My (re-)exploration of Alliance lands continues. In fact I even brought my Draenei mage out of retirement as well, so as to have an excuse to quest in both Howling Fjord and Borean Tundra without having to move my priest back and forth between the two zones all the time. It's definitely been inspiring; expect more posts based on observations I made "on the other side" soon.
One of the things that provoked some deep thought in me was the experience of being forced back onto the ground while questing in Northrend, since I don't have a level eighty character on my Alliance server and thus no access to the Tome of Cold Weather Flight. Basically my feelings on the matter can be summed up in two sentences:
1. Argh, why can't I fly, this would be so much easier and faster if I could fly.
2. Oh hey, this place is pretty damn cool when you look at it up close.
Point one is pretty self-explanatory. I keep clicking on my flying mount icon just to be told that I can't use that here. People of my level zoom past me on their swift gryphons and finish the same quests visibly faster. It's kind of annoying.
Yet at the same time, I'm strangely enchanted by my surroundings as I'm forced to pay attention to them once more. I must have explored Howling Fjord about half a dozen times by now, and yet I'm discovering things that I still didn't know were there. Oh, look at that cute little waterfall! Wow, I had no idea there was a bridge here! Oh my god, there's actually a path that allows you to walk up that mountain? Etc.
I'm also a lot more in touch with the creatures around me, and not just literally. When you fly over everything, everywhere is kind of the same in a way. Things that could knock you off your flying mount are very rare, so it's all safe space. When you're bound to the ground on the other hand, you really appreciate the safety of a quest hub, or even the relief of stumbling into an area where most mobs are neutral. You learn to fear specific areas where lots of hostile mobs patrol. In short, you really have to pay attention to the world around you and the game feels more immersive.
Still, I miss the convenience of flying. But then I thought to myself... what if I hadn't done this content while being able to fly before? In fact, what if nobody had a flying mount? I actually don't think that I would miss it all that much. Most quests are designed to be done on the ground, and if we're being honest, all of Azeroth (and Outland) is pretty two-dimensional anyway. Yes, there are mountains and other elevations, but the time you spend climbing hills and going up stairs isn't even remotely close to how much time you spend moving on the horizontal plane.
The Oculus is an example of a place where flying makes sense because it extends about equally into three dimensions. Azeroth and Outland however do not, and all that being able to fly everywhere does to us in those areas is that it effectively removes us from the horizontal plane where all the interesting stuff is happening, and allows us to travel faster through a plane that is pretty much empty. Is that really so great?
I remember questing in Ashenvale for the first time over three years ago. I had no idea what it was like to have a mount, but I still found the long walks from one end of the zone to the other rather tedious and often wished for a speed increase. Getting a mount felt like a logical and welcome improvement of my gameplay experience. Going from riding to flying on the other hand was nothing like that, at least not for me. Riding from one end of the Barrens to the other can still get boring and I might occasionally wish that I could spur my mount to go faster, but I can't say that I ever longed for the ability to just fly over it and skip it all. (I'm not counting flightpaths here because while they allow you to skip selected parts, they don't completely remove the need for ground travel.)
Suddenly the thought of being able to fly everywhere in Cataclysm fills me with dread instead of anticipation. It will be impressive at first, no doubt, but once we've seen everything from above once, what's left? We'll just fly through more empty space most of the time, detaching ourselves even further from the virtual world our characters live in and from all the wonder on the ground that drew us into the game in the first place.