The Warcraft Experience. Part One

For the last 5 years, World of Warcraft has attracted over 8 million subscribers. A big part of keeping those subscribers is the starting experience, which, aside from some minor tweeks, hasn’t changed since release. For some reason however, Blizzard think that they’re just not up to their new standards.

I decided to go back and try out each of these areas once again (levels 1-15) with various different classes. In order prepare myself for Catclysm, I will retry each starting zone in order to gauge exactly how different each one is to play through before and after the changes. For two characters, I continued beyond to level 30 in order to get a taste of instancing using the old low-level talents. I’ve mainly focused on the Alliance side, as I normally play Horde. In part two I’ll talk about my experiences in some of the horde starting areas, with one recent complete run through.

With each of my Alliance characters I’ve started fresh on a new realm, so no heirlooms, no gold and no twinking.

Bothrium – Draenei Shaman

Boogie woogie shaman boy from Company B

The Draenei starting area is one of the two ‘new’ starting areas introduced with the Burning Crusade way back in 2007 and as such is of a better standard than the others. The quest chains are decent and long and it’s generally obvious where to go next. The 1-5 area is reasonably fast and entertaining, and the Shaman class, like all classes, is light on spells, the spells they do have – like lighning bolt – are engaging enough to make you click with the play style.

Like all starting areas, up to level 5 you are in a tiny sub zone that feels huge the first time you play. There’s the crashed part of the Exodar with the trainers, there’s a lake, a field of evil flowers and a grove of sick wildkin for you to help. It introduces you nicely to the problems the Draenei have caused and how, even though at this point they’re battered, bruised, half dead and believe they are cut off even from their own people, attempt to fix the problems they’ve accidently unleashed and really sets up the character of the whole race as noble and selfless.

The quests are 90% generic. Kill 5 plants, gather 5 items, go find a bunch of glowing things. The only non-generic quest is the inoculate the sick wildkin, which involves using an item on the aforementioned wildkin, and hoping they don’t get angsty at you.

Once you get past level 5 you’re sent to Azure watch where again you’re set a bunch of generic find and kill quests with a smattering of unique and interesting asides. Like the pre-furbolg chain where you chase totem spirits, or the unmasking of the Alliance traitor where you disguise yourself as a tree (fun bug with that, although you’re rooted you can still twirl around, meaning the traitor and his contact are completely oblivious to a giant spinning oak standing behind them)

Azure watch sets up a very simple connection to the Alliance, there’s no dramatic culmination resulting in the Draenei joining, just you discovering a party of shipwrecks and exposing a traitor. The main plot of Azuremyst is forging alliances, with both the Alliance and with the furbolg.

Can I also say that the Draenei Shaman Totem Quests are among the most annoying F***ing quests I have ever done, and I’ve rolled a Troll Shaman in the past. They’re not hard, just tedious and involve a hell of alot of legwork. Which in its own way, is another theme of Azuremyst. Walking. Despite being some of the newest low-level content, Blizzard have decided to stagger content rather haphazardly. You get your first bunch of quests which send you to places to do stuff, then depending on the order you do them, you’ll likely get more quests to go back to those places from one of the other quest hubs and you’ll have to trott half way (and sometimes all the way, I’m looking at you Furbolgs) across the island just to do them. My tip is to open up the furbolg area as soon as possible (That is, do the totem series from the furbolg in Azure Watch) and gather all the quests you can before setting out to do them.

After a nice transition quest from Azuremyst to Bloodmyst (Kessels Run, a funky jaunt to all three quest hubs and back on a mount), you’re set another bunch of kill quests before being sent to Blood Watch, and the introduction of the Blood Elf threat which pretty much sums up the whole area.

Levels 1-20 can be done in these areas, and each one hints to the others storyline quite well. The 1-5 area sets up the finding of the rest of the Exodar and the corruption of the animal life, Azuremyst has hints of the Blood Elves around which leads into Bloodmyst. The quests are generic but cohesive with only some travel irritation spoiling what is otherwise a decent zone.

Bothrium was one of the characters I levelled up past 15 up to level 30. He levelled through the Dungeon Finder as a Restoration Shaman. Let me tell you, Healing Shamans suck before level 20. Either that or they’re incredibly over powered post-20.

The most obvious thing was the mana issues early Resto shamans face. Without Water Shield every other pull requires resting and drinking, even if the DPS is full. You have no water totem so no mana stream, and for each pull you need to decide whether or not you need the mana for healing, or if you can spare a totem or two to buff people.

Luckily Ragefire Chasm is simple enough that most people can tank it, even if they’re not specced for it, which means that often Hunter pets, DPS Warriors/Paladins will end up tanking, sometimes all three at once, and they generally don’t need healing every fight. The same thing went for Wailing Caverns, where healing was only really required for the boss, and for adventurous tanks that pull three or four mobs at once. Indeed, the screenshot of Bothrium was during the final even in Wailing Caverns, where the Tauren Druid NPC is cleansing and gets attacked by raptors. I spent the entire attack and escort dancing (and yes, that IS my healing gear he’s wearing).

Deadmines was the first instance that gave any kind of challenge, specifically the Goblin Foundry part where one wrong pull will result in a wipe, even with a 20+ resto Shaman with near infinite mana regen. Earthbind totem here was a godsend, people tend to have trouble finishing off stuff that’s running away, and more than once I found myself having to shock a fleeing goblin down as he nearly pulls his friends.

Purvis – Dwarven Hunter

He looks strangly familiar

My first ever character, back in Public Beta, was a Dwarf Warrior, so the Dun Morogh starting area holds much nostalgia for me, as it was the first character in my first MMO. I remember seeing the wolves running over to me only to run past and kill a critter and having my mind blown by that alone. I remember trying to figure out what the connection between Troggs and Trolls. They are, after all, they’re both in the same area and only have a single letter difference, and the quest line in Coldridge starts with Trogg killing and culminates in Troll killing, so without knowing a single thing about WoW or the world it was in I just assumed for a long time that  a Trogg was a mutated Troll. Okay, until Uldaman revealed exactly what they were. Those were the days. The first play throughs where you make assumptions and where reveals actually meant something.

So here I am with Purvis, 6 years on returning to those frozen hilltops and literally nothing has changed. The Trolls are now non-hostile, but apart from that it’s the same area. There’s the same Rabbits, the same wolves. I think they still chase each other, but it’s been a long time since I let the scenery obscure my levelling.

The aforementioned confusion between Troggs and Trolls still holds though, even though I blatantly know better. There really isn’t any sense of escalation in the area. You kill troggs, then all of a sudden you switch to mailman, then have to go kill boars, then Trolls. Then you leave. That’s it. You leave with a note saying “Troggs bad, Trolls bad, Purvis good fighter”. The only fun bit is the exit tunnel where you fight your way through a bunch of hostile Troggs. There’s no quest for it, but you have to do it, a rare bit of design from Blizzard. No collection items, no kill count, no drops, just you, the path to Kharanos and fifteen angry Troggs.

Kharanos is a slight step up from Coldridge, but not by much. There are alot of little sub-zones with minor quest hubs there, like Brewnall village and the Gol’Bolar Quarry, all within a short trott from Kharanos which is situated smack bang in the middle of the zone. This is one of the original questing zones, so the quest types are limited to kill, collect and loot, and there is little way of plot, except Gol’bolar quarry which expands on the Troggs, and Shimmerweed Ridge where the Trolls show up again. It mainly sets up the Dwarves as a Drink fueled explosive loving race. One of the highlights is taking part in stealing beer, which involves distracting the guard and nicking the keg behind him. That’s pretty much the only non-standard quest in the area. You do get treated to a fun exchange between a Dwarven Mortar Team as you exit Coldridge, and an excellent emotive atmosphere from the surrounding landscape alone.

You can say what you will about Blizzards early Quest design, but their Art Department were never slackers.

Tell me this doesn't remind you of Loch Modan

A Rather jarring change of scenery going from Dun Morogh to Loch Modan, from a snowy waste to a lush green forest. While Dun Morogh really mimics some of the terrain of the Scottish Highlands, the Grampians etc, Loch Modan is slightly closer to home for me, being as it is a Spitting image for it’s almost-anagram Loch Lomond, which is a short journey from me and a favoured summer excursion point.

Aside from the natural beauty instilled in this area, questing’s pretty standard. Kill 20 Troggs, gather Kobold Ears. The best quest is probably the Ambush+Escort that introduces you to the digsite, where one of the guys turns out to be in league with the Dark Iron Dwarves, attacks you, then when you defeat him you escort his friend to the dig site. The escort is nothing special, couple of ambushes, but it’s a great bit of story telling that shows Blizzard had the ability to do proper plot driven events without resorting to grind quests right from the beginning.

As for the Dungeon Finder, I seemed to have a bizarre curse. One that meant that every tank I grouped with quit. Either within the first 10 seconds, which is really annoying, or after a specific boss that didn’t drop his loot, which is infuriating. Luckilly, up to and including Scarlet Monastery Graveyard, my pet was more than adequate for tanking, levelling as I was as Beast Master. Once I got into the Library however, the large packs meant beast tanking was more than lacking, especially when accidentally pulling more.

Smacktalk – Human Paladin

Smacktalk. All she does is Smack, and Talk. But mostly smacking.

Northshire Abbey, the only questing zone I know of that can be completed in 20 minutes. It’s short. Very short. It’s boring, it’s bland and it gets worse. Three kill quests, a Gathering quest, a kill-collect quest. Compound that with the Paladin’s starting abilities and you have a recipe for head pounding teeth grinding futility. I can think of no other class that starts with an ability they can only use once every 8 seconds. I mean, even a warrior has heroic strike to make them feel more involved in combat. I spent more time alt+tabbed during the first 10 levels of this paladin than I have done on flightpoints.

Elywnn Forest is even worse. You have three Quest hubs thrown around the place and a total of about 10 quests, each of which can be done almost anywhere on the map. This leads to alot of running around, either to gather the quests, or to do them, or do cash them in. None of them are anything besides kill quests and gather quests. No escorts, no events, no cohesive plot or theme. Two mine exploration quests that lead nowhere, a couple of defias kill quests. There’s a nice little tale of forbidden love that involves the making of an invisibility potion, but nothing leads you to the farm where it happens – infact, there’s alot of quests that are in out-of-the-way places you’d never really look unless you went exploring, but apart from the lovers quest they’re really not anything special. By level 10 Paladins get a range of abilities, buffs, shields and snares but not a single new attack.

I have a level 80 Paladin and know well that they’re fun to play and a dream to level, but that the first 10 were the worst. Compounded by the utter banality of Elwynn Forest it’s just surreal how bad Blizzard got some things. I mean, they’ve shown with some of the quests in Dun Morogh, as well as many of the Horde starting areas, that from day one they were competent (if not innovative) quest designers. It’s as if they started on the Human areas, thought “what is the theme and style of Humans” and replied “Bland, boring and uneventful” then ramped that up to 2.

Compare Elwynn with the current questing areas in The Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King. They are leagues apart in terms of engaging the player. When I started WoW I had no preconceptions. I saw it as a new world to explore, a game with a thousand other people to meet and befriend. New people join up and are encouraged with the idea that “it will get better later”, and while it does, I can’t help feeling that people who try WoW for the trial period still get a very negative impression of the game.

With each expansion Blizzard have honed and sharpened their quest design skills. They’re more focused on plot, on engaging the player in the world, of telling the story and making the player a part of it. We have special NPC dialogue, phased NPCs and terrain, mini cutscenes, full motion video interludes (yay wrathgate) with proper pacing and skill that Blizzard gave to their RTS games a decade ago, all giving us a sense of progression towards a goal other than just hitting max level. The original World of Warcraft areas tried to follow this as best it could, but this was Blizzards first MMO, they hadn’t figured out how to properly storytell and took the only way it was known how, from games like Everquest, by just having walls of text in the quest log. They lacked many of the tools and the confidence to pull it off with the tools they had.

So what will the Cataclysm bring? Ruination to Azeroth sure, but with any luck it’ll bring with it a better starting experience both in terms of questing and in terms of the abilities classes get at the start. With the previews I’ve been seeing it looks very much like Blizzard have taken these concerns on board and fixed them, but only time will tell whether or not they’ve pulled it off.

Hopefully we can get people joining the game with the same sense of wonder and trepidation that I had when I first stepped into the snowy valley of Dun Morogh.

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