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.

Cataclysm in Review: Worgen and Goblins

One of the major features introduced in Cataclysm is the addition of two new playable races: the worgen and the goblins. Technically, both races are not “new.” And that’s as it should be in WoW. There are so many races established, there’s no need to introduce playable ones from scratch. (Though it’s not implausible, with how well the naga were introduced in Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne.)

Both the goblins and worgen are generally loved by fans of the series. Love for the goblins is mainly nostalgic. They were first introduced in Warcraft II, way back in 1995. That’s over fifteen years ago. And yet, through all of those years and through the numerous sequels and expansions, they have managed to retain their trademark personality—defined by greed and a comic destructiveness. Love for the worgen is more difficult to place, though it’s likely caused by the curiosity most people had when they first encountered the worgen back in the earliest days of WoW. Or it could just be because “they’re frikkin’ werewolves, man!”

Blizzard definitely made the right decision choosing these races. Goblins were already well-established and many players have wanted to play one for a long time. They also fit in with the Horde nicely, since they’d already sided with the orcs once before. The inclusion of the worgen allows Blizzard to push the development of their story forward, and it also gives Blizzard an excuse to include a more monstrous race as part of the Alliance. Furthermore, these races are interesting and don’t feel as though they have been included just because they’re “cool,” or because a developer or group of players simply want them in the game. (Which can’t be said for a certain popular race currently running the rumor circuit. Ahem!)

Even better, the backstories given for the introduction of goblins and worgens to each faction are presented well and they both make sense. Forget crystal spaceships. Forget contrived plots about magic starvation and shared heritage. The stories here are both believable and reasonable, but, most of all, interesting. This was a pleasant change from what was done in The Burning Crusade. You can observe each and say, “Hey, that’s pretty believable and not entirely over the top! Good job, Blizzard!”

The Starting Areas

Warning: This section contains some spoilers. If you haven’t played through the starting zones for the goblins or worgen, you should probably skip over the applicable section(s). I do avoid the major spoilers, but inferences can be made, and that might ruin it for people sensitive to learning even the least important details.

Goblins: The Isle of Kezan and the Lost Isles

As a playable goblin, you hail from the isle of Kezan. You are basically an under-executive of the robber baron of Undermine—trade “prince” Gallywix. For roughly the first five levels of play, you’ll be making your way around Kezan getting involved in various cells of corruption, scheming, etc.

I don’t really have anything positive to say about this part of the experience. The writing and the game play are both abysmal. A large chunk of it plays like an homage to Grand Theft Auto (GTA). The only problem? WoW isn’t GTA. The music that plays when you turn on the radio in that horrid car doesn’t elicit a smile from me when I recognize the reference. Running people over isn’t funny at all (they essentially wave their fist and shout legal threats at you). There’s no star system or cops to outrun. The inexplicable roadways resemble the poor freeway planning of the L.A. area, which causes the quests to play out too long. Outside of the GTA-style experience, the story in these first five levels isn’t really compelling. It’s like the Jersey Shore meets a third-rate Godfather knock-off. Only there’s no interesting godfather figure to keep it entertaining (Gallywix is a one-dimensional bore).

There’s nothing wrong with humor or pop culture references, but there’s a little thing called critical mass, and it applies to storytelling as much as it does to nuclear fission. I (and I’m sure others) need to have a certain amount of serious writing underlying the humor to maintain interest. While I’m sure the humor and pop culture junkies will love every minute of it, people like me won’t. Especially because the Warcraft series isn’t all about humor and pop culture references. It’s definitely a big part of it, but in Warcraft III, the humor lies on the surface of a deeper, more mature narrative and it never gets in its way. That’s the style of humor that works best in WoW, as well. Here it essentially becomes the story and it doesn’t work.

Luckily, Deathwing decides the local volcano needs to erupt, leading to the evacuation of Kezan at about level five. This is where the experience improves a thousandfold.

In order to achieve evacuation, you need to pay Gallywix (literally) a bazillion macaroons (goblin slang for money) for a spot on his ship. To do this, you rape the land of its resources (since it’s going to erupt anyway), rob a bank, steal a bunch of priceless artifacts from Gallywix’s compound (why this stuff wasn’t already being loaded onto the ship, I’ll never know), and then burn down your headquarters to collect on the insurance (because, you know, the insurance company still cares about operating its business when the island is about to become Kilauea on a bad day). This also buys some spots on the ship for your friends and a bunch of your associates, who now view you as their savior. This plays into the plot development of the last half of the experience.

While a bazillion macaroons was enough to buy a spot on Gallywix’s ship, it wasn’t enough to buy your freedom post-evacuation. You, your friends, and your associates are Gallywix’s slaves to be sold once you reach your destination. But the ship is fired upon by an Alliance vessel. Shipwrecked, Gallywix is more concerned with goblin preservation than with making sure all his slaves are subjugated, so you are set to various tasks. Though shipwrecked, the goblins are still concerned about making a profit. You’re supposed to create a buffer between you and the wildlife, then solve a problem in a mine they’ve recently opened. While in the mine, you discover a dead orc who was part of a group of orcs also shipwrecked by the Alliance attack. So you pay a visit to the orcs, led by Aggra, who greet you as a friend by virtue of your shared circumstances.

From here, the conflict between the Alliance and the Horde becomes the central focus of the plot. I won’t spoil this part, because there are a lot of good surprises. Besides, you know the ending—the goblins join the Horde. How they join is the interesting part.

Worgen: Gilneas

The introductory experience of the worgen is the most interesting of the two new races.

Isolated behind the Greymane Wall, Gilneas, for a time, enjoyed a peace foreign to the rest of Azeroth. But the Gilneans became victims of their own machinations. Arugal, a magister of the court at Gilneas, had summoned a race of monstrous beasts called worgen outside of the Greymane wall to create a buffer between them and the Forsaken. But this tactic backfired when worgen found their way into Gilneas and began infecting its ordinary citizens. As a result, the worgen curse spread through practically the entire population, creating a new race of hybrid worgen and human. This isn’t exactly explained during the leveling experience, but it doesn’t need to be.

As a playable worgen, you witness the attacks of the worgen and fight alongside your king and prince to fend them off. But during the course of battle, you succumb to the curse and become a worgen yourself. Once your inner nature has been “tamed,” you again fight for your kingdom, but this time against an invasion by the Forsaken. All the while, the world seems to be crumbling apart, witch large chunks of Gilneas falling into the sea after a series of quakes.

These are components of what seems to be a very simple premise. But the details and sub-plots are rather engrossing. The cut-scene you witness after you succumb to the curse sets the stage and the tone for the rest of the zone. And along the way, the story asks many questions. How can you control your savage nature? How can the remaining humans and those infected with the curse live together? Can they live together? Politics accentuate these questions. Some Gilneans support the acceptance of those cursed who have proven they can control their savageness. Others don’t. And the surprises at the end of this subplot makes it all the better.

Furthermore, this experience seems to be higher in production quality. There is a higher concentration of voice acting, the quests are more unique, and terrain phasing is more evident. While some of the story still suffers the same issues the rest of the game does, such as an acute plague of quest text for some parts of the story, there’s enough voice acting to keep it livelier than the starting zones of every other race.

To me, this is what the starting experience for all the races should be like, barring any other changes needed to the game on a more fundamental level. However, the death knight starting experience still takes the cake.

Overall View of the Zones

If there’s one negative I must point out, it’s that the goblin and worgen starting areas do not make use of the new in-game cut-scene engine. They rely solely on basic game play mechanics, voice acting, and pre-rendered movies to bolster them. While they are definitely well-written (except for the first five levels of playing a goblin), they could have been done even better through use of the in-game engine.

Of course, it’s likely it wasn’t used because these zones were designed before the engine was finished. And that’s an issue for another section of this review.

Disregarding this issue, the experiences are good for what they are and for what the game normally has to offer. Their design is better than past efforts, and better even than the changes Cataclysm made to the pre-existing zones (including the starting zones for the races included in the initial release of WoW). I really liked the worgen experience, and only a few quests got on my nerves (which is pretty rare for me, this day and age).

Aesthetics

I don’t take much issue with the aesthetics of either goblins or worgen, though I will say female worgen look far too much like anthropomorphic chihuahuas; this is the reason I race changed my druid to a worgen male instead of female. Otherwise, the way each race looks and feels is pretty solid. I especially love the ferocity exhibited when you /roar as a worgen.

Goblin and worgen architecture is also done very well. I especially love the Gilnean terrain and buildings. I only wish we could have seen more of it used outside of the starting experience, the Battle for Gilneas and Tol Barad.

Racial Abilities

The racial skills for both goblins and worgen are powerful in certain areas. In RBGs, the goblin’s rocket boost is overpowered when it comes to a flag carrier getting out of a rogue’s smoke bomb. In PvE, the worgen racials are incredibly powerful, especially when it comes to DPS. (Crit and an activated sprint?) Though, comparing them to a troll’s berserk, I suppose they aren’t as good comparatively. That said, goblin racials are underwhelming for PvE (trolls still take the cake), and worgen racials feel rather balanced in PvP.

Overall

Again, Blizzard absolutely made the right decision choosing worgen and goblins. There are some flaws with the goblin experience, and some flaws with the female worgen aesthetic, but the overall picture is rosy for both, when you compare them to the rest of the game as a whole.

Good job in this area, Blizzard.

Cataclysm in Review: Changes to the Old World and Lowbie Leveling

If there’s one area that desperately needed help, it was the lowbie experience in WoW. I said as much back 2008, and predicted Blizzard would go this route several months before the announcement of Cataclysm. I was glad Blizzard chose to do this sooner than later. The experience was becoming so outdated, I scarcely believed WoW would attract any new players in the future if it left the old content the way it was.

Of course, some people already invested in the game couldn’t have cared less how well or poorly designed the early level content was. They were beyond it, so why should Blizzard “waste their time” on it? It’s rather simple; Blizzard had to revamp the old world because old players are not inclined to play the game forever. This is embodied by the loss of 600,000 subscribers shortly after the release of Cataclysm. And while veterans are definitely an important demographic, they are not the sole basis of operating the MMO element of your business. So something had to be done.

Besides, you’d think Azeroth would have undergone some changes in six years of story progression, right? I’d like to think so.

Story and Quest Flow Changes

In the Context of Each Zone

Some of the zones underwent changes and closed plot holes here and there. For example, all those Lost Ones out in the Swamp of Sorrows needed some kind of forward plot development. You’d have thought this would have been done at the release of The Burning Crusade, when the draenei were making their big arrival on the scene. But nope, not really. They were barely addressed, and moreso referenced than anything else. Their story “progressed” (if you can call it that) in Outland, and those in the Swamp of Sorrows were mostly treated as an afterthought. So their story was done a little more justice in the Cataclym update. It’s not great, by any means, but at least it was something.

Some zones underwent great changes to advance the story. For example, Ashenvale showed off the progression of the war for resources between the orcs and the night elves. Of course, with the Horde’s base of operations being virtually right next door, one can imagine how that went. Going back to the Swamp of Sorrows again, I always wondered how the Alliance got its resources through to Nethergarde Keep with the Horde controlling and patrolling most of the swamp. That, too, progressed to resolve that issue.

Boars? More like bores!
Some zones didn’t change much. Maybe the quest flow was slightly different, or perhaps plot points were changed (or were retconned) slightly, but that’s it. In most of these cases, I don’t think the changes were enough. The first five levels for orcs are still excruciatingly boring, both in terms of play and story. And the subsequent quests in Durotar major are also dull. In some zones, the quest flow wasn’t changed enough. For example, there’s still too much travel required in Stranglethorn, even if it’s better than it was before.

I also think Blizzard could have done more to make the stories more insular and interesting for each zone. Some are much better than they were, but the style and quality of storytelling in WoW in general still needs a lot of work. But that’s probably more indicative of flaws in the “grand scheme” than in the approach to redesigning the old world specifically. And I will get to that in a future section specifically addressing the lore and story.

In the Context of Zone Flow

The flow from zone to zone was improved incredibly. There’s nary a problem here, save for the few times you’re required to fly all the way across a continent when you reach a dead end. This was, perhaps, unavoidable given what Blizzard had to work with. You can’t exactly say “Well, okay, we need to move this capital city, because its location throws a wrench in this branch of zone flow.” That’d be a bit too much of a retcon for anyone’s liking.

But the flow is definitely better. Before, you’d often have to fly back to somewhere like Stormwind in the middle of a zone, then go back to that zone to finish it up, then fly off to somewhere thousands of miles away, before flying back to a zone right next to the zone you left two zones previously. Even writing a sentence explaining the old zone fragmentation makes me frustrated. It’s clear the developers didn’t have a solid plan for it in vanilla. I can only imagine what they were thinking. “We want the world to feel vast and expansive for the player. So let’s have them travel great distances, that way they get a feel for just how big the world of Azeroth really is!” That’s not a direct quote, but given a lot of the developer commentary that came out during vanilla, I suspect it was one of their lines of thinking.

So I give an A- to the new zone flow in the old world. Well done, Blizzard. It’s one of the brighter spots in this expansion.

Changes Good Conceptually, but Could Have Been Better Executed

All-in-all, I stand by my long-held opinion that changes to the old world were needed. The changes that were made have definitely improved the lowbie experience, but it is still boring at its worst, and only mildly entertaining at its best. Blizzard could have paid more attention to removing pointless quests, and changing or removing those with incredible flaws in design. Even if it meant a more rapid progression from level one to level 58, this should have been done. There’s only so many quests a person can do that require them to kill ten boars (or basilisks, or wolves, or bears) or wait for a drop that doesn’t come easily, before it becomes a mind-numbing experience.

I understand this could have muddled the basic design philosophy of level pacing. But it wouldn’t have mattered in the grand scheme of things. I don’t think it’s a good design theory to come out and say “This zone needs X amount of quests, and needs to take Y amount of time before a player can move on.” Instead, Blizzard should simply ask “Is it fun? Is it compelling?” I’d rather there be discrepancies in level pacing than to play through a boring or mediocre experience.

Artistic Changes

Artistically, each zone underwent a varying degree of change. That degree of change ranged from very little (Feralas), to substantial (Thousand Needles). Of course, in most zones, the basic geography remained the same, but with shores washed out by tidal waves caused by the Cataclysm, to other changes not caused by the Cataclysm itself.

Most of these were well done, though some are rather inexplicable. I’m still not entirely sure where the water source for the waterfalls behind Booty Bay is. You’d think the water falling off the hills after the tidal wave would have subsided shortly after the wave receded. But I guess not!

Haven't I Seen Those Hills Before?

If there’s one nitpick I have in terms of artistry, it’s that the mountainous regions of Azeroth weren’t changed much at all. They are still their oddly rounded selves. Which is disappointing, considering Northrend offered us some incredible vistas in the previous expansion. I wish the zone artists would have gone through and changed them to make the “mountains” look more like mountains. And why they didn’t probably won’t be explained. Were they not given enough time? Did Blizzard not want to waste the resources on it? Did they think the change would have been unnecessary? Whatever the case, I wish it had been done.

Otherwise, the artistic changes are generally good. And that includes the flair added by re-recorded and newly-written music for the old zones.

Is It Time to Renovate Old Outdoor Leveling Content?

I’ve been leveling some fresh characters, in preparation for Wrath. The last character I leveled from scratch before this batch was my shaman, a year and some months ago. I did this through the draenei starting zones of Azuremyst and Bloodmyst. These two zones are dense in quests and provide a fluid and effortless progression through the first twenty levels. They also provide ample background for the draenei’s crash on Azeroth. Regardless of how silly dimensional spacegoats may seem, Azuremyst and Bloodmyst are decent examples of what starting zones should be.

Playing a priest through Dun Morogh and other early Eastern Kingdoms zones, I remembered just how poorly designed the classic leveling content really is. Slogging through the old world is excruciating. So much so that it drove me to delete my priest and sign up for the recruit-a-friend program. Since then, I’ve managed to level a warlock and a priest to 60, and I’m now working on a hunter and a rogue.

The experience begs to question when the old world content should undergo addition or renovation. Considering the absolutely positive leveling experience Wrath has to offer, I believe that time is now. And phasing could be utilized to minimize the work that would be needed to refine the content.

Quest and Objective Density

I have to run all the way up there?The old world lacks a high density of quests and objectives close in proximity to the hubs from which the quests are obtained. There’s a quest with objectives in Westfall that you have to pick up from Stormwind of all places. If you forget to pick this quest up while visiting Stormwind for training, it’s arguably pointless to go back and pick it up. Then there’s a quest you pick up at the lighthouse (a quest most people are unaware of, unless they check Wowhead) that requires you to literally travel the entire length of Westfall’s coast to kill all of the murlocs required to complete it. Perhaps the zone that highlights this problem the most is Alterac. Pretty much every quest you get that has objectives in Alterac is not actually picked up in Alterac. Rather, it they are picked up in Southshore, in Hillsbrad.

Consider Redridge, the third human zone in leveling progress. The Dry Times, Price of Shoes, and messenger quests require you to travel around to Stormwind, Goldshire, Sentinel Hill, that stupid little dwarf camped in the hills of Westfall (who requires you to obtain five hops), and then Darkshire. You get a total of 4885 experience for all three of these quests, or roughly 23 percent of the experience required to get to level 20. That’s 23 percent of a level in about an hour, meaning it would take about four hours to level if somebody did only these types of quests. That’s far too long for level 20. Furthermore, the type of travel required is not fun whatsoever.

What’s even more baffling in regards to Redridge is that the Price of Shoes is required to open up three other quests in Redridge. You must fly to Stormwind, run down to Goldshire, back to Stormwind, and then fly back to Redridge (or hearth back to it) if you want to do A Baying of Gnolls, Underbelly Scales, and Howling in the Hills (all well-designed quests).

In my opinion, the objective for the Price of Shoes should be moved to Stormwind. Grimbooze Thunderbew, the dwarf that gives a keg required for Dry Times should be moved to Sentinel Hill, and the Darkshire and Goldshire portions of the quest should be removed entirely. I also think the Messenger to Stormwind and Messenger to Westfall quests should be removed, while Messenger to Darkshire serves as a quest meant to usher someone to Duskwood as the next zone in progression after Redridge.

It would also help a leveling player if the zones actually had a fluid and logical line of progression to begin with.

The Fluid and Logical Progression of Quests Through Zones

Here to there, over there, back to here, back there, and finally there.Because some of the quest hubs in classic leveling zones aren’t very dense, a person doesn’t always get enough levels to progress from zone to zone in a fluid and logical manner. Some of the zones aren’t even designed with tight level ranges in mind. Stranglethorn Vale, for example, contains quests in a range from 30 all the way up through the mid-40’s. That’s fifteen levels for one zone. This wouldn’t be a problem if a person could actually stay in the zone all the way from 30 to 45, but it is pretty much impossible without being on the recruit-a-friend system.

What bothers me most is that many think you should be able to go from Elwynn Forest, to Westfall, to Redridge and then Duskwood, and so on. But you almost always have to supplement your leveling with quests from other zones miles away, before you can move on to what you would think is the next zone in line. When starting a new human character, I’ve found I always have to go from Elwynn, to Westfall, briefly into Loch Modan (a dwarf zone), back to Westfall, then to Redridge, and Duskwood, but I always have to supplement the middle of Duskwood with quests from the Wetlands (another early dwarf zone) before I return to finish it off.

I don’t mind travel between zones, so long as you’re traveling to a zone such that it serves as the “next place in line.” It would be great if you could simply go from Elwynn, to Westfall, to Redridge, to Duskwood, then Hillsbrad (maybe a boat that takes you there, so you don’t have to ride through several other zones), Arathi, Alterac, etc. I shouldn’t have to go briefly to Loch Modan or the Wetlands if I want to level smoothly through the human zones of Elwynn, Westfall, Redridge and Duskwood.

TBC Didn’t Justify Changes to Old World Questing

Blizzard hasn’t ignored the problems with its classic content. They did lower the experience required to level from 20 to 60, and they did add quests to Dustwallow for those in the upper 30’s. While they did commit some resources to these changes, they chose not to use their resources renovating any other classic zones. And, truthfully, I think they were right not to do so.

While The Burning Crusade did offer some major advances in quest density and zone progression concepts, it did little to innovate the way we quest through content. Yes, TBC did introduce bombing runs, the Ring of Blood, and questlines with small cut scenes like those involving Akama and Illidan in Shadowmoon Valley. But such quests were few and far between and they weren’t innovative enough to really justify a complete renovation of the old world.

However, I’m one to think Wrath of the Lich King does justify more renovation of the classic outdoor leveling content.

Why Wrath Justifies Changes to Old World Questing

I’ve quested my way thoroughly through Northrend. I’ve done every zone, and 90 to 100 percent of the quests in each. Furthermore, I have done the death knight starting area. So I have enough experience to understand the big picture and what the potential quests can offer using the technology introduced in Wrath. In a word, it is fantastic.

You have a quest that puts players on the back of a horse with literally hundreds of worgen chasing them. To manage their escape, they have to throw fire bombs at them from the back of a horse, while an NPC escapee is at the reigns.

There’s a quest puts players on the back of a giant frost wyrm. Players use this wyrm to devastate a swarm of the Scarlet Crusade’s armies.

Another quest provides people with two hot burning irons to torment a member of the Scarlet Crusade into giving them information about what the Crusade calls “The Crimson Dawn.”

One specific questline opens with an epic cut scene: a battle at the gates of Icecrown. To avoid spoilers, I won’t tell you what happens. I will note this quest leads to further developments that explain the diplomatic complexity of the resulting situation, followed by a huge battle inside the Undercity itself, complete with highly notable NPC’s and soldiers at your side. This is not the same Undercity Horde players know and love. Yes, the players participating in this battle are technically in the same zone as those who would simply access their banks, but they cannot see the people who are on this quest, nor can the people on the quest see those who are there normally. This is an example of “phasing,” a new technology included in Wrath.

At this point, it is easy to realize what could be done within classic zones. Phasing technology could be used to add new quests, without changing too many of the existing ones. This would open up the possibility of creating new supplemental leveling content that allows players to stay within a zone for longer, which would also develop smoother transitions from zone to zone. New quests would also progress the story of each zone further or with more depth. And these quests could involve new systems, such as the vehicle system behind siege engines.

Would it be a lot for new players to take in? No doubt. But why wouldn’t you want to introduce some of the more exciting systems to new players early on? Especially when the first quests introducing these systems could help ease them into the mechanics. Overall, it would provide a positive learning experience and hook more players to the game earlier.

Would Renovating Old World Leveling Content Be a Good Business Decision?

It is understandably a large undertaking for the development team to delegate the renovation of classic quests and zone progression. So much so that you do have to ask if the results would be worth the effort. On one hand, if efforts to revamp the old world leveling content cause such a huge delay in new end-game content, old players could end up quitting and Blizzard would lose a large chunk of revenue. On the other hand, Blizzard could be losing thousands of potential customers a year due to the fact that WoW’s leveling content is becoming out-of-date.

Personally, I wouldn’t bother touching old world instances. They are still relevant to leveling and to commit resources to them would be pointless. But the outdoor old world content needs some serious help.

I believe it is more than possible to renovate the old world as sort of a “side project.” Certainly, Blizzard would have to take a few experienced quest designers away from developing new zones and quests, but they don’t have to devote all of them to the renovation project. This would put some focus on both the development of new content, to satiate the veteran appetite, and the improvement of old content, to help retain new players.

Old World Quests Should Better Emphasize Storylines

One of the things that has always bothered me about my first experiences playing a human was that the quests never really did justice to the complexity of the human story arc. Consider the depth of Stormwind’s backstory and its place in the world. To fully explain it would take many pages concerning the history of Stormwind and all of Azeroth.

To briefly explain the the current situation, Stormwind and Theramore are the two strongest human nations remaining after the third war. The rest were either destroyed, exist in isolation, or have largely existed in secrecy.

Stormwind and Theramore are often at odds politically. While Theramore is officially considered the leading nation of the Alliance, and hopes to maintain a truce with Orgrimmar, Stormwind sees itself as the leader of the Alliance’s military in the Eastern Kingdoms and uses the military to impose its own political views (this is especially true in Wrath).

Let’s not forget Stormwind’s internal problems. Its exiled artisans have turned into a band of thieves and assassins called the Defias Brotherhood. With much of Stormwind’s armies away on campaigns in the plaguelands, Northrend and elsewhere, the Defias have managed to take control of much of Westfall, Duskwood and Elwynn. This, along with the general plights of all nations throughout Azeroth, has created a need to hire mercenaries, and this is the primary origin story for all human player characters.

Despite the complexity of Stormwind’s situation in the world, however, much of its history and current politics is not made evident in early the human zones. And for the points that are made clear, they could sometimes be better emphasized. For example, it should be better explained that Stormwind itself exists as a nation recently reborn after the second war against the orcs. It should also be explained why the Defias have come about, and further emphasized why you need to oppose them as a mercenary under the command of the Stormwind Guard.

As an example, human players could start in a more robust area, phased to create a “training grounds” for newly hired human mercenaries. Your trainers could explain the reason you’ve been hired, and that you must earn their trust performing domestic missions before tasked with missions abroad as a mercenary of the Alliance. You could be paid for your service, an effort made to rectify the mistakes made in refusing pay to the artisans that have become agents in the Defias.

Redridge Mountains and the Blackrock Menace as an Example of What Can Be Done

Consider the situation in Redridge. With Stormwind’s forces taxed by the world’s troubles, Lakeshire has lost a lot of support. Furthermore, its trade caravans have been ravaged by murlocs and the Blackrock Clan. To complicate matters, the Blackrock orcs encroach upon Lakeshire itself, and have even taken Stonewatch Keep for their own.

While the killing of Gath’Ilzogg and Tharil’zun, the leaders of the Blackrock Clan in Redridge, serve as a fitting end to the Blackrock storyline in Redridge, it would be possible to add even further developments before arriving to this conclusion. For example, Lakeshire could perhaps catch wind of a potential Blackrock offensive against Lakeshire. In preparation for the attack, a player could be given a quest to collect wood and logs for the construction of makeshift barricades, pallisades and ballistae. That player could then be given a quest that teaches them how to use ballistae. Following this, the orcish army could approach and the player would use a ballista to take out orcish catapults, while other mercenaries battle the orcs on the field. Phasing could be used for this quest so only those defending Lakeshire would see the makeshift defenses and the attacking orcs. Anyone passing through or doing the earlier quests would not be interrupted.

This small questline would then lead to a retaliation by the humans of Lakeshire, which ultimately results in the killing of Gath’Ilzogg and Tharil’zun in Stonewatch Keep. This would better emphasize Lakeshire’s struggle and success in the face of having been forsaken by Stormwind, as well as the Blackrock Clan’s role in Redridge.

It would also provide some supplemental quests needed to help streamline people’s progression through specific zones.

The Argument for Renovation and How to Approach It

I’ve alluded and briefly mentioned the dangers behind renovation. I wouldn’t want the revamping of old world leveling content to halt the development of new and fresh zones and instances. Blizzard must maintain a healthy pace of new content production for it to retain its older players. But I also believe reworking and adding to some the older content would benefit the game and its players in the long-term.

Given how quickly quests and the general gameplay mechanics of WoW are advancing, the renovated content would be much more exciting than what the classic outdoor world currently has to offer. This could lead to the retainment of more new players, meaning guilds would have a larger pool of players from which to recruit.

Unfortunately, however, it’s a fine line to draw. So I believe it should be designated as a “side project” to develop alongside entirely new content. Also, to include both new and old players, perhaps some of the renovated content could be rewarding for both capped and new players.

Everything considered, I think it’s time Blizzard does something to improve one of WoW’s biggest remaining problems.