Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Maintenance Day Musings - What are Death Knights?

The first of many of my Tuesday editorials is here, and I'm starting the habit of this blogging schedule, plan, theory, thing, with a look back at my roots.

Recently, on a random, somewhat nostalgic whim, and hopped over to a random server where I had parked some cute level 1-6 alts, and rolled a Death Knight. This was born largely out of a desire to see the starting zone again. Back in Wrath, when everyone and their uncle was rolling a Death Knight, there was a good reason for it. The starting zone. At the time, it was the best questing zone in the game (don't try and tell me Northrend was better – it wasn't. At least not in my opinion).

Although a lot of time has gone by, and Cataclysm has been released (with it, all-new starting zones, which are all excellent as well), this zone still stands up. I'll always have a special place in my heart for that starting zone, the place where everything began. I fondly remember when I finally got my druid to 55. I immediately ran up and started a Death Knight (Theloral, my current main). And I was transported to a sort of immersion I'd never really experienced in WoW before – especially having never played anything past Old World (remember, my druid had only just hit 55).

A hero, that's what you once were.” Those words started me off on one of the coolest quest chains in the history of WoW, or certainly in the time I've been playing (basically since late BC – early Wrath). It was epic, engaging, and one hell of a good time. Playing through as a slave to the Lich King, eventually breaking free... it was everything I'd hoped for the from the zone, and then some. And that zone is, really, what initially hooked me on the class.

The Not-So Humble Beginnings
Back in the day, when DKs were first released, there was a huge uproar in the community. The introduction of a “Hero Class” had totally unbalanced the game. A massive stream of newly created Death Knights flooded the realms, basking in complete, and utterly overpowered facerolling. New DKs didn't have to be “good” at the their class. They had to know how to mash buttons, and how to pwn. The result was that the class got an extremely bad reputation.

The Hero Class didn't mean veteran players were taking in the rewards of all their toils. It didn't mean the best players from BC had converted (though presumably, plenty did). It meant that anyone with the time to level to 55 (yours truly included) could hop into the game, and be almost indestructible.

Blizzard quickly learnt the lesson that WoW's first Hero Class had been, to put it gently – a mistake. It wasn't fair to set one class apart from the others, in terms of in-game power, and making Death Knights stronger than everybody else, was just plain dumb. Soon, DKs were nerfed into the ground (it was sad, but it needed to be done), and those early pioneers of the class were left playing just a normal class, like everyone else. In fact, since that initial wave of being completely OP, Death Knights as a whole have been on the lower end of the spectrum.

Even when I finally hit 80, during the end of Ulduar, I frequently got told by players “Wow, you play a DK. They're OP. You're a noob.” It was a ridiculous statement because, by that point certainly, DKs really weren't OP anymore. I would generally gently point to the paladins sitting in a corner, cackling madly while they facerolled everything and everyone, but that's really a story for another time.

Without our status as a “Hero Class” (the name remained yes, but for all intents and purpose, DKs became just a normal class), many players wondered back their old mains, and the DK populations diminished. They became just as common as any other class, and the die-hard DKs that stuck around may have felt a little bit confused, as to the identity of their class.

Class Identity
Since the dawn of fantasy gaming, there have always been certain understood principles. The big warrior guy in heavy armour protects the little gnome wizard shooting fireballs at the baddies from behind his back. The cleric/priest/whatever heals the big, armoured guy, and keeps everyone alive. Behind the baddie, there's also probably a rogue knifing him in the back, and maybe a couple other general groups of character standing around hitting the bad guy as well. It's a standard concept, and it's always worked in the past. The priest heals, the warrior tanks, the rogue knifes people in the back.

Having an idea of what your class is is extremely important to a game like WoW. Players want to feel unique. They want to be able to do something really cool, that no one else can do, and to stand proudly back and say “Yeah, bitch, I just dropped a totem on your ass. Cause I'm a shaman. Suck it.” They want to be able to turn into bears, cats, and demented sea lions and then rub in the faces of the other lowly non-druids who are always stuck looking the same. They want to be able to stand in the middle of the line of fire of some giant's fist, and take because they're warriors. You get the picture.

Necromancer type classes have been common in fantasy RPGs since the beginning, and most people were thrilled to see them coming to WoW. But after the initial nerf bat hit the class, many players questioned what exactly they were supposed to be doing. What exactly was the point of Death Knights.

The Point
Death Knights might not be the most overpowered class in the game, anymore. We might just be average schmucks off the street, but despite the lack of pure power, DKs are still unique. Sure, popping army of the dead won't wipe a raid of the opposite faction's players. And yeah, maybe the sky doesn't rupture every time we swing our axes.

But, we're still the only class in the game who can reanimate players. We're still the only class in the game who get to bust out ghouls. We're still the only glass in the game to get to use swirling bones as shields. Nobody else can pull a hunter across the map to themselves, then pin him to the ground with some ice, and proceed to beat his face in. And, last time I checked, no one else can summon an undead army just for kicks.

Death Knights are tanks. We're melee dps. We're PvPers, and we're badass. Can lots of other classes say that? Yes, and especially so in a world where class homogenization is becoming more and more part of the game. But no one else can say it the same way we can.

We're Death Knights. We control zombies, and we smash face. We take hits, and wear a lot of skulls as fashion statements. And can mister tree-hugging druid over there say the same thing?

I don't think so.

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