A few months ago, MMO Melting Pot held the Piggies, an awards post for MMOs for the past year. The first award given out was for the best raid instance of 2011, which Blackwing Descent rightfully crushed the opposition to bring home. I've spoken before about how much I enjoyed T11 raiding, and BWD was the core of T11 content. It is without a doubt the finest raid instance of the Tom Chilton era.
While it's not as visually stunning as Ulduar, Karazahn, or Sunwell, it's well drawn together thematically. The various dragons hung from the ceiling set the tone of the hidden lair where atrocities have been committed. The instance lacks sweeping vistas, but that works for an instance where the setting is the interior of a volcano. It's not a large instance, but it works, as it has supplemental raids to bolster the quantity of content. The stonework architecture recalls the dwarven origins of the other instances in Blackrock Mountain, and the rubble and lava flows elucidate the notion that this was not a place that Nefarian built, it was a place he found. The trash pulls echo the old Blackwing Lair instance. The mini Chromagguses and Broodlords, and the reincarnations of the BWL drakes create the sensation that here Nefarian has perfected those experiments that he had been working on when we raiders had last confronted him. In my opinion, much better than the visuals of the instance is something that many raiders wind up missing out on entirely, the sounds of the instance. I highly recommend running a full clear of BWD on heroic with the sound turned on. Nefarian is a constant presence throughout the instance, interacting in all the fights, from throwing wrenches in the raider's plans to to turn the powers of the Omnotron Defense System against itself, to chastising Chimaeron when its heads fight each other rather than the raid, to pointing out to Atramedes where players are, his lines are well acted and well written. Raiding BWD feels like breaking into the magic division of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and it's truly a far cry from the mediocre voice acting that we had to suffer through during the back half of Wrath.
Mechanically, BWD shines. Each encounter is different, and every skill a raid needs to succeed will be tested during the run. A very underrated aspect of BWD is its trash. The trash is sparse, yet engaging. A raid can cut through it quickly, but unlike its successor, Firelands, you won't be slugging through fields of trash for hours with the raid's DPS in various states of AFK.
There is, however, one major flaw in the design of BWD. There is no why. No one really know what we're doing in BWD, aside from euthanizing pitiable experiments for fun and loot. Honestly, I almost felt like my entry into BWD went something like this...
Dämmerung: "So, anyways guys, this was where I fought Nefarian. He spawned soooooo many constructs from this hole in the wall, I wonder what's in there."
Lord Victor Nefarius: "YOU!"
Dämmerung: "Victor? What are you doing here? I thought you were still hanging around Stormwind."
Lord Victor Nefarius: "Well, this is awkward..."
Dämmerung: "Let the games begin?"
Lord Victor Nefarius: "Well, I suppose we have to, don't we?"
I mean, seriously, pretty much every other raid instance in the history of WoW had a fairly significant connection to the greater World of Warcraft. From Molten Core to ICC, every raid instance had a reason for players to be in there stemming from lower tier content, be it questlines, daily zones, or group dungeons, there was always some degree of breadcrumb trail giving players a reason to go raid. Hell, Throne of the Four Winds got half of Uldum, and two five man instances to set it up. Two entire dungeons to set up an instance that only had two bosses in it, and they weren't even really good bosses either. Meanwhile, BWD is just left there, with the final encounter showcasing the return from the dead of not one, but two of the preeminent bosses of Vanilla WoW, and no real explanation as to what's going on. Even in Blackrock Caverns, the new five man added to the already expansive Blackrock Mountain complex, almost all the clues trend towards Bastion of Twilight, rather than BWD. Ogres, Twilight's Hammer Cultists, and Elemental Acendents are the bailiwick of Cho'Gall, not Nefarian. The only thing linking BRC to BWD is the presence of Finkle Einhorn, and the BRC questline gives no notice that you'll be seeing that inquisitive little gnome again. Blizzard could have done better. Blizzard should have done better.
Blizzard tried to do better. Like many other things that got obliterated in the crunch to get Cataclysm out the door, there are ghosts. Echoes of the old design plan are visible within the structure of the narrative and the points of focus within the game itself. The answers to some of the questions begged by the instance can be teased out.
How are Nefarian and Onyxia back? This is really the crux of the issue. If you establish
that Nefarian is back, then there's pretty much a de facto reason to go kill him again. After all, not very many good guys are named Nefarian, or Nefarius, or whatever play on nefarious the favored son of Deathwing decides to go with this time. Kael'thas' return was justified by the fact that you didn't actually make sure he was dead in Tempest Keep, a fact that you rectify when you meet him in Magister's Terrace by decapitating him. But you definitely took the heads of both Onyxia and Nefarian. You hung them from the gates of Stormwind for all to see. So how'd they get them back?
One of the key focal points of the expansion was Deathwing's visit to Stormwind. People see it every time they log in, and it was the climax of the introductory cinematic. The towers are still molten, and the stature of poor Danath Trollbane is still being hauled back up from the lake. Those same towers that we hung the heads of Deathwing's favorite children from, and soon thereafter, said children return to prominence, if a little worse for wear. That explains the how they came back.The next question is more of a meta question: How was Blizzard going to tie them back into the game to motivate the player to go to BWD?
This leads across a couple of items that I have touched upon before. The tie in book, Thrall: Twilight of the Aspects, and the aborted Alliance Twilight Highlands intro. A lot has been vested into the Twilight Dragonflight in the last couple years. We've fought Goriana, Ultraxion, Theralion, Valiona, Halion, Shadron, Tenebron, and Vesperon, twilight dragons all. We've also fought Sinestra and Sartharion, both of whom served as guardians to twilight hatcheries. However, the Twilight Dragonflight is not the Black Dragonflight's first effort at co-opting the power of the other Dragonflights. During Vanilla, Nefarian conducted experiments on his father's behalf, resulting in the spawning of Chromatic Dragons. While the chromatic experiments only produced two spawns that were successful by any measure, the Chromatic Drake Gyth, gifted to Rend Blackhand for use as a mount, and the dragonspawn Chromaggus, before adventurers decapitated Nefarian at his throne in BWL, during the novel, a return to Nefarian's old experiments creates the most successful monstrosity that Deathwing formed since the Demon Soul, a five headed, fully grown chromatic dragon named Chromatus. Chromatus wielded the power of the five dragonflights, and was capable of fighting off all four of the dragon aspects at once. He was coaxed into life, not by Nefarian, but by the Twilight Father, a shadowy figure revealed to be Archbishop Benedictus.
I've mentioned before how the Bendictus arc was aborted from the release content, and instead handed over to Thrall as the intro to the 4.3 raid, Dragon Soul. In the Hour of Twilight dungeon, just before the fight with the Archbishop, Bendictus reveals that the Deathwing's attack on Stormwind was the catalyst that turned him to despair.
With these points, it's easy to see the arc that begins to form. Deathwing needed his son's expertise to finish Chromatus, so he attacked Stormwind in order to retrieve his son's head. With Nefarian's head came Nefarian's knowledge, which was used to create the chromatic behemoth. Working alongside Nefarian to bring Deathwing's plan to fruition was Benedictus, in his guise as the Twilight Father. When Benedictus' treason is discovered, his collusion with the lord of Blackrock is unveiled as well. This is somewhat problematic for getting the Horde players in BWD, but they lost their traitor arc as well. Magister Rommath could have been aiding the chromatice program as well, giving our less hygienic cousins a purpose to go after their purples as well.
While this flaw doesn't diminish BWD as an instance, an isolated dungeon through which my friends and I spent hours working together, it does damage Blackwing Descent's place in Azeroth, and the greater narrative of the World of Warcraft. The dissonance of having such a great instance suffer the ignominious fate of being the only raid instance so neglected is painful. I mean, even Ruby Sanctum got a breadcrumb quest...