A Horrific Visions Wrap Up Post and Retrospective – Five Masks Down

I finally did it last week and 5-masked a complete Horrific Vision.

With that complete, and only doing so in Stormwind left to cap off my Horrific Vision experience, now feels like a good time to re-revisit the topic.

A (seemingly) trolly comment that recently popped up on my last post on the topic suggested that HVs are the “ultimate treadmill” and therefore, a form of tedium – and, to an extent, that is true. Like anything in an MMO, the mode of gameplay tends towards repetition of a task, with the “fun” coming from reaching new plateaus in gameplay skill, overcoming harder challenges and receiving commensurate rewards.

The thing about WoW as a game is that it has a treadmill for every type, mostly – slow, scenic treadmills in reputation grinds and related systems, a highly adjustable one in Mythic Plus dungeons, and one that ramps up in difficult via raiding. Most modes of gameplay identify a single “setting” on this pained metaphor. If I tell you my default mode of play is normal to Heroic raiding, then that reveals that I like a bit of challenge, but not too much, that I am risk-averse and play normal first to learn core mechanics before tackling Heroic, and that the achievement of that conquest is enjoyable to me.

Horrific Visions, I feel, are one of a few modes of play that are highly adjustable. You can take them from being vastly simple affairs to being intense, difficult matters with nailbiting moments of challenge, and just about anywhere in-between. The system has a learning curve built in, with multiple natural soft nerfs via familiarity, gearing, and increases to sanity drain resistance and the talent tree for inside the visions, and the Mask system lets you scale the difficulty up in selectable ways with both a modifier twist as well as a simple scaling up of health and damage.

I’ve already discussed most of this, so let’s talk about the one revelation I’ve had from 5-masking one myself and reading other players who are tackling these more casually.

The thing I personally really liked about HVs, which resonated with me deeply, was that there was a benefit to being daring early. At the point where the cloak upgrade quest stops telling you to kill Thrall/Alleria, you have an incentive to instead push the boundaries a bit, should you find yourself/your group willing. At the point the game has you stop killing the main boss, it is something of a sign – do the harder stuff now. The thing about tackling the Lost areas lower in cloak rank is that they pose a threat and challenge – it can be tricky to win! However, this was also an important step for me as I progressed towards a 5 mask run.

If you only do the zones demanded by the upgrade quest, you’ll make slow and steady progress through the visions, with one major caveat – by the time the game makes you do Lost zones, it is too late to learn the threatening mechanics effectively without masks. Doing Shaw at a rank 6 cape was a challenge and required I execute correctly, which was a big help when you put on the 4x enemy sanity damage mask, because you get into a groove of positioning and adjusting correctly for the eye mechanic. Likewise with Rexxar, learning the threat posed by his boar brigade at low cape ranks properly illustrates how to handle the fight once the boars can chunk your sanity down by 30 a pop even at max cape rank.

The value in pushing harder zones earlier for me was that learning process – if the fights are a threat the first time you see them, then you learn the right ways to execute against them for those high-mask runs. The game does not scale this gracefully, however, and that leaves my one sort of disappointment with the HVs.

Last fall, when the HV mode was announced and I spent most of a sick day from work playing them on PTR, the words used in comparison as a quick catchup from Blizzard were “Mage Tower” and after that day of play, I wrote about how I doubted that they’d be able to stack up to the Mage Tower in terms of difficulty and fun. On the one hand, I didn’t want them to necessarily be ball-bustingly difficult, because they were clearly intended for mass consumption, but as I saw the mask system, my hopes were that there would be a modifier I could use such that I could reach the heights of difficulty from the Mage Tower by choice, and have something really meaty to sink my teeth into for the rest of the expansion.

Well, the Horrific Visions are not that. Don’t get me wrong, it took a few failures at 5 masking Orgrimmar on lower cloak ranks before I one-shot it this week at rank 15, but this was nowhere near the Mage Tower in terms of number of attempts needed for mastery. For that reason, I think the system is a bit of a letdown to me. I certainly won’t pretend to represent the broad spectrum of WoW opinion here – as a freak who did 36 mage towers, I understand that what I am looking for in a solo feature is not common or mainstream, and that is okay.

I think the other thing worth talking about with Horrific Visions is group play, of which I have done almost none (and definitely none on my Demon Hunter). Group play in these is okay, but the stakes are sufficiently high that I absolutely loathe the idea. One of the runs I did, a hunter from my guild hit a sanity orb the same time as me when I called it on Discord, using 2 charges for one benefit. Other guildies encountered a lot of frustration in grouping, when overzealous players would overpull or not stop for sanity restoration, resulting in wipes and lost progress. Early on, this was an awful roadblock as you had such a small number of attempts to use, but now, it is perhaps less severe. My main concern with group play was that PUGs would be untenable because of the degree of coordination and smart group play required, and that guilded groups would be the norm for those grouping to play these. However, what I’ve noticed is that even many of my guildies, who wanted groups early on, simply stopped asking for groups or doing them. The balancing at launch pushed a lot of dedicated tank and healer players away altogether, while the group dynamics are higher pressure than a dungeon because mistakes directly impact reward or even the chance of completion. For me on my Demon Hunter, I often felt far enough ahead of my guildies and that playing in groups was too much of a risk for my goals, so the end result was that I quickly moved to a “no group play” rule on my DH, using alts to help guildies when they asked.

Group play ends up being a bit mixed then as a result, and my view on it is this: it is great to have the option, but the stakes early on are too high to trust strangers, and if you’re playing with guildies who need the help, you might feel constrained to stay within the realm of possibility for the lowest-skill player in the group. However, the flip side is this – the solo experience being poorly balanced for tanks, healers, and some low mobility DPS classes means there can often be little choice for some players. Most mages I know aren’t particularly fond of pushing solo at high difficulty, as an example. The game can push you to a group, limiting the possibility space and making full 5 mask clears more frustrating. Likewise, for the more meta, flavor of the month specs, going solo presents the best experience for you (and me, as a Havoc DH!).

With all of that said, and all of the prior pieces I’ve discussed HV’s in, I want to turn to the lessons I would carry forward to Torghast, were I Blizzard.

It is patently obvious from how Torghast was presented at Blizzcon that the HV systems and idea are a sort of beta-test for this concept. Torghast makes some big differences at the outset – randomized layouts and enemies mean unique challenges every week, which is good! The idea of having events that add time-limited effects or challenges is also good.

With that said, what do I want from Torghast?

Emphasis on Balance: If you say solo to 5-player, any role, then the game better damn well deliver that. My biggest sticking point and my greatest concern for Torghast is that healers and tanks will get the shaft early on again, or that Blizzard will try to use flat scaling by role rather than customizing to fit a difficulty curve that levels out for all. With random layouts and random enemies, this is a bigger concern – in an HV, the pulls are always the same and I can fight to learn them. If every journey into Torghast is different, well, that poses a unique challenge for balance that a player cannot simply farm through.

Emphasis on Reward: HVs are tied too heavily to their own reward mechanics, and the loot drop at the end seems like an afterthought. I want to see Torghast push more rewards – unique drops with deterministic mechanisms for acquisition, cosmetics galore, and more. Legendaries being crafted and tied in here is a good thing in theory – but how that executes remains to be seen.

Fun Challenges that Encourage Smart Play: One thing I both love and hate in HVs is that some bosses are built with mechanics that are difficult or impossible to directly address solo or in certain group comps. I love it because being able to dispel, for example, is a benefit to a healer. Being able to purge an effect is a boon for priests, shaman, and DHs. I hate these things when I can’t do them – but, that is a good thing in my opinion, as the design intent is clear – you can’t always have an answer for everything alone, and sometimes, it pays to have friends.

Progressive Soft-Nerf Mechanics: HVs are designed with multiple layers of soft nerfs – the talent system tied to them, cape level, average item level, and familiarity with each vision layout and enemy pulls. While Torghast purposefully eschews the last point, I hope that there are suitable replacements identified for the others – Torghast can scale infinitely in floor count if it so suits Blizzard, but I would like to see tiering in use with item level scaling caps that increase as the floor count does. The first 10 floors should be just fine capping at, say, item level 550? Then the next 10-15 can cap at 555 or 560, and so on all the way to infinity. Item level-based mob scaling in the open world is something I want to see removed in Shadowlands, but in Torghast? Fine. Likewise, I hope that systems exist to allow me to buff my performance inside the visions specifically, and multiple layers would be nice too – HVs have the talent tree and the cape, and something similar would be great. I’d especially love it if crafters can engage with the system to make gear that makes Torghast runs smoother that only functions in the tower. That way, at identical item level to a raid piece, you could gain an exclusive benefit in Torghast that makes the crafted armor stronger than a normal drop in this scenario. Enchants, gems, food, and other consumable crafts could likewise offer such improvements. Vantus Rune: Torghast? Enchant Cloak: Maw-walker giving you a haste/speed buff in the tower? If Blizzard wants crafting to forever be behind raid drops and Mythic Plus in relevance, this would be one way to offer power to crafters and create some economic opportunity for players that also wouldn’t interfere with raid drops!

Benefits for Familiarity: If I run Torghast past floor 10 let’s say…5 times, then perhaps I should get an option to bypass the first 10 floors and forego any reward they would have offered to push harder floors. If the idea is that the Covenants want to progress through the tower, surely they’re working on means to allow exactly that.

Differing Visuals: Look, Wrath of the Lich King was one of my favorite expansions of all time, and I still love it today. However, if Torghast looks like a jigsaw puzzle made of ICC hallways with no variation, I will drive to Blizzard HQ and shake my fist out of my car window. If the idea is that Torghast is this unique, unknowable tower, filled to the brim with the armies of the Jailer, then it follows that maybe some changes in environment are needed for the varying forces. Beasts in zoo-like pens with their environment from home, with warm jungle biomes alongside cold tundras and arid deserts.

A Sense of Purpose to Every Player: This is my big one, more than any other point here, even balance. HVs are great to a point because they have a goal – level the cloak, obtain some gear, maybe farm cosmetics. However, if you don’t push higher end content, who cares how powerful your cape is? If you choose not to engage with corruption as a mechanic, who needs the resistance? There are a lot of carve-outs for players that make HVs a poor match to the full player base. Torghast, for me, needs to offer a variety of rewards with clear acquisition mechanisms to appeal to most players, and it also needs to offer a plateau at which point you are done with doing them for rewards and can just play. That can be a seasonal plateau, sure, but I need something, anything in this game with a reachable end goal at which point I can exhale and be proud.

Overall? I still think Horrific Visions were (and are) a fantastic mode of gameplay and an exciting option to have access to. There are lessons to learn, though, ones that I hope Blizzard takes under consideration in order to deliver even better gameplay in Shadowlands and in Torghast specifically!

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