara is available to heal, and Maleki is defeated. We pop inside the ziggurat to disable it by killing the cultists, and we move on with twenty-four minutes left on the clock. The third ziggurat is reached, and I pop off to get a drink as I am silenced, silenced, webbed, and silenced, reducing me to simple auto-attacks of my weapon, but only when I coincidentally happen to be in reach of the boss. The undead spider is brought down and the final ziggurat disabled with sixteen minutes left.

Through the final gate and many abominations await. Fought one-by-one before, making use of the timer between fights to heal and recover mana, I stride in to the courtyard and challenge the undead head-on, taking on two or three at a time, Qattara's tree-form druid powers easily healing through the additional damage. Rammstein the Gorger comes for us and is knocked down without ceremony, leaving six minutes to get to the Baron. A few more waves of undead minions are despatched before we can head in, and then we face Baron Rivendare. I don't know how many times I must run in to his room before I remember that the doors close the moment the Baron is engaged, but luckily Livya is already inside and hugging a wall and Qattara was alertly waiting and manages to dash in in time. Rivendare is attacked in the middle of the room, instead of being pulled to one side to spare the rest of the party from his aura that was once a serious continuous source of damage. But now the aura is trivial and with some enhanced AoE damage his occasional skeletal minions are also easily dealt with, the Stratholme holy water found inside crates within the city no longer a huge help for this final fight. Aurius comes to help, as promised, and even if he's not needed it is good to see the encounter played out fully.

Baron Rivendare is quickly defeated, within the forty-five minute target, and the Filesystem Checkwits get the achievement for Stratholme, having cleared both the scarlet and undead sides. Even if the bosses have been greatly weakened, Stratholme remains an appealing instance, with a wonderfully immersive location playing host to a variety of mobs. It is a shame that it is let down by now-defunct ideas of stacking annoying status effects, but picking a way through the burning streets crowded with undead of a fallen Alliance city is quite an experience, and makes me want to experience a classic class-raid through this dungeon again, in the same circumstances when it was once a real challenge. Even if it weren't a challenge today, it has been great to visit Stratholme.

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