In addition to a large new raiding tier, Blizzard promises a number of new features with the patch such as Proving Grounds, Virtual Realms, Flexible raids and an overhaul of the arena system. While the Proving Grounds will be for players to tackle alone, the other three updates are primarily designed to make socializing easier. There is also a new area called The Timeless Isle that remains a mystery aside from the name. Blizzard remains noncommittal on the subject of a patch 5.5, so the possibility that this will not be the last patch of the expansion remains.
The new raid, Siege of Orgrimmar, will involve the Alliance forces and the Horde rebellion assaulting the city to bring down the tyrannical and racist Garrosh Hellscream, who has resurrected the Sha of Pride and plans on using it to increase his own power. Siege of Orgrimmar contains 12 bosses, including Garrosh and the Sha of Pride, General Nazgrim, the Paragons of the Klaxxi and corrupted versions of the Golden Lotus members that currently give daily quests. Horde and Alliance players will be accompanied by heroes of their own factions such as Jaina Proudmoore and Sylvannas Windrunner, the latter of which will be making her first appearance of this expansion. Fan-favorite Gamon will have a moment to shine during one of the boss fights as well.
Virtual Realms will affect everyone to some extent, but are mainly intended as a boon to low population servers hit hard by the decrease in the overall player population. Virtual Realms will be sets of servers that are essentially fused together into one. It will work similarly to real ID friends grouping up now, except players from either server will be able to do everything they could normally do on their home realm on the linked ones.
Blizzard has discussed the Proving Grounds feature for some time and are now finally delivering on it. The Proving Grounds are a place for players to train and face challenges alone. Challenges are split up according to class role and will allow for players to finally have a chance to practice and learn how to heal and tank without the pressure of an impatient and possibly rude group of players. The challenges are split up into Bronze, Silver, Gold and Endless difficulties. The first three are fairly self-explanatory, while Endless is a kind of survival mode in which players fight increasingly difficult challenges and can compare scores.
As fan attention has indicated, the Proving Grounds is one of the most long-desired features players have been looking forward to. Aside from the fan approval, the Proving Grounds fulfills a crucial game design gap that World of Warcraft has suffered from for years by finally giving players a way to train themselves for the tasks they will be expected to perform at endgame. The feature is not yet up on the Public Test Realms, but should be available for testing in the coming months.
The arena system overhaul completely does away with arena teams. Players will queue for arena battles in much the same way as they do for Rated Battlegrounds by simply making a group and queuing. This change also allows for players to compete in arena battles with friends from other realms, similar to Rated Battlegrounds. Conquest points and conquest gear with rating requirements will be based entirely off of personal rating. This is quite a large change to the social aspect of arena, and Blizzard suggests that the reason for the change is to allow for players to more easily play together. Such a far-reaching change could have unintended side effects such as creating a barrier for players with low personal rating to get games to play, but it sadly will be impossible to fully gauge such effects until the change goes live.
Similar to the arena system overhaul, the Flexible Raid feature comes as a surprise to many players. Flexible Raiding is a new difficulty between Raid Finder and Normal that allows for players to create pre-made groups of anywhere between 10 to 25 players. The raid difficulty will dynamically change as players leave and join. Raid achievements that players cannot earn in Raid Finder will be unlockable in Flexible Raid. Raiding guilds will get the most benefit out of this feature, as it will allow for smaller 10-man raiding guilds to raid without having to bench as many players. Flexible Raid also provides a conduit for 10-man raiding guilds to grow into 25-man guilds. While the numbers are not finalized, Blizzard representative Greg “Ghostcrawler” Street has said that the new difficulty will have items of 536 item level in Siege of Orgrimmar. For comparison, Raid Finder will offer 528, Normal 553 and Heroic 566.
Patch 5.4 brings quite a lot of game features and tweaks intended to improve the overall game experience in addition to the presumably final raid of this expansion. Especially considering the lightness of the content in the last patch mentioned in our 5.3 patch review, one must wonder why they left so much to put into this patch, even without getting into the numerous—and in some cases substantial—class tweaks. Blizzard has promised much in 5.4, and hopefully they can deliver and make up for the disappointment of 5.3.