So what purpose do talents serve in World of Warcraft these days? The recent patch preparing the game for the Cataclysm expansion has brought a revamped talent system that is simpler and more intuitive than ever, but at the same time, as darkeye pointed out in a comment, it drastically reduces the concept of choice and flexibility which talents were originally designed to provide. It seems now that talents have been boiled down to not much more than two choices: ‘Which sub-class do you wish to play?’ and ‘Do you intend to PvP or not?’.
For some classes there’s still some debate out there amongst bloggers as to which talents are definitely worth picking up; I’m certainly seeing varying opinions on protection warrior talents at the moment, but it’s mainly the difference between one or two talent points invested in one talent or another, nothing particularly class-defining, and most likely to be ironed into a perfectly flat raid t-shirt by the people at Elitist Jerks in short order, after which every protection tank will wear the same t-shirt, and woe betide you in a PuG if you have creases down the arms of your talent T.
So what do talents provide? Well, they still provide sub-class defining abilities: each talent tree, while locking you in for the first thirty one points and not letting you dabble in other trees at all until then (this is a local talent tree, for local people), will provide some major ability that once would have been a mid-to-top tier talent in the old system. More importantly they provide a levelling incentive. With talent points having been switched to every odd level, it now means that Blizzard can smooth out the number of abilities they have to dish out each level. With the heavy pollarding of the talent tree all the juicy abilities look that much closer now, even though the player is receiving talents at a slower rate than before and will therefore technically receive major talents in the same level range as before. The spell book is much the same, with all abilities your character will earn being listed in each of the sub-class pages along with which level they will be gained at. The whole thing is geared towards tempting the player on and giving them further impetus to grab that next level and get a new ability; pull the lever, get a pellet.
Essentially then, it seems that talents have been transformed into a mini-spell book, in which you pick one path to define your character and then you follow that for specific abilities to help you in your precisely defined role. Interestingly, however, it appears that glyphs might be fast becoming the customisation option that talents once were – as much as you ever get to customise your character to your liking in a game that has more analysis and stringent regulations on How You Shall Do Things than the Great Firewall of China. With the fundamental changes to glyphs – once you learn a glyph it is permanently available to you, and glyphs can be changed easily through the use of cheaply vendor purchasable vanishing powder – it’s easy to customise your character in fairly useful ways without much expense or hassle. This seems most unBlizzardlike, however, and I expect vanishing powder to be changed to a rare raid drop costing 4000 gold on the AH and requiring a twenty seven part quest chain to be completed before it can be used, by the time the expansion is released. Admittedly the range and usefulness of glyphs varies wildly from class to class at the moment, with some classes having a wealth of options and others being rather limited in what they can make use of, especially when you factor in the narrowing of specialisation that each sub-class presents – there’s probably no point in using tanking glyphs on a Fury warrior, for example. However, the important point is that the glyph system is far more open to expansion than the old talent tree system, so where additions to the talent trees only came with major patches and expansions, new glyphs can be added to the Inscription profession without having to majorly rework part of a class’s levelling mechanic. I think it’s this flexibility-in-expansion that might see glyphs become the customisation option that players have always been hankering for since the first paladin tried to create a hybrid melee healer talent build and was laughed out of their raid. It’s certainly easier for Blizzard to experiment with glyphs than with talents from a mechanics standpoint, at least.
I would say that it’s a fun time at the moment to experiment with builds, Spinks has posted her protection warrior build of the moment, and although it differs from other builds that I’ve read about (and those builds differ from yet others) none of them are drastically changed from one another, it’s mostly personal opinion on one or two borderline talents, which may or may not be useful depending on your play style and situation. However, as Tam recently related, it’s not necessarily all fun and games trying to get people to understand how your new talents and abilities work in this brave new world, especially when that world doesn’t seem entirely sure what it wants you to do either. Eventually I imagine things will even out, the raiding scene will settle in to their usual work ethic, and talent specs will once again assume their traditional cookie-cutter form, but I hope that glyphs (with further tweaks and additions on Blizzard’s part) might still allow for some expression of individuality in an otherwise generic end-game of Tier <unsigned int> geared, cookie-cutter talented, Stepford Wipes. Wives, even.