Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Beta Review: Death Knights

Yesterday, I posted the first part of my Wrath Beta review. I gave a harsh review to the new profession, Inscription. Will Cheerydeth, my beloved Death Knight, suffer the same fate in part 2? Time to talk Death Knights!

A different kind of melee
Classes in WoW can be boiled down to two characteristics; how much damage do they deal, and how much damage can they take/avoid/mitigate/heal. The Warrior deals a fair amount of damage and mitigates pretty well. The Mage and the Rogue deal more damage and aren’t so good at taking damage, but they can attempt to avoid damage from stealth or range. The Pally deals very little damage, but gets very solid durability (perhaps the best solo) and even the option to heal others. Where does the Death Knight fall on the scale?

The Death Knight is definitely closest to the Warrior. At the moment, DK’s appear to skew towards avoidance over mitigation due to the lack of a shield. In exchange, they seem to deal more damage than warriors, despite substantially improved self-healing abilities compared to pure DPS classes. I don’t know so well how the class stacks up as a tank, but it is as tough as any class out there for solo content. The DK also has a few unique tricks, such as Death grip (pictured to the left), which physically pulls casters right to you (in the process ensuring that you won't have to deal with any adds). Even without all its pets, the DK has a lot of tools to work with while solo.

That said, I think the class will not be largely successful at alleviating the “tank shortage”. You can get people to play a class that has the capacity to tank, but that doesn’t give them the gear or skill needed to do so. In practice, I avoided the tanking-related talents almost entirely in my spec experiments, and, even though they’re scattered over multiple trees to allow any spec to potentially be a tank, I suspect that other solo and DPS players will do the same.

The Hero Class
Hero classes were originally envisioned as an evolution of existing classes, but that option simply wasn’t feasible this far out from launch. What would Blizzard tell people who picked the wrong base class for the hero they wanted sometime back in 2004? How would Blizzard simultaneously upgrade classes for every class (and, potentially, spec, since some of the hybrids would NOT be amused to hear that their hero class only does one of their roles)? It did not make sense. The compromise was to make NEW classes (well, ONE new class at the moment) and call them hero classes.

Starting the Death Knight at level 55 has several advantages. It allowed Blizzard to skip players past the less-impressive portions of the level 20-60 game, instead offering a new starting area with an impressive plotline that does its best to explain how Death Knights wound up in the Horde and the Alliance. (The new plot does NOT do much to explain why Death Knights feel the need to take a ten level detour in Outland before going after their true foe, Arthas, but I suppose there isn’t really much of anything in game that explains exactly why characters go to a specific area at a specific level.) I’m sure Blizzard is also hoping that the higher starting level will encourage players who don’t current have alts to try one out; there’s less time investment, and, again, players get to bypass the least impressive content in the game.

I don’t dispute that the higher starting level makes sense in the lore, or that it allows Blizzard to pace the acquisition of new abilities nicely over the 25 levels that Death Knights have to level 80. I do, however, think the level is going to cause serious problems by skewing the alt population towards Death Knights. A new DK starts with excellent gear, solid weapon skills, all the flight paths in the Eastern Kingdoms and Kalimdor, a good headstart on first aid and weapon skills, and an epic ground mount, on top of 54 free levels. That’s a lot of bribes to pass up to start a new character at level 1. Between the head start and the strong solo capacity, there is no better choice for an alt to take up some misc tradeskills for you, or perhaps do daily quests if your main doesn’t farm very well. I strongly suspect that Blizzard is going to have to offer higher level alts of other classes at some point in 2009 or risk having the game’s population skew more heavily towards the Death Knight than they intended.

There may be a few Death Knights around Azeroth after Wrath launches....

Specs and uniqueness

The level 80 Death Knight panic button spell, Army of the Dead, causes you to be surrounded by, well, an army of the dead.

The Death Knight has a mix of complexity and rhythm. Compared to other classes, the DK has a total of four different types of resources (three flavors of rune, and a runic power bar) that dictate what abilities the DK can use. On the other hand, the need to wait for specific runes to regenerate means coming up with a rotation that uses all of your available runes, in the process greatly encourage hybrid talent specs. Despite the power level of dual specs, the DK talent trees each have their own strengths and feel. The Blood tree continues to offer up healing, the Unholy Tree turns the DK into a melee pet class (a relatively unique role in WoW, with apologies to any melee hunters in the audience), and the Frost tree offers burst damage (along with good AoE abilities).

Another novel DK talent brings you back as a ghoul after you die.

The other thing that really struck me about the Death Knight was that I actually liked playing a character who uses a 2-handed weapon. Warrior 2-handers never appealed to me because of the potential for rage starvation when a slow swing misses. Pally 2-hander specs as of TBC consist largely of turning on a damage seal and watching the character autoattack, with some options that do a bit more damage in exchange for burning off your mana bar very rapidly. I haven’t spent much time with either class in beta, so I don’t know if they still have these problems, but the DK definitely does NOT suffer from a slow swing speed. Blizzard has largely avoided “on next melee swing” abilities with the DK, and the constant regeneration of runes over time ensures that you will not be too sad if the occasional swing misses.

Should you re-roll Death Knight?
I can’t answer this question for you, but I can give you some tips. If you are currently playing an Enhancement Shaman (melee DPS), any Pally, or a Feral Druid, you should ask yourself if it matters to you that you will no longer have the ability to help heal others as a Death Knight. Whether that’s a good thing or not depends on how strongly opposed to healing you are. (Likewise, if you’re playing a Rogue, re-rolling DK would allow you to take up tanking in your spare time; whether this is good depends on your desire to be able to tank.) In fact, if you’re just interested in being able to tank the occasional 5-man dungeon, DK’s may be more appealing to you than some classes, as they have the option of taking some tanking talents in any tree. If you're willing to allocate a few talent points to the tanking goodies, you should be able to tank without a respec.

You should also ask yourself how much you care about your rep, soulbound cosmetic rewards, etc; these things cannot be transferred to your new DK. Another playstyle question you might think about if you raid is how much work you're willing to spend on group buffs. A Pally has to manage a pile of blessings, and a Shaman has to juggle totems. By contrast, the vast majority of the DK’s group DPS boosts are passive, and will be stacked on while you fight. (There is one exception, the DK’s answer to Battle Shout, which boosts melee DPS stats and has to be re-cast every 2 minutes.)

Personally, I won’t be changing my main, as I love my mage dearly. My Fury warrior might be in more danger of being replaced with a Death Knight, should Titan’s Grip etc prove unimpressive, but that’s a question for a while from now.

The Death Knight still has some balancing issues to resolve; finding the right place DPS-wise in comparison to other classes (which tend not to have the DK’s self-healing tools), and the Frost spec still needs a bit of work IMO, but overall the class is very well done. Blizzard has done a great job with the storyline, abilities, and general feel of the Death Knight. I’d love to have seen more than one hero class in the expansion, as having only one new toy is only going to exacerbate the alt population issue (which I believe is going to need to be dealt with in the first year of Wrath). Overall, though, I think that WoW’s first new character class is a good one, and a positive addition to the game.

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