In the Burning Crusade, Blizzard opened up an entire new world. For Wrath of the Lich King, the continent of Northrend became available. Now, in Cataclysm, a mere handful of new zones have been added to the existing contents. While this makes a lot of sense given the major cosmetic and mechanical changes to Azeroth due to Deathwing wrecking everybody’s homestead, if this trend continues, the next expansion will give us a bit of land about the size of Cuba players will fight over to establish their own banana republic.
Anyway, I recently concluded the quests and exploration of these new zones. Here are my thoughts on them, and unlike certain punditry outlets, I’m going to try and keep this as fair as possible.
Since the conclusion of the Third War, the area atop Mount Hyjal in northern Kalimdor has been inaccessible, due to the world tree Nordrassil being protected by rampant overgrowth. While once this was believed to be a scar concealing a near-fatal wound, the emergence of Deathwing burned the growth away to reveal that Nordrassil had been healing all along. As druids and servants of Cenarius flocked to the site to protect the Tree, Deathwing has called upon his Twilight Hammer cultists and summoned an ally to burn the Tree to ashes once and for all: the Firelord Ragnaros.
If you’re a long-time fan of Warcraft and enamoured with its lore, Hyjal’s a great place to start. While its opening quests feel a bit like the same-old “Kill X amount of monster Y” in a forest not unlike that around the night elf starting zone, interacting with the legendary Ancients and the buildup to the final chain make the questing worthwhile outside of the material rewards. It definitely gets you into the feeling of older Warcraft games in terms of setting and lore, but it also reminds the player of older content best left forgotten. Overall, though, a pretty solid zone.
Thrall has made his choice, abdicating leadership of the Horde to Garrosh Hellscream and becoming leader of Azeroth’s shamans, the Earthen Ring. The Maelstrom in the middle of the sea has grown even more tumultuous in the wake of Deathwing’s awakening, and he has called for champions to aid him in preserving the balance of elements. En route, however, adventurers find themselves assaulted by a vicious sea monster and dragged into the cold depths below. With help from the Earthen Ring, the source of this kraken must be discovered, and answers lie within the sunken elven city of Vash’jir.
Vashj’ir is the other ‘starting’ area of Cataclysm’s new content, and it begins with a bang that plunges its players quite literally into unfamiliar waters. Over and above all else, the visuals in the zone are absolutely stunning. The diversity and danger of deep sea life is captured quite well, considering the engine is six years old. However, it’s not all good news beneath the waves. Needing to navigate and fight in three dimensions can be disorienting at first, and even once you get the hang of it, adequate view distance may not be enough to save you from a band of angry creatures diving toward you seemingly out of nowhere. The lore within the area feels tangential to the rest of the content of the expansion, and while the look inside naga society is interesting, the goblin submarine a neat distraction and the cephalopod exploration unique (if somewhat disturbing for some), the bulk of the zone doesn’t really stand out the way others do. It’s not as bad as some people might make it out to be, which shouldn’t be a surprise considering this is the WoW community we’re talking about, but I feel it’s the weakest of the five zones. Which is a bit like saying The Two Towers is the weakest of the Lord of the Rings trilogy of films. Relative to the other two, it might be true, but relative to other films they tend to blow everything else out of the water. So, your mileage may vary.
Deathwing tore his way back to Azeroth and left nothing untouched in his wake. Even the Elemental Plane of Earth was affected, as the pillar supporting Azeroth from below was cracked. While the druids tend to the World Tree above, the World Pillar below threatens to collapse, taking Azeroth with it. To prevent this, one must venture into Deepholm, home of the Stone Mother Therazane. The Twilight Hammer has made beachheads here, and adventurers must put a stop to their misddeds if the world is to be saved. In this place, the cultists and heroes have something in common: they are unwelcome.
Like Vashj’ir, this is a zone that has a lot of eye candy going for it. Instead of making things a uniform gray or brown, color explodes out of corners of Deepholm almost without warning. Adding the characterization of Therazane to that of Ragnaros and Neptulon (the lord of Water, featured at the end of Vashj’ir’s final quest chain and its solitary dungeon) expands the history of Azeroth in an interesting way, and other NPCs make time spent in Deepholm worthwhile. Mylra quickly became my second-favorite dwarf behind Brann Bronzebead. Deepholm is also like Vashj’ir in some moments of tedium, and unlike Vashj’ir, the nature of the rewards from gaining reputation with Therazane means it’s more than likely you’ll be coming back. Still, I enjoyed Deepholm more than Vashj’ir, and I look forward to earning the Pebble vanity pet. Who knew a pet rock could be so gosh-darn cute?
The sands have uncovered forgotten lands due to the shift brought about by Deathwing. To the south of Tanaris lies the lost land of Uldum, an ancient desert kingdom used by the Titans for experimentation. In addition to its curious indigenous people is evidence of the Titans’ work, valuable to both archaeologists who would study it and dark opportunists who would usurp it. Finally, the djinn-like beings that have seized control of the Elemental Plane of Air had come to Azeroth through Uldum, allying themselves with Deathwing.
No matter what you seek in Uldum, you won’t be bored. The introduction of the society in Ramkahen deepens the diversity of life on Azeroth even if their presence may feel tangential to some. The quests in Uldum are a particular delight, changing pace and focus quite often in addition to packing the zone with hiarlious references. Individual quests can harken to everything from The Great Escape to Katamari Damacy, and then there’s the long chain that just might have you whistling the Indiana Jones theme. The dungeons in Uldum are a diverse lot and continue the trend of changing up challenges. The only circumstances under which someone might not enjoy Uldum is if they find these sorts of things tedious or just don’t like deserts.
Seat of the Twilight’s Hammer and its leader, the mad ogre-mage Cho’gall, the Twilight Highlands are also the site of a conflict that has not ceased in ages, between the Wildhammer dwarves and the Dragonmaw orcs. Despite the looming mutual threat of Deathwing and his cronies, these two just won’t stop killing each other. While there may not be an end to hostilities in sight, canny adventurers can win some support from their respective if wayward allies and make an assault upon not only the Twilight’s Hammer’s holdings, but also upon Deathwing himself, with a little help from Alexstraza and the red dreagonflight.
The Highlands get off to a good start, tossing the player into the conflict bodily. There are bits of very enjoyable questing here, from the Horde opening to the assault on the Bastion’s gates, but between these bits is some cross-faction conflict that underscores the resurgence of lore-friendly PvP in Cataclysm. As hilarious as it is to set fire to Wildhammer kegs only to see them violently explode – they’re something like 200 proof – I personally felt that dealing with the mutual threat of Deathwing and the Twilight Hammer should come before perpetuating very old grudges. This doesn’t make the content in the middle of Twilight Highlands bad, per se, and it’s a solid zone overall especially in comparison to Vashj’ir. It could also be that, despite being Horde, I’ve always liked the Wildhammer dwarves and I felt a little bad scoping and dropping so many of the amusing and badass woad-wearing drunken brawlers.
There you have it. In my completely subjective and not-at-all authoritative opinion, Uldum is the strongest zone of Cataclysm while Vashj’ir comes up a bit short. However, all of the Cataclysm material represents a high point in Blizzard’s design, a welcome departure from the things that made Wrath of the Lich King so tedious in general. While that expansion had only a few standout zones, every single area of Cataclysm has something going for it.