You totally thought I'd forgotten about this bit, didn't you? Don't be silly, I did no such thing. Nope. Didn't forget.
Anyway, this is my ongoing judgemental saga of which games got something right, and, tangentially, which games got it not-so-right. This time I'm going to talk about PvE content, but not just any PvE content -- I'm going to talk about the great coercer of group formation, dungeons.
PvE Content - Dungeons
Dungeons have been a staple of RPG games more or less since their inception. It wasn't called "Dungeons and Dragons" for nothing, and just about every RPG game I can think of since has had some version of a dungeon in it somewhere. In short, a dungeon is an enclosed area with a very high density of enemies and is usually the best place to find fantastic treasure. The enemies live in the dungeon and guard/collect/worship the treasure, while adventurers attempt to explore the area and take that treasure for themselves. Almost all MMOs seem to have some version of dungeons, even sandbox games like EVE Online and Darkfall (in EVE they're called complexes, but they serve the same purpose). Star Trek Online is one of the few I can think of to not have a feature like this, but it's entirely possible I simply never saw it.
Dungeons are typically group content, and usually quite challenging. Sometimes the areas are part of the open world, as in Everquest, and sometimes they're instanced content particular to the group that enters them, as in World of Warcraft. Many people have a preference for one way or the other, and I'm going to be up front and say I prefer instanced dungeons. Open dungeons have their charm, and I certainly spent plenty of time at the bottom of dungeons in Dark Age of Camelot, but instanced dungeons allow for more scripting and storytelling so I tend to enjoy them more.
With that said, I really have to give World of Warcraft top honors here. Blizzard's design focus may have stripped some of the fun from their dungeons in the current iteration of the game, but in the original and Burning Crusade versions of the game the dungeons were, in my opinion, the best dungeon gameplay you could find in any game. The dungeons were instanced and accessible, with challenging boss fights and enough variety to make it feel like you were really doing something heroic. My group of friends and I had an "instance group" and for months we would run a dungeon each night, or at least every couple of nights. It was easily one of the best times I've had in an MMORPG. I appreciated the clear progression in difficulty from the easiest low level instances to the hardest of the heroics. I actually liked that certain dungeons couldn't be accessed until you'd done some quests to unlock them. It made the dungeon part of the story instead of just a box to go get goodies from. Getting the key to Scholomance was an accomplishment worth remembering, and challenges like 45 minute Stratholme runs were exciting and difficult (and frustrating, no doubt). Overall, Blizzard did a fine job of tuning the difficulty and length of their dungeons and provided a variety of boss mechanics beyond "tank and spank" along with plenty of interesting scenery. I can still vividly remember many of my dungeon runs from the first two versions of WoW, and that's saying something considering how long ago those experiences occurred. WoW dungeons these days don't live up to their past versions, but that doesn't negate Blizzard's clear skill in designing this type of content.
When I think of bad dungeons, I immediately think of Warhammer Online. For all that their PvP scenarios were carefully balanced and cleverly designed, the dungeons seemed like they were left for some interns to crank out in their spare time after doing the important work on PvP. I can't even remember the name of the first WAR dungeon I tried, but it consisted of a straight corridor with enemies in it. The corridor occasionally had a room to the side with a boss in it. Then you'd go back out into the corridor until you came to another room off to the side. You can make the argument that that's what all dungeons distill down to, and it's true, but actually creating the distilled down version and presenting it as content wasn't a good idea. WAR dungeons were slow, trudging affairs that weren't terribly interesting, took forever, and often awarded little to no loot. In the Risk to Reward ratio, WAR dungeons were big on risk and low on reward. They were poorly tuned and just not much fun. If WAR had come out before WoW, it might have been forgivable, but making a game in the post-WoW world with dungeon content that is not even remotely competitive just seems daft. Better to not have it at all.
Next time I'm going to talk about general PvE content, and I think you'll be surprised by my choice.