My problem with World of Warcraft was always the start.

I’m told the end-game content is good, raiding is fun and tactical, and the risk/reward feedback loop is pretty well tuned, and these things may all be both true and fine, but I never got there. When I entered the game, I was presented with a neat cinematic, a pretty cool flyover of the entire world and how as on of its chosen saviors I could save it. Then I was ordered to kill ten rats with this small dagger.

I was surrounded by guards sitting doing nothing, in a lush green world. There are some rats over there, go kill them. Then, when I’ve done that, there are twelve differently coloured rats over there, go gather their pelts. I understand you need to teach combat, but the disconnected banality of the opening experience always left me cold. A couple of times I slogged though (Kill ten rats, that’s combat; Get eight collars, that’s random drop distribution; Find nine logs, that’s glowies; Kill the bandit leader, that’s boss fights. Now you’re ready to go to Goldshire! Please take these goggles. They will do nothing.) But the wide world was just more of the same, references to continuing struggles, tiny efforts to make this person’s life a little easier. This wasn’t heroic, this was a combination extermination/courier service. Then there was the “Thousand points of light” problem, where a new quest zone would result in filling your quest tracker, slowly draining it, moving on. As a player, you were taught to ignore the quest text most of the time, and focus on the results. Fedex this to here, Kill ten ratcatchers. Get this over with. The biggest problem was a industry-wide one. In an MMO, it is impossible for your character to make a difference. You can kill the bad guy, but he’ll respawn in a bit so someone else can. You can save the orphan, but so will everyone else. Progression is by level, not by world.

Somewhere over the last five years, Blizzard learnt how to make questing more interesting. The revamped starting zones have a lot more of a cohesive storyline. Instead of the Level 80 guards hanging around ordering you to kill the rats, you’ll be sent to assist guards already fighting them. Instead of collecting a dozen baskets of grapes miraculously uncrushed by evil bandits, you’ll be given a temporary steampunk water jet and told to put out fires. It’s a lot more interesting to play. And instead of independent quest-zones that drop a pile of unrelated quests on you and then fade out, you get actual stories.

This is good. The rebuilding of the starting areas with the more modern production values and scripting abilities makes them a lot nicer to work though, and once you get into the shared content, the moments of awesome come a lot more often.

For example, a couple of days ago I posted:

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There is a Warcraft quest where you sit on a horse with an ! above your head and dish out quests to NPC morons who pass you. This amuses me.less than a minute ago via Twirssi

The rest of this post contains spoilers for the missions that branch out from “Welcome to the Machine”, a Horde-side L20ish quest chain.

I – and in this case I is Robane, Warlock of the Sunwell – had kind of run out of things to do in the Ghostlands and couldn’t get a 5-man group together to do the final dungeon, so I decided to get started on my professions. While in Silvermoon city dealing with my Engineering stuff, I found a Command Board (a new thing for the new patch, a thing that will point you towards level-appropriate quests, saving you having to work out where to go next) telling me that I should report to this place near Undercity. Previous experimentation had provided me a safe route to Undercity (ie, I had tried to walk, then discovered that the portal south from Ghostlands involved a TWENTY LEVEL AMBIENT MOB LEVEL JUMP which had repeatedly one-shotted me until I realised it wasn’t my tactics at fault) and so I finished crafting all the dynamite in the world, summoned my fiery steed, and galloped to report in.

Come in here dear Robane, have a cigar. You’re gonna go far and fly high as a ranking officer of the Forsaken. Yes, indeed, this is the good life and you are going to live it!

Both the mission title (“Welcome to the Machine”) and the first line (“Have a cigar”) are Pink Floyd references, which was a good start. So I climbed the Skeletal Steed beside me and waited with an exclamation mark on my head. I had reached the pinnacle of my career: I was an NPC. Sure enough down the track came three WoW player stereotypes, the clue-proof moron, the risk-averse gear-horder and the superior pretty-boy elf. Complete with Old Spice references:

Johnny Awesome

It was well written, it was funny, and I enjoyed the quest. I filed it under “amusing meta-referencing diversion” and went away. They told me to go to the mines, and I did so.

A few quests later, inside the mine while I captured some errant miners, there was a screaming in all-caps. I investigated, and it was one of the “Heroes” I’d sent on a quest. Surprised, I rescued him (and he tagged along, aggroing everything he saw, much like his archtype) and was blasted by an NPC at the end for not letting survival of the fittest take its course. I laughed, and went on.

One of the new things in WoW, relatively, is “phasing” where one of the fundamental “rules” of open world design is broken, and people see different things in the same place. One of these is the new Sludge Fields, where you do a chain of quests which actually shut it down as a base, including fighting and killing people who were NPCs. Actual progression. Anyway, during that sequence I ran into the third of my questors, Johnny Awesome, who had been captured and was crying because they’d taken his most valuable possession from him. This was fun, and funny, and I continued on.

There were unique quests with custom UI elements, big bad masses of angry slime, and… and a large orc in epic gear drowning. The last of my questors. I helped him out, and he was grateful, and explained to me what had happened… in a phased cutscene? Cool. Exposition in show-don’t-tell form!

And the cut scene was well written, and contained a traditional fart joke, and then his dragon was dying, and he was upset. He asked me to get some stuff to help, and I did. Slowly, the two dimensional archtype I had mocked at the beginning of the quest was actually turning into a character. I defeated gnolls to get the mushrooms to heal the dragon, and we went on a final ending quest. Full frontal attack of the people he’d seen in the cut-scene to get the Alliance war plans, and this had stopped being a meta-referencing mockery of Warcraft player archtypes, and was now an actual plot thing. At the top he held off the bosses – who I couldn’t even damage – while I grabbed the plans (and yes, this is a bit scripted, as I didn’t read the quest text properly and therefore tried to fight the bosses alongside him for a while until I realised that a) I couldn’t aggro them, b) He wasn’t damaging them and c) He’d been on zero health for a little while now) and his dragon pulled me out, then went back for the Orc Archtype.

Who died.

Because he isn’t a PC.

He got a final death speech thanking me for being a good friend, asking me to make sure his dragon got a good home, hoping he’d be remembered as a Hero of the Horde, and then he died on the back of his dragon. The NPCs at the other end were grateful for the plans, expositioned the plot for a little while, and then said he was a hero of the horde, he would be long remembered. It was, in fact, a legitimately sad and quite emotional moment in an MMO, a constructed quest chain that made the player feel that they had actually made a difference to the world – ignoring the fact that a thousand people could be doing the same quest chain right now, it’s the personal story that is important here.

So that’s what Cataclysm is, as far as I can see, it’s a rebuilding of large parts of the Warcraft pre-end-game world to make it flow a lot better, and to make the player’s personal story important in the grand scheme of things, rather than as an assistant to the NPCs who really matter.

And I quite like it.