Monday, 8 July 2013

World of Warcraft - Cataclysm - Deepholm

Okay, first, I probably have to explain why this isn't “look at the horde – part 3”. I was originally indeed planning to post that. In fact, I wrote the entire thing. But re-reading it... it kinda sucked. My commentary was vague and unfocused, more than one third of it was actually about the alliance, and it just wasn't pleasant to read. I'll try to write something better, but it might be a while. As such, I instead used my reviewing goggles on Deepholm.

First though, I feel like I've made a bit of a mistake in my handling of Cataclysm. Zooming in on such little aspects as individual zones or story aspects diminishes perspective. Criticism of the individual components is still necessary to fully grasp just how awful this expansion was, but it is not sufficient on its own. As the old adage goes: “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts”.

Where I talk about stories that are not Deepholm's
So, the obvious first question: What is the whole? And that is where we run into our first big problem. What exactly is the story of cataclysm about? Is it about the war between the horde and the alliance? Sure, that conflict gets the most screen time by far, but there is no climax to it, and it pretty much drops off the map in the last few moments of the expansion. Is it about the massive damage to the world and the problems caused by that? Well, that was what all the previews and press releases of cataclysm focused on, but it's only relevant in a few zones of the actual game. N'zoth trying to destroy Azeroth? That's what the last leg of the expansion focuses on, but it's barely present in any of the earlier parts and fails to form an overall story.

And that's the part where you realize that cataclysm isn't a story. It's some sort of horrible chimaera between at least three different stories. On their own, those stories would have had a set-up that leads into a main story, a main story that leads into a climax, and maybe have a few sidestories or an epilogue as well.
But together, these stories don't fit at all. Obvious set-ups end up being left dangling. Characters are forced to take roles they weren't meant for, or are left out of stories they should have a part in. Backstory becomes a chaotic mess, with important events happening off-screen, yet the consequences not carrying over in the game.
That last one is particularly important. It means that the tie-in books and the game itself had completely different and often unrelated things going on. As a logical result, many of the important story aspects to the Cataclysm game happened outside of it. Well, there being many is a logical result.
But it's not just many. It's nearly every single one. Of the 35 revised zones in Cataclysm, only the Blasted Lands and Feralas end up having any relevance to the main storyline at all, and it's not exactly much. Of the 10 new zones, only one is remotely relevant, and even that one could be dropped completely without anyone noticing. It's only in later patches that questlines that are actually relevant to the main storyline get added, and even then, they're not really central to it.

The three stories:
  • The war between the horde and the alliance.
  • Survival in a world wrought by the cataclysm.
  • The struggle against the forces of twilight.
Theoretically, these three stories should be one. After all, the war between the horde and the alliance is supposed to be a natural extension of the survival plot, with the orcs striking out due to a resource shortage, while the battle against the forces of twilight is because they caused the cataclysm.
However, the problem is that these three stories are not one.
The writers decided that the war between the horde and the alliance should be grandiose and epic rather than a bunch of worn out survivors fighting over a scrap of livable land. It makes the entire premise of those two stories incompatible, because the survival story requires the horde and alliance to have suffered massive, massive losses, while the war story requires the factions to remain relatively intact and have access to the resources required to wage grand-scale war.
Similarly, it was decided that the struggle against the twilight's hammer should be left up to the horde and the alliance banding together, which once again destroys the connection between the war and survival plots. The entire point there is that the horde and the alliance are forced to fight to acquire their necessities. Having the people who are supposedly suffering this massive resource shortage go neutral and not fight the alliance is a betrayal of that principle, because it means that they're either letting their own people starve to death, or it means that the supposed resource shortage isn't nearly as big as is required to justify the war.
Okay, so the sum up:
  • The war and survival plots are incompatible, because the former requires the world to be relatively intact, while the latter requires the world to be absolutely wrecked.
  • The war and struggle plots are incompatible, because the former requires there to be a necessity for people to fight the other major faction to survive, while the latter requires there to be a necessity for the two to be banding together without any real animosity to survive.
  • The survival and struggle plots are incompatible, because the former requires the factions to need every advantage to survive, while the latter requires the most useful people in a post-apocalyptic world to tell the others to go fend for themselves while they're off.

For the sake of convenience, I'm going to call the struggle plot the main plot, since all the end-level zones tie into it and a lot of the other stuff seems to get retconned out by the time of Mists of Pandaria so that that expansion can have a semi-intelligible setting.

Where I talk about questing experiences that are not Deepholm's
The main problem with these multiple plots becomes apparent with the questing, which just can't settle on what exactly they want the player to be.

If the game wanted to focus on the war between the horde and the alliance, it shouldn't have had all these neutral factions taking so much focus, and it shouldn't have had such a big role for its villains. The war is necessary for survival. The idea is that the horde cannot survive in its current state. The orcs, trolls, tauren and ogres will starve to death, while the forsaken will get annihilated by all the people they pissed off. Anyone in the horde being neutral is saying that they're fine with the extermination of their own people, as long as the others survive. Anyone in the alliance being neutral is saying that the lives of their own people is worth less than that of their enemies.
The earthen ring and the cenarion circle should fall apart, tauren and troll druids joining the former, wildhammer, broken and furbolg shamans joining the latter. Restoring the damage from the cataclysm is still their primary goal, but not at the cost of their own people.
Either the alliance would need to be absolutely wrecked by the cataclysm, or the horde would need a significant amount of new members to give the conflict any semblance of balance. I prefer the latter, since it could open up a bunch of new fronts and allows for more complex battles. Rather than the original noble barbarians, Garrosh would lead the horde into becoming a coalition of those who risk extinction. The remains of the goblin cartels, the shattered troll tribes, the various ogre clans. They're all stuck in places where they can't possibly survive, and their only hope is to gain new land. Both the horde and the alliance remain sympathetic because they're fighting for their very lives, and a solution where no one dies is impossible.
Of course, it would be kind of hard to provide such an expansion with any sort of climax that's also connected to the cataclysm, so I'm not sure it makes for the best WoW story. Maybe slowly unveil that the horde and the alliance have been thoroughly infiltrated by the twilight's hammer or the black dragonflight (doing their best to make the damage from the cataclysm even worse), and are planning to take over in one fell swoop once both factions have been sufficiently weakened.

If the game wanted to focus on survival in a world wrought by the cataclysm, it shouldn't have all these armies and new bases popping up. The world went through a second sundering, and has been driven to the absolute brink. The people simply don't have the resources to wage any degree of war. Every zone should be wrecked, not just a select few damaged areas. Every forest should be dying, every river waning. Tens of thousands should have died in the cataclysm, the rest reduced to small camps of refugees. Even the capital cities should have scars. Orgrimmar scarred by fire, Ironforge partially collapsed, Teldrassil dying around Darnassus.
Most of our quests come from scarred camps of refugees, where every scrap is necessary for survival. Our quests are no longer for the greater glory of our people. No, it is so their last remnants can survive.
Again, hard to do a climax with this one, though I supposed a regular ol' climactic team-up to murder the guy who caused the cataclysm is still acceptable.

And, finally, if the game wanted to focus on the struggle against the twilight's hammer, it shouldn't have had the horde and the alliance conflicts take so much focus. Their petty grievances with one another are a waste of time, resources and lives, all of which are needed to fight the true enemy.
This one is the easiest, requiring the least overhaul, while giving a lot of opportunities for questing. The main problems are a lack of faction-specific content, and a lack of variation in the villains, though you could easily add some subplots for that.

Now here's the weird thing: I don't like any of the three plots I just proposed. In my opinion, when I'm playing World of Warcraft, it should be about the actual world. I want to explore the planet, encountering new civilizations and impressive beasts. None of these plots allows zones to have stories about the zone itself, instead forcing it to focus on a greater plot.

However, the point is, they're actual plots, unlike Cataclysm. When Thrall leaves to become neutral and save the world, we're supposed to be agreeing with him. So why exactly are we spending the next forty levels participating in a war we're supposed to agree is futile and pointless? Similarly, we have all these new factions joining the alliance, whether they be dark iron, shendra'lar or the watchers. Their forces should surely be of great assistance, and their added culture should be a nice change of pace. But instead, most of the alliance zones focus their stories on the survival and struggle plots, which have no room for new arrivals setting up their own identities.

This also weirdly screws with the timeline. Many of the zones that focus on the survival plot are clearly taking place a few days, if not less, after the cataclysm. And yet every zone but the goblin starter and the first half of Gilneas is supposed to take place after the events of The Shattering. Considering just how much happens in that book, that timeline can't possibly work.
Even if you just look in-game, it can't possibly work. The Worgen starting experience starts before the cataclysm, but portrays a long series of events after that. And yet when they arrive on Kalimdor, worgen players are sent to Darkshore, where fresh victims of the cataclysm are still lying around.

Where I talk about villains that are only partially Deepholm's
However, it's not just those three plots that are competing for attention. It's also that the expansion can never seem to settle on just who its main villain is supposed to be. All the villainous groups of Cataclysm seem to be working largely independently, so you can't really refer to them as the overall enemy. So once again, we are left to wonder. Who is our central villain?

The obvious choice here would be deathwing and his black dragonflight. Ol' Fluffywing is on the log-in screen for crying out loud. Well, except there is one minor gigantic thing. The black dragonflight is entirely superfluous to the plot.
The idea behind the black dragonflight in their every previous appearance is that they are tricksters. They use polymorphing, subtle magics and long-term planning to achieve their goals. They infiltrate and destroy from within. Deathwing tricked the other aspects into giving up their power voluntarily, and later tried a very extensive manipulation to become the king of Alterac, while also manipulating the dragonmaw clan to get a hand on their red dragon eggs. Nefarian fought his entire war through proxies, with even his shape-shifted form unknown to the outside world. Onyxia infiltrated Stormwind, essentially ruling the kingdom for more than a decade. Sabellian is keeping his identity secret from the horde and the alliance, using contacts to acquire needed aid in getting his revenge on the gronn. Sintharia has recruited an entire clan of orcs for her master in secret, using them to obtain the valuable netherwing eggs while they publicly remain part of Illidan's forces. Even lesser black dragons use trickery very often, with several using shape-shifting to trick the player into performing services for them.
But in Cataclysm, the gimmick of the black dragonflight is thrown away entirely. They're big, dumb destroyers, preferring liberal application of force over finesse. It's incredibly disappointing to see such interesting villains turned into random monsters of the week. That is when they actually appear, which really isn't all that often. Even Deathwing himself suffers from this, existing only as a plot coupon to start of the cataclysm. Despite his prominence in the advertising, Cataclysm really isn't about Deathwing as a villain at all, and he could have been replaced with a minimum amount of effort, losing nothing of value.
Actually, I'm wondering whether Cataclysm was originally intended to have a different main villain. The pre-expansion in-game event, the world of warcraft comic and The Shattering, which act as prequels to the expansion, don't do anything to set up Deathwing as a villain. In fact, those stories make less sense with Deathwing as the villain, because he couldn't have caused the elemental unrest that preceded the cataclysm itself.

In addition, the black dragonflight gets very, VERY little screentime. While Deathwing himself is undeniably the big bad of the expansion, the rest of his flight... not so much. Instead, most of the screentime seems to get taken up by the elementals and the twilight's hammer.
And they're not exactly up to snuff as being the main villains either. The elementals really don't do as much as you'd think, most encounters being with rampaging wild elementals (which would be part of the survival plot) rather than the armies of Ragnaros and Al'akir. Whenever the elementals do show up, it's usually as part of twilight's hammer plans, or in small numbers. Even during the original Mount Hyjal questline, it was the twilight's hammer that ultimately served as the driving force behind the invasion. Luckily, patch 4.2 rectified this somewhat, actually giving the fire elementals a chance to serve as an army. I'm still saying it's rather stupid that it took until that patch. The twilight's hammer are supposed to be a cult. Having them take the army role instead of the unending elemental legions is just silly.
The air elementals weren't so lucky as the fire elementals. As part of Blizzard's overall strategy of removing as much story potential from the game as they could, Al'akir was completely wasted in this expansion, his forces only making one really minor appearance, before the players unceremoniously invade his realm and kill him. It is really disappointing.

Which brings us to the twilight's hammer, A.K.A. the microcosm of everything that is wrong with Cataclysm.
Like the entire expansion, they just can't decide what they're about. Twilight magic? Enslaving elementals? Dragons? Old god tendrils and faceless ones? Who knows!
Like the entire expansion, they're completely ignoring any set-up they'd gotten. Their leader being killed and them manipulating the horde and the alliance to extend the war? Never happened!
Like the entire Sargeras-damned expansion, they're completely ignoring any logical faction balance. A small cult of insane people that's been on the brink of destruction several times? Should totally still be able to field armies that match the horde, the alliance, the cenarion circle, two dragonflights and the forces of Therazane at the same time! Seriously, where are they getting so many people? How are they feeding them? Getting them armor? Living quarters? To accomplish all that we see them accomplish, the twilight's hammer needs to number in the tens of thousands of soldiers, if not more. And considering that the mount hyjal quests establish that only a very small portion of the applicants to the hammer actually survive the process... it becomes absolutely ridiculous. They'd need hundreds of thousands of applicants.

The problems with the villains also carry unto the heroes, since they're supposed to act as counterparts to the villains. The ones who are afflicted most are the earthen ring. The earthen ring consists of shamans, individuals who are connected to the spirits of this world, whether they be elemental spirits, loa spirits or the spirits of the dead.
So, when the primary villains are the wild elementals that appear in the lower level zones, the earthen ring makes sense as protagonists. This is just their specialty. But when the plot shifts to the twilight's hammer, the minions of the old gods or deathwing himself, they feel terribly out of place. Even when facing the elementals of the elemental lords they feel off, since we have no idea if, why or how the elemental spirits and the elemental lords are connected.
But for some ungodly reason, the earthen ring stay the main protagonists until the very end, with Thrall landing the killing blows on Deathwing. It took one of the world's weirdest retcons to somehow force the shamans into that plot, as apparently shaman and black dragon powers have suddenly become interchangeable. It really doesn't make any damn sense at all.

Where I actually talk about Deepholm
Y'know, if this was a proper story, I shouldn't be able to actually talk about Deepholm at this point. It's right smack-dab in the middle of the cataclysm end-game quests. If a story is told properly, that means it should expand on stuff established in earlier zones. Unfortunately, that's not the case. Each cataclysm zone is instead pretty much completely independent, removing any possibility for a greater storyline.

First of all, a positive: All of the new zones in cataclysm are very impressive from an artistic standpoint. Despite the limitations of having a minimum amount of exchangeable props between zones, they still manage it fantastically, giving each zone a very unique feel and look. Deepholm is the elemental plane of earth, and it shows. Most of the zone is covered in a smooth, dark, slightly reflective rock, against which the various crystals contrast beautifully. It's the closest WoW, with its really crappy lighting engine, gets to chiaroscuro, which is something I always enjoy.
In addition to the general cool looks of the zone, there's a couple of details that are actually very clever. For example, there is no water in the zone. Instead, large bodies of liquid are made out of mercury. Sure, it functions the same as water, which makes no sense, but it is a nice artistic touch and very appropriate for the realm of earth. There are also pillars of magnetite cubes, which continually push each other away before reassembling. It looks really cool.

Okay, back to complaining. The basic story of Deepholm is as follows: When Deathwing got his ass kicked in Day of the Dragon, he retreated into Deepholm, the realm of earth. When he emerged again with the cataclysm, he shattered the barrier between worlds at the maelstrom, along with breaking the world pillar, which carried all elemental and magnetic forces in deepholm, into three pieces.
And this is where I start getting really confused, because there's two explanations for why this is a really, really bad thing. The first explanation we get is that the rift between worlds is what is endangering Azeroth, slowly tearing apart the planet. The only thing stopping it are the most powerful members of the Earthen Ring, who are somehow containing the damage. Apparently, manipulating the energies of inter-dimensional portals is a shaman power now. Aside from that, this plot actually makes some sense, since it's been established inter-dimensional portals are rather nasty, and that was with a properly controlled portal. Though I am kinda wondering why the naga don't just attack the earthen ring.
However, we don't actually fix the portal. Instead, we only focus on explanation number two, the destruction of the world pillar. The explanation given for the world pillar is that it carries all the magnetic and elemental forces. Without it, the realm will eventually collapse in on itself. Again, that's something that makes sense. The realm isn't exactly built for structural integrity, so saying that it's a magic artifact that allows for that is a nice handwave. Except it's also said that Deepholm will somehow collapse into Azeroth, destroying the planet. Seriously, how is that supposed to happen? The portal into deepholm is at the very top. So if Deepholm collapses in on itself, it doesn't actually crash into the portal. Maybe the portal will be slammed down along with the rest of the realm (though even that seems questionable to me considering the portal isn't actually contained by anything in the realm), but in that case, only the temple of earth (which is directly beneath the portal) will get forced into Azeroth.

So, unless I'm missing something, neither or these stories make any sense. But that doesn't matter to our brave player, who just does exactly as he's told. In this case, he's told to recover the fragments of the world pillar.

There is three fragments in total. One is being transported to the temple by one of those awesome horde mega-zeppelins. One is in the hands of the earthen of deepholm. And the final part is in the hands of Therazane herself.

How did these guys get their hands on the fragments? No, seriously. This raises so many questions. Most obviously, how did the fragments get out of the temple of earth to begin with? The walls are still intact, so they can't have exploded out. So who took the fragments? And how did they end up in three different locations? The entire core of this story makes absolutely no sense.

Fragment one: The archstone
The questions only continue with the presence of one of the fragments of the world pillar on the horde gunship. Obviously, the gunship wasn't present in the zone when the world pillar was shattered. So when did it arrive? Why did it come here? How did it get its hands on a fragment of the world pillar? The game refuses to elaborate on any single part of its backstory, just expecting the player to buy everything blindly, despite how little sense this all makes.

Okay, so a horde gunship has somehow gotten into deepholm, and has obtained a fragment of the world pillar. Somehow. However, the gunship has crashed and the player is sent to figure out what happened. Here, the player discovers signs of battle with the alliance gunship, unexploded shells bearing the markings of Stormwind Royal Industries. Yes, the alliance also has a gunship flying through Deepholm for no reason. WHY THE HELL NOT?

Actually, that just raises more questions. The gunship was shot down when it was on its landing approach to the temple of earth. Hence, the earthen ring saw it crash. But if the gunship was already on its landing approach when it was attacked, and the earthen ring were around to witness the crash, how come they didn't see the alliance gunship shooting it down (in what must have been quite a long battle, if earlier fights are any indication)?

And why did they wait for the player to arrive to send anyone to investigate? Seriously, it happened within visual range, they have flying mounts, and the gunship was carrying an artifact necessary to save the world. It's not like the gunship landed in hostile terrain or anything. This is such an easy thing to fix. Just add this to the quest: “We've sent one of our own to investigate the wreckage, but he hasn't reported back in. We were just about to send more scouts, but you look like you might be better equipped.” This is not a new concept. You've done it for dozens of quests. So why is it that you suddenly forget to do it?

The player reports back to the shamans that it was the alliance gunship that took the horde ship down, and advises them to get their eyes checked. The shamans wonder why an alliance gunship would fire upon the horde gunship, knowing they were carrying a piece of the world pillar. Really? The two factions are at war, and you wonder why they're shooting at each other? The part that should raise your eyebrow is the fact that the alliance never bothered to retrieve the fragment to deliver it themselves, not the fact that they shot at the horde to begin with.

The player is then sent to the remarkably intact alliance gunship, with a wildhammer stormcaller by the name of Mylra sent along with the player. Here, you discover that the alliance crew members have all been killed, poisoned by twilight's hammer infiltrators. You and the stormcaller capture the leader of the infiltrators (who is an ogre, because ogres can obviously infiltrate the alliance sky navy with ease), who she then proceeds to question. It's one of the weirdest questionings I've ever seen. When Mylra threatens to kill him, the ogre decides that he'd rather talk than die, revealing it was delivered to a twilight's hammer camp at 'Deathwing's Fall'. However, when the stormcaller says she'll spare the ogre, he decides that he'd rather die than live having talked, and cuts himself loose, falling to his death.

So he talks to avoid dying... and then kills himself in the exact same manner he just avoided because he doesn't want to live having talked.

I think there might be something off with the writing of that scene, but I can't put my finger on it.

Anyway, the player goes to Deathwing's Fall, the place where Deathwing recovered from his injuries received in Day of the Dragon. It's actually a pretty cool idea, with the twilight cultists shaping his remaining blood into living blobs of ooze, which reproduce and spread corruption. Kudos for the idea.
Shame it isn't really used to its fullest extent. It's just a bit of quest text that's promptly forgotten. Seriously, this could have been the identity the twilight's hammer so sorely needed: physically reshaping corruption into weaponry. It's something that doesn't require a lot of manpower, and fits a creepy cult. But it only pops up in this one base, which is a shame.

Anyway, the player frees some of the slaves the cult kee...


...erm, sorry, minor breakdown there. I know it isn't a big thing, especially compared to some of the other plot holes, but it just struck me as something so friggin' obvious. Stuff like this, and the ogre infiltrating the alliance gunship, make me wonder whether the game's play-tested by people who actually know lore at all. And it's not like it would have been hard to fix either. Just change the slaves to earthen.

Back to the story. The player frees some slaves. The slaves tell the player that the forgemaster of the facility, who the player is after, keeps an agenda of his meetings. The player tracks down the agenda, and discovers that the forgemaster is meeting someone at the upper silvermarsh, one of the mercury swamps in the region. Wanting to listen in on the conversation, the player steals a crate from the local stone troggs. These crates were made by the troggs to trawling through the mercury, concealing them beneath the surface while having a supply of air (wait, stone troggs need air?).

Here, the player spies on the meeting between the forgemaster and the leader of the twilight cult in the area: High priestess Azil. The forgemaster turns out to be Millhouse Manastorm, a minor joke character from TBC, whose inclusion in this expansion I'll get to later. Millhouse says that the fragment is now in the hands of “the dragon”, and asks the high priestess how she was able to infiltrate the alliance to obtain the fragment. The high priestess just says that she has friends in high places. Wow! It's cataclysm's only foreshadowed plot point!

Shame the actual reveal of who it was won't make much sense in this regard. I mean, yeah, archbishop Benedictus (the leader of the church of the holy light) is a very influential guy, but he doesn't have any direct control over normal soldiers. Maybe he could have planted some priests or paladins on the gunship (“The church seeks to spread the glory of the light to the inhabitants of the elemental realms. With your permission, sky-admiral Rogers, I'd like for a few of my paladins to come along to Deepholm.”), but he shouldn't have any degree of control over ordinary soldiers.

Okay, let's be fair. With the exception of the ogre leader, the infiltrators actually are priests, so it's conceivable that they were planted by Benedictus. However, the player has now overheard that they've infiltrated the gunship in large numbers through a high-ranking member of the alliance. The earthen ring knows this. Undoubtedly, the earthen ring told the alliance. There can't possibly be that many people who could assign a large amount of soldiers to a single ship in the alliance's newsest division, can there? And yet you're telling me that Stormwind, a nation which has already had its leadership infiltrated before, and the only nation to have an internal intelligence agency, never figured this out?

I'm also really confused by just how much the earthen ring knows. For example, when you tell them the fragment is in the hands of a dragon, they say that that dragon is Abyssion. Seriously, how do you know that? Did the dragon fly up and introduce himself while we were gone?

The idea behind having a dragon carry the fragment is that he's mobile. It's actually a pretty good idea. Whenever the earthen ring shows up, the dragon can simply fly away. So, how do you catch him?

Well, you plant an earthen ring flag in his base, and he shows up because his pride prevents him from flying away after you do that.

So much for that whole good idea, I guess.

Fragment two
The search for our second fragment begins with a goblin shaman initiate by the name of Goldmine, and stands out as being the only time that goblin shamans aren't treated as a joke. Goldmine has stumbled upon a wounded earthen near the temple of earth, and needs the player's help to get him back to health. Since the cure was designed by a goblin, it naturally involves explosives, the universal cure-all.

The earthen is called Flint Oremantle, and he is the son of Stonefather Oremantle, the king of all the earthen in Deepholm. Yes, I just said son.

I've talked before about how blizzard simply bit off more than they could chew with the very concept of this expansion. There just weren't enough development resources to do everything that needed to be done. This really shows in regards to creature models, of which there just weren't enough. As a result, the designers had to re-use old models. In many cases it worked.

In the case of Deepholm? It did not. The problem with reusing models here is that the concept of Deepholm is pretty restrictive. Everything is rock. Therefore, any being that lives here must be rock-based, otherwise they'd starve. And, to be fair, they did pick creatures with some rocky elements. Basilisks in the warcraft universe have a skin made out the rock that surrounds them, while rock flayers happily om-nom-nom rocks.

So what's the problem? Well, rock flayers and basilisks may integrate rocks in their body, but the rest of it is still good ol' flesh and bones. They still need to eat meat. That's why they're predators in the first place. But it's an explicit plot-point that there aren't supposed to be any plants or fungi in Deepholm. Without plants or herbivores, there are is no creature lower on the food chain then predators. Which means HAPPY FUN STARVATION TIME for the latter.

And before you answer “magic”, let me ask you: Who would have used this magic? I could imagine some of the locals caring enough about the basilisks (since the stone troggs use them as mounts), but the rock flayers are treated by everyone as if they were pests.
Also, rock flayers aren't even found on Azeroth. They're from Draenor. I'm pretty sure that the elemental realms are supposed to only be connected to a single planet (since otherwise Draenor would also have suffered the elemental unrest, which it explicitly did not).

Okay, let's be fair. This is just me nitpicking. However, the next two on our list are not: Earthen and Stone Troggs.

The earthen and stone troggs... are not earthen and troggs. They very clearly weren't written as them at least. They were intended to be something completely else, but there was no time to make models, and they were instead switched to re-skins of two existing races, with some half-assed explanation shoved in somewhere that the earthen and stone troggs came here from Uldum for no explained reason.

Well, at least, that's what I hope. Because the alternative, that they were actually intended to be troggs and earthen, is a sign of incompetence too massive to even consider. Earthen and Troggs don't fit the plot at all.

Earthen are mechanical creatures, mass-produced in titan forges. They were designed for a number of very specific purposes, and having a civilization of their own is not one of them. They served the titans in their construction, doing the heavy labor on places like Uldaman and Ulduar. Though their speech patterns aren't mechanical like other titan creations, they still tend to speak in a much more officious manner.
The earthen in deepholm? Well, first of all, they have parents, so they're obviously not made in the same way that the earthen we know are made. They live in buildings that don't look like any known style of titan architecture. And their speech lacks the officiousness of the earthen we've seen before, with these guys instead talking like regular people.

But at least the earthen were physically possible. The stone troggs? They give me the headache of a century. The original idea for the troggs was this: Earthen get infected by the curse of flesh, turning their stony bodies into flesh. Some of the earthen kept their shapes during this process, becoming dwarves. Others were deformed by the curse, becoming the brutal and monstrous troggs.
So, troggs are the result of something that turns stone into flesh. So how in the hell can there be such a thing as stone troggs? Well, one quest states: “The stone troggs are a mistake of the titans. On your world, they have succumbed to the Curse of Flesh. But here, in Deepholm, you see them in their true form.” That would imply that the troggs were separate creations. Except that opens up a slew of obvious new questions
  • One, what was supposed to be the role of the troggs? They're dumb as rocks, so I can't imagine the titans having much use for them, even as cannon fodder.
  • Two, if they are a mistake of the titans, why weren't they destroyed?
  • Three, if they are a mistake of the titans, why did they still create troggs in multiple locations?
  • Four, even if they weren't destroyed, why weren't they sealed away? How were they able to travel to Deepholm?

At this point, I kind of have to wonder why they chose to reskin earthen and troggs. We know the backstory of earthen and troggs and we've interacted with them for quite a while, so we can see just how nonsensical this is. Why not just use two races we practically know nothing about, with the implication that the ones on Azeroth are descended from the ones in the elemental realm? There's plenty of underdeveloped races you can use for that: kobolds, pygmies, yeti, makrura, gnolls, etc. Hell, you could even try to be relevant to the expansion and use goblins.

Ugh, back to the story. There has been an ongoing war between the earthen and the stone troggs. The earthen king, Stonefather Oremantle, has been captured. In return for freeing the stonefather, the earthen will give the earthen ring their fragment of the world pillar.

Okay, that's a pretty solid plot. However, it's once again hampered by the developers not thinking this through. Our only stake in this conflict is the world pillar fragment. We have no other reason to be picking sides in this. So why are we suddenly helping the earthen with the war in general, rather than just rushing in, getting the stonefather, and getting the hell back to saving our own planet? We're supposed to be in a bit of a timecrunch here, after all. Now, stopping Therazane's forces from attacking the earthen makes sense, since they're also after the fragment. And I'll admit, getting to finally permanently kill Avalanchion (he was part of the elemental invasions back in vanilla) was good.

However, participating in the general war against the stone troggs? That makes no sense. We are here to do a single thing: Free the stonefather. We don't care about the rest of the war. We are here to safe our own planet first. I can forgive saving Stonehearth, since the fragment is likely hidden there, but the same doesn't apply for the battles after that. And yet everyone acts like you need to aid them in battle before the stonefather could be saved.

Anyway, you save the stonefather, he gives you the fragment of the world pillar, and you head back to the temple of earth.

Fragment Three
We get to the third fragment, and I'll admit I do somewhat like this questline. It's the first questline to actually give us some insight into Deepholm itself, rather than focusing entirely on outsiders to the realm like the last two.

This questline opens with the Temple of Earth under attack by the forces of Therazane, the elemental lord of earth, and holder of the last fragment of the world pillar. It seems she's sick and tired of all these motherloving fleshlings on this motherloving plane. The player is sent to negotiate a peace with the leader of the attack, Boden the Imposing. Boden simply tells the player that if the earthen ring wants peace, they should just get the hell out of the realm, and leave the world pillar to Therazane.

Well, that was a short questline. Well, it's been... fun isn't the right word... quite an experience here in Deepholm, but I'm glad we're moving on. Maybe we should discuss Vashj'ir and explore my whale phobia next? Or talk about the pretty flowers on Mount Hyjal? Or maybe we can go for Harrison Jo...

The voices in my head just informed that that wasn't the end of the questline. No, instead the earthen ring is seeking peace through another underling of Therazane. So, just one tiny question on my part:


The Earthen Ring is here to fix the world pillar and close the rift between worlds. If Therazane gets control of the world pillar, she will fix it, and close the rift. We have absolutely no business here whatsoever other than those two things, and a really big need for shamans in other areas. If we leave now, we get an instant mission accomplished and can move on to other problems.

But no, the player is instead sent to Diamant the Patient, to try and make peace with Therazane. Diamant and Boden are so-called Stone Lords. The stone lords are regarded as the sons of Therazane, and each lead a different group of earth elementals. For me, the stone lords are the saving grace of Deepholm. They're very varied in personality and give the earth elementals some internal politics. And like I said in my Day of the Dragon review, I like it when fantasy universes actually have a degree of politics.

The questline for the third fragment is basically going from stone lord to stone lord, trying to impress them. Diamant the Patient needs help fighting twilight's hammer forces. Felsen the Enduring guides you into the crumbling depths, where the player must obtain a mystical stone to prove himself while avoiding the gyreworms that even the stone lords themselves fear. Kor the Immovable wants you to do some basic jobs for him he can no longer do due to being, well, immovable. Terrath the Steady wants help to bring the stone dragons, which have joined Deathwing, back under the command of the stone lords. Gorsik the Tumultous and Ruberick want you to help cleanse the filthy plant life infecting his realm. It really is a throwback to old RPG plots, and is very enjoyable in that regard.

On the other hand, there is this very weird, really annoying discontinuity going on in Deepholm where everything not made of stone is referred to as being a result of the curse of flesh. The player in particular is told several times that he's been affected by the curse of flesh. This makes absolutely no sense. Of the twelve playable races in world of warcraft, only four (human, dwarf, gnome, worgen) are known to have been affected by the curse of flesh. Of the eight others, only one more (goblins) could have theoretically been affected. None of the other mentions make any sense either. Seriously, get yourself a proof-reader for your quests that actually knows his lore.

Anyway, the player meets with Therazane, and she is convinced by her sons to not murder you. An earthen ring representative shows up afterwards, negotiating a peace with Therazane. All your hard work finally pays off. The terms of the peace? The world pillar gets repaired, the rift sealed and the earthen ring gets kicked out. Obviously, this is so much better than the deal where the world pillar gets repaired, the rift sealed and the earthen ring gets kicked out. Hurray! The twilight's hammer try one last time to prevent the repairing of the world stone, but they get beaten back. After that, the earthen ring is made to leave (though the NPCs don't actually phase out, because blizzard was feeling lazy), but Therazane allows the player to return whenever he wants. I'll admit, that's actually a rather good ending.

What else is there to say
Okay, I said in my intro that the open rift never really gets resolved. Yet I keep mentioning it getting resolved. The hell am I on? Okay, some clarification is necessary. The reason I don't regard the rift plot as resolved is because the writers forgot what the rift was supposed to be halfway through the zone. Instead, everyone suddenly acts like the rift is caused by the absence of the world pillar, and that restoring the pillar will somehow fix the rift. Hell, I completely forgot that the two were supposed to be unrelated while I was writing my cata introduction (While I'm at it, apologies for making that mistake.).
Of course, if the destruction of the world pillar wasn't responsible for bringing the physical and elemental realms closer together, I'm still confused about what was. If it was just Deathwing going between the physical and elemental realms, shouldn't there have been a cataclysm when he first entered Deepholm?

Actually, speaking with Deepholm, what's the deal with Deathwing suddenly having a special connection to it? Sure, one of Deathwing's titles (back when he was still Neltharion) was The Earthwarder, but it's honestly a bit of a misnomer. Worldwarder might have been a better choice, since his connection isn't to the element of earth. His domain was the soil that makes us all into a single world, and the deep places hidden beneath the surface. Basically, he was the guardian of the planet. To have him suddenly connected to something on another plane entirely just feels out of place.

After the world stone gets fixed, the player is asked by Therazane to go into the dungeon in the zone: The stonecore. I actually rather like this dungeon, as it's very well set-up throughout the zone, three of the bosses having their backstory connected to earlier quests. Corborus is one of the gyreworms of the Crumbling Depths, who were established as having been used by Deathwing to harvest elementium for his new armor. Slabhide is one of the stone drakes that have been established as having been swayed by Deathwing's power. And High Priestess Azil has shown up multiple times throughout the zone, acting as the leader of the twilight's hammer forces. There's still a few things that bug me though.

First, the size and location. Now there's always been something of a disconnect between instances and zones, the latter having much more extreme scaling then the former. Usually, it doesn't really bug me. I like it when I can go into a more realistically scaled area occasionally. However, despite that, cataclysm somehow manages to have multiple instances where weird scaling just really takes me out of it.
Stonecore is one of these, mostly because the increased scaling doesn't make the place feel more realistic, but rather less so. As far as we know, the temple of earth was only important because it was the location of the world pillar and the “Heart of the World” (we'll get to that). Both of these things fit perfectly into the in-zone model, so I don't get what the purpose of all the added tunnels was supposed to be.
There's also the issue of the location. The stonecore is supposed to be at the top of the temple of earth. Y'know, the very same temple of earth that the earthen ring is stationed in? Why doesn't the fact that the earthen ring are living with their enemies right over their heads ever come up? Why doesn't Therazane bring up that the twilight's hammer and the earthen ring are living in the same building? Why didn't the twilight's hammer occupy the lower parts of the tower before the earthen ring arrived? If the temple of earth is full of tunnels, as shown in the stonecore dungeon, how come the lowest level isn't connected to the rest of the complex? And, if the twilight's hammer have gyreworms under their control, why don't they simply dig a new tunnel from their area into the lowest level so they can invade?

Two, Millhouse Manastorm. Cataclysm has this weird thing going on where it was ignoring a lot of stuff established in TBC and WotLK, yet somehow found a way to bring back almost every single comedy character from that era, whether that makes sense or not. Millhouse Manastorm was a walking plot hole back in TBC, somehow having been captured in the Alcatraz despite the naaru knowing he was innocent and there having been no timeframe to get captured. A'dal asks the player to free him as part of a test, and it's actually pretty cool. The joke of the character was his arrogance. Though he was by no means incompetent, he was bragging way too much, despite spending most of his time drinking to restore mana. It was actually kinda cute.
And then, in Cataclysm, he was suddenly a highly incompetent servant of the twilight's hammer. Okay, to be fair, he was imprisoned alongside a qiraj priest (another prisoner that makes no sense), who could have brainwashed him. However, he helped the players fight that priest, and showed no real sign of mental corruption. It just feels like a really big leap to go from that appearance to this one.

Three, Ozruk and the “Heart of the World”. Okay, I mentioned three of the bosses of the stonecore being foreshadowed. The fourth one, Ozruk... is different. Apparently, he is a son of Therazane, though he doesn't appear to be one of the stone lords. However, when Therazane called upon him, he refused to answer. First, it was presumed that he was under some sort of dark influence, but when Therazane sent scouts, they discovered that he was acting completely of his own volition, serving deathwing for some unknown reason. And that reason is...
I have no idea. The players just fight him, and the entire thing is never mentioned again. However, his fight raises more questions. He keeps referring to the central chamber of the stonecore as “the heart of the world”, which makes absolutely no sense. The heart of Deepholm is supposed to be the world pillar, which is a couple of floors down. The only way this would make any sense was if Deepholm was at the center of Azeroth and...
Actually, thinking about it, that would have made a lot of sense. It would explain why Deathwing is suddenly connected to Deepholm. It would explain how Deathwing trashing around in the stonecore caused the damage seen in the trailer. It would explain why Deathwing emerged from the maelstrom (according to the RPG, there is a hole in Azeroth's crust directly beneath the maelstrom). It would explain why Theradras' death was permanent. It would explain how the absence of the world pillar could destroy Azeroth. It would explain why Ozruk serves Deathwing. It would explain the connection between black dragons and shamans.
All the pieces fit perfectly. Except that Myzrael and Avalanchion make re-appearances in Deepholm after their deaths on Azeroth. You came so close to accidental competence there, Cataclysm. So very, very close.

Final thoughts
Deepholm suffers from the same problems as much of cataclysm. While it does have some good story and concept ideas, the execution of those ideas is terrible, with little to no thought put it into it. The story itself is mostly told in a rather uninteresting way, elevated briefly by the stone lords in the third act.

Despite that, I'm still going to put down Deepholm as the best of the new zones in Cataclysm. Remember all my ranting and raving over Deepholm giving us only the tiniest smidgens of the backstory necessary to understand the plot? Well, there was one tiny thing I forgot to mention: Deepholm is, by a long shot, the zone that actually gave us the most explanations. Each other zone, whether new or revised, is far worse. Next time, expect to see the phrase “at least, I think that's what's happening” a lot.

1 comment: