The other night I was looking at my character selection screen on my home server and realised that I didn't really feel like playing any of my Hordies at that particular moment. I needed a change of pace! A minute later I was logging onto a long-abandoned level fifteen dwarf paladin on my main Alliance server. "Helena is a nice name," a friend whispered me via Real ID. "I know, I was surprised that it wasn't already taken when I picked it... and then I stopped playing her for three years of course." That's me and alts, folks.
It's interesting, I've been Horde for so long now and it's where all my friends are, but nonetheless I always feel a bit of a pang when I log onto one of my Alliance characters for the first time after a long absence. It's where it all started for me, and that's something that's simply impossible to forget. I was instantly shocked as well when I realised that Ironforge had turned into a complete ghost town and a /who command only revealed five other players there aside from myself. Surely this server couldn't have become that dead since I last visited? Then I realised of course that due to the portals and the daily quests, everyone's in Stormwind these days. Still, it made me a little sad. While I always preferred Stormwind over Ironforge myself, the great city of the dwarves deserves better than that.
I decided to go quest in Loch Modan, a zone that I had completed fairly recently before the Cataclysm and whose old version was still very fresh on my mind. It's definitely an area that hasn't changed all that drastically in terms of story, despite of most of the Loch having been drained away via the broken Stonewrought Dam.
For the most part, I didn't mind this. If I enjoyed collecting kobold ears before, I'm not going to moan about having to collect gnoll ears instead now. Though going to Stonesplinter Valley made me sad. That place used to be a veritable death trap, with troggs piled five feet high around every corner. At any time you could usually see multiple groups of people trying to carve their way through the dirty masses while trying not to die. Nowadays it's almost empty. I understand nerfing low-level content because you're afraid of scaring off the newbies, but... it was so sad. I didn't feel like I was fighting a menace, I felt like I was hunting down the last members of a rare species, considering how far spaced out the mobs were. I had to clear out the entire valley just to complete my quest to kill twelve troggs - lucky for me that nobody else was around at the same time. I guess a new player wouldn't even notice that they are missing out on the epic experience of feeling truly threatened, but as an alting veteran I kind of missed it.
Another thing that a new player probably wouldn't notice but that felt glaringly obvious to me was the difference between old and new quests. I couldn't help but picture the Cataclysm quest designers pulling up a list of all the quests in the zone and quickly deciding which ones to scrap (like the one to collect various bear, boar and spider parts for a cooking recipe, none of which were marked as quest items and could thus be misplaced, i.e. cooked or vendored, very easily) and which ones to keep, if slightly modified (the vast majority, mostly quests to kill x mobs or collect some not-overly-annoying items). Then they put in some new ones to replace the ones they got rid of, using all the knowledge about quest creation that they've acquired over the years... so you kill ten troggs, gnolls, kobolds - and then you suddenly dress up as a bush. Er. Or you kill ten vultures, crocolisks, boars, and then you ride a rocket-powered flying mount across the zone. Uh. I don't mean for that to sound like a complaint - I enjoy killing mobs, and the last quest I mentioned was awesome and made me laugh. It just threw me for a bit of a loop every time the focus shifted so abruptly.
As for the linearity - I have to say, while I'm not a big fan of it, I mind it a lot less in the lower level zones, probably simply because no single line is all that long. Most lowbie zones only contain a few dozen quests, as opposed to say, Vashjir's 140+. You'll get a change of scenery soon enough. Not to mention that the lowbie zones lack the pressure of having to unlock portals, reputation vendors and the like, so if you really don't like the quests, you can always go off to somewhere else without missing out on anything important. Also, Loch Modan actually surprised me with a little group of quests that felt almost unlike Cataclysm content to me, considering how easily it could be overlooked. A mob you kill for another quest, drops the item Gorick's Stash List - which does not start a quest of its own and can be vendored, however if you actually read it you'll be pointed to the locations of various stolen documents on the ground that do start quests. To be fair, most of them are positioned in such a way that you probably would have found them during your travels anyway, but I still thought that it was a nice nod to people who pay attention to more than just the quest markers on their map.
The one thing that did bother me a little about the linearity at low levels is that it makes the world feel a bit empty. Thelsamar was never an Ironforge, but it used to serve at least as a sort of hub where everyone who was questing in the zone eventually came together because most of the quests started and ended there. This time around I found that a lot of quests had been moved to other mini-hubs instead to save you running time, so I had no reason to hang out in Thelsamar much, and at each mini-hub the chances of actually meeting another player were almost miniscule, as you had to be pretty much within three or four quests of each other in terms of the zone's storyline to have any reason to be in the same place. It made the zone feel kind of lonely - well that, and the severely decimated troggs. No players, hardly any NPCs... is there anybody out there?!
Still, at the end of the day it was a smooth and enjoyable experience. The final quest of the zone was hilarious, and my favourite moment had nothing to do with quests but simply proved to me that exploration is still not dead. I spotted an ore node on my mini-map and walked towards it... until I noticed that it was at the very edge of the massive, gaping chasm that now separates Loch Modan and the Badlands. I edged closer very, very carefully, not wanting to imagine how annoying it must be to accidentally fall down that cliff and go splat at the bottom of the next zone over. It was silly, but it was also exciting. Suddenly I had a whole lot of respect for Cataclysm newbies that dare to brave this area. I remember running into the Badlands as a lowly level fifteen noob and getting roflstomped by a level forty vulture or something... but that chasm honestly looked a lot scarier.