The Dragon Soul -- a post-mortem

Technically, as I write this, the Dragon Soul isn't actually dead yet, nor do raids really die so much as either become outdated or revamped. (Zul'Gurub and Zul'Aman stand as examples of raid content that died to be reused, while Naxxramas was used again as an introductory raid.) But since we're closing in on our fourth month running the raid instance, I thought this was a good time to examine it critically. What were the Dragon Soul's main themes? How did it function both as a raid instance and as a platform to end Deathwing's story arc? And most importantly to me, did I enjoy the ride?

Dragon Soul as an experience was fascinatingly diverse compared to previous raids. It eschewed the static finding of some dark cave or towering fortress to instead create a raid wherein we traveled the world, with different environments for the bosses to suit the locations and set pieces for our transitions. One complaint I've seen is that by reusing the Dragonblight and Wyrmrest Temple, Blizzard's design team was cutting corners -- but frankly, I don't find that criticism very accurate. First off, Wyrmrest is where the dragonflights typically meet, as demonstrated by Malygos' assault during the Nexus War, so it makes perfect sense for it to be where Deathwing sends his full Twilight's Hammer forces to try and crush them.

Thrift, Horatio

Secondly, there's no reason Blizzard shouldn't reuse art assets if and when it makes sense to do so. Sure, it may save time and allow them to devote more development to the complicated Spine and Madness of Deathwing fights, but there's nothing wrong with doing that at all.

The interesting thing about Dragon Soul is how it pulls together every single thread we've explored since the Destroyer burst forth from Deepholm. Giant elementals, Faceless Ones who serve the Old Gods, Twilight's Hammer cultists, a Twilight Dragon, and a wing of Twilight Drakes ridden by more Hammer cultists (including vrykul using the very same models and carrying the same weapons as the Twilight's Hammer cultists we saw in Ulduar) serve to show us that yes, Deathwing has called in every force he has.

All our adventuring and sacking of bastions and descents served a purpose. Narratively speaking, the bosses and trash mobs we fight in the lead up to Deathwing himself are a means to call back to the entire expansion to date and clean sweep it away at the same time, to say thanks to you, this is all that is left -- finish them. While it is inevitable that some cultists out there somewhere survived, at the end of the Warmaster encounter, we have demolished the cult leadership and scattered its rank and file.

The encounters themselves are a mixed bag for me in terms of the encounter mechanics. Having seen them on all three difficulty levels, I find myself thinking that the Raid Finder versions present the easiest scenarios to sit back and just watch, which is possibly why I find myself running the Raid Finder every week even though I don't need the gear. Raid Finder DS is tuned appropriately for a group without voice communication or experience working together, and it serves the role of starter raid admirably.

I tend to personally prefer the fights on heroic difficulty just because it feels like I'm seeing the desperation of Deathwing's forces in the additional mechanics, but I have to focus a lot more on my individual role there and can't really sit back and see the fight. In general, the mechanics are interesting -- sometimes too interesting or too buggy (I'm really tired of the ball not bouncing properly on Zon'ozz), and that mars the instance for me to some degree.

If I were rating the raid purely as a series of encounters, I'd rate everything up to Warmaster as a 7 out of 10, with Zon'ozz at a 5 and Ultraxion at a 4. I especially loath Ultraxion as a boring DPS check and a boring healing check with an interesting mechanic that ends up being more a timing check. It would have been improved if it had taken a page from the Halion fight and had something for us to do when we zoned out.

Die, Destroyer, die

As lukewarm as I am on some of the encounters, I am hardly that when it comes to the Spine and Madness of Deathwing fights. Not only do I find them well executed, well tuned, and interesting with unique mechanics, those mechanics serve a function beyond simply being unique. Zon'ozz's pong ball mechanic is a unique one, but the Spine mechanics serve to immerse you in the idea that not only are you striding on the back of a colossal dragon, but that dragon is so hideously warped and corrupted that his very blood and sinew will rise up to attack you. Once you conclude the fight and descend to the edge of the Maelstrom itself, the Madness encounter succeeds in giving you a fight that is both frenetic and representative of the capstone event of the expansion.

This is it: the final fight against Deathwing, and the only options are victory or death (to quote the Horde), and it feels like that. These two fights are well executed, well designed, both satisfying to play through and defeat and satisfying as lore moments. Quite frankly, I view these two encounters taken together as the best raid design in this entire expansion and on par with any fight I've experienced. (You could argue for Sinestra and heroic Ragnaros being in this league as well. I hate heroic Cho'gall and found heroic Nef and Al'Akir fiddly.)

Maybe more than we needed

If I am going to be honest, I frankly feel like there are too many encounters before we get to see Deathwing. I probably would have skipped one of the two Faceless Ones (probably Zon'ozz), and I might have considered a way to put Hagara and Warmaster together to consolidate the raid down to six encounters, two of which are Deathwing. Frankly, I feel like the Warmaster fight, while technically very well executed, feels like a strange appendix after beating Ultraxion. We should go straight from that victory to chasing Deathwing down, because the Ultraxion fight serves to shift the tone of the instance from a siege to a pursuit.

It's clear that everything up to Ultraxion is part of the assault, that Deathwing expects this combination of forces to erode the dragonflights and weaken them enough for Ultraxion to complete the job and kill the aspects, and he would have if not for us. That moment, and the unleashing of the Dragon Soul against Deathwing, marks the turning of the tide and the shift from Deathwing constantly attacking us to us attacking him. The Warmaster fight just serves to bog it down. It would have made more sense for the Warmaster to have been used before as part of the attrition war Deathwing is waging, gambling everything on his superweapon in dragon form after having done everything to whittle us down to size. That's probably a minor quibble, but it is one that keeps popping up in my head every time we do the fight.

Dragon Soul isn't my favorite raid ever. That honor is somewhat divided between Blackwing Lair, Black Temple and Ulduar. But I find that Dragon Soul does a lot to really end Cataclysm, to gather together and allow us to cut off all the dangling plot threads and elements it can and gives a sense of closure to Deathwing and his minions.

It works as a raid instance. It works as a story. It's a raid composed of almost everything we've fought up to date. (We don't see many fire elementals because, well, we took care of them in the Firelands already, and we don't see Azshara or the Naga because, well, they're not really that closely allied to Deathwing and sure as heck aren't willing to die for him the way the Twilight's Hammer is.) It provides both a sense of scale and of dramatic movement. And it ends with two huge encounters that use their mechanics to at once challenge the players and tell the final chapter of the expansion's story.

I'm glad I raided this, and I'm glad Blizzard chose to end the expansion here instead of some filler raid somewhere else. This is a good end to Deathwing and to his Cataclysm.

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm has destroyed Azeroth as we know it; nothing is the same! In WoW Insider's Guide to Cataclysm, you can find out everything you need to know about WoW's third expansion, from leveling up a new goblin or worgen to breaking news and strategies on endgame play.