The University of Michigan Press has been running a series of blog entries about the online world game World of Warcraft and its new "Cataclysm" expansion/update, which is due to launch later this year, brought you to by the new book My Life as a Night Elf Priest, by Bonnie Nardi.
Here Nardi tackles the new areas for players to slowly build their new characters in the Horde faction from levels 15-22, which transform with the release of the expansion. These descriptions are based on the beta test of the newly changed areas.
For previous blog entries in this series on the Worgen starting area, the Goblin starting area, Blizzard Entertainment's aborted attempt to require gamers to use real life first and last names on their forums, the look of the changed zones in the game, and a Q&A about the book, please see these links or the book's detail page.
"After the cuteness of Kezan, and the loopy pleasures of beginning a Goblin, the next stage of play has been, I would say, more interesting than fun.
Leveling my character Primrose from 15-22 was much like standard World of Warcraft except for changes to the game geography. I had hoped there would be more variation in quests and a different feel to leveling. The quests do not engage new game mechanics. Though they hold few surprises, there is, nonetheless, still much to enjoy.
"Some quests are wonderfully witty, like “Watch Your Step,” whose description coyly says “This is somewhat simple and somewhat not simple” (which turns out to be true), or “Trouble Underfoot” wherein you instruct your Personal Arcane Assistant to polymorph Azshara demons into cockroaches, the better to squish them!
"If there is 'cataclysm' to be experienced at this level, it lies in the advancing narrative made visible as you traverse the geography. Orgrimmar is an early intimation; its new design attains a level of taste and refinement I never would have thought possible. The changes are done just right, as though some distant branch of Blood Elves sent forth heretofore unknown architects and interior designers to spruce the joint up.
"Orgrimmar is still recognizably Horde, but with an epic feel Horde cities have never had, and which they certainly deserve. Thrall no longer holds court; he appears in a small encampment in the Lost Isles, looking rather forlorn. The Goblin Slums in Orgrimmar are poignant, and the bank looks like a bank should. Orgrimmar is big too; it took me nearly three minutes to run from the Auction House to just outside the new back entrance, and that was in Ghost Wolf form.
"Once at the back entrance, you find that it gives onto Azshara, which has been transformed to an area of low level quests. An elevated Goblin-built road serves the region.
"There are good views from up there, and a series of towers at more or less regular intervals. On the upper floor of each, to which you ascend on an outdoor elevator, are NPCs who offer repair—the kind of incremental but thoughtful improvements that permeate 'Cataclysm.'
"After Azshara, I proceeded to Ashenvale, where a darker experience lay ahead. The Horde's incursions into the region were, for someone whose main character is a Night Elf, truly ghastly.
"The broken road, the mineral-based elementals in formerly all-organic Ashenvale, Hellscream's Watch positioned menacingly over Astranaar on a nearby hillside, Maestra's Post invaded by Horde who stand shelling the few remaining Night Elves trying gamely to protect the small building—well, I have to admit that was cataclysmic. As I wandered sadly up the coast of Darkshore, not even doing any quests, I needed to keep reminding myself, 'This is only a video game.'
"Auberdine is reduced to a few encamped NPCs and huddling refugees. When I first started playing WoW and related to my character as a doll, at logout, with the /sleep command I would lie my Night Elf down on a bed in the Auberdine Inn. All now, unbelievably, in ruins!
"Encountering this destruction in one of my favorite areas was terribly melancholy, and I reflected that eventually private servers will be the only way new generations can experience what was one of the most superbly designed regions of the World of Warcraft—a region so perfectly haunting and beautiful few games will ever rival it.
[Ed.'s Note: In a World of Warcraft European forums post today, the developer preview Q&A of the changed Darkshore zone addressed this very issue. You can read it here.]
"As bad as Ashenvale was for a Night Elf, it is only a video game, and since I also have a level 80 Troll Shaman of whom I am very fond, I was able, just slightly guiltily, to enjoy the refurbished Zoram'Gar in that area.
"The once-tiny outpost is much expanded in the cool new Horde style, its atmosphere eerily enhanced by large ships lingering offshore, ominously signifying the Horde's encroaching hegemony in Ashenvale.
"Having come this far in 'Cataclysm,' and mostly liking it very much, I will say that one disappointment is the increasing use of vehicles. I judge WoW vehicles a gimmicky failure (except for Goblins’ brief moment of hilarity with Hot Rods, and the motorcycles, which everyone likes). I always get the nagging feeling that Blizzard spent a lot of money developing vehicles and, by gum, they will be used.
"Many of them look silly, sort of like Tolkien meets Hitler. Operable vehicles used in battle are divorced from the abilities we spend so much time honing, forcing a contradiction between the challenges and pleasures of developing performative skills chosen by the player, tailored through talent points, and the inflexible demands of the vehicles.
"But mostly I don't like the vehicles because they disturb the balance of male and female elements that World of Warcraft improbably, and very successfully, achieved. (I write about this topic in my book.)
"The intrusive vehicles, ungainly and overscaled, begin to tip the balance toward the sort of trite masculinity so many games project. Their increasing usage marks, for me, a decline in the design of the game.
"But heck, I’m only level 22. Much lies ahead. It is impressive that 'Cataclysm' nearly moved me to tears as I ran through Ashenvale. It was not so much what it looked like, as my memories of what it used to look like. That a video game can arouse such deep feeling through a memory is surely a remarkable thing."
Stay tuned for future blog entries in this series, which will look at leveling professions in "Cataclysm" and the new areas for level-80 players. For more information on Nardi's My Life as a Night Elf Priest, click here.