The Mage They Call Jayne(z): Those Who Live In Stone Houses (…Shouldn’t Throw Glass…?)

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Some people really love the whole “leveling” deal. It’s easy to understand why – you move from zone to zone, experiencing new quest lines and stories, meeting new characters, and exploring new landscapes. To them, here’s much more of a feeling of progression than “Hey guys, I almost have enough (Points/Tokens/Honor/Badges/Rupees/Star Bits) to get this slight upgrade!” in the process of leveling, and come on – we ALL know at least one person who’s never made it to 60 in four years of WoW, let alone 70. But they DO have twenty or so level 40-ish characters!

For others, though, leveling is just means to an end. The game doesn’t start until you’re at the level cap – no longer can you be ganked while questing and absolutely flattened because your enemy was 20 levels higher than you. You get the chance to check out all the nifty dungeons and raids and everything that lowbies can only dream of. You stand mighty and powerful and proud! For these people, leveling is more of a chore than anything else. It’s the equivalent of buying a shiny new game, but having to do chores for everybody in your extended family every day for a month before you can even unwrap the darn thing.

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I can see where both sides are coming from, and when WotLK goes live, I’m going to be enjoying the leveling experience just as much as anybody. But as a writer, when the chance comes to grab a pre-made level 80 character courtesy of Blizzard and check out all the stuff you’re six levels away from doing yourself? Sign me right-the-hell up!

As I’d mentioned in the previous mini-entry, time to move on. Time to hit level 80 and check out some of the Lich King endgame!

So, taking this opportunity to check out life from the other side for a bit, I created my brand-new level 80 Gnome Mage (awww, isn’t she cute?!) and logged in to the city of Dalaran.

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Dalaran, the city of the Kirin Tor, was all but leveled by Arthas and the Burning Legion during the events of the Third War. Since then, though, they’ve been rapidly reconstructing the place … or so I’d guess. To be fair, they could have been doing anything beneath that big purple bubble in Alterac. Hell, given the fact that these guys are some of the most powerful sorcerers in all of Azeroth and that the Warsong Orcs built a massive fortress in the blink of an eye through brute strength (and kicking reason to the curb), I wouldn’t be surprised if Dalaran’s renewal had really only taken a few months at the most. They’d spent the rest of the time playing checkers.

…a really, really, long game of checkers. Or maybe your average game of Monopoly.

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Well, the question of what the Azerothian equivalent of Boardwalk and Park Place would be is really irrelevant. Whatever the Kirin Tor have spent the last few years doing beneath their neon-lavender bubble, they’ve forcibly ripped Dalaran from the ground and floated it ever-so-gently to Northrend, where it hovers above Crystalsong Forest in a manner not unlike that of the Floating Island in Sonic the Hedgehog 3. Dalaran is the main “neutral city” of this expansion, supplanting Shattrath as the lag capital of the World of Warcraft.

At first glance, Dalaran seems much more conveniently laid out than Shattrath does. Vendors and trainers for all the professions are concentrated in a single district, making it marginally less annoying to get some crafting work done. The city has separate districts for Horde and Alliance, each with (among other things) portals to their respective home cities and Shattrath, as well as portals that act as Battlemasters for their respective Battlegrounds.

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Like Shattrath, while Dalaran has a bank or two, people looking for an Auction House or a class trainer will have to hoof it back to Azeroth. The one exception, though, is for Mages – there is a Mage trainer, as one might expect from, y’know, a city devoted entirely to the Arcane arts. That isn’t the only minor advantage Mages have: while everyone else has to reach level 74 to do the attunement quest for the Dalaran teleporter, Mages learn the spell to teleport themselves up there as early as level 71. For Horde, it’s given as a reward from a short quest in Agmar’s Hammer in the Dragonblight. I don’t know what exactly it is for Alliance, but I’m sure it isn’t significantly rougher.

In other words, ha! Suck it, non-Mages! Sure, our epic armor might look like somebody at Blizzard has an obsessive fondness for their lavender markers, but we get a class trainer and three whole levels on you guys! Take that!

Of course, you could always get a portal from a friendly level 74 Mage, or a Summon from a Warlock, so, uh, I guess it’s not that big a deal.

There’s also a little section below the main city in the sewers that’s essentially a small Arena enclave, complete with gear vendors, bank, and inn – so theoretically, an Arena-focused player could just bind themselves here and never have to go anywhere else. All in all, it seems like Blizzard has learned from Shattrath, and has designed an infinitely-more-convenient city in Dalaran.

Of course, Dalaran doesn’t have KHADGAR, but hey, you can’t win ’em all, right?

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The level 80 pre-made characters come decked out in full level 80 beginner PvP gear – clearly meant to help beta testers work out the kinks in PvP at the new level cap. Naturally, this meant that the best thing to do was to check out some of the new dungeons, of course! So after a few minutes of looking for a group in the trade channel, I’d formed a party for the Halls of Stone in Ulduar.

Well, okay, the Halls of Stone isn’t a level 80 wing; it’s meant for players around level 77-78. So there wasn’t much of a question that we’d blow through it, even in gear that wasn’t quite optimal for PvE. At the time, the Storm Peaks still hadn’t been opened up for players to explore, so the only way to test the Ulduar instances was through magical teleporting NPCs in the center of Dalaran. Still, even though I knew I wouldn’t be getting the complete, authentic Halls of Stone experience, I was confident that I’d still have a good time.

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As it turns out? I was pretty damn right. The Halls of Stone is, hands-down, one of the coolest experiences I’ve had yet in this game. I must confess, I’m quite a fan of the lore and mythology behind the Titans and their shaping of Azeroth, and it doesn’t hurt that all the Ulduar instances are practically dripping with the stuff (as one might expect). Even so, I’d been expecting a loregasm or two – but I wasn’t expecting to be awed the very moment I stepped foot inside the instance.

Visually, the Halls of Stone just has a remarkable aura of … well, I’m not even sure how to phrase it. It feels powerful, it feels mystical, it feels absolutely ancient and, to use a terribly overexposed term, it feels simply epic. As much of a headache as Uldaman was back in the day, the feeling I first got when I walked into the room with dozens of statues lining the walls and Archaedas looming in the center has really been unmatched in this game. It was a sense of “Whoa, this is far more ancient and more significant than I have any right to be dealing with,” and the Halls of Stone echoes that sensation perfectly.

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It feels like you’re Zefram Cochrane in Star Trek: First Contact when he first meets the Vulcans at the end of the film. Simply put? It feels like you’re way, way out of your league. Now that I think about it, maybe a better comparison would be the Monolith in 2001 … but I think I’m getting a bit off-topic, here.

Like the Monolith, the Halls of Stone are “full of stars.” From spectral statues of Trolls and Night Elves lining the walls to translucent curtains to seemingly bottomless pits, there are little sparkles of light all throughout the dungeon. To be quite honest, I could run my mouth all day about how fantastic the visual direction is in this instance, but it wouldn’t even do it justice.

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The instance itself is pretty cool, though I can’t think of anything that really stands out in my mind when it comes to trash mobs. As predicted, level 80 premades tore through this place without breaking a sweat. The first two bosses were fun, though nothing really extraordinary. The Maiden of Grief, like her virtuous little sister in Karazhan, will periodically incapacitate the entire party. However, she’ll also spawn areas that do damage if you stand in them (like half of the bosses in this game post-BC), so if you can time it properly, it’s actually helpful to stand in these things right before the incapacitate hits, as the damage will break it early.

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The second boss, Krystallus, is a giant Crystal, uh, Giant. It’s interesting to note that in the tunnels leading up to him, the Iron Dwarves seem to actually be excavating more giants out of the walls, which makes me wonder if that’s how they’re created in the first place. It makes some sense when you think about it, really. Do giants even have biologically different sexes, anyway? I haven’t got the faintest idea.

If the Maiden of Grief fights like the Maiden of Virtue, Krystallus fights like Gruul. He hits hard (understandable, given his size), and will periodically do the same exact “bounce and Shatter” that the Dragonkiller does. Of course, it’s much easier to avoid getting hurt when you only have four other people to dodge instead of twenty-four.

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En route to the third boss, however, is where the instance really kicks in to high gear (it’s worth mentioning that these three bosses can be done in any order; this is just the order in which I chose to list them.) After clearing a handful of trash mobs, the party will come face-to-face with Dwarf Explorer Extraordinare, Brann Bronzebeard – as well as a pair of Earthen guards, but let’s be honest: nobody cares about them.

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While Brann’s been involved in the WoW story in the past (most notably during the Ahn’Qiraj storyline), this marks the first time players get to meet him in the proverbial flesh. It’s also worth noting that since it’s been hinted that Muradin actually survived his encounter with Frostmourne, all three of the Brothers Bronzebeard may well play some role in Wrath of the Lich King.

With the timely arrival of a group of five clearly-badass adventurers, Brann decides that it’s time to get moving and head deeper into the Halls of Stone … and the Titan lore comes right back into play like a ton of bricks. Titanic bricks, even. For most of the way, this is your standard escort scenario, though Brann seems more than capable of holding his own in a fight, which is always nice.

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Eventually, though, Brann reaches a circular chamber with three gigantic stone faces built into the walls. Apparently, this is some sort of Titan computer or something like that. I’m not too clear on the details, but Brann seems to know what he’s doing. Mostly, anyway – while trying to unlock the information he’s seeking, he accidentally triggers the security mechanism, beginning the main event.

While running the dungeon, this was where we hit our first snag. The room in which you’re supposed to fight off the enemies has a pretty awesome visual effect on the floor (and here are the stars again!), but at the time we were doing this, it was … sort of bugged. Anybody, player or NPC, who stood inside the effect would be completely invisible and untargetable unless you were also standing in there with your camera positioned at just the right angle. Needless to say, that made things frustrating, because the only places you could accurately fight the attackers was along the rim of the wall.

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Since the event fails and is reset if Brann is killed, we opted to clump up right on top of him (where we could see ourselves) to more easily protect him – but this had unforeseen consequences. As the event progresses, the three faces around the room open their eyes one-by-one, and shoot lasers at members of your party that damage anybody standing too close. By themselves, they’re not too hard to deal with, especially if you can move away from them. We were all clumped up and afraid to move for fear of not being able to fight, though – and three converging lasers overwhelmed our healer very rapidly.

It’s also worth noting that the ominous-glowing-laser-eyes totally reminded me of that one scene in The Neverending Story with the guardians that sensed fear or whatever it was they did. That scene scared the crap out of me when I was younger, and Blizzard cunningly twisted that mental scarring against me here. Well played, sirs. Well played.

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The next time around, we stood outside the room, intercepting the enemies before they even had a chance to enter the Floor of Invisible Frustration, a strategy that worked out much more successfully (though if any slipped through the cracks it was a pain to pick them up again). After the conclusion of the event by the defeating of a remarkably unremarkable boss mob, Brann successfully broke through the security, resulting in a cutscene.

According to the tale, the Titans had originally designed the races of Azeroth to have mineral-like skin of stone and metal like the Iron Dwarves currently possessed. In fact, it was only through the corruption of the Old Gods that the mortal races were given this “Curse of Flesh.” Incidentally enough, this same “Curse of Flesh” comes up all the way back in the Borean Tundra for Alliance players. But I skipped over that bit, didn’t I? Whoops.

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The implications of the information that Brann receives here are pretty heavy for the lore of WarCraft when you think about it. While it’s true that my jaw was dropped down to my computer desk during the entire cutscene, it was actually pretty long – 5 minutes or so – especially given that it was just people talking (albeit with pretty sparkling light effects). On repeated runs of the dungeon, it might well get old, even annoying, especially given that you need to talk to Brann afterwards to be able to fight the fourth and final boss of the dungeon, so just leaving right away isn’t really an option.

After all is said and done, Brann heads back to the main chamber of the Halls of Stone, standing in front of a massive sealed door that I, in all my observance, hadn’t noticed before. Whoops again. We talked to him, and he opened the door to reveal the fourth and final boss of the Halls, Sjonnir the Ironshaper. Sjonnir has thrown his lot in with Loken, another Titan guardian-statue-thing, who has apparently decided that the Old Gods are the team to root for. Loken can be found as the final boss of the level 80 Ulduar wing, the Halls of Lightning.

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Sjonnir isn’t a very hard fight, with the only really notable part being the periodic summoning of a random add (we saw Troggs and Oozes) to aid him in battle. Otherwise, he seemed like a simple tank-and-spank, albeit one with a very cool atmosphere as befitting the rest of the dungeon. Of course, given that I was the one on add-killing duty, who knows? Maybe he’s got some abilities that I just didn’t notice.

We killed Sjonnir, collected our lewt, and that was that. Since his boss Loken is, as previously mentioned, chilling in the Halls of Lightning, I find myself wondering what the crew at Blizzard has in store for players for the Ulduar raid. Loken had seemed to be this expansion’s Big Bad as far as the Titans were concerned … who would they have that would be Bigger and Badder? The only thing I can think of is that we’ll be pitted against the game’s second Old God, Yogg-Saron (the specific one responsible for Loken’s betrayal of the Creators).

I guess we’ll just have to find out, won’t we?

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Right now, though? The next adventure isn’t in Northrend, but Anaheim, California. I’ll be covering the party at Blizzcon this weekend, so if you’ll be attending … maybe I’ll see you there!

See you all next time!

-TMTCJ(z).

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