The finale of the Wrath era, patch 3.3, has hit WoW's test server. Though the patch is just in its early stages - only the art is really finished - we can start to get a glimpse of Blizzard's long-term plans.
Blizzard is working to try and bridge the staggering entry barrier for raid-quality loot - the best in game stuff already has 100+ effective item levels (corrected for quality) over the best leveling quest rewards in the game. The new five-man dungeons will drop item level 219 epics on normal mode and ilvl 232 on heroic. The patch is also apparently planning a pre-Icecrown raid of the week quest to give people an incentive to run old content that incidentally may still contain upgrades for their guildies. Needless to say, I'm patting myself on the back for not having gone too far out of my way to try and milk every last ilvl 219 drop out of HTOC.
Over the summer, I predicted that we could see soloable daily quests in patch 3.3 that award the currently retired Emblems of Heroism. Though Blizzard did open up heirloom items to Champion's seals, we could still see my prediction come true.
Even if ilvl 200 epics, currently available for emblems and at the very end of rep grinds, do become widely available, that's still a staggering difference for Blizzard to balance as they approach Cataclysm. My first gut reaction to the Cataclysm rumor was that the smaller increase to the level cap might allow Blizzard to get away without offering a full gear reset. I just can't see level 81 quest reward greens making the jump to ilvl 300 (deducting two tiers for lower quality) in one fell swoop just to try and keep up. Then again, with 5-man loot hitting ilvl 232 this expansion, it can hardly start any lower for the next one.
Story and Difficulty Progression
Speaking of the new three wing 5-man extravaganza, Blizzard is making an interesting attempt to make the expansion's signature villain more accessible. TBC's lore was all Illidan all the time (until Blizzard needed another patch to kill time until Wrath was ready), but it turns out that Illidan was right when he told non-raiders that they were not prepared.
That said, will an encounter that allows players to visit Arthas and spar for some loot really satisfy that complaint? It's a bit of a step up, but the final battle will still be reserved for raiders, and I'm sure we will all get tired to hearing Jaina and Sylvanus' color commentary after the second time through.
Patch and Expansion Schedule
With only one of the four instances (three 5-mans and the raid) open for testing, this patch will probably be on the test realms for at least the six weeks between now and Wrath's first birthday. Even so, it looks like the rumors suggesting that Blizzard might actually release three content patches in 2009 are still plausible, a massive improvement from the lean days of 2007 and 2008. Turbine, with their planned December LOTRO mini-expansion, may be less than amused.
This will, however, put huge pressure on Blizzard to finish Cataclysm in a timely fashion. Unless they're going to add something major to the patch at a later date, there will be very little for solo players - the current notes just contain some streamlining for very low level alts. In the current marketplace, having Cataclysm arrive any later than the summer actually could cost Blizzard some serious money.