Firstly, the ongoing quests have been updated with Thrall moving to Nagrand to consult the elementalists there, breaking the introductory Mag'har quest line in the process. At least Blizzard seems to have had the foresight to change some things around so that you don't actually need to be friendly with the Mag'har anymore to start questing in Nagrand, otherwise the whole zone would have been broken as a result of that small change.
I remember when I first heard about Thrall handing the Warchief mantle over to Garrosh, I couldn't believe it because... well, why the hell would he do that? His conversation with the elementalists in Nagrand provides a hint at least, as they are urging him to abandon his warchief position and to devote himself completely to shamanism. Considering that he's worried about Azeroth getting torn apart and really wants to soothe the elementals, I can buy that. Garrosh as Warchief or the destruction of an entire planet? Kind of a lose-lose situation there, but one's got to pick something.
Poor guy also gets criticised for his "martial" outfit conflicting with his shaman identity. Have these guys seen any of the shaman tier gear?
Meanwhile, Azeroth really is being invaded this time, with elementals taking over Ironforge, Orgrimmar, Stormwind and Thunder Bluff every two hours or so. Why they are not interested in the other capitals, I don't know. I guess it makes sense from a game-technical point of view, because players would get spread too thin if they were to defend a total of eight cities, not to mention that Silvermoon and the Exodar would be under siege non-stop because nobody would bother to defend them. Still, story-wise it makes me wonder.
I was vaguely aware that this phase was coming, but I didn't know any of the details of how it would work. I just saw someone announcing the elemental invasion in chat while I was checking the auction house on my banker and immediately decided to throw myself into the fray on my main.
Initially nothing seemed to be happening, some guards just shouted warnings about an incoming attack, and NPC citizens appeared to flee the city. At the start of the actual attack only a couple of non-elite elementals spawn, but don't let them fool you - they are not what it's all about. During my first city defence I had no idea what was going on and just kept smiting these random elementals, but what's really happening is that players have to erect barricades around the city, by picking up boxes and dropping them in marked locations.
Once all barricades have been placed, the event starts properly and elemental rifts spawn inside the city, just like they have been doing throughout the world for the past couple of weeks, except that these have more charges and spawn elite mobs. People are quick to form impromptu raids as being grouped up makes it easier to see where others are going, share buffs and dish out heals. Still, if you can't or don't want to join a raid for some reason or another, that doesn't actually stop you from participating. In fact, I had a blast on my druid healing people late at night just by turning friendly health bars on and targetting those who were getting low. It wasn't very efficient, but it was challenging and different, and those whom I saved from certain death more than once certainly appreciated it, shouting cheers for me and emoting love and hugs. Cairne Bloodhoof thought that I was awesome too. (I wouldn't recommend this method when it's very busy however, your screen just fills up with a gazillion friendly name plates and you won't be able to tell what's going on at all.)
There's also something about NPC citizens getting trapped in elemental prisons and people having to free them with totems from the Earthen Ring NPCs, which took me a while to suss out. Either things were so manic that I couldn't see a thing or other people were simply considerably faster at freeing them, so I never even saw any for my first couple of city invasions. It wasn't until I rode to Thunder Bluff's hunter rise early during an attack, which for some reason always seems to be the last place people go to, that I spotted tauren citizens all around that appeared to be stuck in cyclones. I assume the animations for different kinds of elementals look different though.
Famous friendly NPCs also make a an appearance and help you fight - in Orgrimmar for example Garrosh himself joins the fray in the Valley of Strength, Vol'jin helps to defend the Valley of Spirits, and Rexxar returns from Outland to help out in the Valley of Honor. Unlike during the Battle for Undercity and the Zalazane's Fall event they don't give you any buffs though - so people can and will die! I have to say, this is how I like my WoW NPCs best - not acting as buff-bots or holding lengthy speeches, but fighting! I might even grow to
A lot of WoW's recent developments have worked to erode the server community and bring all players of a geographical area together instead, but this event is finally throwing the fans of server identity a bone again. Maybe it's because I play on a roleplaying server - even if actual roleplaying has kind of died out by now, at least on Horde side - but this kind of thing really gets people excited and involved. I guess if you even have a little bit of roleplaying left in you, it's hard to not feel compelled to defend your home city. I really enjoyed seeing people from different guilds work together and spotting a lot of familiar names that I hadn't seen in a while. Really made me feel at home in more than one way.
Incidentally, the rifts in the cities count for Tripping the Rifts, so the guildie of mine who said that he wasn't going to hunt down rifts because eventually the rifts would hunt us down was right. It's really easy to get the achievement now just by participating in a city defence.
For each type of elemental that you repel for good, you'll get access to a special dungeon boss for about half an hour: Crown Princess Theradras for earth, Grand Ambassador Flamelash for fire, Kai'ju Gahz'rilla for water, and Prince Sarsarun for air. On the one hand it's fun to fight "classic" bosses like the princess in a levelled-up state again, but on the other hand I have to admit it annoyed me a little that these all just show up again with no explanation. When we had to face Zalazane again it was at least explained that his previous "kills" had been trickery, but why are all these guys back?
I have to admit I was quite shocked when I found out that they all drop ICC-10 quality loot for a variety of slots as well as sixteen justice points a pop every time you kill them (which you can do over and over and over... for the thirty minutes or so while they are accessible at least). Whenever I think that Blizzard can't top their latest seasonal loot pinata any further, they go ahead and manage it anyway. Still, it's not as if it really matters at this point, it's just some more levelling gear for alts. Plus these guys are actually at least a little bit challenging, I've seen people die during these fights and even came close to a wipe once.
The NPCs also get involved again, with Garrosh helping you against Flamelash and the Princess, and Cairne accompanying you to Zul'Farrak and Ahn'Qiraj. I realised that I never actually saw Cairne fight in-game before; it was fun to see him break out the giant totem poles. And Garrosh doing fighting instead of talking again... I approve, and have to admit I'm already warming up to him a little.
They also give you a quest which rewards you with a bit of extra gold when you kill each of the bosses for the first time, but you better be quick with picking it up, because as soon as the tank starts the fight the two faction leaders will be too busy to talk to you, and unfortunately some people feel the urge to rush in as soon as they zone in so they can finish the fight quickly and immediately requeue some more until the timer runs out. I still don't like "gogogo"-ing, but I have to admit that in this case I can at least understand it somewhat. Even during my own first time fighting the bosses I just made sure to grab the quest quickly, helped with killing the boss, and then paused afterwards to read what the quest text actually said and check my chat log for what the NPCs had been talking about before the fight.
I can really see myself enjoying this phase of the invasion for a while - too bad that it's distracting me from any other pre-Cataclysm goals that I might still have had in mind, but what the hell! There comes a point where you really just want to move on and figure that if you really wanted to achieve all those things in the old world you'd already have done them earlier. Bring on Deathwing! Until then I'll be tripping rifts and picking up a few more pieces of levelling gear for all my alts.