Warning: This article contains spoilers for the Mount Hyjal zone in World of Warcraft: Cataclysm. If you haven't played through it yet and don't want to know anything about it, don't read on.
After a few days with Cataclysm (I stayed away from the beta, except for flying around Ironforge making "weeee!"-sounds), the streamlining that Blizzard have applied to their quest design becomes glaringly obvious. Gone are the quest hubs, where you'd run in and pick up 10 quests at a time. Now it's about efficiency, about not overloading your quest log.
The pattern repeats itself all through Mount Hyjal, one of the two starting zones for level 80 characters that came with the expansion. Pick up three quests (usually one from one NPC and two from another) that all point to the same spot so you can finish them at the same time. When you are done, go back and pick up a follow-up quest or two. Finish those, get sent to a new area where three news quests await. Repeat until you've finished the the whole zone.
It's not that this is a bad decision as such, neither does it mean that there's a lack of quests. The achievement for Mount Hyjal-questing clocks in at 115 quests, and only because you get that it doesn't mean you're finished. But after a while it gets so predictable it almost becomes comical. With the new and improved quest-helpers on the map, you'll never have to wonder where to go or where to find what you're looking for. It's all served on a platter, easy to find and easy to finish. As an old-time World of Warcraft-player it felt like the game treated me a bit like an idiot.
Neither could I shake the feeling that Mount Hyjal felt cramped. Perhaps it was all the other players running around, but the zone felt deliberately designed to cut down on travel times. Perhaps I'm just too used to the big, open planets in Star Wars Galaxies. It's a minor annoyance, though - the zone itself is gorgeous, from the world tree of Nordrassil in the north to the burning Sulfuron Spire in the south. And if you're an old Warcraft-fan, getting to see Mount Hyjal as an actual zone (not just as a raid) is of course a great experience.
Blizzard have really gone overboard with the phasing technology in Cataclysm. It's a great way of telling a story, seeing the world actually change around you as you progress through the storyline. It was cool in Wrath of the Lich King, and it works just as well - if not better - here. But the real cool stuff comes from the small phasing they do now, like removing chains from a trapped, giant turtle or simply moving a character from one spot to another. You can still see other players gathered around where that particular character used to be, but for you it's now gone. For a MMO, it's a great new way to create immersion.
Some things do feel rushed, though. The flight path from the Gates of Sothann to Darnassus doesn't feel very polished, as the dragon you sit on flies through both tree sprites and looks like it's about to crash into the ground when it passes the flight point in Moonglade. A bigger problem is the cut-scenes, using the game's own engine. The technique worked perfectly in Wrath of the Lich King, where the whole Wrathgate incident was played out this way, but that one was clearly not rendered in real-time. The WoW-engine doesn't lend itself well to dynamic camera pans, and the character models just aren't animated well enough to make these kinds of scenes look good without any form of post-processing or custom animation work. It's sad, because there's a few moments - like the return of Cenarius - that should have deserved a better made cinematic. As it stands right now, they just feel awkward.
There's also a few quests that could do with some tightening, since they are either too long or too slow. Flapping around on a flying mount in one of the zone's trips into the elemental plane of fire goes on for too long, and by the end I just wanted it over with, and the quest where you toss bear cubs from trees felt insanely slow. Just like the quest to deliver a speech to Twilight Hammer cultists, which while it was well-written went on for ages despite not having an actual challenge involved. What should have been a fun and light-hearted end to a longer quest chain became more of an annoyance.
The end battle of the Mount Hyjal zone makes up for it, though. In a way it's similar to the battle for Undercity in Wrath of the Lich King, with you only playing a minor role in the outcome, but it's still really epic and gives a taste of things to come. Hearing Ragnaros speak again is also a trip down nostalgia lane for anyone that raided during Vanilla World of Warcraft. It's a perfect ending to what at the end of the day is a great zone, even if I have some reservations about certain parts of it. While some things would benefit from a bit of extra polish, it's a good introduction to World of Warcraft: Cataclysm. I can't wait to either dive into the depths of Vashj'ir or fly through the Maelstrom to the elemental plane of Deepholme.
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