Wednesday, 8 May 2013

World of Warcraft - Cataclysm - Night Elf starter zones

Sorry for the month-long wait, everyone. After all that time, let's look at some individual zones. For our first look, I've decided to go with the night elf starting zones, since they're the most varied of the bunch. Plus, most of the zones don't have a lot of “comedy”, meaning I am less likely to strangle someone.

Type: Unwritten zone.

The Original Zone: I think I've spoken plenty about how little sense this zone made, so lets just keep to plot this time. Almost every quest on Teldrassil involved the growing demonic corruption in the tree and fighting the corrupted creatures it created.

What should have changed: Pretty much everything. While there was no real progression against the corruption in the original Teldrassil quests, the entire plot was actually resolved in one of the books, Stormrage, in which the emerald nightmare was defeated and contained, Fandral Staghelm captured and Malfurion woke up and became the co-ruler of the night elves. Teldrassil even got blessed by Alexstrasza and Ysera.
As a result of this, there should have been a ton of major changes. The timberlings should no longer be corrupted and hostile, the gnarlpine furbolgs should be friendly now and the sleeping druids should have awakened.
In addition, there was another major change: The shendra'lar, a group of surviving highborne, decided to return to night elf society. As such, the night elves now have actual mages again, which should probably be reflected in their homeland. A minor change that happened in the same book was that the wardens were reformed, this time under the command of Jarod Shadowsong.

What has changed: Pretty much nothing. Almost every single quest is recycled from the original world of warcraft, with the excuse that “the corruption has suddenly returned again, omgz0rs!” Of course, that doesn't explain why the characters that were killed in vanilla are suddenly alive again, or why the corruption takes the exact same form as it did previously, or why the druids are still asleep, or why the green dragonflight still isn't helping out.
Teldrassil is an example of one of the big problems with the direction in Cataclysm: The stakes for every zone must be as high as possible. Every zone is a battle for complete domination, survival and/or global annihilation (seriously, you save the world like 6 times). For some zones, that just doesn't work. Teldrassil should be a mostly peaceful area, like Dustwallow Marsh, the original Elwynn forest or Scholazar Basin. There's still plenty of story opportunities in a more low-key story. You could have a murder mystery causing rising tensions between the shendra'lar and the furbolg. You could have harpies fleeing to Teldrassil in large numbers. You could have a quest about helping the worgen, the shendra'lar or even the green dragons set up a new village. You could have a quest series about helping the shadow wardens capture a dark cult, satyrs or demon hunters. I can think of dozens of possibilities for questlines beyond simply recycling the old stuff, and I'm not even fully awake yet.
Darnassus itself could also use a bit of an update. While the worgen having their own tree is nice, the reformed watchers and the returned Shendra'lar should also have gotten lodgings.

Type: Finished zone, probably the most complete example amongst the redone zones.

The Original Zone: As I've mentioned before, MMOs are not exactly the best medium for story-telling. Back during the original world of warcraft, this was even more true, as there wasn't anything like phasing yet. You couldn't change the world depending on a player's actions.
However, some of the WoW writers found a way around this. Rather than telling a full story, they instead set-up a mystery to be solved at a later date. Usually, the player did achieve something during the mystery, like stopping one evil plot, or destroying one branch of a conspiracy, but the actual resolution was kept for a later date.
A lot of these mysteries were actually connected, though few players were bored enough to read through all the quest text and think about the implications. Luckily for my readers, I have no life and a good memory. In the case of Darkshore, there are two relevant mysteries.
Lets call the first mystery “The forsaken conspiracy” (or “The unofficial main plot of Vanilla”). Throughout vanilla, we saw that the forsaken had ties to numerous dark factions, including the Defias Brotherhood, the Grimtotem tauren and the new shadow council. The comic actually very briefly featured this conspiracy as well, tying the black dragonflight (and thus the dark horde) to it as well. The forsaken conspiracy only features very briefly in Darkshore, with a group of forsaken scouts trying to assassinate a member of the argent dawn who is investigating the Cult of the Dark Strand, a branch of the new shadow council led by an ancient, powerful highborne warlock by the name of Athrikus Narassin, who has feasted upon thousands of souls and is looking for new ones.
The second mystery was the “OMG, ocean = scary” plot. Around the time of Warcraft III, something started to stir beneath the ocean, causing many of the inhabitants to flee. You may be thinking it refers to the naga, but most of the hints we received pointed to something far larger. Darkshore was the most important area where this mystery featured, with many large animals washing ashore. While the beached turtles turn out to have been caused by the naga (who were using them as cargo transports to Blackfathom Depths), the whales and threshers were left unexplained.
Aside from that, most quests in Darkshore were pretty similar to the quests in Teldrassil, mostly revolving around fighting the spreading corruption. The player also helped a group of dwarves investigate a titan ruin in the southern part of the region, and dealt with highborne spirits haunting ancient ruins.

What should have changed: Honestly, there aren't really any changes in Darkshore that had to happen. There is nothing about any of the questlines that indicated they had to take place before the cataclysm. As such, its a bit bizarre that this zone is one of the most thoroughly updated.

What has changed: EVERYTHING. It's one of the big problems of cataclysm that the zones that needed the least changes to fit story advances were the ones that needed the most changes to fit smoother gameplay. It's one of the big reasons why cataclysm as an expansion could never have worked, even if the premise had been better. There just isn't enough time to do everything.
That brings us to another big problem of cataclysm: The revamped zones don't really have anything do with the old zones. As a result, fans of the old zone usually hate the new zone for taking away their beloved storylines and completely replacing them, making them forever lost to the mists of time. You're taking something we've grown to love and replacing it with something new. Even if the new thing is great, that's still a bad idea.
In the case of Darkshore, there's two new main plots. First, the shatterspear tribe of jungle trolls has joined the horde, and is invading night elf territory. While they were a bit of an easter egg in the original world of warcraft, we did actually get a bit of lore on them when blizzard released the troll compendium, stating that they were reclusive and uninterested in claiming territory. As such, having them join the horde just to take more territory is a pretty blatant breach of canon.
The other main plot is a bit smarter, for the most part. As part of the cataclysm, a massive tornado is ripping apart darkshore. In addition, the twilight's hammer, naga and corrupted furbolg are doing their best to mess with the people in the south as much as possible. The player must help Malfurion control the tornado, getting a moonkin, green dragon and furbolg leader to aid him. In addition to the tornado, the twilight's hammer, naga and corrupted furbolg are making a whole mess of things. All good so far.
However, the ending to the questline is simply glorious. Queen Azshara appears, explaining that the entire plan was to keep Malfurion busy, so he couldn't lead the night elf defense of mount Hyjal! It's the perfect evil plan! MUHAHAHAHA... wait... didn't the night elves have two racial leaders? Last time I checked, Tyrande also led the original defense of mount hyjal, so the idea that only Malfurion could lead the night elves to victory is ridiculous. Since when is malfurion a tactical genius anyway? Plus, it's not like racial leaders are the only commanders. Jarod Shadowsong, Shandris or any of the archdruids should have enough experience to lead a defense. And Malfurion does actually show up for the battle of mount hyjal, so it's not like this plan even makes sense in context of the story. Actually, now that I think about it, that ending is rather stupid.
However, I will give credit where credit is due: Cataclysm is much better at showing what the night elves are supposed to be, getting back a few of their old traits. The sentinels actually appear as amazon-like warriors rather than peaceneck tree-huggers. Natural allies are seen throughout the zone. In addition to the moonkin, green dragon and furbolg, numerous ancients fight alongside the sentinels, and the player awakens an even larger amount of ancients later on.

Type: Unfinished zone

The Original Zone: If I had to pick one zone that perfectly represents the typical zone of the original WoW, it would be ashenvale. The way the zone had central towns with a ton of annoying, hard to reach minor hubs that you had to go to way too often (maestra's post, silverwind refuge). The way the zone had a really nice-looking subzone that looked like it would be interesting but was underused (thistlefur hold & village). The way the zone had random violence between the alliance and the horde that should only be happening if the factions were at war (the destruction of silverwing outpost, the assassination of Overseer Gorthak). The way TBC added a bunch of quest that honestly didn't make a whole lot of sense (seriously, how the hell was forest song founded behind horde lines? And who thought that was a good idea?). The way you had to search your ass off to find quest targets (Dammit Ursangous!). The way one questline looked like an interesting premise but ended up making no sense as part of warcraft lore (Raene's Cleansing, about an evil human mage who tried to use arcane powers to become a druid, so he could become a furbolg, so he could infiltrate furbolg society and turn the furbolg tribes against each other. The reason is never explained, nor is it explained why imitating druidic powers was a neccesary step. Also, this takes place before the third war, night elf arrogance is destroying the furbolg, night elves wouldn't kill an infiltrator that used arcane magic to pit them against each other and the furbolg gave a mythical artifact to druids without the night elves knowing of it). The way it had one RPG idea that was really cool (vale of beasts), one that only worked in the weird context of the RPG (wildhammer peaks) and one that made absolutely no sense (how do you make a statue of aessina, a glowing ball of energy, and how do you give her clothing made out of ivy?). Long story story short, it had a ton of potential, some of which shined through, but the overall execution was rather flawed.
Storywise, Ashenvale was much like Teldrassil, with a focus on fighting corruption, mostly in the form of corrupted furbolg, satyrs and demons, though there were some corrupted timberlings as well. To bring some variation, it also had naga and twilight's hammer cultists invading the east coast to search for a lost beast of the old gods, a group of ancient night elf worgen in the north and a few more hints of forsaken conspiracy, with undead harvesting rare herbs and corrupting an ancient night elf artifact that let the forests of Ashenvale recover much faster.

What should have changed: In Wolfheart, this is where the war between the horde and the alliance first started, with Garrosh launching an offensive against night elf territory to obtain supplies following a massive drought and fire in Orgrimmar.
In Wolfheart, Garrosh' insane love for physical strength over anything else was actually used in a clever way, with him becoming sort of a dark beastmaster, unleashing enslaved magnataurs and proto-drakes against his enemies. It was a really good idea (though the way it was implemented was definitely not that good), as a reliance on such creatures would go a long way towards explaining how the horde (a collection of nations that by all means should be near-extinct) is actually capable of taking on the alliance (the three mightiest kingdoms on the face of the planet plus more than a dozen allied factions).

What has changed: Of course, it being a good idea means that it never shows up in the game, with the horde instead relying mostly on goblin technology. Even in ashenvale, which was invaded before the goblins joined, there is no sign of enslaved monsters, with the attack relying on normal soldiers, demolishers and goblin engineers. You could have given us magnataurs and proto-drakes vs. mountain giants and chimaeras, damn it.
Instead, we get the half-assed attempt at a war between the horde and the alliance, really showing us just how ill-suited a medium world of warcraft is for this kind of conflict. There's no tactics, no characterization, no intelligence involved at all. The NPCs are simply waiting for the player to show up and throw the magic switch labelled “quest completion”, after which all their problems are solved instantly.
Well, at least that's how the story goes. In-game, there is a distinct underuse of phasing for some of the zones that really call for it, and the most blatant example of this is Ashenvale. No matter what the player does, Maestra's post will always be under siege by the horde, even after the fighting has supposedly been pushed back all the way to Silverwing Refuge. The most annoying example of this has to be Lord Magmathar though. Lord Magmathar is constantly yelling throughout the zone, is perched on top of a volcano in the middle of the area, visible from afar. I don't expect every single quest NPC to be phased, but if you're going to rub my face in his presence at every opportunity I do kind of expect the facerubbing to stop after I'm supposed to have killed him.
As I'll explore in future posts, I really hate how cataclysm handled both the core horde (orcs, trolls, tauren) and the core alliance (stormwind, theramore, ironforge and gnomeregan). The members of the horde turned from small tribes of redeemed savages looking to forge a new homeland into militaristic thugs looking to conquer the world. The nations of the alliance turned from a diverse pact of nations with widely different views of the world around them into a homogenous mass that only serves as an extension of Varian's will. Even more notable is that the factions lose their moral greyness. The horde attacks neutral nations with chemical weapons and dark magics just to get a better position to commit genocide and enslaves tribes of humanoids to use as disposable cannon fodder. The alliance ceases all of its questionable actions, with the war stopping and restarting between expansions just so the alliance leadership has no responsibilities for the events in the war.
In Ashenvale, this is all too apparent. The horde is suddenly corrupting the land all around, with the assault against Maestra's post being led by a warlock, shaman magic being used to enslave elementals, an entire tribe of furbolgs driven to corrupted madness by troll voodoo and natural artifacts corrupted just for the hell of it (seriously, wouldn't the horde, a faction suffering wood shortage, want an artifact that boosts forest growth to remain intact?). The fact that the player actually gets in trouble at one point for using fel magic is simply jaw-dropping.

Actually, lets talk about that last one some more. When the horde player arrives at splintertree post, it is under siege by night elf forces. With the likelihood of death, Draaka asks the player to put some of the energies from felfire hill in a canister, so that the orcs can enhance their demolisher ammo. Draaka remarks that if Garrosh found out, he'd likely call for the heads of everyone involved, which is seriously questionable continuity considering all the other corruptive magics the horde is employing in ashenvale (or this quest is the sensible one, and all the other examples are questionable continuity). Draaka sends you to Durak, a warlock in the splintertree mine, that does the actual enchantments. When the night elves launch their final attack, the player lays down clusters of enchanted ore to direct the fel meteors Draaka's demolisher launched.
Up to this point, the questline has actually made some sense. However, here is where that stops. Draaka, regretful of her actions, but hoping Hellscream will forgive her for saving Splintertree post, sends the player to Orgrimmar to deliver her apologies. However, when you arrive at Orgrimmar, Garrosh suddenly claims that Draaka had been manipulated by a demon. I originally assumed that this was just Garrosh being Garrosh and whitewashing orc actions by assuming that all dark magics used by orcs were a result of demonic manipulation. However, it turns out he was actually right when Durak transforms into a dreadlord. Garrosh also remarks that he can smell the taint of the demon affecting the player, and actually puts a price on the player's head for a while, even saying that he should probably still kill you after you give him the head of the demon.
However, that raises a number of questions.
First, how can Garrosh, and no other orc, smell which people have been influenced by demons? Last I checked, we've seen numerous covert demon-worshippers in orcish society, and Garrosh doesn't have special training of any kind. I'd buy that he could just sense lingering magical fel energies from the battle, but that doesn't work since any person involved in the defense should have had the same smell due to proximity to the fel energies, which means it's not exactly evidence of involvement.
Second, how did Garrosh come to the conclusion that Draaka had been manipulated by a demon? Draaka didn't know that Durak was a demon, so it wasn't in her apology. And Durak was posing as a warlock, so just using some pretty mild demonic magic wasn't evidence enough. Hell, come to think of it, how did Durak manipulate Draaka anyway? Draaka was the one who originally came up with the idea to use the felfire anyway, to the point that she actually had to give Durak instructions about what do to. And there is no evidence in the other quests of Ashenvale either. His only other involvement is with the corruption of the forest heart, and in that case, he was again working under orders from another orc. Basically, from all appearances, he's just an evil warlock that does his part in serving the horde.
Third, Garrosh is an idiot. Why is the player the one getting in trouble over this? We're only smelling like fel energy because of orders given out by one of his officers. And guess what? Garrosh knows this, because he has a written confession from that person in his hand. If you're gonna kill every person in the horde who got in contact with fel magic due to his superior officers, you're going to have to kill the vast majority of the orcish race, bub. Or do you think all our fancy green skins are just for show?
All in all, what I got from the entire affair was that Garrosh had no idea what was going on in Ashenvale despite it being his primary battlefront, jumps to conclusions on the flimsiest of evidences, executes members of the horde because they followed orders from officers he appointed (and Garrosh is consistently terrible at appointing competent officers) and just happened to be incredibly lucky in this specific situation.

Durak: No! My planning was impeccable! I did nothing to show my hand! How did you see through it all?
Player: Foolish demon! All your plans are limited by the precepts of reality! Our warchief's idiocy has no such limits!

Another thing that's really annoying about Ashenvale is the inconsistencies between the horde and the alliance quests. The biggest example is probably Chief Murgut of the Foulweald furbolg. The alliance player gets to kill this character for selling out his people to the horde, becoming their stooge. The horde player gets to kill this character for refusing to submit to the horde. So which is it supposed to be? The selling out/refusing to submit is supposed to have happened before the player even arrived, so its not like the actions of the player influenced his decision in any way.

And now for a bit of visuals. The view range at maximum settings in the original World of Warcraft was a lot lower than it is in cataclysm. This is a problem when it comes to the static fog that hangs in most zones. In the original world of warcraft, this fog served as a way to make the cut-off of the terrain after this range less obvious by gradually making things less visible until they were nearly wholly invisible at the cut-off point. However, in Cataclysm, the fog is obscuring things long before they would have been too far away to see, which is a waste of processing power and only makes the zone look worse. This is very noticeable in Ashenvale, because there is one small area, Thunder Peak, where the fog is removed. Just compare the view of Silverwind Refuge with the normal ashenvale settings with the view seen from Thunder Peak:

Left: Normal ashenvale view range, Right: Thunder peak view range.

Okay, more things to gripe about. In the original world of warcraft, zones didn't get long quest chains connecting everything. Each town just had a bunch of unrelated quests, and quest chains within a zone were usually no more than five quests long. As such, they didn't have an overall narrative, nor did they try to have one. With a few very specific exceptions, stakes outside instances were kept low, and quests were mostly doing odd jobs for local traders or helping take out annoyances to the guards. Because of this, quests had little do with one another, allowing for very varied zones.

In Cataclysm however, most zones have a continuous narrative, with nearly every single quest connected to a single chain. As such, you kind of expect the quests to actually form a story, rather than a loose collection of unrelated quests that come in a chain for no real reason. However, here's where the problem of lack of resources due to trying to make the expansion far too big comes in again. Because the original zones weren't meant to fit in an overarching plot, the subzones were rather diverse. As such, they need a lot of retooling to fit into a narrative. However, as stated before, blizzard simply didn't have the resources for that. So now, we have a narrative with incredibly high stakes... and the majority of quests ignore it. While the horde side deals with this okay, the alliance side basically amounts to “OMG, the horde is invading! Quickly, spend half your time on random assignments trying to cure a single sick kid! Also, this random archeologist needs help! No, I don't want you to deal with the giant horde outpost, I want you to completely ignore it and grab some statues instead!”

The opposite happens as well, with what should be very important events being shoved into a small subzone. For example, the player single-handedly stops an invasion by the burning legion at one point. This whole plot point comes out of nowhere, takes two quests, and is never mentioned again.

Despite the fact that Cataclysm was supposed to be a jumping on point for new players, there's actually a bunch of areas that expect the player to know the events from the original world of warcraft, despite never mentioning them anywhere. For example, there's no explanation of who the hell Dartol is, or why his rod was so important. The quests simply expect the player to know.

Finally, many cataclysm zones have a problem with the story just kind of petering out at a point in the story before any sort of climax can be reached. This is a result of cataclysm making leveling much easier and streamlining questing zones, as the player is now expected to simply do all quests in a zone before moving on to the next. As such, each zone has a very strict limit on the number of quests. Couple this with leveling having become much easier, and each zone still covering about as wide a level range as the original, this number of quests becomes even more limited. Simply put, there aren't enough available slots to tell a full high-impact story, unless you completely focus every single quest on it, requiring a very thorough overhaul (and thus more of the unavailable time and resources). The alliance quests again suffer from this, with the story randomly ending after you've freed a group of enslaved furbolg, but before the night elves can push the advantage and retake silverwind refuge.

Stonetalon Mountains
Type: Unpolished zone/unfinished zone

The Original Zone: Stonetalon was one of the those zones in vanilla that lacked any semblance of a greater plot. The player just did a string of random odd jobs for random people, with no real focus on any particular development.

What should have changed: As far as I know, nothing of importance has happened in Stonetalon between Vanilla and Cataclysm, so the zone should pretty much be the same.

What has changed: Everything. Like I said before, it is a very unfortunate coincidence that the zones that needed the least story updates needed the most game updates. It is especially unfortunate in the case of Stonetalon, since the updated zone is absolutely terrible.

Most of that has to do with the main story, which revolves around a goblin-built super-bomb. Initially built for use in Ashenvale, the alliance player halted that plan, causing it to be diverted to stonetalon instead. Here, the horde and the alliance have a number of brief tugs-of-war, surrounding the main plot of the bomb. In windshear crag, the horde player gets drafted by Overlord Krom'gar, gaining the rank of grunt in an admittedly clever rank mechanism. Meanwhile, the alliance player gets orders through a German-accented gnome on the radio, because if you can't make sense, you might as well make your setting look stupid while you're at it.

After enduring a few terrible jokes, silliness that degrades the setting rather than enriching the play experience and shout-outs where the entire 'joke' apparently revolves around a subject existing and being present in a different setting, the horde player upgrades the goblin bomb with some special ore, making it even more powerful and sending it towards the night elf outpost. The alliance player, having endured the same thing with the added 'benefit' of that damn radio gnome, manages to damage but not destroy the bomb in another quest that relies on being silly to justify it making no sense (specifically, the reason we don't fully destroy the balloon is because we're attacking the “power coupling”. Apparently, gas-powered balloons are powered by electricity now. Also, our character suffered brain damage, as that is the only reason I can think of why you're attacking a thick piece of metal, rather than destroying the balloon, cutting the cable connecting the bomb to the balloon or cutting the wires that connect the balloon basket to the balloon). After the alliance player damages the balloon, it gets redirected to be deployed further up the mountain range.

Up till now, the questline has been extremely stupid due to its forced attempts at humor superseding the warcraft setting. However, its stupidity was not extraordinary by cataclysm standards. This is the point where that changes.

First of all, let's go from the perspective of the alliance player. In the second questing hub, a goblin fueling station called the sludgewerks, the alliance player discovers a log book that shows that the Krom'gar forces are planning to bomb Thal'darah Grove, a school for young druids located near the peak of the mountain range. To stop this, the alliance player gets sent to Master Thal'darah at Thal'darah Overlook, an alliance outpost. However, the player is too late. He only manages to safe a handful of students before the entire grove is annihilated by the bomb. Three obvious problems:

1) Why is there a school for druids located in the stonetalon mountains? Moonglade is supposed to be where all new druids are taught, so having a school anywhere else seems like a pretty big breach of canon. If the school was in ashenvale, darkshore, mount hyjal or Teldrassil, I could still accept it, but the school is built right at what would have been the border of night elf territory, which seems like the dumbest possible location, as it's out of reach for new students, and the night elves are unable to defend it.

2) Master Thal'darah. According to lore, most, if not all, druids are members of the Cenarion Circle, an organization that has distanced itself from the alliance and remains neutral even during the events of Cataclysm. As such, all druidic schools belong to the circle (the horde questline confirms that this also goes for Thal'darah). As the name of Master Thal'darah suggests, he is the head of the Thal'darah Grove, and is therefore currently a high-ranking officer in the neutral cenarion circle. However, like his name also suggests, he is the head of Thal'darah Overlook, an alliance stronghold actively fighting the horde. As such, Master Thal'darah is a high-ranking alliance officer. Obvious question: How the bloody hell are you staying neutral and acting as an alliance officer at the exact same time? (And yes, the same thing extends to Malfurion, though we'll address that later)

3) The horde, in a pre-planned attack authorized by an overlord that answers directly to Garrosh, destroyed a school for druids, killing all the students contained within. How the hell doesn't this count as an act of war against the cenarion circle?

The horde version has it worse however. After doing stupid quests in the sludgeworks, the horde player goes to Cliffwalker Post, a tauren village. Here, they encounter General Grebo, the second-in-command of Overlord Krom'gar. Grebo claims that the tauren (especially high chieftain Cliffwalker) are seeking to commit treason against the horde, because they claim that the druids of Thal'darah Grove aren't secretly storing WMDs. Grebo isn't trusting the cliffwalker inspectors, and is instead planning to launch a first strike attack again Thal'darah Grove to prevent them from using the WMDs on the horde forces.

Okay, first of all, that commentary on the iraq war is terribly out of place in world of warcraft. The pop culture references were already stupid, but this is just... just no. Second, why is the leader of the cliffwalkers called a high chieftain? The title of high chieftain is reserved for the chieftain of the united tauren tribes, individual tribes simply have chieftains. Third, how is claiming that intelligence is wrong “seeking to commit treason”? I can understand (though definitely not agree) the “treason” part, but I'm having real trouble with the “seeking to commit” part. Nowhere does it seem like he thinks the tauren are actually planning to stop him, and the only events that he ever mentions (claiming his intelligence is wrong, sending a scout to double-check whether the night elves have WMDs) took place before he makes the claim.

The general is allowing the high chieftain some time to gather evidence, as the chieftain has sent his son to obtain proof that the night elves don't have WMDs (how exactly do you obtain proof that something doesn't exist?). However, when the son doesn't call back in, the high chieftain asks the player to go Thal'darah grove and look what happened. There, the player finds the dead tauren, clutching the insignia of General Grebo!

Dun-dun-du...wait. How exactly did General Grebo manage to slip away from the tauren village and into the grove without being seen by anyone? And, considering he's a general, why would he even do this himself? Also, if he took this huge risk to prevent the high chieftain from obtaining proof (seriously, how do you get proof of non-existance?), why didn't he bother retrieving his insignia? In unrelated news, there is a pretty big lore error when High Chieftain Cliffwalker claims that the tauren have studied druidism in the grove for as long as he could remember, unless his memory only goes back ten years.

High Chieftain Cliffwalker confronts Grebo over the insignia, and the latter attacks, with the tauren and the player cooperating to kill him and his personal guards. At this point, the questline turns even dumber, as well as becoming slightly incomprehensible. High Chieftain Cliffwalker has a bit of a panic reaction, thinking that now the horde will surely kill him for treason. Initially, I was ready to call this out as another bit of idiocy, since there are no surviving witnesses, we are close to a war zone and the player is the most trusted and highest-ranking remaining officer of the overlord. However, mr. Cliffwalker probably isn't used to crafting alibis for murder, so his initial panic reaction is understandable.

not that I'm used to crafting alibis for murder or anything >.>

However, here is where things get confusing. I'll give the events first, then the commentary. The high chieftain sends the player to go explain the situation to Overlord Krom'gar. Krom'gar somehow comes to the conclusion that this means that the tauren betrayed the horde, and travels to cliffwalker post, killing everyone but the high chieftain by the time the player arrives. Krom'gar also drops the bomb on Thal'darah Grove. At this exact moment, Garrosh arrives, gives a speech about how he learned honor and the ways of the horde from Saurfang in Northrend, and kicks Krom'gar off the mesa. Garrosh is planning to do the same to the player, but high chieftain cliffwalker says that the player was helping him out. Instead, Garrosh strips the player of his rank and friendly asks him to go help out in Desolace or the Southern Barrens.

Okay, now for the commentary. My first point is that I'm not exactly sure what's going on with Overlord Krom'gar and his destruction of Cliffwalker Post. The most likely explanation is that Krom'gar and Grebo were in some sort of weird conspiracy to destroy both Thal'darah Grove and the Cliffwalker tauren. When Grebo's plot was uncovered, Krom'gar then used his death as an excuse to execute the plan anyway. However, we're never given any explanation for why Krom'gar and Grebo want to destroy Thal'darah Grove instead of Thal'darah Overlook, which they told the player the bomb was intended for and a highly important strategic location.

In addition, Krom'gar's dialogue doesn't fit this at all. Instead, his dialogue suggests that the only information the player character gave to him was that the tauren killed General Grebo, which actually makes him striking back against the tribe rather reasonable. Hell, when Krom'gar tells the player that he's going over to Cliffwalker Post to kill the tauren, there is no dialogue or any sign that the player is trying to protest. Making any character stupid to justify your plot is questionable. Forcing the player into a role of stupidity so great it makes Garrosh look like a rocket scientist? That's just dumb.

Speaking of Garrosh, where the hell did he suddenly come from? And why? We're never given any explanation of why exactly the warchief of the horde suddenly decides to open a portal to a random tauren village. Or does Garrosh have the natural ability to sense plot developments?

Garrosh is also acting completely out of character. He's actually in possession of both brain and ethics here, having learned from his mistakes and condemning the mass murder of innocents. It's rather sad that this is something I have to condemn as out-of-character for Thrall's successor, but it's the truth. Garrosh does not care about the killing of innocents, nor does he care about using super-weapons against civilian populations. Hell, he ordered both on several occasions throughout this expansion.

Furthermore, why is the player stripped of his rank? I guess that we need to return to the status quo, but it makes no sense in-universe. Garrosh mentions that the player's rank is moot because Krom'gar's army has been dissolved, but that makes no sense either. The war in stonetalon is still going on, and Garrosh still wants Stonetalon conquered. Garrosh knows that the player is trustworthy, because the high chieftain is vouching for him. So shouldn't the obvious solution be for the player to get Krom'gar's position? Sure, that doesn't work from a gameplay perspective, but that's why we should have never gotten into this position to begin with. If the only logical outcome of a series of events is one you can't do for gameplay reasons, change the series of events. Have the bomb dropped on Thal'darah Overlook, meaning stonetalon mountain has been conquered, and have Garrosh only get angry over the deaths of the Cliffwalker tauren.

As an aside, cataclysm has some really terrible voice acting (also inconsistent voice acting, but we'll cover that when we do Uldum or the undead starter zones), which really shows in this series of quests. I just don't understand what Krom'gar's voice actor was trying/told to do here. No wait, I do understand. He's trying to sound like a weaselly villain. He's trying way, way, way too hard to sound like a weaselly villain, to the point where the guys who voice villains in Saturday morning cartoons are telling him to tone it down a notch. Just to be nice though, I'll say that the voice acting for Garrosh is pretty good, as it's always been. It's one of the few positive things I can say about the character.

Now, one thing that will explain a lot of the seeming inconsistencies in cataclysm is that the expansion was made over a rather long period of time. If I remember my blue posts right, the zone reboot was already being worked on before Wrath of the Lich King was even out. As always happens when you have a long period of time to work on a story, you go through multiple drafts, adding new elements that you just thought up or removing elements that didn't work. However, because cataclysm was released in an unfinished state, there's a good chance that some elements of earlier drafts are still present. I'm thinking that Stonetalon Mountains is also from one of these earlier drafts, before it was decided that Garrosh was going to be a two-dimensional genocidal idiot. Possibly, it's also the same draft as Durotar, which had the alliance as the aggressors in the war, as that would fit with Garrosh being portrayed righteously and the alliance committing somewhat darker deeds, like teaming up with the grimtotem.

Now, we've covered the main story and you can probably see why I call this “unpolished”. The main story doesn't work but can be salvaged with a bit of effort. However, why did I also call this zone “unfinished”? Well, that is because there are several areas that were obviously intended to be more developed or have more quests. The most notable example is Farwatcher's Glen, a night elf town populated mostly by worgen that only has four quests that don't lead anywhere before the player is sent to an entirely different zone. However, the biggest example is Sun Rock Retreat, the main quest hub for the horde back in vanilla, which isn't visited during the questline at all and had all of its old quest-givers removed from the game without any in-universe justification (I guess it was too much effort to just remove the quests and leave the people). Aside from these two, there's tons of little signs that the zone isn't being used to its full planned capacity though.

On a final note: Does Garrosh really need to keep trying to kill the horde player? This is two zones in a row! That's not counting the time in Borean Tundra where he almost killed the player through suicidally stupid orders. Or the time his choice in officers nearly led to the player's death. Or the many times we haven't even covered yet. Man, blizzard really wants horde players to hate the character. You'd think that getting the player killed because of deep personal incompetence once would be enough.

Anyway, that was it for today. Sorry for the month-long wait, I'll try to keep the next one shorter.