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Waging WAR: The Nagaryth Chronicles, part one

Greg Waller

This week, Waging WAR starts the first in-depth career review with a three to four column exposè on Warhammer Online's shadow warrior. We'll take a look at the career as it progresses through each of the tiers, as well as consider key tactics, abilities and masteries that are learned along the way. As we go, we'll try to understand and break down what makes the shadow warrior tick, why so many players claim the career is broken, and whether or not Waging WAR agrees. So, let's get our tabi boots on, pull our face masks up, and get started.

For a long time now, I've stood on the sidelines and listened to horror stories regarding the shadow warrior. It has been clear that many players are (or have been) dissatisfied with the career, but I've never fully understood why. It isn't so difficult for me to peruse the SW forums or read one of the many blogs out there that explain things quite clearly, and understand the theory of it, but as far as first-hand experience goes, I've been lacking a direct understanding of the career and how it works. With that in mind, I've decided to educate myself; over the next few weeks, I'll be leveling a shadow warrior so I can analyze the career from the inside.

Very early on, the shadow warrior is introduced to the main career mechanic -- stances -- which are the mirror equivalent to the pets controlled by the squig herder, in terms of their intended functionality. Within the first 11 levels, the character gains three abilities: a long range buff that increases the ballistics stat and ranged attack distance called the scout stance; the assault stance, which converts ballistics to strength at a 2:1 ratio; and the skirmish stance, which grants a bonus to toughness and ranged critical chance, with a focus on mobility and kiting. Switching between stances is on the global cooldown with a five-second delay before another stance can be activated, something the squig herder never has to worry about when summoning and controlling a different pet.

Technically, there are a few issues right off the bat with this mechanic. First of all, should a player mistakenly select the same stance the character is already in, the stance will be toggled off, and the character is left stance-less. In the heat of battle, this is all too easy to do when a player is learning the ropes of the mechanic, and being stance-less can very quickly lead to one's demise in the fast-paced PvP of WAR. The second issue, although not immediately obvious, is the use of hidden hot-bars which swap in and out for each stance. If a player puts a valuable skill or ability on the scout bar, and then switches to assault stance, the key binding disappears -- replaced by an entirely new hot-bar. Finally, most abilities for the shadow warrior are stance-dependent and can only be used while in one stance or another. In fact, most abilities can be used in one of two stances of the three, further compounding what is already a confusing mechanic for a player starting out with the career. The level of micro-management at this early stage is overwhelming and unnecessary.

"Again, a squig herder player was number one, but his 40,000 damage put my measly 12,000 to shame."

One suggestion to improve the career is to remove the hidden hot-bars and deactivate skill bindings that apply to stances the character isn't using. Having a reliable set of key bindings would help in the development of what I call ability reflexes -- those hand-eye responses to events that we learn as we develop with our chosen career. As it is now, the shadow warrior is left scrambling for hidden abilities and is forced to take additional mental steps to recall which ability is linked to which stance. Essentially, an additional step (or two) is added to the number of mental connections a player needs to make when learning those ability reflexes. Struggling with those connections can siphon a great deal of fun-factor from the career. I can easily see most players quitting the career entirely, in favor of another, easier-to-master career (one with consistent hot-bars, for example), or leaving one stance permanently active and forgetting about the other two, regardless of the advantages granted by being agile and shifting stances mid-combat.

Another technical issue for new shadow warriors to overcome is the unforgiving nature of firing arcs or cones. The career is most effective at range and is capable of very long-range attacks; but, when forced into mid or melee range, the shadow warrior is left with few options. Either the player can switch to skirmish stance and attempt to kite the opponent, or shift to assault stance and attempt to fight the enemy with cold hard steel. The cone issue arises when the player chooses to attempt to kite his opponent and use swift, mobile bow attacks in combination with snares and roots. It is quite easy for a new player to get turned just out of cone reach while attempting to kite and be met with frustrating error messages. It isn't that the cone angle is too acute or obtuse. The obscure strafing angle is something that has to be practiced and mastered before a new shadow warrior can consider kiting as a viable option. Proposing a solution for this issue is not as easy as with stances, though. The new shadow warrior is left to master the nuances of kiting on his own.

Finally, the damage output from the shadow warrior felt lacking in most cases, especially when compared to the numbers that a squig herder is capable of. There were two situations during scenarios that I recall as remarkable; although they would never stand as proof, I will certainly remember them as being outstanding. In one case, at the end of a scenario, I ended up being second in total damage done. I was level 10. A level 2 squig herder was third, scoring only a few hundred points of damage less than I did but with a similar number of kills and death blows. Although the gap was a full eight ranks, that squig herder was able to shore up almost identical numbers. I didn't know how to react; either I was terrible or the player with the squig herder was absolutely amazing. Either shadow warriors are effectively broken in terms of how their damage scales through levels, or squig herders are overpowered in that respect. I suspect it was some strange, alchemical combination of all four reasons that could produce those results.

The other situation that stood out was a game in which I finished at number two (again) in terms of total damage done throughout the scenario. That was all fine and good, until I looked at the number one damage dealer. Again, a squig herder player was number one, but his 40,000 damage put my measly 12,000 to shame. At least that time, the squig herder and I were both 11th level. I can't speak to what gear that squig herder had, but I know that I had the most advanced gear available to the shadow warrior in tier one, including both weapons (bow and blade) and the armor set (decimator) obtained through PvP tokens. I also had a full set of +12 or better ballistics talismans and a full renown spec (10 points) in improving my ballistics skill.

Despite those glaring issues, the shadow warrior is very fun to play through tier one. With its assortment of long-range attacks with decent damage, the career was a riot to play in open-field RvR or outdoor-themed scenarios. Although I felt far less effective in closed-quarter situations, having to resort to spamming one of three melee abilities, the situations in which I was able to bring my long range to bear on unsuspecting targets left me with a fuzzy, giddy feeling inside. Most times, my targets -- not knowing where exactly the damage was coming from -- would run away rather than risk scanning the battlefield in order to defend, detaunt, or retaliate.

Overall, levels 1 through 11 presented unnecessary and often confusing technical challenges balanced by a great fun-factor. Next week we'll talk about shadow warrior progression and some key abilities through tier two as I level from 12 to 20. Leave a comment if you have some insight on issues faced by shadow warriors in the early stages, but keep in mind that my shadow warrior hasn't reached endgame yet: I'll be exploring those issues when I get there. Also, if there are any well-known career bugs that I haven't mentioned, post them as well, and I'll keep a lookout for them as I progress.

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