Oh man, I haven't written one of these in ages. Well, no time to waste, let's get started right away on... *rolls dice*... The orcish/trollish leveling experience! We already got Ashenvale and Stonetalon down while doing the night elves, so we've only got two zones to do here.
Type: Unwritten Zone
The Original Zone: Durotar, like all the horde starter zones from the original world of warcraft, didn't really have much of a story. Instead, we dealt with a variety of independent threats, each vying with the horde for control of these lands. In Durotar, we faced the Kolkar centaur, the Dustwing harpies, the generic group of unnamed makrura and the Razormane quilboar. In addition, there were the recently arrived invaders from Kul Tiras, as well as traitors from within in the form of the rogue witch doctor Zalazane and the warlocks of the burning and/or searing blade.
Incidentally, have you ever noticed how horde warlocks suddenly exploded in number after supposedly being eliminated? In warcraft I, they seemed like a minor if influential clan. In warcraft II, Doomhammer killed all of them but Gul'dan and Ner'zhul. But then in Warcraft III, you suddenly have an army of warlocks among the blackrock&roll orcs. In World of Warcraft, that number rises even further, with the formation of a new burning blade, the formation of a new shadow council, and a presence among the soldiers of the new horde, the dark horde and several ogre clans.
Actually, it's not just the horde warlocks. Every faction in warcraft seems to only become more numerous by being near extinction. Orcish population is suddenly enough to be a global power, despite their massive, massive losses during the second war and recent losses in the northrend campaign. The darkspear, already the smallest of troll tribes, lost at least half their populace (probably a lot more), and they now have a civilization that's not just intercontinental, but even interplanetary. The ogre clans of the old horde, despite being beaten in the war and being hunted ever since, have a presence throughout both Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms, to the point where they've largely overrun two of the seven kingdoms of humanity and have taken control of a large portion of Eldre'thalas. Dalaran is more powerful than ever, despite the entire city being overrun and wiped out more than once. And despite all Shen'dralar non-fanatics being brutally killed, enough suddenly appeared to become their own populace within the night elf nation. Population in warcraft is weird.
What Should Have Changed: There's a few notable changes that would have happened lorewise. First and most obvious, the echo isles have been retaken from Zalazane. The presence of the Burning Blade should have been heavily diminished due to their entire command structure being eliminated. In addition, I'm expecting some sort of progress in the orcish settling of the zone. About as much time passed between the original founding and vanilla as between vanilla and cataclysm after all, so there should probably be a few more buildings, maybe some additional fortifications for the orcish settlements. Finally, something should really be done about Tiragarde. We know that Thrall didn't want to aggravate relations by launching a full assault, but Garrosh doesn't seem the type to be held back by that.
Plus, there's the biggest and most important change for cataclysm; showing the damage caused by the re-emergence of Deathwing. The sheer amount of damage Durotar underwent is the leading cause for the current war between the horde and alliance after all, so emphasizing that would be a first priority in any upda... I'm sorry, I thought I could finish that without laughing.
What Has Changed: Yeah, that last part didn't happen. Oh don't get me wrong, the cataclysm did a lot of damage to the zone. However, all that damage was in ways that wouldn't really affect the orcs, and most of it would be to their advantage. Tiragarde Keep was hit by a tidal wave, somehow killing everyone while leaving the structures intact enough to be taken over by Northwatch troops.
On the other end of the zone, we have yet another flood, from southfury river. This one is just bizarre. Somehow, the water came up with enough force to cover about a quarter of Durotar, destroying several orcish buildings and flooding thunder ridge, but leaving everything else intact. There's no sign of any flooding up-river, down-river, or even on the other side of the river. Not even the bridge is damaged. Weirdest of all however, is that the rock formation upriver, which divides the Durotar/barrens and Azshara/ashenvale portions of the river, is also undamaged. I'm guessing angry spirits of water can excuse any weird tidal phenomenon (indeed, there's plenty of angry elementals coming from the river), but I don't have a clue why they wouldn't be indiscriminate either.
While the flooding did do some damage (due to scaling, probably a lot more than we see), it didn't exactly reduce the livability of Durotar. In fact, it seems to have improved it. There really wasn't any orcish industry it destroyed, and while the loss of life was tragic, it means that there are less orcs that need to be provided for. In addition, the water seems to not be retreating, and plant-life is already sprouting up around the area, so it might actually be a boon to new orcish farming set-ups (though the orcs apparently stopped farming anything but pigs after warcraft III. Should still help with food-gathering though).
In general, the cataclysm itself has done surprisingly little damage to the factions in-game, especially the horde. Which is kind of problematic if half the concept of the expansion is “the horde was hit by the cataclysm so badly that their resource shortage needed to be solved through immediate aggressive actions”. Instead we have the trolls in control of a pristine echo isles. We have a massive increase of fertile land. We have Orgrimmar rebuilt completely. We have the entirety of Azshara claimed and being harvested on an unmatched scale. The entire premise for this expansion falls apart merely by walking through the starter zones.
Then again, like I said before, I'm pretty sure that the entire story behind the alliance-horde war was heavily rewritten before the release of cataclysm. You'll notice this clearly when you look at the timeframe we're given, which just isn't enough for the events from The Shattering to have occurred. In Durotar, the quests clearly take place within mere days of the cataclysmic events that rocked the world. The lands flooded by the Southfury river still have fresh refugees and the orcish grunts sent to meet the foaming water elementals that emerged from the ocean are still lying around wounded.
Whereas Durotar was disjointed in its transitions from questing area to questing area, sometimes jarringly so, the Northern Barrens actually has really nice, smooth transitions. And it needs them, because there's a lot of quest hubs. You start at Far Watch Post, the small watch post that guards the crossing between Durotar and The Barrens. Apparently, there's been problems with the local Razormane quilboar, who've become far more aggressive since the cataclysm. They've been attacking horde outposts and raiding orc caravans, cutting off the crossroads from vital supplies for its warriors. Luckily for them, the player just happens to pop by in time, killing the leader of the quilboar attacks in this region, recovering supplies for a new caravan and guarding that caravan until the next stop on the road to the crossroads: Grol'dom Farm.
And there we have our problem with presentation. The story tells us that the orcish homelands are more secure, but we see them being overrun and on the verge of collapse. Had the player not been around in the orcish zones, everything would have collapsed. The new orcish capital city would have probably been those two huts and mine in-between the Crossroads and Ratchet. Garrosh' strategy would have gotten the orcish race annihilated, had a random stranger not happen to walk by and save the day. And yet, everyone acts like Garrosh protected them.
Not helping is that Durotar and the Northern Barrens are really low on continuity, despite being the most in need of it. Don't get me wrong, cataclysm isn't exactly a proper sequel anywhere else, but there's usually at least a few cases where past quests are established to have happened. The couple you helped get together in Redridge now have a (oddly mature) child, the defias bandits in Elwynn have been replaced with generic bandits, the furbolg in Darkshore are now uncorrupted, etc. It's nowhere, nowhere near sufficient, but it's something. In these past two zones though, as far as I can tell, only a single quest is canon: Mankrik's wife, the infamous quest from vanilla that taught the writers to be really clear with quest objectives. Admittedly, they do milk this one quest for what it's worth, and actually play it straight rather than using its infamy for comedy (like you see with the refugee farmers in Westfall or the bridge in Lakeshire), but it's still just one quest.
Disappointingly little, and what little there is doesn't give you any clue regarding the complete picture. Let's start with the info on the character creation screen:
I think you're beginning to notice what point I was trying to make now; no one cared about actually introducing the lore to new players. We've got major lore errors only six quests into the game. In addition, a lot of other lore stuff seems iffy and isn't really carried through. For example, warlocks seem to be pretty well-integrated into orc society. They apparently have a centrally organized curriculum, and evidently have their own voice in the orcish military. But then we later on see that orcs are totally anti-warlock and extremely distrustful of them (which, seeing previous games, makes more sense, but a new player doesn't know that).
Aside from that, there isn't a whole lot to say. Like in vanilla, the updated durotar isn't focused on any particular story. Mechanics and quest flow are updated well enough, though it's still nothing exciting and the transitions from area to area are kinda weak. The kolkar and tirasian soldiers from the original were dropped, replaced with Northwatch soldiers and angry elementals. The burning blade somehow remains active in the zone, with all their old hideouts remaining intact. You'd think both Thrall and Garrosh would have been eager to take those out, but apparently they had better things to do. It wouldn't bother me so much if the burning blade from the next zone wouldn't be actively raiding caravans, but we'll get to that.
Type: Unwritten Zone
The Original Zone: I know I'm in the minority on this, but I absolutely loved the original barrens. Unlike most zones in WoW, it managed to achieve a feeling of scope, with the sight of vast, open plains, filled with all sorts of unique creatures. Civilizations like the harpies, the quilboar and the centaur weren't just limited to a few named locations and a big evil stronghold, but actually had their own territories, filled with a smattering of tiny villages. The same went for the horde for that matter, with many small, often unnamed places throughout the region. Locations that did have importance were placed by the edges of the zone as much as possible, to leave room for the feeling of openness within. While it was by no means perfect, it really felt like a part of the world.
As for story? Well, like Durotar, there really wasn't anything in the way of a central plot, just a smattering of random villains that threatened the horde's frontier. You've got hostile natives in the form of the quilboar, harpies and the centaur, you've got more old horde warlocks on dreadmist peak, you've got the emerald nightmare in the wailing caverns, you've got harpy and raptor raiders and you've got problems with the alliance in the form of Warsong Gulch, Northwatch and Bael Modan.
Okay, I'll be honest, the quests of the old barrens were very mediocre, especially in retrospect. I can completely and totally understand why so many people hated the zone, because there really was no sense of direction to the whole affair. You weren't helping settlers or claiming land. You weren't learning anything about the native populaces, the goblins, or even the playable populaces. You were just given a laundry list of tasks that could really have taken place in any zone. The exception to this was the wailing caverns stuff, which has always seemed more than a bit misplaced. The whole concept of 'this zone was dry and lifeless until just a few years back' would have been a lot more convincing if we weren't in a teeming savannah, capable of supporting herds of large animals along with multiple civilizations. Oh well, I'm plenty hypocritical enough to say something wasn't good and still enjoy it.
What should have changed: As said, the old barrens were kinda direction-less. As a result, there aren't a lot of specific points that should have been updated. However, this place was the orcish frontier for a few years now, so you'd expect them to be a little bit more settled. Nothing much, maybe even just a pig farm or two at the crossroads, and the native creep races beaten back a bit. Just a sign that settlement efforts have progressed a bit. Plus, of course, some damage from the cataclysm, for the same reason as Durotar. Maybe have the magic oases turn off now that that funny business in the wailing caverns has finished?
What has changed: Well, I'll give them one thing; the barrens were definitely damaged. There's a massive lava-filled scar running across the landscape, dividing the entire region in two. However, like the flooding, the damage from the scar is actually pretty meaningless. Somehow, the scar was spawned in the only place in the barrens where it wouldn't actually kill people. As with a rather surprising amount of the cataclysm's damage, it even magically steered clear of villages with hostile creeps.
Grol'dom is also having problems with these aggressive quilboar, who are directly attacking the orcish farmers. Luckily for them, the player just happens to pop by in time, helping defend the farm and taking out the new leader of the Razormane quilboar. This foul creature, bearing the name of Tortusk, turned the razormane into little more than brigands, and can't be negotiated with. I'm not entirely sure how this differs from the old Razormane quilboar, but apparently it does.
You once again leave with the caravan, bringing the supplies to the crossroads. On the way there, you're attacked by the burning blade cult, who are apparently somehow still around in force after vanilla. They're actually there in surprising force, with raiders and everything. Someone should really question in-universe how they were able to get themselves so many riding wolves.
So, why am I going into so much detail? Well, it's because of something that will be referenced a lot later on. Namely, Garrosh is supposed to be popular in large part because he secured the orcish homelands. He's responsible for bringing his people a secure home and enough food to not just survive, but thrive. Except, we are now walking through orcish lands, and we can clearly see that that's not the case. The barrens clearly don't provide more safety to the orcish population, and they sure as heck don't produce more food.
If you look solely at what's in game, the situation has actually gotten far, far worse. The alliance is invading Kolkar and Tiragarde, harpies still raid any caravan heading for Orgrimmar, large portions of Durotar are flooded, the Crossroads are essentially cut off from re-supplies, Quilboar are openly attacking the orcish farms, the burning blade cult is roaming the land in large packs and that's just what we've seen in this small summary. And where do we see the orcish armies? Failing at their actions in foreign lands and heavily guarding one gate of Orgrimmar while leaving a token force at the one that's actually under attack.
And this is hardly limited to these zones. Pretty much all of Garrosh' military strategy is reliant on the bilgewater goblins and their industrial and engineering capacity. However, Garrosh started the war before he had either of those, and only got them because, by sheer dumb luck, a player just happened to stumble into Thrall, and Thrall just happened to make those goblins join the horde. When Garrosh sent reinforcements to Silverpine Forest, those reinforcements were completely unprepared for battle, and it was only the player's lucky interference that saved the mission. When Garrosh invaded Ashenvale, it was only the player's lucky interference that helped save Splintertree Post. I'm honestly struggling to think of any military operation commanded by Garrosh that would have actually been successful without unexpected interference. Hell, let's lower that standard to “would have been non-disastrous without unexpected interference”. Even the rough stalemates and temporary successes, like Stonetalon Mountains and Ashenvale, were heavily reliant on goblin technology. I guess the stalemate at the battlescar would apply, but that's about it. That's not even close to how people in-universe talk about Garrosh though.
And... there's no real problem with that. In fact, it's pretty consistent with Garrosh' earlier portrayals in TBC and WotLK, where he utterly screwed up and left others to clean up the mess, while he somehow benefited from it. The problem is that the narrative actually seems to believe that Garrosh is this successful warlord, despite presenting nothing but evidence to the contrary. There's no “The alliance armies are invading Durotar, where is the protection Garrosh promised us?”, there's no “The quilboar are overrunning our homes, why are the guys in Orgrimmar keeping our soldiers abroad?”, there's no “Orgrimmar is being attacked from the north, so why are its guardians kept on the southern end?” Even when people go against him, it's about the potential cost of Garrosh' plans of conquest, never about he utterly fails at them. The game tries to sell us this narrative about Garrosh, but does nothing but contradict itself.
The most blatant example is found later in the zone, where a large alliance army is found creeping up from the southern barrens to Ratchet. These guys are here in big force, controlling a large chunk of coast and having several ships with them. They even start seizing orcish boats in Ratchet. Obviously a severe incursion of orcish territory and a threat to the orcish people, as they would easily be able to block off, or even conquer, the barrens. So, how do you stop them?
You don't. You destroy the ammunition of the local rear admiral's flagship, as well as doing some mild damage to it. In addition, you kill two lieutenants. After that, you just leave the rest of the army alone, with no sign that the horde leadership is even aware they're invading, let alone doing anything about it. Luckily for the horde, the writers just kinda forgot about this army.
First, that's the antithesis of how games are supposed to work. The formula is supposed to be “player does stuff, moving the story along”. Not “Story moves along, overriding stuff the player did”. Second, it creates a ton of weird little story hick-ups that just make the entire nation of Durotar look incompetent. In vanilla, you had legion cultists on dreadmist peak. The player discovered their identity and plans, putting an end to them within the course of, say, a few months after they first popped up. In current lore however, those cultists, who are at the top of a mountain, disturbing magical energies throughout the entire barrens and openly summoning demons, have been around for years (and judging by their pack of raiders, have somehow gotten even stronger since the fall of the new shadow council). These kind of things aren't perpetual threats that you can just recycle without making the timescales ridiculous.
All in all, the Cataclysm turned my favorite zone into a rehashed, completely nonsensical mess... though I have to give it minor props for really good quest flow.
Introducing the orcs
This one's admittedly not limited to the orcish starting zones, but they serve as a good example nonetheless. Imagine that you're a new player who has just picked up WoW. Maybe you've heard good things about it from a friend, maybe the advertisements for this new expansion grabbed you, but you've got no experience with the game and no knowledge of its lore. Scrolling through the character creation screen, you decide to play one of those beefy green 'orc' guys.
So, you spend a couple of days, level your orc. You go from the scorching hot sands to Durotar, to the great plains of the Barrens to the ancient and mysterious forests of Ashenvale to the honestly kinda generic lands of Stonetalon. You've gotten acquainted with your class and you've gotten acquainted to the way questing works in WoW. However, how much do you actually know about the orcs?
The purpose of the racial info is to give new players a basic background and theme on their chosen race. In this case, the orcs are the x-men, only with axes instead of laser vision. The problem is that this infobox is the same as it was in vanilla. While you can definitely argue about if the concept worked in vanilla or not, it certainly doesn't hold much relevance in the cataclysm era. For one, there's the whole “peaceful” thing, which is kinda overturned by starting a war of global supremacy. Fighting for honor isn't really relevant anymore either. While before, the orcs chose embracing their own destiny over staying in the camps, there is no such choice present, instead having to fight for survival. And while orcish shamanism is relevant to the expansion as a whole, it's not really a central theme to orcish culture for this expansion.
Okay, but that can't be the only source on orcish culture. What else is there? The first quest teaches us that we're starting out as new adults, and we're being recruited into... something or other. Invaders in Our Home shows that there is some sort special significance to the valley of trials, and that Jaina has just breached the peace between alliance and horde. The class quests give some basic knowledge; the power of mages is feared even more than that of the warlock and is really new, rogues are allied with the shattered hand, their quest also teaching us that Garrosh is a shaman and a spiritual leader (as well as having been enslaved by humans at one point), shamans communicate with ancestors and the elements, and are chosen as spiritual leaders.
The main problem though? That was pretty much it. While the orcs have never been all that developed as a culture, the game doesn't even bother introducing the few tidbits that are there. Orcish shamanism? Despite its importance to the expansion, you're going to have to pick up Lord of the Clans to even get a basic background. The Mak'gora? Read the shattering or the comics, because you're not going to find it in-game. Basic orcish history? Well, you can either read Rise of the Horde, or you're going to have to use the in-game history books, which are scattered throughout the world, written to be read in a specific order and rather outdated. I'm not asking for a grand course on orcish ways (though, me being me, I wouldn't consider it unwelcome), but some basic information would be nice.
While I'm talking about the zones, I should probably talk about the updated capitals. It seems that when Garrosh got control of Orgrimmar, he tried to make it a little more like the warsong offensive's bases. Indeed, the Northrend style seems to be the horde's general building style now. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about that. As I said before, I really liked the design in Northrend itself. It was rough, strong and grim, fitting the general darker tone of those areas.
On the other hand, the Northrend models kinda sucked. They worked as a departure from the norm for this special environment, but they really weren't all that impressive in and of their own. They don't really seem to have much of a personality to me. In addition, they seem to be very much under-designed, often having a distinct shortage of doodads (smaller models, like wall decorations or furniture). The strongholds especially suffer from this, with the upper outer area and the top floor being empty way too often. Not good for immersion and a sense of exploration.
Orgrimmar doesn't use the standard models, so it doesn't suffer as heavily from that though. Indeed, it's very detailed and fun to explore, though the buildings could have used a bit larger and more elaborate interior. Old orgrimmar didn't have that, certainly, but the standard buildings of this new style do, and it's really weird to see Grommash Hold be way smaller than the average general's stronghold. Plus, you can't reach the upper floor from inside the building, which is just bizarre.
In addition, and as much as I dislike saying “it's different, so I don't like it”, I kind of miss the old Orgrimmar. While I do like advancement in setting, WoW has this annoying tendency to make old content completely inaccessible, meaning you can't ever visit old Orgrimmar again without breaking some real life laws. Old Orgrimmar was a city of primitive warriors, where great champions rise from their struggle with the wasteland. New Orgrimmar is a city of modernized war, where a warriors mettle serves as but a guide to bring weaponry to the battlefield. Neither is bad. But one can never replace the other.
On a different note, I'm a bit weirded out by the sudden presence of large populations of jungle trolls and especially tauren, each of which get their own districts. While the trolls always had a population in the city, you'd think that the retaking of the echo isles would cause trolls from Orgrimmar to move to there, rather than having their population in Orgrimmar increase. The tauren on the other hand didn't even have a real population in Orgrimmar before. All the tauren NPCs that were there before were representatives and a lone bounty hunter, not civilians. It's weird to see them suddenly pop up with a new district. You'd think that any tauren settlers would focus on the much more pleasant and secure Mulgore, but apparently not. It's a shame too, because you know who'd make a lot of sense instead? The taunka. Think, they've lost their homes, they're loyal to Garrosh and they've got a culture that fits in well with Garrosh' new take on the horde. I'm honestly surprised we've never seen taunka forces after WotLK, because they seemed like the perfect fit for the direction the horde was going.
The Echo Isles
Though not an in-game capital, it's a capital lorewise, so let's talk about the new Darkspear home. I really don't like it. To be honest, I've always had kind of an issue with the portrayal of the echo isles in WoW, because of how thoroughly downgraded it was from the version seen in TFT. It could really have benefited from being its own independent zone, though I guess that wouldn't work with the relative scale of the isles seen previously.
Regardless, that was a decision made in Vanilla, and we're here to talk about Cata. The new darkspear capital really disappointed me. I wasn't expecting a grand metropolis or anything, but I was hoping for something that at least resembled a city. Instead, we've got a single massive terrace with some pits for variety, and then a handful of huts to the side of it. It just doesn't feel like an actual city, a place where people eat, sleep, work and raise kids, would.
The massive central terrace is the main problem, because despite being the main feature of the city, it doesn't feel like part of a city. It's a bizarre combination of multiple training grounds. Apparently, priest training doesn't involve interacting with the loa and spiritual understanding, just throwing spells at training dummies. Rogues don't train sneaking and preparing poisons, just stabbing training dummies. It's a weird cross-section between out-of-universe gameplay logic and in-universe architectural design, and feels like the combination of the most unnatural parts of both.
It would have worked much better if the terrace had been split a bit. Let warriors keep the training grounds, with arena and riding raptors. Give the priests a bit of a temple, the mages a library of old stone tablets and the warlocks a bit of a mix between the two with a bonus summoning circle. Place hunters and rogues in a wilder patch to train being sneaky-sneaks, and you've got a much more natural-feeling area. Plus, add a few huts. Because seriously, where is everyone supposed to sleep?
Next: The complete and unabridged live of Garrosh Hellscream; king, poet, lover.