Return to Zul'Aman

So, tonight my guild went to tackle the new Zul'Aman. I ended up tanking on my druid instead of healing this time, due to us having different people online - and really, I just wanted to play with my guildies, I didn't care that much about my exact role. And finally those months of gearing up my druid paid off! I sometimes feel silly upgrading my alts' gear as much as I do, especially if I then hardly ever end up playing the role that I geared for, but occasionally you get a moment like this, where you suddenly need a reasonably geared character for a specific purpose and it feels all the sweeter to be able to provide what's needed.

Where Zul'Gurub feels inspired by its previous incarnation but otherwise features a whole host of completely new encounters, Zul'Aman is almost exactly the same as it was before. Bosses have been tweaked to accommodate the smaller group size, and the last boss is called Daakara instead of Zul'jin now (and he's got two eyes and two arms, shocking), but the core mechanics of the instance have stayed the same.

I have to say, in some ways it felt good to wipe on the last trash pull before Nalorakk again, or to fail at stopping one of Jan'alai's scouts in time. It always hurt me to see people steamrolling this content from patch 3.0 onwards, and it's nice to see that the mobs have levelled up and demand respect again. However, at the same time there is no way of going back to how things used to be. The trash has been thinned out considerably and I kept looking for patrols and hidden pulls that simply weren't there anymore. The patrols in the dragonhawk area don't keep respawning anymore, so you don't have to constantly huddle close together or risk aggroing something from behind. The bosses also felt a lot easier than the ones in Zul'Gurub and we one-shot all of them except Nalorakk, where we had a mess-up with one of the new mechanics at first. To be fair though, I don't know how much of that was due to the fact that I ran the place to death back in TBC and thus knew how to handle all the unchanged mechanics in my sleep.

One thing that really gave me food for thought was the Akil'zon fight, which was the first one we did. This one kept all of its original mechanics... and had a new one added. Think about that for a moment. Level 70 Zul'Aman was a pretty high-level raid, about on par with the tier five twenty-five-mans. Now it's been downsized to a Cataclysm five-man, and apparently they actually had to add mechanics to keep it interesting. I always scoff when people complain that instance bosses are getting too complex, but that one boss fight really highlighted the truth of it for me, when what used to be a reasonably challenging raid boss a few years ago is now considered too simple even for a five-man and needs to be upgraded. The mind boggles.

Similarly I realised that Nalorakk really used to be nothing but the tanks standing on top of each other and taunting back and forth. With only one tank available in a five-man, the developers added something to make the rest of the party move around a bit. Same thing with Halazzi really, who used to be all about standing still and sharing the saber lash damage. Now he drops a healing totem instead so the tank has to keep moving him.

Janalai was kind of funny, because I only told the dps to kill one of the hatchers but didn't think of reminding them that, if we were still following the same tactics as at level 70, they'd eventually have to kill the second hatcher too so that we'd have time to AoE down the dragonhawks he had spawned and to give the flame buffet debuff some time to drop off. As it was, the second hatcher kept running around freely and a steady stream of hawks kept on coming until they were all gone. I just ran in circles maniacally, spamming my AoE abilities whenever they came off cooldown, but we seemed to survive just fine. Back in the day that never would have worked simply because few classes had strong AoE abilities.

The last two bosses felt like a bit of a letdown, considering how hard I still remember them being. Daakara doesn't even call upon all the different animal spirits, only two of them. And most importantly, they didn't bring back the cool music at the end. :(

In summary I would say, I think that Blizzard did a good job updating the instance for the new level cap, and to someone who never did it back in TBC, running it now should certainly be a much more rewarding experience than just soloing the entire place in fifteen minutes used to be. However, as someone who got her Amani War Bear back in the day, running this new Zul'Aman kind of made me feel like a middle-aged woman who's having a midlife crisis and desperately trying to recapture her youth. The instance has nothing new to offer me, other than a couple of new pieces of loot. I'll probably run it a couple of times with guildies, but other than that I don't think it'll interest me that much. There is no way to turn back time, not even in a computer game.


Epic adventures in Zul'Gurub

I just spent all evening fighting my way through Zul'Gurub with a guild group. It took us almost five hours to complete the instance. It's not really difficult enough that it should take that long, especially with a group that was mostly overgeared for it, but it was just one of those things. Slight dawdling around ("Look at that giant turtle, I need that for a quest!"), having to replace people when they grew too tired, trying the fights without having looked up all the tactics first, and of course, patch day syndrome: I swear, I got disconnected almost every single time I died and released to the graveyard, and every so often my screen would freeze up the moment our tank pulled a boss, not to unfreeze again until we were all dead (and then I would of course get disconnected again). It was rather a pain.

At least one of my fellow guildies seemed to grow increasingly frustrated with every wipe, but I really thrived on the challenge. Every wipe just made me want to beat the content more, and when we finally killed Jin'do I was too tired to cheer, but certainly satisfied.

I really liked the instance as a whole. I was surprised to see that it doesn't have a normal mode, which is a first for a WoW five-man I believe, and also a bit nonsensical if you think about it. If there is no normal mode, isn't heroic mode the normal mode? After all, there isn't anything else... still, it was good fun.

Even the trash was entertaining. There are a lot of mobs around that make the place feel alive, but most of them are neutral so you don't have to engage them if you don't want to. The ones that you do have to fight often have a mechanic that you'll encounter in a boss fight later, effectively preparing you for the fight even if you've never done it before. I thought that was cool. There were also a couple of Frogger-like passages to break things up. The one with the falling rocks even wiped us initially.

The bosses were all pretty cool as well. Venoxis took us several tries until everyone had understood all the different types of green goo that they had to avoid and how. I felt rather powerless as a healer because too many of these effects killed people before I could do anything to save them if they messed up. I was rather pleased when we finally killed him and I got the It's Not Easy Being Green achievement.

Mandokir was rather amusing when he immediately ran up and decapitated me, mere seconds into the fight. Of course I then got resed by the spirits, and we kept fighting and noobing around for a long time until I eventually ran out of mana. We were very pleased to see the legendary "ding - grats" exchange make a return. On the second try he died without problems.

I was also rather happy to see that the Edge of Madness has been kept around as a place where dedicated players can summon a random bonus boss. We got Gri'lek, who gave me flashbacks to Karazhan and the big bad wolf - which is a good thing!

High Priestess Kilnara won the award for causing the funniest wipe, as we went in blindly once again, burned her down and then got pounced on by all her panthers at once. It took us another two attempts or so to get things right, and we decided to go for the Here, Kitty Kitty... achievement as well. Strangely enough only two people in the party got it, even though it should have been shared (as the whole party had to contribute to its success), which was somewhat disappointing.

Zanzil turned out to be a major road block, which seemed appropriate considering that he's living on Jin'do's old hill and old Jin'do used to be similarly annoying. While we understood how to use the cauldrons, the small zombies kept giving us trouble, plus people kept randomly dying to the fire trail. It is very harsh though, what with it ticking for 50k damage a second. One small step at the wrong time can kill you quite easily. This is where we lost our first dpser to tiredness, but fortunately we had a replacement online in guild. I lost count of just how many attempts this guy took us, but in the end we got him down (though it was once again close as several people had already died by the time he fell).

Jin'do was another really tough one, and eventually our tank also wanted to log off and sleep. Our retribution paladin switched to tanking and we gave four-manning the fight a shot but didn't quite succeed. Our group leader was close to calling it since we didn't have any more replacements online, but I begged to try once more with a random from the dungeon finder. We got a nice fury warrior who did a great job after we briefly explained the strategy to him, and two attempts later the achievement spam from completing the instance finally flashed across guild chat.

I'm convinced that we'll do much better next time, now that we know all the fights, but I do have to wonder how viable that instance will be to pug, or to put it differently, how long it will take until it will be viable to pug. Mandokir and Kilnara shouldn't be too hard to get the hang of, but all the other fights strike me as requiring a pretty high focus even once you know the tactics (dancing around all the goo on Venoxis, switching between the cauldrons on Zanzil, juggling the different kinds of spirits on Jin'do), and that's many a pug's greatest weakness. I also reckon that these fights won't be completely trivialised by better gear quite as quickly.

Tomorrow: Zul'Aman! I'm rather anxious to see what the developers have done to my former favourite raid, though considering how much fun I had in ZG tonight, I'm optimistic.


Alliance vs. Horde AGAIN, and the zones the Cataclysm forgot

After completing all the quests in Stonetalon, my rogue moved on to the Southern Barrens. This is another one of the zones that have been reworked completely, at least for Alliance, because it didn't actually used to have any content worth mentioning in that area. I enjoyed it for that newness alone, and a subtle reference to Mankrik's wife made me chuckle.

Camp Taurajo has been razed by the Alliance, and there's a quest to take care of some looters in the ruins. Like in Darkshore, there were named corpses all over the place, but for some reason it hardly affected me. Mind you, while my first ever Horde character was a tauren and levelled through the Barrens, I don't have the same kind of fond memories of the place that I have of Auberdine, so that definitely played a part, but I think part of it was also simply that I was playing the other faction. As such, dead enemies weren't really that interesting to me and I tried to mostly ignore them. I'm pretty sure that if I were to visit the place again as Horde, I'd feel very differently.

The one thing that disappointed me a little was that it was yet another zone that was focused on the Alliance vs. Horde conflict. Yes, I know it's a core part of the game, but that doesn't mean that I want all my quests to be about it all the time. Maybe it's just the levelling path I chose, but basically I went from Ashenvale (oh noes the Horde has taken Silverwind Refuge) to Stonetalon (oh noes the Horde wants to bomb us) to the Southern Barrens (oh noes the Horde is attacking Northwatch) and it just never seemed to end. Maybe it's my bias from usually playing Horde that made me a bit uncomfortable there after a while, though the fact that one of the quest givers was a complete jerk whom I just wanted to strangle didn't help either.

Moving on to Dustwallow Marsh, I found that this zone didn't appear to have been changed at all, except for some very, very minor tweaks to the geography and the like. It's understandable, seeing how it was already revamped once back in 2.3, which pretty much put it on par with Outland content. So it's less linear than the other zones now and you'll have to do do more running back and forth, but it's still good fun.

I was just slightly miffed that the missing diplomat type chain hasn't been updated either, except for Jaina laughing at you at the end and going "oh right they kidnapped Varian, lol, that was ages ago and he's back now". Okay, so she doesn't actually say that, but it sure felt like it.

I then randomly got out another alt, my warlock, and had a look at the new Arathi Highlands for a change of pace, the one zone that I had skipped during my paladin's otherwise pretty linear quest progression. I had heard some rumours that this zone was really bad and hadn't been updated properly, and I'm sad to say that it's all true. I don't know what it's like for the Horde as they have a new outpost on the western edge of the map, so I'm assuming that they must have some new content to tackle, but on Alliance side it's literally the same old, same old. It's telling that the Arathi Highlands quest achievement only requires you to complete 18 quests, the lowest number of all zones. How do you make it through five or more levels on so few quests? Easily, as they are still as grindy as they used to be in vanilla. After clearing my way into the kobold cave for the Myzrael quest, out again and then in again just to collect enough quest items, I was about ready to bang my head against a wall.

Basically, I imagine that the revamp of this zone happened like this: the designers had already finished every other zone in the northern part of the Eastern Kingdoms, but realised that they were running out of time until the expansion's release, so they decided to just give the zone an emergency clean-up along the lines of "okay, tell me five things that used to annoy you about Arathi Highlands and we'll change those".

"That guy Fozruk wandering all over the place; I could never find him when I needed him!" - "Okay, we'll just have him stand in front of that rock over here."

"That Forsaken courier patrol! They used to kill me all the time. And then when I got the quest to kill them they were once again nowhere to be found." - "Fine, we'll remove most of them and just leave one guy. And um, he'll just run in circles on this small piece of road as if he's confused about where he was meant to go. Yeah."

"Stromgarde was kind of fun, but it was annoying that you had to run in and out repeatedly to complete that quest with the tower." - "No problem, we'll just have a quest NPC in there that moves you right along."

"Speaking of running around, the Myzrael chain used to require you to go to the Badlands or something, didn't it?" - "Not anymore, it doesn't. Next!"

"Faldir's Cove is a cool place, but ninety-nine percent of players never even found it in the past!" - "Okay, let's carve a big tunnel towards it into the mountain and put a sign in front of it that says 'here be pirates'. And add a breadcrumb quest for good measure. Oops, we're out of time, so that will have to do."

I thought it was telling that when I first entered the zone, I could only pick up two quests at Refuge Pointe - one to kill lots of mobs in one corner of the map, and one to kill lots of mobs in the opposite corner of the map. /facepalm. And they even allowed Myzrael to remain an elite mob and technically a group quest, though I didn't even notice until she spawned and my warlock still soloed her with ease.

It was really kind of shocking. So many lovingly revamped zones and then a rush job like that. I always felt pretty neutral about Arathi, neither loving nor hating it, but with the quests in the surrounding zones being so much smoother, having nothing to do except grind endless amounts of elementals, ogres and syndicate mobs all across the map sure made this one stick out like a sore thumb. I seriously hope that Blizzard is going to give it a proper revamp in one of the upcoming content patches.


On my way through night elf lands

I'm a levelling machine! Once I had decided to park my dwarf paladin at sixty for the time being, I immediately picked up another old alt, in this case my level fifteen human rogue, and took her to Darkshore to get onto the questing path in Kalimdor.

Darkshore is still a wonderful zone, though I admit that I might be biased as this is where my little night elf priest first learned the ropes back in vanilla. As such it's never been a zone that I would have named as one of my favourites (I generally prefer things a little less melancholy and a bit more green), but every time I go back there, a part of me immediately feels at home. It's funny how much that early conditioning can stick.

The zone is one of the ones that have been changed more drastically by the Cataclysm, and the quests have been overhauled completely to reflect this, but somehow it still manages to retain the same old feel and atmosphere (which I consider a good thing). It's also a zone that struck me as particularly attractive to old-timers who are rolling a new alt, because there are a lot of references to the way things used to be that won't mean much to a new player but will definitely catch a veteran's attention.

The quest line dealing with the destruction of Auberdine is the most striking example of this. I won't claim that I immediately recognised any names I read during The Last Wave of Survivors, but many of them seemed familiar in a vague way, so I went to look them up and then usually went "nooo, not him/her" and felt distressed, as if Deathwing had killed someone that I personally knew. It's interesting how little things like that can get to you.

There are also the Shatterspear trolls, and I for one felt a pang of sadness remembering how they used to be neutral and people would hurl themselves off mountains to go dance with them, yet now they are getting slaughtered in the name of the Alliance. War, what is it good for?

Oh, and the Master's Glaive! For years we wondered what lay buried there, and now we finally get some backstory for it, which again, wouldn't be anything special to a new player, but for someone who has wondered about that strange site many times in the past, it's very satisfying.

Gameplay-wise it's worth mentioning that Blizzard attempted to alleviate all the running up and down caused by the elongated shape of the zone both by more sensible quest design as well as by implementing night saber riders that will give you a ride between different sites, which is a reasonable enough solution to move players quickly between places where it wouldn't make sense to have full-blown flight paths but that are still far enough apart that all the running will start to bore players without a mount. There's also a quest that allows you to acquire a permanent run speed buff that works in the entire zone.

Moving on to Ashenvale felt mildly disappointing in comparison, as it hasn't been changed nearly as much. The conflict with the Horde has been escalated, but overall a lot of the old quests were kept and simply adjusted somewhat. This is not entirely a bad thing, as Ashenvale had some pretty memorable quest lines to begin with, but still the final result wasn't as exciting as I had hoped. For example I had heard a rumour some time ago that the new Dartol's Rod quest line would allow you to keep the rod at the end, but that didn't turn out to be true, and the new version of the rod can only be used in Ashenvale anyway. Slightly disappointing.

The zone's lore also felt inconsistent to me. I've talked about the "Haven't I killed this guy before?" syndrome before, but it's really not just about named NPCs. Why can the Alliance procure an entire keep out of thin air in Swamp of Sorrows, but Forest Song still looks as if they started building it yesterday, after nearly five years? The passage of time sure has left a lot of anomalies after the Cataclysm. Oh, and speaking of anomalies, there was also a quest that has you defending Astranaar against a Horde attack, and while phasing was used to show fires and enemy windriders, all the NPCs still calmly went about their business in the middle of it all, completely undisturbed, which was just weird.

The transition from Ashenvale to Stonetalon was pleasantly smooth, with a couple of quests "spilling across the border" so to speak, which I liked as it felt more natural and less as if you were simply playing a game and just ticking off another zone as "done". There was also an explanation for why some quest givers are able to talk to you remotely as one of the gnome NPCs at Stardust Spire builds a "gnomecorder" for you - it's just a shame that this same technology is also automatically assumed to already be existent in several other (including lower-level) zones without any kind of explanation. Plus, you kind of wonder why the NPCs don't use such a powerful technology for more important things than talking to the random schmuck that they sent out to kill ten orcs.

I was curious what Stonetalon would be like for Alliance after my rather intense playthrough of the Horde side. It was... not as exciting to be honest. I was kind of disappointed to see that more than a few quests were complete carbon copies of what I had experienced on Horde side, and not just mechanics-wise. The Alliance even has its own deranged little girl with a pet robot! The big plot happening on Horde side only comes into play in a marginal role really - the Alliance discovers the bomb and you manage to delay its deployment a bit, but in the end you don't make that much of a difference. I don't know why the big climax of that story didn't touch me as much as Alliance. Part of it was probably that it wasn't played up as much, not to mention that I already knew how it was going to end, but more importantly I guess it was just another instance of "watching the Horde being jerks" as opposed to the massive guilt trip the Horde story puts you through.

The rest of the zone was kind of mix and match. Fight the Horde and gather some stuff. Alright I guess. Lore-wise it was interesting to see the Alliance try to ally with the Grimtotem. I also hit exalted with Darnassus about halfway through, which seemed way too easy, but whatever. Oh, and was I the only one who kept looking for some kind of follow-up to Brood of Seldarria that involved doing something to Seldarria herself? It just seemed very atypical for a WoW quest giver to go "oh noes, a black dragon... let's, um, smash up some of its eggs and then leave it alone".


Through the Dark Portal... or maybe not

My little dwarf paladin hit level sixty yesterday, less than three weeks after I decided to start playing her again, and after what were effectively only a handful of play sessions. I suppose that's hardly amazing considering that I often hear that you can take a character the entire length of the way from 1 to 85 within less than a week these days, but to me, a player who always spends a lot of time idling, exploring and faffing around with professions, it still feels huge. A month ago I hardly even remembered that this character existed, now she's my toon with the fourth highest level on that server. The zones flew by so fast it's silly.

I also thought it was kind of funny when I hit sixty about halfway through the Blasted Lands and the anti-fun team's XP penalty for "playing in the wrong expansion" kicked in. As I watched my experience bar's progress slow down massively, I actually found myself thinking "yeah, that feels more like it". I also noticed the number of experience points needed to level, something I hardly ever pay attention to, and it was less than 300k. I distinctly remember coming to Hellfire Peninsula for the first time and marvelling at the fact that my next level was over a million XP away. How times change.

Anyway, mini reviews of the zones I covered on my way - there were four of them as they were all relatively short:

Searing Gorge

Apart from Lunk the friendly ogre (who is very amusing), this zone felt very familiar. You're still helping the Thorium Brotherhood, though they become friendly much more quickly now than they used to, to kill the same old Dark Iron dwarves with the exact same names (déjà vu?) - but it's still more fun now than it used to be in my opinion, as everything has been strung together into a more cohesive story and they got rid of the need to constantly crawl down into the Cauldron and back up again. That thing used to be the bane of my existence whenever I quested my way through that zone, as I'd inevitably get lost somewhere in the tunnels or on the metal scaffolding outside, unable to find my way back up, and there'd be Dark Irons everywhere and GAH! Now they just dump you at a tunnel entrance towards the end of the zone, you antagonise the Dark Irons in every way you can at once, then you climb up again and that's it. This is one case where I'm honestly in favour of simplification.

Burning Steppes

I can't really say that I miss anything about the way the Burning Steppes used to be, because as far as I remember there simply wasn't that much there in the first place. Back in Vanilla I just remember it as this place where everyone went to farm Thorium and dragon scales. Nowadays players get to meet up with Rambo Corporal Keeshan, whom an Alliance player may or may not have met before in Redridge Mountains (a zone which I did on another character right after the Shattering). He once again concocts a crazy plan that allows the two of you to defeat a huge army on your own, and it's still funny. I was just disappointed that there was no mention of, erm... how he got from where he was at the end of Redridge to hanging out in Burning Steppes. The final quest of the zone displayed what I thought was one of the rare cases of a good use of the cut scene mechanic.

Swamp of Sorrows

The next stop in the natural zone progression was the Swamp of Sorrows, which used to be a bit out of the way to get to from the Burning Steppes. Blizzard decided to fix this by adding a mountain highway straight from the latter zone to the swamp, and it just so happens to be traversed by a random woman on a rocket mount who has nothing better to do than sit on a rock in the Burning Steppes all day, waiting for customers. Convenient, but somewhat contrived.

Swamp of Sorrows used to be a very dull place for Alliance (and actually for Horde too as far as I'm concerned) and to be honest it's still not that exciting, though at least there's something to do. There are Steamwheedle goblins, Itharius wanting to get into the Sunken Temple and a newly erected Alliance base among other things. The latter kind of bugged me simply because from what I could see of Stonard from my limited Alliance point of view, it still looked like the same old somewhat poorly equipped outpost that it's always been, but the Alliance somehow managed to erect an entire keep out of nowhere in the meantime. Developer bias!

Blasted Lands

The Blasted Lands are once again a zone that I remember as pretty boring and empty before the Cataclysm. There used to be a couple of longish quest chains that led you there for some reason or another, but there wasn't much in the way of proper quest hubs. This has been rectified and it's fun. The zone has been spiced up a bit via the inclusion of some greenery, wildlife and worgen in the Tainted Scar, but nods to the way things used to be are still around as well. For example you can run into some mobs that still use the ancient high elf model (hideous!), and the old blood mages that used to give out boring buff quests are still around, as proper quest givers this time. I also found one slightly hidden quest (read: no exclamation point or sparkles to start it), which was both sweet and sad. A good mix of story and random adventure in my opinion.

I have to admit that I felt a slight distaste at the thought of continuing through the Dark Portal after that - I don't share many people's opinion that Burning Crusade content is just horrible to play through these days, but there's definitely a big break in terms of style and story, and it feels jarring. I'll probably leave my little dwarf at sixty for a while and move on to the next alt in order to explore more of the new low-level zones. My paladin never even had to leave the Eastern Kingdoms, so there's a lot left to discover.


Recruitment is frustrating

I still enjoy raiding and my guild is progressing well enough on principle, but we keep having to cancel raids due to not having enough players. We're advertising on the official forums and via in-game chat, but it's been nearly two months since we had any kind of application at all. It's immensely frustrating. When I ask around I get told that it's the same for all guilds, but that still doesn't answer the question of why.

Many people say that the raids are too difficult and that this has killed the player base's interest in raiding, but I don't really buy that. Or rather, I can believe that this is true for many but I don't see how it explains such a massive dearth of recruits. Raids in Burning Crusade weren't exactly faceroll either, but I don't remember there ever being such a lack of interest in them. Not to mention, to come to the conclusion that raids are too hard or not fun for you or whatever, you'd at least have to give them a try - where are all the new players trying to break into raiding? My guild is pretty casual these days, so it's not as if we have huge expectations and are only open to the most experienced, but still we don't see any of them.

I wonder how much the fragmentation of the server community plays a role. It feels like you have little reason to interact with people outside your guild anymore, maybe the occasional Baradin Hold pug and that's it. I used to have plenty of contacts outside our guild, but they have mostly dried up. Five-mans used to be the big thing to do with people outside your guild occasionally, but the dungeon finder has mostly killed that off too. So it's not until you're short on raiders that you realise that you've got nowhere to turn. I keep thinking that I should make a point of running the daily heroic again and ask in general chat whether anyone wants to join to get to know people, but seeing how I'm a healer and healers are exactly what we're missing, that strategy wouldn't really achieve much.

Strangely enough, the whole guild levelling system doesn't seem to help either. You can question whether the guild perks are really all that, but it's an additional mental barrier to prevent you from leaving your old guild for sure. I actually hit exalted with Onslaught only yesterday, almost four months after expansion release, and most people in my guild still have a fair way to go. I doubt this kind of thing is keeping anyone in a guild that they hate, but if you're just considering leaving to join a raid guild for example, it's one more thing you risk to lose if things don't work out. Not to mention the issue of whether your raids count as guild groups in the eyes of the in-game system, something that has effectively killed off multi-guild raid forces and discourages filling holes with the occasional pugger.

And then... there is the issue of ten-man raiding. So many people thought that ten-man raiding becoming the new focus would make everyone happier, but I'm not sure it's working out that way. People thought that fewer people would mean less organisational effort, and in many ways it does, but maintaining a balanced roster with neither too few nor too many raiders is harder than ever, and multiple smaller raid groups means that more people have to take on the burden of being raid leaders than before.

Also, the whole "raiding with my friends only" thing has turned out to be a double-edged sword in my opinion. How many people cheered that they would now finally be able to focus on raiding with the nine players they liked best, without having to "carry" the chaff of fifteen others? (I wasn't one of them, but there were many.) However in the end, if one or two of your friends leave the game and you need replacements, who do you turn to? What are the chances that you always have a close friend at hand who can provide just what you need? In the end most guilds need people who are willing to be raiders first and friends second (at least initially). But if everyone else is already friends, who wants to be the one guy who has to struggle to fit in? Since you only need ten people, you're probably better off trying to make your own raid group with players that are already your friends. Except that you're probably one or two slots short in the end as well... And so it continues as everyone just sticks to their little cliques, which are too large to be absorbed into another ten-man but too small to be stable on their own.

This is all just rambly theorising of course, as I don't have any proof of these things beyond my own impressions and the occasional chat with other players. But I do feel that something is off, and I still don't think that it's the raid content itself. I'd be happy to hear other people's thoughts on the subject, and suggestions for solutions if you've got any.

Oh, and Onslaught on Earthen Ring-EU Horde side is recruiting. Of course. /cough


Gathering in a shattered world

Most of the alts that I've created since the Cataclysm have a gathering profession of some sort, sometimes paired with a matching crafting profession. I'm finding it quite noticeable how gathering has been changed in the revamped old world.

Mining has probably undergone the biggest changes. It used to be... not really difficult, but somewhat messy, as different ores with different skill requirements were all over the place. I'm sure that everyone who's ever levelled a miner before the Cataclysm knows the feeling of finding a random iron or mithril node in what's otherwise a low-level zone and then doing a dejected /cry emote next to it because you didn't actually have sufficient gathering skill to collect the shinies. Or maybe that was just me. Either way, give me a break, I only just started on tin! And who ever thought that Stonetalon Mountains should have mithril nodes in it anyway?

This could sometimes be frustrating, but it also made ores very valuable because it was hard to do any focused gathering. Thousand Needles used to be considered a good place to mine iron for example, but it had just as much - if not more - copper and tin nodes taking up space, and nodes were generally pretty sparse to begin with, at least compared to something like herb spawn points.

Well, let's just say, the Cataclysm changed that as well. There are still "transitional" zones where you'll find more than one type of ore (for example tin and iron in the Wetlands), but never more than two different types, not counting the rare spawns like gold and silver. A lot of zones however have been "purified" completely. Western Plaguelands? All iron, all the time. Badlands? Same with mithril. Searing Gorge? Also nothing but mithril. (I thought that was funny actually, considering how all the outposts are called Thorium something-or-other. It doesn't quite add up now.) In addition, the number of ore nodes in general struck me as having been increased a lot and it's now more on par with herbs. I don't have any hard data to back this up, but it really was very noticeable. For example I'd go to an ogre cave in the Badlands and find four or five nodes right around the entrance, then another five inside, and by the time I came back out again everything outside had already respawned again as well. To someone who's used to ore, especially certain types, being a rare and precious commodity, that's simply insane.

It shows on the auction house as well, with many ores only going for a couple of silver per piece these days. I reckon that levelling a crafting profession that depends on mining, and especially on particular kinds of ores (*cough* blacksmithing *cough*), must be a lot easier these days than it used to be, even without any nerfs to the actual crafting requirements. I guess that's a good thing, though I have to admit that finding multiple different ores in each zone somehow felt more natural to me.

Now, skinning has sort of gone the opposite way. It was always the easiest gathering profession to level, because you didn't have to seek out any gathering nodes, you just clicked to loot the body of each beast or whatever else Blizzard considered skinnable a second time to get some leather as well. Unsurprisingly, the spoils from this weren't worth a whole lot. I remember always vendoring light hides for example, because there was just such a huge oversupply that there was no point in trying to auction them for even the smallest profit.

It's still just as easy to level skinning, but there just doesn't seem as much to skin as there used to be. The mobs in most low-level areas have been thinned out considerably so you're less likely to have to kill anything that just happens to be in your way, and it's harder to find a good leather grinding spot when everything's so far apart. In addition the number of "kill ten wolves" type of quests has been reduced greatly because people always complained that they are boring, so you generally don't have reason to kill as many skinnable mobs anymore as you level up. This shows itself on the auction house as well, and I was shocked when I saw one of the aforementioned light hides go for more than a piece of iron ore. The mind boggles.

It also stinks big time if you're a leatherworker. Mind you, the skinning/leatherworking combo has involved a certain amount of leather grinding for as long as I can remember, but Cataclysm has taken it to new and ridiculous levels. My baby hunter found herself grinding mobs in Elwynn Forest for ruined leather scraps of all things, because they are the best way of getting through the first couple of leatherworking levels. I remember once upon a time I was annoyed when mobs in the Barrens still gave me scraps long after I had moved on from that, but now I struggled to get any at all! Oh, and ten levels later I was back to grind yet again, for light leather this time as my levelling had taken me onwards to medium and heavy leather dropping creatures way too quickly. What a nightmare.

Herbalism has probably changed the least, though herb spawns appear to be even more plentiful these days than they used to be. Good times to level inscription I guess, though not so much as an alchemist, because the difference between common and rare herbs seems to be just as pronounced as ever, if not more so. Case in point, I needed a lot of goldthorn to make it past a certain skill level range of my alchemy, but all I could find in the level-appropriate zones were piles and piles of blindweed, fadeleaf, khadgar's whisker and kingsblood. Eventually I looked it up on Wowhead and they actually had comments there guiding you towards what's only a handful of very limited goldthorn spawn points in multiple zones. I understand that different herbs grow in different environments and that this puts limits on how much you'll find of each - and in fact I like it, it feels more natural, unlike the single-ore zones mentioned above. For example kingsblood always grows out in the open, and since there is a lot of open space it's easy to have a lot of spawn points for it. Goldthorn on the other hand only grows on hills and rocks, which is obviously limiting - but even in Arathi, a zone which is nothing but hills and rocks, there was hardly any to be found, which I found rather disappointing. It would be nice if Blizzard considered rebalancing things like that, but I'm not holding my breath.


What's so different about tanks and healers?

The Call to Arms debate continues to rage and after almost everyone agreed that bribes are probably not the way to go, discussion has turned towards tanking in general and why not enough people want to do it. A lot of bloggers have made a lot of good points, but one question keeps nagging at me whenever I read another post about how tanks have too much responsibility and don't get appreciated enough: What about the healers? Aren't healers in exactly the same boat? They carry the burden of keeping the party alive through the most suicidal of pulls, and since the dungeon finder replaces them just as quickly as a bad damage dealer, people are quite happy to abuse and kick healers at the drop of a hat. And yet there is no real healer shortage in the dungeon finder despite of that... why?

There's probably more than one reason, but as someone who mainly plays healers and really enjoys the playstyle, the first thing that came to my mind was that healers simply don't have a choice to not group. If you enjoy the act of healing and playing whack-a-mole with little green bars, you need other people. Yes, you can heal yourself while soloing things in a painfully slow manner, but then you'll probably spend more time focused on killing things than on healing. You could aggro something and just let it beat on you so you can heal yourself forever! Except, you'd be achieving absolutely nothing by doing that. If you want to kill mobs through healing, you need at least one other player who does the actual killing for you while you heal them. Healers need groups; there are no substitutes. Even if the group plays badly and treats you like crap, if you at least enjoyed pressing your buttons to heal them you got something good out of it. From this point of view it's interesting that so many people claim that healing is boring and no fun - clearly it's interesting and fun enough that a lot of players keep doing it despite of the downsides!

Tanks sort of used to be like that once, I think, though that was before I tried tanking myself. They were quite good at surviving attacks from multiple mobs, but they did so little damage that it was always questionable who would wear the other one down first, and self-healing was very limited. Going out into the world and rounding up mobs to tank them only offered a very limited amount of fun. Only a group allowed you to really shine, being the only one who could stand up to the most powerful mobs, with a healer at your back and damage dealers by your side.

But the game changed since then. Blizzard wanted to make soloing for tanks more fun and make it easier for them to gain and hold aggro, so they increased their damage output and their survivability. Successfully! Questing on my paladin tank is easy, I round up a load of mobs, AoE them down effortlessly, and Word of Glory keeps me at full health the entire time. It's just like tanking, only without any other players to pull aggro or otherwise annoy me! Wait, does anyone else see the problem with this?

I wonder how many people out there have a tanking spec these days without actually doing any tanking for groups most of the time. They literally have nothing to gain from grouping in terms of pure gameplay fun. Even if the rest of your party is well-behaved, making sure that nobody gets aggro, waiting for the healer to get mana and so on only adds extra work. Otherwise you could have the exact same fun of being in the middle of a large bunch of mobs and feeling invincible while out soloing elementals or whatever. Or alternatively, you could just be dps and be slightly less invincible while killing individual mobs a bit faster. Not that much difference anymore.

For damage dealers it doesn't make much difference whether they are soloing or grouping a lot of the time, in terms of how fun their gameplay is. In a group you might have to pace yourself a bit and maybe crowd-control something even if you don't care much for it, but on the plus side someone keeps the mobs away from your face and you get heals if you stand in something bad. It's pretty much a wash. A healer may have to deal with people giving him or her a hard time, but on the other hand they get to enjoy the game in a way that's simply not possible while playing solo. A tank only gains more things to watch out for, with no benefits (assuming he doesn't group with people he adores so much that their mere presence makes things more fun - but once again that's something that affects every role).

I've heard some arguments that tanking could be made more fun if only the tanks could have even more power, hold aggro even more easily, vote-kick anyone as they please etc. I have to disagree with all of those because none of them actually make grouping more fun than soloing for the tank. I think if Blizzard could change anything about tank gameplay to make it more fun, they would have to ensure that the tank actually benefits from grouping, and I don't mean in a material way. Like healing, tanking used to be a role that was all about the party, and sometimes it seems to me that even the developers themselves have completely forgotten about that in their endless pursuit of making everything as solo-friendly as possible. No really, tanks don't have to be awesome soloers! They are supposed to be awesome in groups, and when on their own they can switch to their dual spec, just like healers seem to be expected to do. Maybe tanking abilities could be tweaked to require friendly targets to be nearby to have their full effect - just something to make it different and beneficial to be grouped.

Though yeah, improving the quality and attitude of the average dungeon finder pug would be a good thing too of course - for everyone, not just for tanks.


From EPL to the Badlands

You have to hand it to Blizzard - they are pretty decent at telling an interesting story. Whether "being told a story" is what I'm looking for in an MMO in the long term remains open for debate, but in the short term I'm quite willing to take the bait and pursue a quest line simply to find out what happens next. In fact this is working so well that I've been zooming through both levels and zones at a remarkable speed for my standards.

The Eastern Plaguelands are still a lot more plagued than the Western ones, but progress is being made to heal them as well. Light's Hope Chapel is quite a quaint little place these days, all the watch towers have been turned into mini hubs, and I was most surprised to find that both the Infectis and the Pestilent Scar had been transformed into lakes. Even if there is still a lot more boring brown than I'd like, the overall mood of the zone has moved from depressing towards optimistic, just like in WPL, and I appreciated it. The Battle of Darrowshire chain still tugs at your heart strings (even if it has been condensed for convenience), but the main storyline guiding you through the zone is a more light-hearted matter that has you making friends with a lot of NPCs. Mostly I found them quite likeable, though the two paladins were very prone to repeating the same couple of phrases over and over in quick succession whenever they accompanied you out into the field, which got tedious somewhat quickly.

The zone also felt quite long. This wasn't a coincidence as I checked afterwards and the zone achievement contains a lot more quests than most of the other revamped old world areas. I don't want to say that it dragged on, because it never really felt that way, but at the same time slaughtering all those plague bats, undead and Scarlets certainly did bring back a bit of that vanilla WoW feel for me.

I was also pleasantly surprised when I got a Mr Grubbs. The pet collectors among you may laugh at me now, because you of course knew about this pet and made sure to get it the moment the Shattering hit. But I don't keep up with these things... in fact, I almost vendored the poor fellow at first because the icon reminded me of bear organs and similar vendor trash; good thing I noticed the green text. Once I had him out however and got to witness his wonderfully silly bouncing animation while idling in Ironforge, there was no end to my delight. I was most disappointed that I couldn't add the next three Mr Grubbses that I found to my collection as well, or at least pass them on to other characters. You take good care of these little guys, Mr Vendor guy, you hear me?

The only thing that I didn't like about the new Eastern Plaguelands - and I admit that this is a fairly minor complaint - was the fact that the last quest of the major storyline, no spoilers here, requires you to fight an evil mob alongside some NPC allies, but the moment you get ready to fight, the view switches to cut scene mode and you simply see the NPCs doing the job for you. You never even get to join in. I just didn't understand that. I may not be that fond of cut scenes to begin with, but I can see where they can serve a purpose to show something happening that isn't usually part of normal gameplay. But fighting a mob? That's the most basic unit of the game, why prevent me from joining in? Turning the act of playing my character into a passive affair of watching mobs die without any input from me is not a good thing.

Funnily enough, in the next zone I went to, the Badlands, Blizzard then immediately showed that at least some of their designers do understand that concept. The quest The Day Deathwing Came (and its follow-ups) has been praised by many and while I don't think it's that amazing (funny, yes) it's a case of clever use of game mechanics to make the player feel more involved instead of less. Usually when an NPC tells you a story, that either involves reading a lot of scrolling dialogue or clicking through several pages of quest text, but this quest has you acting out what's being told. There's another quest like this in Durotar, and it definitely makes the whole process a lot more fun and memorable.

On a more serious note, the Badlands were the first revamped zone I visited that didn't seem to be designed to progress you through roughly five levels. I guess after the Plaguelands the devs realised that they'd have to cram more and more quests into each zone in order to keep players busy for that long and just gave up on this model. The Badlands story only takes as long as it takes, which was two to three levels for me without heirlooms. It's a good story though, a little heart-wrenching in parts but with some very interesting lore implications. If it isn't continued in another zone, I hope that Blizzard picks it up again in some other form before the end of the expansion.

Oh, and one quest ended up being unintentionally hilarious: it has you fighting Nyxondra, a black dragon with a lot of whelps, alongside a couple of pet NPCs. I thought I'd be clever and pull her with my archer guy's ranged attack, but then it turned out that she also cast a fear every so often, scattering my little party all over the place and aggroing half a dozen whelps. Good thing that I was playing an invincible paladin, otherwise I might have been in trouble. Still, the whole thing felt a lot like a badly botched Onyxia attempt, which I thought was very funny.


Updates to the Hinterlands and WPL (for Alliance)

My dwarf's tour of the Hinterlands felt fairly uneventful. While I've always loved the Hinterlands, I have to admit that it's been ages since I last quested there as Alliance, so my memories of the old Alliance quests were somewhat vague. I know that they involved lots of wolf and troll killing, and a chain to find the missing Featherbeard...

The new and improved Hinterlands simply felt as if Blizzard decided to cut out most of the unnecessary running around and any overly repetitive kill quests, and put more focus on the more interesting storylines instead. Jintha'Alor still feels like a dangerous place and retains a slightly higher mob density than the rest of the zone. You can also hitch a ride on Sharpbeak to get to the top quickly - yay, Sharpbeak! The quest to summon and kill Shadra that only used to be available to Horde is now available on Alliance side as well and doesn't involve running halfway across the world anymore just to ask different people about who Shadra is. There's an interesting quest at the Quel'Danil lodge that actually makes good use of phasing (in my opinion). And silvermane stalkers are actually silver again. Basically this is one of the zones that hasn't undergone any drastic changes, and considering that I was already very fond of it before, I'm okay with that.

Now, the Western Plaguelands were a very different matter. I had heard a lot of good things about the changes to that zone but then that had also been true for other areas which I didn't end up liking as much. This time I couldn't help but agree though. I really loved every single thing the developers did here.

To be fair, I hated the plaguelands in their old form. I know many players loved them due to their lore and what not, but back when I was a WoW noob I had never played another Warcraft game before (and still haven't, actually) and thus had no connection whatsoever to Arthas and the Scourge. For me the plaguelands were just an extremely drab and depressing place, where everything was either undead or diseased, and absolutely everything, from the ground to the trees to the mobs, was a dull shade of brown. Yuck.

The new WPL still carry remnants of the undead taint, but the overall atmosphere of the zone is an optimistic one. The quests reflect this with a nice mix of melancholy (the name "Taelan's Tower", or this quest) and silliness (the brilliantly funny Zen'kiki quests, or the fact that a remote quest turn-in to a priest is explained by her having used mind vision on you - I'm so used to NPCs being completely different from player classes these days that one actually acting like a player just struck me as funny). I was enjoying myself so much...

*record scratch*

...until this quest. The premise is that the humans and the Forsaken are fighting over Andorhal and you're supposed to help kill the deathguards. Except that as I strolled around town looking for them, I saw nothing but bored Andorhal defenders twiddling their thumbs, and sometimes even fighting each other (?!). Turns out, the quest mobs were in a different phase from me. D'oh. Usually I wouldn't consider a single bugged quest that big a deal, but when your entire zone consists of a straight line of quests, that single bug will cause the player's entire quest progression to come a grinding halt since there's no option to skip and move on (other than going to a different zone altogether). Major quality control fail there.

Fortunately the crafty people in the Wowhead comments had figured out a way to complete the quest anyway. Apparently there were two deathguard spawn points even in the wrong phase, and if you ran to the edge of town you'd be able to see the mobs appear inside. With a lot of persistence and some luck I managed to catch a couple of the respawns before the friendly NPCs mullered them to death within seconds, and managed to quickly pull a few mobs out onto the correctly phased edge of town. I don't know how much time this took in the end and I'm not sure I want to know, considering how long the respawn times were and how often the mobs I tried to pull cross-phase reset on me. But in the end I did it and got to see the end of the battle, which was worth it to me. I think that alone says enough about how much I loved the rest of the zone. This quest was a good reminder of the dangers of overly linear quest design though.


Call to Arms: my predictions

So I woke up to the big news today that Blizzard is finally implementing a suggestion that I've seen people make on various blogs many times by now: that tanks and healers should get greater rewards for using the dungeon finder in order to shorten queue times for damage dealers. In practice, the system will "only" reward players for filling the role that is the most needed to create a max level heroic group at any given point in time. In 99% of all cases this will be the tank.

I'll be honest, my first reaction was: "Cool, I guess I'll have to go back to tanking heroics on my druid and paladin once the patch comes out." However, then I spent a minute remembering all the things that have pissed me off about my heroic pugs in the last couple of months and quickly amended my thoughts to add "...but probably not for very long". I strongly suspect that this is what will happen on a large scale as well.

In other words, I do think that this new system will work in the short term, as players will queue up as tanks whenever possible simply out of curiosity, to see what this new extra loot bag is all about. Once the possible rewards become widely known, people will still make a point of queuing as tanks for a while, in order to chase that special mount they always wanted or what have you.

However, in the long run, I predict that people will quickly realise that

1) whatever the reward, tanking itself is still the same as before and if they didn't enjoy it already, they are still not enjoying it now.
2) they really prefer tanking for their friends and guildies, but the Call for Arms system only rewards them for queuing alone. Wasn't this supposed to be the expansion that encourages playing with your friends again?
3) they've got everything they wanted and whatever special rewards are left for them to attain aren't worth the effort. (Flasks and gems are useful, but unless the system gives out massive amounts of them for each run, running heroics is hardly going to be the most efficient and painless way of acquiring them.)

And thus the queue times for dpsers will get longer again and we'll mostly be back to where we are now. Eventually more people will choose to tank again simply in order to get the shorter queue, as heroics become easier again - just like we saw in Wrath - but this might take a while and will happen independent of the Call to Arms system.

I'm not annoyed with Blizzard for implementing this and will be curious to see how it pans out. I'll be happy if I'm wrong and it works as intended, but I just don't think that will happen. Bribes are not useless, but they only go so far. Not to mention that I believe that they are what caused this whole queue problem in the first place. How many damage dealers that are clogging up the heroic queues actually dislike instances and group play and are only in there because it's the only way to progress your character past a certain point and the dungeon finder allows them to participate without actually having to talk to anyone? I think it's very telling that Bashiok revealed at the end of his statement that lower level dungeons don't suffer from dps overload in the same way - it's because people have alternatives while levelling, and the Satchel of Helpful Goods you get for running low-level randoms is not so great that it's worth getting if you don't care for instancing in the first place.

The bottom line is that I think that the developers need to take a step back from making everything about item incentives and think more about making sure that players actually enjoy what they are doing. Yes, you can lure them into doing things that they don't actually care for - see all those damage dealers in the dungeon queue. But the only reason that works is because a lot of the time, dpsers can get away with playing in a group in the same way as they do while soloing (or even worse, because the tank and healer are there to protect them), so they still get to play the way they want even with other people around. Tank play is quite different on your own compared to in a group though, and when it comes to choosing between extra item rewards and playing in a way that's fun, players won't be willing to chase the carrot quite so readily.


Disjointed Wetlands thoughts

After Loch Modan, I went on to the Wetlands. Apart from the fact that they are considerably wetter now than they were before, they haven't actually changed much. Most of the quests are simply tweaked versions of what already existed previously, only now they are arranged in a neat line that you're supposed to follow. I didn't mind though, in this case the familiar just felt soothing to me instead of repetitive.

Some of the quests were quite sad. I vaguely recall Klep talking about this quest chain and how the story had been adjusted post-Cataclysm, though I can't find the post about it now. The ending is somewhat tragic and leaves a lot of things unresolved, something that's become quite rare in the game these days. I kind of miss that. Quests in WoW have always been light-hearted, but I feel that in this expansion they've been gravitating more and more towards plain silly. I've lost count of how many people have told me that they consider the goblin starter zone to be the best thing ever for example, but to me it was nothing but a giant joke that I simply couldn't connect with. The way the goblins stumbled from one ridiculous situation to the next was just too over the top. A bit of seriousness helps to keep me grounded in the game world.

The linearity didn't feel too bad in the new Wetlands either. There are comparatively few quests in the zone and the designers still left a lot of what you could call "dead space", which continues to delight my inner explorer even after all these years. I think my favourite moment during my entire time in the zone was when I randomly ran into a medium-sized cave full of raptors for no other reason than that I had spotted some ore inside, and then ended up finding a rare spawn as well. As much as the world has been streamlined, there are still some surprises to be found here and there.

Speaking of surprises, I was rather baffled when the zone quest achievement popped up in a rather random place, about two mini-hubs before the actual final quest of the zone. I know that when achievements were first introduced there were some issues with people having trouble to complete certain zone achievements because they couldn't find the last couple of hidden quests, and Blizzard wanted to make things easier for them by setting the bar a bit lower. But when the entire zone is one big breadcrumb trail, with a clear lead-in and a big notable quest at the end, what's the point of giving me a completion message halfway through instead of after the big finale? It's not as if every single quest wasn't very clearly signposted along the way. Oh, and "Wetlands Quests"? Am I the only one who's slightly disappointed that they didn't bother to come up with any more interesting achievement names for old world questing?

Theoretically the Arathi Highlands should be my next port of call, but even without any kind of experience bonus Loch Modan and the Wetlands together already boosted me all the way to level thirty (fifteen levels from two small zones, yegads) so I'll move right on to the Hinterlands.


Lonely in Loch Modan

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.