Cataclysm in Review: High-Level Zones & Leveling

Now we arrive to the main part of the expansion: the content meant for people who’d already reached the end-game in the previous expansion. We’ll begin be talking about the new 80-85 zones and leveling through them.

There are five high-level zones in Cataclysm:

  • Hyjal — The site of many important events and battles throughout much of Azeroth’s history. Where Deathwing has summoned Ragnaros—the elemental lord of fire—to bring destruction to the world tree.
  • Vashj’ir — An underwater zone. Where the naga are aiding Deathwing’s cause to try to manipulate the elements of water, and corrupt Neptulon, who hadn’t expressed loyalty to Deathwing’s cause.
  • Deepholm — Deathwing’s refuge after the second war. From where Deathwing reemerged into Azeroth and caused the Shattering. Where the world pillar has been shattered, and must be restored, but the Twilight’s Hammer and the distrust of Therazane may hinder your efforts.
  • Uldum — A desert land. Where there was once an ancient Titan city. Where the Tol’vir—a cat-like race that once served to maintain and protect the titan’s artifacts—live. Deathwing does have an active agent in the zone.
  • The Twilight Highlands — Your experience here depends on your faction. If you’re a part of the Alliance, you must help unite factions of the Wildhammer Clan. If you’re part of the Horde, you must help the Dragonmaw. From here, there is a lot of plot development. Part involves a servant of the old gods. Another part involves the battle between the red dragons and Deathwing and his twilight dragonflight. The final part of the zone involves Cho’gall and his Twilight Hammer.

Zone Flow & Travel

My first thought when I saw what the new high-level zones of the expansion were going to be was, “How are they going to handle the zone flow? How are we going to travel between each zone?” In vanilla WoW, The Burning Crusade, and Wrath of the Lich King, the zone flow involved physical movement. If you were meant to level in a specific zone, you had to travel there by foot, mount, boat, etc. But this would make for many boring hours of travel in Cataclysm. So how would they solve the issue? With portals, of course. (I tried my best not to say that in a GLaDOS voice.)

When a new zone is available to you, you simply execute an introductory quest line to travel to your destination. And in most cases this travel is expedient. In the case of Hyjal, you teleport to Moonglade with the help of a druid, and then take a flight on the back of a dragon to Hyjal (who also conveniently flies through a portal to speed the process even more). The only zone I found annoying to get to was Vashj’ir, and that’s because you have to wait for the boat to arrive and depart for something like ten or fifteen minutes (I’m not sure if the Horde has the same problem).

Returning to a zone is of no issue, unless you fail to unlock the portal that allows you to travel there. In most cases, the portal unlocks the moment you complete the introductory quest line. In a couple cases, you have to wait only a tad longer. Otherwise, when combined with your hearthstone, astral recall, or mage teleports, you can travel to and from your respective capital and the high-level Cataclysm zones easily.

The Quests & Storytelling

For the most part, WoW has always seen an improvement in zone quality with each expansion. This is no different in Cataclysm. That’s not to say it’s improved as much as I’d hoped, but it’s definitely improved.

Storytelling

In general, the quality of the stories told in the high-level Cataclysm zones is better than in efforts past. Each zone has a focus on a few story arcs and subplots. Unlike in times past, many of the storylines and plots begin and end within their respective zones. However, some stories have to conclude in the dungeons connected to them. That’s to be expected. The dungeons would be uninteresting if none of them tied into the story of their parental zones in some way.

That the zones are more insular in their storytelling is a big improvement over previous creative efforts. However, I will admit there is a lot missing here. Deathwing is fashioned as this expansion’s primary antagonist. His return was heralded by the Twilight cultists in the pre-expansion event. He was the main figure in the expansion’s introductory movie. He is responsible for the “reshaping” of much of Azeroth. And he makes some notable appearances in a few of the zones. But what about Deathwing is missing in these high-level zones? A lot, actually.

I’m not going to nitpick every single Deathwing plot point I think is missing, but I’ll give one example I think is a glaring omission. After being chased off by the other dragon aspects after the second war, Deathwing retreated into Deepholm to regain his strength. This is where you see him at the beginning of the expansion’s cinematic introduction. But as you play through the zone, you’re not offered much insight into this part of the zone’s relatively recent past. I think Blizzard should have briefly touched upon Deathwing’s background here. What happened that would have caused him to retreat to this elemental plane of earth? How did he keep tabs on his minions up in Azeroth and abroad? How much did Therazane really know about Deathwing’s presence when he was here? He was here for a pretty long time, afterall. Instead, the zone focuses mainly on the here and now, leaving players who either don’t have the time or don’t care enough to read the canonical novels in the dark.

Production Quality

The production quality of the high-level zones is inconsistent. For example, Uldum makes heavy use of the new in-game cut-scene engine, but it is a “desert” of voice acting. Meanwhile, the later parts of Deepholm make considerable use of voice acting, but the in-game cut-scenes are extremely limited. These inconsistencies are pervasive throughout the expansion’s high-level zones. And I have to wonder why that is. I suspect the cut-scene engine wasn’t finished before parts of each zone, or some of the developers working on specific zones weren’t comfortable using it. For the voice acting, it could be any number of reasons; perhaps they didn’t have the budget for it, perhaps they didn’t have the time, or perhaps they didn’t think it was necessary.

I’ll elaborate more about this in the production quality section of the review.

Quest Quality

There is some improvement in the quality of the actual quests themselves. I really like that you don’t always have to go back to a quest giver to obtain follow-up quests when it’s warranted. This saves the players some time they would have otherwise spent on needless travel.

There is also a larger number of quests in Cataclysm that have game play different from the usual kill and collect quests. By this, I mean there are more quests like the one at the end of Hyjal where you, Cenarius, Malfurion and Hamuul confront Ragnaros. You don’t just pull Ragnaros and damage him until he dies. You have to avoid fire waves and kill groups of mobs when he submerges. You have to pay attention to who is being attacked and defend them accordingly.

Another example is the now-famous Gnomebliteration quest, which I’ll simply post a video of:

Considering these types of quests, I have to ask why a vast majority of the quests can’t be like this. These quests are enjoyable, and the game could stand to have a flood of them. I specifically remember the exhilaration of doing the Undercity questline in the Wrath of the Lich King, where you were sent to attack the Undercity and deal with the Forsaken treachery that occurred at the Wrathgate. The game play here was amazing, and it integrated well with the story told.

So why can’t there be more of this? Why can’t Blizzard try to be more creative with the quests in this manner? Time constraints? Budgetary restrictions? General developer apathy? I don’t know the reason(s). What I do know is that a lot of us are tired of the same old, same old. We’re tired of pulling mob after mob and hitting our usual spells and abilities to kill each one in a routine of boredom. We’re tired of picking quest objects off the ground over and over again. We want game play that breaks this routine. And while this doesn’t apply to just questing, it’s something we want nonetheless. And something I think the zones need more of.

Overall

The increase in focused storytelling for each high-level zone in Cataclysm is admirable. But the experience is plagued by problems in game play and production quality. Blizzard could have made sure to include more voice acting in a higher number of quests. And Blizzard could have spent more time giving the quests a higher entertainment value. With these problems and the occasional plot holes and dangling threads that still exist in WoW’s narrative, the high-level zone experience is middling.

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