I've been hopping back and forth between a bunch of my lowbie alts lately, looking at the last corners of revamped Azeroth that I hadn't seen yet, and while I've been enjoying the experience overall, it also reminded me of something that has been bugging me about the Cataclysm quest revamp. No, I'm not talking about the speed and ease of levelling this time - I'm thinking of the homogenisation of the two factions.
Let me grab my veteran cane for a moment and say that "back in my day"... I levelled up as Alliance first and found that, in the most general terms, Alliance quests mostly seemed to be about one or more of the following things: politics (mostly human-based), searching for ancient artifacts and lost treasure (dwarves), slightly mad inventors trying to reclaim their lost home (gnomes), protecting nature (night elves) and gathering goods for trade. Basically the Alliance side seemed to represent a "classic" fantasy society that was reasonably well off apart from the occasional intrigue, kobolds in the woods, and bigger but also more vague threats looming beyond the borders.
When I rerolled Horde several months later, it was actually a bit of a culture shock, and not just because Orgrimmar was very different from Stormwind and I kept getting lost in the Undercity. Playing the other faction just felt very different in terms of atmosphere and story. The Horde felt a lot more down to earth, or more savage if you prefer, and the quests seemed to imply that everyone was constantly fighting for survival. They were about hunting for food (tauren), gathering building materials (orcs), trying to carve out some space in the world, ancestor worship, dealing with dark magic (trolls) and struggling with and rebelling against an unpleasant past (undead).
Even though there wasn't a whole lot going on in terms of Horde vs. Alliance in the overarching story, I was always kind of wary of the enemy, because I knew first-hand that they lived in a very different world and had very different priorities.
There've always been zones with neutral quest givers, but those never bothered me. I didn't find it hard to believe that there were outsiders who simply didn't give a damn which side you belonged to and simply wanted to hire you regardless, especially if it concerned a greater cause. I didn't feel that this affected the way I viewed either side.
In Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King, the borders between the factions started to get a little fuzzy however, as they still had separate bases in most zones but often pursued the same goals regardless, which made many faction-specific quests feel a bit same-y. Still, there were a fair chunk of storylines left on each side that were exclusive to that faction and remained in your memory as uniquely Horde or Alliance.
To take Hellfire Peninsula as an example, there are a lot of parallels between the quests from Thrallmar and Honor Hold. Where the Alliance clears up the Path of Anguish, the Horde kills the exact same mobs in Felspark Ravine. While you burn Horde blade throwers for Honor Hold, the Horde has you setting fire to the Alliance cannons on the other side of the map. Both sides send you on the same tough group quest, even if it comes under two different names.
However, the zone also still had plenty of interesting moments that were unique to their faction. On Alliance side, who could forget The Exorcism of Colonel Jules? Who didn't feel bad about the events set in motion In Search of Sedai? Who didn't get tired of players asking in general chat where to find Nethergarde Bitter, over and over again?
In the meantime the Horde got to be amazed to rediscover the clan of its Warchief, the Forsaken got to make friends with some local undead, and vindictive players got to help a duped blood elf woman get revenge on her cheating husband's mistress. While Horde and Alliance may have shared the same goals in regards to the Burning Legion, they were still two distinctly different cultures with different priorities.
In Cataclysm however, it feels to me like the borders haven't just become fuzzy, they've almost been completely erased beyond the immediate starter zones. The two factions seem more and more alike to me, or rather the Horde appears to have become more and more like the Alliance. Orgrimmar may still look very different in style, but it's every bit as pompous as Stormwind these days. Garrosh and Varian are both unpopular warmongers, and the orcs in general feel a lot like more aggressive humans to me, with their fight for survival and shamanistic roots largely swept under the rug. (There is a quest in Durotar where a shaman tries to convince an enforcer to be less hasty and aggressive, gets completely ignored... and nothing bad comes of it.) The Bilgewater goblins have been set up to be "gnomes for the Horde" and even share the gnomish backstory of having lost their home. Even sub-factions have been copied across, and where the dwarven Explorer's League formerly had a monopoly on archaeology as a hobby, the Horde has now received its own version in the Reliquary.
If you look at it at the level of individual quests, the parallels become even more glaring. In neutral zones where both factions have their own bases, it's often shocking to see just how close to identical their quests are. During the end of the Lashtail Hatchling chain in Stranglethorn you talk to a draenei priest who can't speak proper common as Alliance... and as Horde you get a troll priest who speaks orcish exactly the same way. (One of the user comments on the page for the draenei does in fact bring up in-game evidence to show that the character was simply copy and pasted.)
Or take the Badlands, which I replayed only yesterday: as Alliance you get sent out to hunt with a group of dwarf NPCs, as Horde you get a group of orcs with exactly the same abilities. God help us if either faction did anything slightly differently.
This just strikes me as lazy. Clearly the developers thought that if they made a nice quest chain for one faction, they could just copy it over to the other side and get two quests for the price of one! Maybe they even thought that they were doing their players a favour this way, by not "limiting" precious lore to one faction only. I really dislike this practice however. If you're just going to give both sides the same quest, simply make the quest hub neutral and be done with it. Making two faction-specific towns that offer exactly the same quests, only from different NPCs, just waters down faction identity and sets players up for disappointment. The former because a draenei shouldn't be acting like a troll and orcs shouldn't be acting like dwarves, and the latter because by setting up separate bases for the two factions, you create an expectation that they'll actually contain different content that makes it worth levelling an alt of the other faction to see - if you then just end up with a carbon copy of the same content you've already done, that's nothing but a massive letdown.
That aside, I also think that it leads to Blizzard making their own lore less convincing in a way. These days the writers are all about beating the war drums between the two factions, but when the game actually represents both sides as more similar than ever, the hostility only becomes less believable. Don't waste all that wonderful background lore by having all races of both factions pursue the exact same interests in the contested zones!