Monday, July 2, 2012

It Was the End of the World As We Know It, Part 1

A Familiar, Yet Broken World

The Talondeep Pass: Proof that there was more than one cataclysm to hit Azeroth.
The Midsummer Fire Festival started this week and I took the time to take a couple of characters on a tour of the world. Desecrating some fires while praising some others is a relaxing way to gain some cash, but more importantly, these sorts of world events are a chance for me to look over my history in WoW and put things in perspective.

It's been a while in coming and it's time for the Cataclysm Post-mortem. The Cataclysm is over and getting to stack a few things up in my mind helps to formulate things that need to be said.

Personally, there has been a great deal to take me away from WoW: a really big move, new social pressures, new job, and graduate school all made it so that a lot of my social structure in WoW vanished from beneath me, and I never got to raid properly in this expansion. Those two things are the most important parts of WoW to me and I half expected my interest in the game to wan this past year, but yet that hasn't happened. Nevertheless, it has colored the way I look at most of what went on with the Cataclysm. I have tried not to let this unduly affect my perceptions of the state of the game.

But make no mistakes: Cataclysm was a bummer.

This is going to be a multi-part set of articles. There are so many aspects of the game to examine, I want to give each of them their time and space. Right now, I want to talk about changes to the world and the new lands we explored.

Today, Merinna sailed into Howling Fjord once again and I was moved by how exciting and simply wondrous the lands of Northrend were. This was a land full of sharp angles, a huge variety of landscape, even within the same zones. It was a land full of some really impressive artistic ideas based on real landscape, yet taken to a fantastic degree to remind us that... we were in a fantasy.

Meanwhile, the lands of Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms got all messed up. There is no awe in the Old World anymore. It's been replaced with cracks, and broken things; bodies and lava. In fact, things like the Stonewrought Dam, which caused me to gawk when I first found it years ago, are now smashed and blighted ruins in a landscape that no one has any expectations will be "fixed."

Fundamentally, this shows a prime difference between the two major villains of these last two expansions: the Lich King who wants to take over the world and rule it, and Deathwing who just wants to burn the whole thing down. Arthas builds some cool, monumental stuff to support his war. DW likes to see how it looks burning. The Twilight Hammer have a visual style going on in which, if I understand the lore correctly, they have ripped elementium out of the ground to create those spiral looking black things that the Hammer hangs out around. Not sure what they are for, mostly. It should have been obvious from the beginning that the nihilism of the Cataclysm enemies would have a lot less visual appeal than the Lich King.

One cannot precisely put a name to what feelings one might have, seeing the devastated world. But "awe" is not one of them. It might have been cool to see the Stonewrought Dam get blown apart (and we can, rewatching the opening cinematic) but it's not "cool" to rock up on the shattered remains with the empty lake behind it. "Sadness" comes up a bit when you read commentators, and I could agree with that, but I don't really want to play a game that inspires sadness.

Other parts of the Cataclysm probably seemed cool on paper, but didn't really add anything to their zones. For example, they put a goddamn volcano in the middle of Ashenvale. What is the point of that?  We can find volcanoes in zones throughout Azeroth in places that are much more appropriate for volcanoes. The volcanoes in Un'Goro Crater or in Burning Steppes enhance their surroundings and are natural parts of those zones. The wild, sylvan forest of Ashenvale was not an appropriate place for a volcano. I'm afraid that may have been the whole point to whoever decided to put Thunder Peak there, but it still abandons a long-cherished aesthetic of Warcraft, and the shock value of the whole thing wore off a long, long time ago.

I raise the next point fully aware of my faction bias, but maybe the worst part of the Horde offensive is all the wrecked out zones it has affected, particularly with their new goblin allies. The excavation of the Talondeep Pass, oil derricks along the Wild Shore of Stranglethorn, monstrosities like the Krazzworks in the Twilight Highlands: these are sites even the staunchest of industrialists would call ecological disasters.

Meanwhile, Garrosh Hellscream raises new Orcen fortresses of iron, since clearly one must create the biggest blight possible to project strength. It's like corrugated aluminum finishing has finally come to Azeroth. The only exception to that being when he just slaughters the inhabitants of an area and sets up shop right on top of their corpses, like he did at Silverwind Refuge, pausing only long enough to clearcut every natural tree in view.

Let me give some credit where it is due when we look at the new zones, however.

Vashj'ir was a wonder. I don't know that the underwater mechanics were very popular; I know too many people who loathed the place. But, the zone was as unique, varied and interesting as anything in Azeroth.

I'm also a fan of Uldum, though with caveats. The Egyptology of Uldum was exciting and the desert they made was about as nicely done as could be. I just don't see what any of that building style had to do with the Titans, or why there should be yet another bevy of watchers based on yet another pantheon of terrestrial gods. That particular trick is wearing out its welcome in Azeroth. I would have felt more comfortable if the Halls of Origination had more in common with the Halls of Stone rather than the Tol'vir. That's more of a story and lore gripe than it is a problem with the world though.

On the other hand, Hyjal was pretty much one expanse with three flavors: trees that hadn't burned yet, trees that were on fire, and trees that had burned before we got there. I don't know what I hoped for with Hyjal, but I didn't get it. It was resplendently ugly at every turn, and even Ragnaros' castle of fire and brimstone looked more trite than impressive.

The Twilight Highlands was a huge pile of Twilight Hammer wreckage and abandoned Dwarven homes that reminded me of nothing more than a mess. It's all so messed up that it's difficult for me to imagine what it must have looked like before the Cataclysm. I have a hard time imagining at what point the Dragonmaw orcs and Bloodeye ogres got around to building their sprawling enclaves in this region.  The Verrall River looks like it has been damned or something, but hasn't. The whole place is just ugly and ugly. It will be on the bottom of my "places to revisit" list in the future.

That's the biggest tragedy of the Cataclysm, if you ask me: we are stuck with this smashed-up world for the foreseeable future. Players already ask on the forum when they might "fix up" Orgrimmar and Stormwind; and the answer is they won't. The World of Warcraft is not even especially more "warlike."  It's just less than it was before.

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