Just in time before the PTR was taken down and the extended maintenance to implement the new patch started up, I finished my druid testing. I ran into some early problems because of the Thunder Bluff death bug1 and set aside the druid for a long time after getting some initial impressions. I felt like I could write a review but I felt like I owed it to the druid to try Feral after my bad experience with Balance, so yesterday I made a Night Elf and went to it.
Druid (Tauren and Night Elf)
Druids don't play quite as well as Mages or Warlocks at low level. Wrath is more like Smite than it is like Fireball for some reason. When you get moonfire it doesn't really do enough damage to be worth casting, though larger enemy health bars make it just barely worth it by around level 7. It usually ends up doing less damage than a Wrath would have, but with a shorter casting time, and since enemies don't have health that is evenly divisible by your Wrath damage it ends up being as good as another Wrath anyway. At level eight you get to learn six new abilities, and pay the same price to learn each as other classes pay to learn their one level 7 ability. The consequence of this is that you can't afford them. Of course it looks like you can only learn three, since Rake, Claw and Ferocious Bite all all grayed out given that you don't have Cat Form. But once you click to learn Cat Form they all appear, sorted in alphabetical order and your second Learn click learns Claw when you thought it was going to learn Entangling Roots. Could I have avoided this problem by slowing down a moment? Sure. Should first time players be deciding between whether to learn Rake or Ferocious Bite? Probably not.
At level eight Balance druid damage was just terrible. It took me around 4 starfires to kill things, so 14 seconds per kill. I don't know if I played another class that took more than 10 seconds to kill an enemy at level 8. Of course there is Thorns, which ticks for about as much damage as Starfire does, so you can use Moonfire to gather up enemies and then just Thorns them to death while healing yourself and kill things much more efficiently. At level 10 you get your eclipse meter and your Starsurge spell. Starsurge was hitting enemies for around 90% of their health on a fifteen second cooldown. Given that it took me nearly 15 seconds to kill an enemy without Starsurge, I'd just wait out the cooldown for each enemy before engaging this. It was pretty terrible.
Feral played much better. I was killing enemies with Rake + Claw + Bite, followed by waiting for a second Rake tick and a couple of auto-attacks. At level 10 I got Mangle and was very worried that it was going to heavily skew things. I really expected that it would completely obsolete both Rake and Bite, but much to my surprise Mangle only did about 50% more damage than Claw (for 10 less energy, of course). A two point Bite still exceeded a Mangle for damage. The rapid expansion of enemy health between level 10 and 12 meant that I still felt like I was fighting enemies rather than just hitting a button that defeated them. The absurd strength of Regrowth and Rejuv and the fact that I didn't use mana to kill things made me pretty much unstoppable, which, while convenient, isn't something I like in design. Plus there was the fact that even when Feral spec the most efficient way to kill enemies was surely Thorns, which was hitting for 69 at level 12, compared to a mid-40's Mangle.
Overall Grade: C (though I'd give it a D in a heartbeat if I hadn't gone back to play Feral)
Quite a few details of low level play have been screwed up inadvertently by the 4.0.1 changes. Most notably, there are quite a few monsters that use player spells on themselves at low level that have become significantly overpowered. Level 6 mobs with around 120 health have Rejuvenation spells that tick for 45. A level 11 mob had a Thorns that did 49. Having to stop attacking and wait for these spells to end is pretty annoying.
Some classes have pretty exciting talents to take at levels 10 and 11, but the excitement around those initial talent points is not going to be there for all classes. Many classes clearly had little thought put into the pre-level 10 experience.
The transition to dual-wielding is a very difficult one. As a Warrior I just happened to complete a quest with no two-handed weapon option shortly before level 10, then saw another quest with a one-handed weapon option. As a shaman when I picked Enhancement my bonus ability was Lava Lash, but I had to go to town and buy a white weapon for my off-hand to be able to dual-wield. This transition was very problematic. Perhaps, given there is no spec that actually supports them anymore, they should simply remove the ability of Shamans to wield two-handed weapons to smooth this out a bit.
Maybe I make too much of this because the first 9 levels are pretty easy anyway, but I do feel like depending on the class and starting area they choose, a new player could end up with very different starting experiences ranging from the polished feeling of a very evolved game to the choppy feeling of a new game that doesn't know what it wants you to do. We all know that a big problem for established MMORPGs is growing the player base when the "real" game is focusing on an end game that gets increasingly farther away for new players each expansion. After playing a Mage I thought the 4.0.1 redesign was a very dramatic step to make the game more friendly to new players while at the same time evolving the end-game experience. After playing the other classes, I'm no longer convinced that this redesign was a huge step forward for new players. It's a step forward for everyone for sure, but maybe not for new players in particular.
Of course, the starting areas themselves will be redesigned when Cataclysm actually launches, so there are more improvements coming. The revamped leveling experience is probably more dependent on those world changes than it is on the mechanical ones being introduced today.
1. You died when you zoned out of Thunder Bluff and your corpse appeared in the graveyard at Thunder Bluff so you couldn't corpse run back and resurrect outside the zone. I assume they've fixed this one.