I mentioned that I haven't actually had a chance to do much questing on my new druid due to zooming through the levels so quickly. I did the Northern Barrens and thought that they were an entertaining enough place, but they haven't really been changed too drastically. All the quests have been updated and streamlined, but you still get to steal the Samophlange and they even left that harpy quest chain in... /shudder.
Around level twenty-five I found time to go to Stonetalon, and I have to say, unlike the Northern Barrens this zone is very different now. It used to be a fairly quiet and serene place with no clear theme to it - kill some wildlife, kill some elementals, and oh, I guess the Venture Co. is a bit of a problem in this corner here. This has changed a lot.
The following is going to be very spoiler-heavy, so don't read on if you have yet to quest in Stonetalon Mountains as Horde and want to be surprised.
It all started innocently enough, with a quest to ride with a caravan from Ashenvale (which I had skipped) to Stonetalon. "Will that cart fit through the tunnel to Stonetalon?" I wondered. And then my jaw dropped as I saw that the formerly narrow tunnel known as the Talondeep Path had been turned into the Talondeep Pass. "I can't believe they blasted through the bloody mountain," was all I could think of for the rest of the ride. In hindsight I suppose that the damage might have been done by Deathwing instead, but it didn't really look that way to me.
Once you arrive in Stonetalon, you're given the rank of grunt via a buff and are told to take care of a variety of tasks for the orcish army in the area, which is heavily involved in battling the Alliance. Kill some Alliance, destroy Alliance stuff, gather and build things to destroy even more Alliance stuff. As you do so, you advance in rank, as your superior comes to appreciate your contributions more and more.
I wasn't at all happy however. All the orcs that I got to work with were either fanatical Hellscream supporters or of peon-level intelligence. In Windshear Crag some orcs were burning down trees with flamethrowers. I thought the whole reason that the orcs cut down so many trees was that they liked to build things out of lumber, not because they get a kick out of blowing stuff up for the sake of it. If this was what the Horde was all about under Garrosh, I didn't really want to be part of it anymore, and I was starting to regret my choice to quest in this zone.
The only thing that made me smile was a side quest to repair a deranged little blood elf girl's pet robot and then go slaughter some Alliance with it to entertain her. Even the battle-hardened Overlord was slightly embarrassed by her request for ice cream after we were done. "I am really not sure where [she] even came from," he admitted uneasily.
Finally you get sent to take the big bomb that the goblins have been building to an Alliance base... or something. Upon arrival you see the local orc general arguing with a tauren druid who tells him that he's mistaken in wanting to attack the giant tree in the vale. It's just a place of learning for young druids; the Alliance isn't hiding any "weapons of mass destruction" there.
I cringed. Is the Horde an evil caricature of the United States now? Please keep real-life politics out of my World of Warcraft! Not to mention that I certainly don't remember that tree being there before the Cataclysm, and for all the changes that he has caused, I don't think that Deathwing planted giant trees anywhere.
The next quest has you going to the tree to investigate. The tauren tells you that he sent his son ahead and that you're supposed to meet with him. Why do I have a bad feeling about this...
As I approached the tree I soon stopped in my tracks. Low-level night elves were running back and forth with fear icons over their heads and shouting things in a language I couldn't understand. Such a simple thing and yet so evocative. I actually felt my stomach tighten as I climbed the tree towards the yellow question mark on my mini map. It was worse than I had feared: the young tauren was already dead, and in his cold hand he was still clutching the badge of the orcish general. Oh god.
I dutifully reported back to the tauren chieftain, who had been joined by his wife in the meantime. They were both extremely distraught by their son's death, and I joined them with a couple of /cry emotes because I felt sad too. I've reported the death of a lot of NPCs in my time, but rarely did the ones left behind express such grief.
Of course the story had nowhere nice to go from there. The tauren couple confronts the general about his involvement in their son's death and he basically launches into a villainous speech about how the young tauren was a weakling anyway etc. He's also mad at the player for unconvering his plot and in the ensuing kerfluffle the tauren couple helps you to kill the orc and his henchmen after they attack you.
But the pain isn't over yet. The tauren still haven't turned on the Horde; they are horrified by what happened and want you to plead with the Overlord, to let him know that the general was the one who started it all. I returned to his fortress with a feeling of dread. I had seen a couple of quests where Blizzard now gives you different dialogue options when talking to NPCs, but the overall outcome didn't seem to be different. Would I really get a chance to tell the Overlord what I wanted to?
Of course not. From the way the quest completes it's prescribed that you only tell him that those nasty tauren killed the general and the Overlord immediately rushes off to deal with the matter. I was so frustrated! There are linear stories and then there is pure railroading. Never in my life did I want anything more than to be able to just have a fricking choice in a WoW quest.
Wondering how much worse it was possibly going to get, I returned to where I had last seen the tauren couple and found the wife's corpse at my feet upon landing. The chieftain himself had been subdued by the Overlord and was kneeling at the edge of the cliff, looking out at the giant tree in the distance. The orc greeted me enthusiastically and told me to witness what it means to be Horde... at which point he sent the balloon with the bomb attached to it at the giant tree, it blew up in a ginormous explosion and left nothing behind but a giant black crater.
I felt close to tears. I've done quests where I accidentally helped the bad guy before, but somehow the results never felt all that bad. Oh, so I helped to bring Hakkar back? Oh well, that's one more raid boss for us to kill! But this... this was just all around horrible, seemed to serve no purpose and was supposedly sanctioned by my entire faction. I was about ready to stop playing Horde for good.
It was during this moment of deepest despair that a portal opened behind me and Garrosh stepped through. Great, just when I thought that it couldn't get any worse... except: Garrosh wasn't happy either. A fully voiced dialogue followed, during which he expressed extreme distaste at the way the Overlord had murdered innocents, while quoting Saurfang about honour - this felt very poignant, as he doesn't actually name him but I instantly recognised the quote from ICC. Pissed off to the nth degree, he then grabs the Overlord by the throat and tosses him off the cliff. Oh.
As he turned around to look at me with the words "And you!" I did a /cower emote and wanted to do nothing more than vanish on the spot. I sure did deserve his wrath, but the sad tauren chieftain of all people spoke up in time to save me from being the next one off the cliff and Garrosh eventually left while grumbling about how I should find better things to do elsewhere.
At the end my immersion broke a little as I couldn't help but wonder why the quest completion ended in the tauren chieftain offering me some gear after all that had happened, and when I took too long to pick my reward and complete the quest, the phase reset with the Overlord respawning next to me. I quickly pressed the complete button just to get him out of my sight.
I have to give Blizzard kudos for really getting me emotionally involved in this story. It covers some pretty serious ground, most importantly the terrible feeling of being caught in a vicious circle where things only ever get worse and you're unable to stop it.
On the other hand however, I'm not entirely sure whether this kind of story is really appropriate for a game like WoW. I don't mean that you can't have any serious or sad quests, but... it's basically an entire zone's worth of quests building up to you facilitating something atrocious. This isn't like watching a sad movie, this is you acting out something bad yourself. How many times do you really want to do that? How many times do you want to get all these people killed (again)? Your only option to avoid it is to is to just not play in this zone at all. I for one am likely to avoid Stonetalon when levelling any alts from now on because I'm not keen on supporting these particular events again, and I'm not sure whether designing content like that is a very good idea when you heavily rely on your game having a lot of replay value.
On a side note, I'm really curious now what this zone looks like from Alliance side, as there is an Alliance base not far from the giant tree. Do they live in a blissful alternate world where this story never happens? Is the area already a giant crater when you come there to quest? Or do you actually witness the events from afar, as more evidence of why you should really hate the Horde?