Thursday, 24 October 2013

Galactik Football - Part I

On the one hand, I could play my way through the orcish leveling zones and complain how all culture is gone from the horde. Or I could maybe do Mount Hyjal and try to figure what in the world they were thinking with bringing back the ancients. But no, that is not what we're going to do today. Why? Magical French Space Soccer, that's why.

Yes, they actually misspell their own title. Because Xtreme Kool Letterz be popular with da kiddos these day, dawg.

The Formation
Okay, backstory time. A long long time ago, in a galaxy far away, or alternatively, the far future, or alternatively, an alternate reality (seriously, I have no clue), there was/is/will be a magical energy called the flux. While the exact nature of the flux differed from world to world, one thing that never changed was its sheer power, which allowed people to casually shatter the laws of reality. Naturally, the people of the galaxy used it to blow each other up. Because tearing open the fabric of reality is a bad idea even when you're not using it to slaughter untold billions, it was eventually decided that the usage of flux should be banned. In a moment of political sanity, politicians quickly realized that people weren't just going to ignore the fact that they had awesome magical powers. Having spent their sanity points on that realization, they then decided that the only thing flux could legally be used for is soccer.

Actually, I mock it, but it does make some sense if you think about it. Professional sporters are very popular and very well-paid. If a person has a talent for flux, that means that cash and glory are within his grasp already, leaving far less temptation to use it for evil. Sports can also be restricted to certain areas (arenas and fields), leaving no ambiguity regarding the legality of any detected flux use. As for why the chosen sport is soccer, rather than another sport? Obviously, it's because a european country made the series. However, out of the popular sports, I do think soccer makes the most sense. Basketball has too small a field and movement restrictions when you hold the ball (so the flux wouldn't do much to enhance the game), extra strength and super-speed would break cricket (unless you make the field bigger, in which case the flux again doesn't really do much to enhance the game) and each game of american football would turn into a very impressive blood bath. I guess it could work with water polo though.

...Did I just defend the premise of Magical French Space Soccer?

Okay, back to backstory. Our story focuses on the planet Akillian. Once, this human world was a pinnacle of civilization. However, fifteen years ago, a mysterious explosion rocked the planet, causing an ice age, killing what I can only presume to be millions and, even worse, ruining the soccer team's chances by locking away The Breath, the flux of Akillian. Well, most of us probably wouldn't consider the cancellation of magical space soccer worse than a a near-apocalypse, but then we're not the opening to this show, are we?

The show starts with a flashback to that faithful match in the opening. Three players are identified, and will be important later on. There's Aarch (the guy with the tan you see in the opening), his brother Norata and their friend Artegor. It's actually a really dark and impressive scene, starting with your average magical space soccer match (I may mock it, but it's actually pretty fun to watch), before the ball suddenly freezes and shatters. A moment of confusion as the air visibly grows colder, and then... everything goes to hell. The entire stadium is buried beneath a thick layer of snow and ice, probably burying thousands alive. The last we see of this scene is Aarch screaming in terror, before cutting to him in the present, now an elder man.

An elder man portrayed by a terrible voice actor. After many years away from his home, he is finally returning to Akillian, bringing with him an engineer named Clamp, also portrayed by a terrible voice actor. Turns out, Aarch is planning to start a new soccer team. Given what we see later of his backstory throughout the series, I'm kind of wondering why returning took so long, as well as what he did in the meantime.

We're then quickly introduced to what will become our main characters. Micro-Ice, portrayed by a terrible voice actor, tries to pull a fast one on a local crime boss but gets found out and escapes in a chase scene. D'jok, portrayed by a bad voice actor, tries to get a reading out of his soothsayer space gipsy stepmother, portrayed by a terrible voice actor, but she refuses to read his future because of reasons the show doesn't tell us. Rocket, portrayed by a bad voice actor, speaks creepily to his secret altar dedicated to Aarch. Turns out, Rocket is actually the son of Norata, now portrayed by a bad voice actor, making him Aarch's nephew.

Wait a minute...

How exactly does skin color work in this universe? Maybe Norata is adopted or something. Then again, you'd think that would come up in his distancing himself from Aarch. Apparently, he didn't exactly appreciate it when, after the apocalypse tore off his leg, Aarch just left him to fend for himself, while he went to play space soccer on another planet.

Actually, I'm with Norata. That is quite a dick move, Aarch. Especially when you consider that we later learn that Norata's wife had just left him, leaving him to raise Rocket alone. I'm not saying Aarch should have stayed behind, but dropping in once in a while would have been nice. Or, at the very least, give some emotional support over the phone (or whatever sci-fi equivalent they're using here). Considering how quickly he dropped his own brother after he was no longer useful for soccer, I wouldn't want my impressionable soccer-loving kid who has an obvious crush on the man to interact with him either.

Then again, this entire show seems to have a problem with its 'sympathetic' characters doing dickish things, and the show not realizing just how dickish it is. As I said before, Micro-Ice tried to pull a fast one on a local crime boss. The local crime boss wanted the kid to scalp some soccer tickets. However, when the tickets got stolen, Micro-Ice tried to make fake ones to return to his boss. The boss figured it out though. Best case scenario when the boss' goons get him is that they merely beat him into a bloody pulp. And what do his friends, D'jok and Thran (who is also portrayed by a bad voice actor), do? Make fun of him, of course.

By this point, you may have noticed me mentioning bad voice actors a few hundred times. That's because this series has terrible, terrible, terrible voice acting. Originally, the show was in french, and the voice acting was fine (though I do find the narrator a bit annoying). However, when they translated it to english, they did so in ireland. While having everyone use an Irish accent would only be slightly odd, they instead had the actors imitate other, more marketable accents, despite the voice actors not actually being capable of doing those accents. In the best case scenarios, these actors sound stiff, and their real accent occasionally slips through, though this does improve over time. In the worst case scenario, you get Micro-Ice, who I want to strangle in his sleep because of his sheer annoyance factor. Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to find a subbed version of the original french, meaning I have to sit through the fecal cacaphony that is his stiff, shrill noise hole blabberings. And yet it's still better than how he sounds in season three.

Prolonged exposure to season three Micro-Ice has been known to cause intense pain, swollen blood vessels, inner ear damage, brain hemorrhaging and, ultimately, the shattering of souls. It has been declared a form of torture by the UN.

Turns out, the tickets were stolen by local bully Sinedd. As someone who will eventually become one of the main villains, the dubbers made sure to tell his voice actor to let his voice crack up constantly and giving him lines that would be childish for a nine year old, making sure no one will take him seriously. Considering it's an explicit plot point that he's older than the rest of the kids, you'd think they would actually have made him sound older. On the other hand, the only reason Micro-Ice and friends think Sinedd is the thief is because of the size of his shoes (which they never measured, so they're just kinda eyeballing it), after which they promptly decide that that's enough evidence to threaten to wreck his stuff unless he returns the tickets. Again, dicks.

Finally, we see the main characters do something that is neither illegal nor dickish, as they help defend Aarch from the local crime boss, using epic soccer skills. As we'll slowly discover, galactik football actually takes place in a dystopia where corporations, secret cabals and criminals are the only people with any power. And no, that's not a funny exaggeration. That's actually what we're supposed to take away from the show. It's a really weird detail of the setting, and something they never really do anything with.

Finally (seriously, it's been an entire episode), Aarch starts to recruit his team. Micro-Ice, D'jok, Sinedd and Thran all join the team. Along with them, there is Ahito, Mei and Tia. Ahito is Thran's brother, and he is narcoleptic. Not exactly a trait you regularly see in soccer players, though the result is actually gloriously hilarious, him actually spending most matches sleeping in his goal. Mei seems to be an odd transplant from an entirely different show. She's one of those kids whose parents are trying to live through them, with her mother trying to make her a super-star. Which is of course why she signed her up for a sport in which she could never excel because she lacked flux. And waited for Aarch to announce that he would found a team, rather than trying to join the existing Akillian team. It's like they took one of those characters from a girly show whose mother tries to turn her into an actress and clumsily shoved her into a series about soccer. In an annoying sub-plot that will last more than half the damn season, Micro-Ice develops a crush on her.

Tia also seems to come from a different series, though her transition is slightly smoother. She is the white-haired mysterious girl who speaks with a british accent (she's also the only main character without a bad voice actor). Her first appearance is her crashing on the planet in a one-man pod. Rocket, nearby at the time, makes sure she survives the subsequent explosion. While there's some bonding between the two, the girl insists that she go meet Aarch. Now, why would she be so desperate, unless...

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it's the flux, the breath of Akkilian. And, for a series that appears to have an animation budget of three cents and a piece of lint per episode, it actually looks suitably impressive. Though, it does look oddly similar to some of the biotics effects from mass effect.

Magical space soccer, a proud asari tradition.
Eventually, through much teen and genuinely heartwarming parental drama, Aarch also manages to convince Norata to let Rocket, who is a great passer, join the team.

Remember what I said about this series taking place in a dystopia? Episode 3 is when we meet the closest thing the show has to an official government; the flux society. A shadowy cabal known to but a few, which uses advanced scanning equipment and infiltration to monitor all the flux usage in the galaxy. They concern themselves with little else, leaving the commercial empire of technoid to effectively run the galaxy. Because they think that the breath of Akillian may have been connected to the near-apocalypse on that planet, they're not exactly fond of it suddenly returning out of nowhere with Tia. So they send Dame Simbai, an old acquaintance of Aarch, to Akillian, where she will pose as a physician for Aarch's team while keeping an eye on them.

We also meet another shadowy player, in the form of General Blaylock, a high-ranking technoid official. He's paying off coach officials so that Aarch's team gets acknowledged as an official League team despite, y'know, never having played a single match.

Aaaand, shadowy player number three. Seriously, this is like the world's largest pile-up of conspiracies. Remember Artegor, Aarch's old team-mate? He's currently the coach of the red tigers, the other team of Akillian, and he's not happy that Aarch somehow found a player with the breath. Since Aarch's team (okay, it's really getting annoying saying that. Let's just switch to Snowkids, even though they won't name themselves that for a while) is having a friendly match with the Wambas later on, he's going to use that opportunity to cripple Tia. One of the Wamba players is sick, and doesn't have enough money to pay for medication, so Artegor offers to spring the bill in return for this one little service.

The Qualification
As it is time for the first real match, it is time to learn one important aspect of this series: galactik football is not a fair game. All members of a team need to come from the same planet, and each planet can only send one team to participate in the league. However, because the kind of flux you use is tied to which planet you come from, each flux can also be used by only one team in the league (though the smog works slightly differently and season three will add some more exceptions to this rule). As different fluxes provide different powers, which differ wildly in usefulness, this leads to a rather large imbalance. This is especially harsh on the wambas, since their flux, The Roar, only seems to increase speed and allows you to make sweet jumps, which are basic powers for almost every flux, which also give additional powers (the breath does both, and also allows you to screw the laws of momentum).

In addition to the different flux powers, there is also the fact that the species themselves are tied to their home planet and differ in physical abilities. This majorly screws the humans, who score lower on size, strength and/or agility compared to every other species but the shadows, with most of those races having more powerful fluxes to boot.

Also, for just this one episode, fluxes totally aren't space magic (even though the opening explicitly calls it magic), but scientific. Something about the alignment of moons and planets, and the radiation they give off, with akillian not having the breath because the planet was knocked off-axis by the explosion. That will make no sense in the long run, but whatever.

Also, I feel like I've spent too long complaining, so a quick positive. While the animation for the show is pretty bad, the background art is actually surprisingly detailed, and often pretty cool. Have some planet Wamba.

Yes, that is a tree planet. No, I do not care where it gets its water from. It looks awesome. Also, while I'm talking about the wambas, have their musical theme.

Despite not being particularly rich or advanced, the wambas are a very friendly lot, and the Snowkids stay on their planet is mostly enjoyable (though the food is not exactly appealing to their palette). It turns out that Aarch actually spent a while living with the wambas. After the explosion on Akillian, he and Artegor joined The Shadows. The Shadows flux is unique, in that it is sort of a dark counterpart to normal flux, and you don't actually need to be a Shadow to use it. Unfortunately, using The Smog is not exactly healthy, and Aarch had an overdose during one particular match. As a result, he quit the team and went to the wamba planet to recover.

Smog is one hell of a drug.
Another important aspect of the series we learn now: Micro-Ice always gets the shaft. While I have expressed utter and complete loathing (plus a dash of homicidal mania) regarding the character, I should clarify that it is only because of the terrible voice and the bad lines he's given. Outside of that, he's actually been quite cool. If I didn't want to violently murder him, he'd probably be my favorite character by this point. He served as the audience viewpoint character for the first two episodes, has a unique and rather impressive style of play based on his parkour skills and generally has been the most sympathetic character in the series thusfar.

Remember how Rocket was recruited after the other players? As a result, the team now has one too many players, and someone needs to be benched. Guess who? Yup, it's Micro-Ice. From both a writing and an in-universe perspective, it's a really weird decision. As I said, he's basically been the audience viewpoint character up till now. From an in-universe perspective, it makes little sense either. Everything up till now has shown Micro-Ice as a very competent (if somewhat easily distracted) player, who specializes in outmaneuvering opposing players. We've even seen two very brief flashes of him tapping into the flux, something we've seen no other player do. Meanwhile, on the team that does get put on the field, we have Thran, a player who has not only shown no special skill, but is also having stomach cramps at the moment. I'd say Aarch is just testing out the skills of the players he knows less about (since he's interacted with Micro-Ice quite a lot), but he's very adamant for no apparent reason that this is the final line-up.

Naturally, when the opponent is larger, stronger, more agile and better trained than you, as well as having epic magical powers that they have years of experience with, you're boned. Sinedd tries to get there with a blatant foul (which, for some reason, doesn't trigger the automated foul detector, and doesn't have Aarch comment on it), but that doesn't work either. Tia managed to pull a single goal with her asari impression, but then the wamba Artegor hired rams her at full speed, doing terrible damage to her leg. If this were soccer, that means she'd be substituted while the medics that always stand ready for the big teams take care of her. Of course, that would mean letting Micro-Ice play. So, instead, the Snowkids forfeit the match and the team moves back to Akillian to take care of her.

And it's time for shadowy organization number four. Yes, another one. A group of terrorists/freedom fighters/thieves/space soccer players known as The Pirates breaks into Clamp's training equipment back on Akillian. They are led by Sonny Blackbones, who despite the name is more of a ninja than a pirate. However, when Sonny recognizes Clamp's logo, he orders his men to retreat.

Also, in a dramatic reveal, we learn out why Tia was so mysterious. She ran away from her parents (travelling ambassadors of Akillian) to join Aarch's team. The people who gave Aarch permission were actually hired actors, and now that Artegor has discovered that, he simply had the police bring her back.

…seriously? That's it? That explains absolutely nothing! Why did she arrive on Akillian in a defective one-man pod? How did she relearn to use the breath years before anyone else? Why did she go to Aarch if she didn't even know what the breath of Akillian was before he told her? How and why did she keep her use of the breath secret for so many years, even from the flux society? Serious faux pas there, magical french space soccer writers.

After a few days of training, it's time for the match with the red tigers. For some odd reason, the red tigers seem to have sound effects integrated into their suits. Also, they're wearing helmets. I'm beginning to suspect that space soccer may have somewhat looser rules than regular soccer. Surprisingly, the snowkids are doing even worse against the red tigers than they did against the wambas.

I should again point out that galactic football has a really shoddy animation budget. As a result, a lot of the football match material gets re-used, with recycled animations, or a creative editor re-uses a scene to stretch the match a few seconds. At times, this results in continuity errors, like when we suddenly see Tia standing on the field.

Ignoring time-travelling soccer pixies, the actual Tia shows up during half-time, having escaped from her parents. Naturally, Aarch, having no permission from her parents, is totally fine with letting her play. Tia, being a magical doom goddess capable of breaking the laws of reality and the bodies of enemies at her whim, turns the match around single-handedly.

Repent before the altar of the lady of snow, and let all the sin be taken from your heart.
Actually, speaking of that, why aren't the red tigers using the flux? Sure, they can't use the breath of Akillian, but what about the smog? Considering their coach is a user, and the tigers are shown willing to do anything to win, I don't really see any reason why they wouldn't. Instead, Artegor orders them to just break the rules and slide-kick Tia.

Another way in which space soccer is more dangerous than regular soccer is that it doesn't have yellow or red cards. Instead, players are simply put on time-out for a few minutes, no matter how severe their foul. On the other hand, the penalty boxes float very high above the field, at least 20 meters. So, when they release their prisoner (for which they don't land), it should really break their legs. Yet later on, we see the red tigers survive their fall with no problem whatsoever. Are we sure that the Akillians are human?

While Tia is taken out, a very, very angry Rocket unleashes his unholy fury on those who would dare sully the doom goddess, making the score even. D'jok, becoming the second person capable of using the breath, then makes the winning goal, with a shot that I'm quite sure killed the red tigers' keeper. Ah well, all is fair in love, war and space soccer.

Here lies Thomas Wayne, beloved father, husband and friend. Though cut short in the prime of his life, his legacy lives on through his son, his team and his fans. We'll miss you, Thomas.
As a demonstration of that principle, Aarch uses media contacts to get a reporter to interview Tia's parents, with the interviewer totally gushing about how Tia is totally bringing pride to all of Akillia, while broadcasting to the entire planet. Naturally, the really, really low tactic seen here works, and the sheer power of public obsession with sports forces the politicians to either keep their daughter on the team, against their will and despite multiple attempts to permanently cripple her, or commit political suicide. Having to choose between what they think is right for their daughter and what they think is right for themselves, they choose the latter, throwing their little girl to the sharks.

In the plot of mysterious shadowy organization number two, Blaylock is talking to a scientist, looking at images of D'jok's new fluxxy abilities and talking about something called the metaflux. The scientist says that he can't draw conclusions based on images alone, and it's revealed that this metaflux was made by two scientists who are now missing. At the end of the scene, we discover that Clamp is actually one of these scientists and that he somehow lost his memory. However, Blaylock is all too willing to freshen up that memory, which reveals to us that this metaflux was responsible for the explosion that caused the ice age on Akillian.

With the Snowkids having secured a place in the league, it's time for the drawing of the preliminary rounds. The snowkids end up in a group with amazon super-soldiers, terrorists and drug addicts. So, a pretty average soccer competition then. It's also revealed that Artegor is now suddenly the coach of the shadows, and Sinedd has joined their team. No, it's never explained why the favorites for the cup suddenly hired the coach of a third-rate team of nobodies and a player whose career thusfar lasted half a match, in which he did pretty poorly.

The preliminaries

First up, amazon super-soldiers, known as the rykers. Remember how I said that galactic football wasn't fair? The rykers are probably the single greatest example of that, at least this season. Physically, they're insurmountable, bodies of 150 kilos of pure muscle, coated with metal, easily capable of lifting 150 kilos with a single hand. Their flux, the metal yell, is hilariously powerful, capable of enhancing strength, enhancing speed, knocking away enemies through banshee screeches, creating shields, slowing balls shot by opponents, fancy special effects and instant maniacal mechanical laughter. One gets the feeling that the only reason flux has been banned was because everyone was too scared of the rykers. It would certainly explain all the stuff these ladies get away with in their match, without a single foul being declared. Had the snowkids been actual humans, Tia would have broken several ribs due to falling from thirty meters on her belly, before being paralyzed for life due to a broken spine when a ryker kicked her and stepped on her, before breaking whatever bones remained in her torso due to being shot from the sky again, Ahito would have a shattered arm due to the sheer power behind the first ball he stopped and heavy internal bleeding due to the second ball, D'jok two broken shoulders due to rykers ramming him and a broken everything later on due to a ryker ramming him at super-speed while he was also at flux-powered speeds and Thran would need a clean pair of pants because DEAR GODS, that laugh is unsettling.

And Aarch dares to whine that the Snowkids aren't doing teamwork or giving it their all? The fact that the snowkids actually stay on the field for the entire match without anyone breaking down should get them all a silver cross, the medal of honor and nobel prize in the field of having massive brass balls. Maybe throw in an oscar and a few grammies, because by the gods, they deserve it.

Apparently, I'm not the only one who thought that this match was slightly too brutal, as later appearances by the rykers are toned down considerably. On the other hand, it goes so far in the other direction that it's bound to give you whiplash. When the snow kids and the rykers have a re-match, the latter barely use their metal yell offensively, make less physical contact (and actually get fouls now) while seeming to be sorely lacking in the strength and stability departments. Also, Rocket, Mei, Ahito and Thran suddenly get the ability to use flux with little to no build-up. No, not Micro-Ice, because the show needs to screw him some more. And time itself actually slows down (23 seconds pass on the field for 8 on the clock) to give the kids time to score a counter-goal. Apparently, the laws of reality feel as sorry for the Snowkids because of the last match as I do.

During the last few episodes, there's been a sub-plot about Rocket becoming team captain due to having decent tactical insight (and the rest of the team not really doing much thinking), the others discovering that he's Aarch's nephew and playing the nepotism card, D'jok being a dick, Micro-Ice trying to ploy the audience into murdering him through sheer annoyance, Rocket running away for a bit and then reconciliation for everyone. Long, fairly boring story short: he's captain now. Plus, his father at least accepts his choice to play soccer, though he still doesn't support it.

In annoying romantic sub-plots, we've first got Tia and Rocket. She's attracted to him because of his brains and the fact he saved her life once. He's attracted to her, I presume, because her hair reminds him of Aarch. The slow building relation between those two is actually kinda sweet. Not so much for the other romantic plot. Remember Micro-Ice and his annoying crush on Mei? Well, because Mei's mother is telling her that she needs to be in an attacking position to get any fame (rather than the defensive one she's in now), so she's been hitting on D'jok to drive a wedge between him and Micro-Ice, hoping that one of the two attackers will... leave, I guess? Again, dick. Everyone here is a dick. Micro-Ice spent an entire match trying to show off rather than play the ball, D'jok ain't got no care in the world about his friend's feelings due to the sweet allure of poontang and Mei is trying to get someone out of the team to further her own career.

Do not let the plague of dickery spread to your neighborhood. If you spot any of these individuals, call animal control immediately.
Now that the amazons have been beaten, it is time to move on to terrorists, as the next match is against The Pirates. Did I mention the fact that all of the Snowkids are only fourteen or fifteen years old? And that Aarch is taking them, without any protection or oversight, to the hide-out of a known criminal organization just so they can play a game of Space Soccer? The entire league should get a massive fine for reckless endangerment for planning this match.

Then again, the entire scenario is kinda weird. From what we can tell, the league is either organized or at least heavily sponsored by the technoid corporation, the corporate empire at the heart of the dystopian society that crushes the galaxy between it's iron boot of oppression. The pirates are an organization dedicated to stopping technoid, though their actions don't really seem to go beyond stealing stuff. Why do The Pirates want to play space soccer, which endangers their secret hideout for the home games, and why does technoid let them?

That said, The Pirates are actually pretty harmless and a very friendly bunch. They stand out from all the other teams we see in the series because they're not exactly good players (they don't even seem to have a flux) and never form a legitimate threat to the kids. It's just two games of friendly competition between a bad team and a mediocre team, and it's rather charming in that regard.

It's around this point that we really kick off the metaflux sub-plot that is so important, I'm not entirely sure it's not the main plot. We discover that the other scientist behind the Metaflux is actually Sonny Blackbones, Clamp reveals that the Snowkids all have the metaflux in them because they were born shortly after the explosion that wrecked Akillian and Clamp is now being forced to work for general Blaylock due to a poison capsule in his body, secretly extracting metaflux from the snow kids (which causes an occasional loss of control for the kids).

Apparently, the metaflux was initially designed for good ol' space soccer, to give the technoid team of robots more of an edge. However, when it turned out that the metaflux was completely undetectable, General Blaylock instead started planning to use it to circumvent the flux society and restart flux warfare. Clamp and Blackbones were understandably not very happy about their invention being used for evil, and ran away, taking the metaflux with them. They were shot down over Akillian, and the metaflux escaped containment, creating a massive, massive explosion.

Galactic warfare that could rock the fabric of the universe out of the way, let's instead talk about something that's actually important: magical space soccer. First, the flux. In the first few episodes, the flux was this special, magical thing. Even without any training, it could turn Tia, a tiny, frail-looking, inexperienced girl, into a magical goddess of doom. However, as the series progresses, flux becomes less and less impressive, and is treated rather casually. Even the unlocking of the flux is treated casually now, with no build-up, no real impact and no logic to whose flux gets unlocked. For something that is so central to the appeal of the show, that's a really disappointing development.

Coupled with that is that the powers of the flux never really get developed for some of the snowkids. When D'jok gets the flux, he becomes a human cannon, capable of more powerful shots than anyone on the field. When Rocket gets the flux, he becomes a small human tornado, twisting and turning around opponents to get to free space, and also gets extra-sensory perception. When Thran gets the flux, he uses it to craft energy shields. When Ahito gets the flux, he develops it into an odd mix between magical space soccer and martial arts, reminding me a bit of capoeira. So, given the precedence from those four, you'd expect all of the Snowkids to develop their own tricks with the flux, right? Nope. Mei, Tia and Micro-Ice all stick to the basics. Did the writers just run out of ideas for cool uses of the flux?

Coupled with this is subject two: player relevance. For the vast majority of the games we see, there only seem to be four people on the field: Ahito, D'jok, Rocket and Tia. Whenever one of the other players actually does something, the viewer is like “oh, right, they're on the field too”. Actually, it's not just the viewer, but also the writing, with almost all of their actions being written as big surprises. “Le gasp, Thran stopped a ball that Ahito missed!” “Le gasp, Micro-Ice goes on the offensive!” “Le gasp, Mei does... something or other.” Yeah, her not really having a defined thing she does doesn't help the perception that she belongs on an entirely different show. At least later seasons improve on that part a bit.

Speaking of the Mei subplot, Micro-Ice and D'jok finally stop being dicks to each other and the girl grows a consciousness. However, her mother than talks it out of her again, so now she starts hitting on Micro-Ice, while also convincing him that D'jok is still totally going for her. I'm actually rather impressed with her competence at backstabbyness, as she somehow manages to laugh at the vocal monstrosity that passes for one of his jokes.

The next match up is against the smog-addicted shadows, the favorites for the cup. Unfortunately for our protagonists, the Snowkids need to win at least one of the two matches against the shadows to qualify for the last sixteen. This is because of really shady math. The idea behind the preliminaries is that the top two teams of every group will move on to the final sixteen. The shadows have thusfar won four out of four games. The snow kids have won three out of four. The rykers have won one out of four, though two more victories are a safe bet since they'll be playing the pirates. And the pirates have zero. Even if the snow kids lose both matches against the shadows, that means that they'll be tied for second place. Yet everyone acts like there is no chance at all of making the final sixteen without at least one win (and explicitly not a tie) against the shadows. Do they know something I don't?

“Silly reviewer. Math is not soccer, therefore I won't allow my players to do any.”
In the main plot, Sonny Blackbones, who shall be called Professor Pirate-Ninja from now on, sneaks into the Snowkids' facility to talk to Clamp. Professor Pirate-Ninja (professor in the field of badassery) does not appreciate Clamp trying to extract metaflux from the Snowkids. Unfortunately, Blaylock planted a sub-dermal microphone in Clamp, and robots attack immediately. Fortunately, technoid battle robots really, really, really, really, really suck, as we see with their every appearance. Despite firing at least a hundred times at nearby targets without cover throughout the series, they only ever managed to score a single hit... and even that was non-lethal. Blaylock decides that Clamp is too high a risk to keep in the Snowkids' facility, and kidnaps him, replacing him with some sort of copy.

Professor Pirate-Ninja (second degree in the field of asskicking)'s escape brings him across Micro-Ice. Because Micro-Ice is like one of those kids that adore Che Guevara, he's totally ready to screw the man and help the criminal escape. He even has a moment straight out of a james bond film, with Micro-Ice and Professor Pirate-Ninja snowboarding down the mountain while pursued by villains on snowbikes. Unfortunately, before he can screw the man, the man screws Professor Pirate-Ninja (graduate from the university of awesome) first, and the only successful shot from a technoid robot in the series hits him. However, Micro-Ice gets him on the pirate escape vessel, and the two flee the planet. We also learn that Professor Pirate-Ninja (minor in seduction) had his pregnant wife shot down over planet Akillian just before the great disaster. I'll give an early spoiler, and say that his pregnant wife managed to reach an escape pod. Because the escape pod was designed by idiots, it had a tiny metal parachute, so she still died. However, it did buy her enough time to give birth to a baby boy, which she asked to be named D'jok. Though since she didn't write the name down, it's likely that she just intended it to be Jock, and space gipsy hippie didn't find the name new-agey enough. Now if only we could get an explanation for Micro-Ice's name.

During the chase, Micro-Ice was in contact with Thran, so the team knows that he's fled off-planet with a group of inter-planetary terrorists. Not that they'll bother contacting his mother or anything. Speaking of things that should be a factor when employing children, when are they going to school? It was referenced in an earlier episode, so we know it still exists on post-apocalyptic Akillian.

Also, it's proven that Aarch is absolutely goddamn out-of-his-mind obsessed with soccer, when we see his reaction to the news that Micro-Ice was chased by robots and had to flee the planet to escape violent murder: “How could he leave us at a time like this?” Seriously, get this man some medication, because there is obviously something wrong with his brain. Something as un-soccer as killer robots doesn't even register in his mind. We might also need a quarantine, as it seems to be contagious: everyone acts as if Micro-Ice abandoned the team on purpose rather than him getting in over his head and having to escape deadly killer robots. And this will only become more stupendously ridiculous in time. Again, Micro-Ice gets the shaft. If I didn't have to listen to his voice, I'd feel sorry for him.

By the time the match start, I'm starting to wonder how Aarch still doesn't have any reserve players ready. Until now, they've been forced to play with only six people on the field in at least three different matches. But no, they have to make due with a weird duplicate of Micro-Ice that just stands still and waves around for 90% of the match.

Naturally, this does not end well for them. While the shadows aren't quite as terrifyingly brutal as the rykers were, they aren't hit with the incompetence bat like the rykers were in their second game. In addition, their flux, the smog, is really powerful, providing the power of short-range teleportation along with a major screwing of the rules of momentum like The Breath.

Oddly enough, the Snowkids, despite having one less (functional) team member, Mei not doing well in Micro-Ice's position and D'jok's grumpiness, actually don't do that badly. Remember, The Shadows are the favorites for the title, and will actually reach the finale this season. You'd think the Snowkids would be utterly trounced. But no, they go head to head for the entire game, and the Snowkids only lose because the weird duplicate Micro-Ice tackles one of the Shadows and gives them a penalty in the last minute. Actually, considering that the weird duplicate is not a sentient being and was provided by the league (and much, much lower in quality than all the other weird duplicates we see), its pretty unfair that the Snowkids are held accountable for his actions, isn't it? I'm surprised that they don't sue the league for what is clearly a defective product.

Micro-Ice has been hanging out with the pirates for a while now, doing dishwashing in the local pub because he doesn't feel like going back to his team. However, D'jok manages to send him a semi-secret message during a television interview, and that convinces Micro-Ice to come back. However, before he leaves, the pirates erase his memory. Aarch later mentions that this is customary for their prisoners. So, from their perspective, the only reason that Micro-Ice wasn't with them for the match was because he was being held captive by terrorists. Naturally, they still blame him, because Micro-Ice always gets the shaft.

And thus, it is time for the final match in the preliminaries. But first, EPIC TRAINING MONTAGE! Seriously, I love those things. To my utter and complete shock, all characters genuinely stop being dicks at this point. Character growth? Right before the main match? Yeah, they're gonna win. It's such a cliché trope that everyone can predict it. Galactik football goes the extra mile though by having character growth be the only factor. The skill of their opponents actually goes down the more the snowkids develop. The rykers were a really extreme example, but there's plenty of others.

"Okay Lun-Zia, I've heard that Mei has just become less manipulative, so that means you have to miss the ball when you try to tackle it away from her, alright? Boonzoff, D'jok stole a piece of candy last night, so don't skimp on the flux while defending the goal."
Just to be fair, it also seems to go the other way around. For the first half of this match, the Snowkids are actually performing worse to accentuate Sinedd's evil character growth, though they bounce back by the second half. In an honestly pretty cool fashion, it's Micro-Ice who scores the final goal, pulling an awesome parkour around the shadows players in the last twenty seconds.

Anyway, time for the character ending notes for this arc. Mei strikes two advertising deals despite not being an attacker. Micro-Ice gets forgiven for being held prisoner by interstellar criminals. D'jok has been exorcized of his dickishness, but it appears to have been transferred to Rocket. Ahito and Thran have stopped existing as anything more than background characters. And Tia... Wait, what?

Tia, I know you're trying to impress Rocket, and I'm not going to judge your personal choices. On the other hand, you're a fifteen year old girl and that dress you're wearing shows enough skin to make it obvious that you're not wearing any underwear. As such, you're making me feel very uncomfortable. And the seductive voice while showing off before your entire team is not making it better. I know you want to test whether or not your boyfriend is only attracted to Aarch or if he has some interest in girls too, but please do that in private.

See you next time, everyone. I'm going to wash myself until I feel clean again. Might be a few days.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

World of Warcraft - Cataclysm - Worgen and Goblins

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it's finally time to talk about the worgen and the goblins. Two absolutely awesome races that I was thrilled to see added to World of Warcraft, but whose execution I was less than pleased with, albeit for two very different reasons.

Now both of these races stand out in that they don't really have a connection to the main plot of the expansion, unlike blood elves and draenei of TBC, or the death knights of WotLK. Sure, the goblins and Deathwing had some connection, but it was positively miniscule and hadn't appeared for several years. And the worgen? Well, before cataclysm they seemed to be connected to the emerald nightmare, which is connected to Cataclysm in the same way as you and Rebecca, the intestinal parasite: Sure, the connection is small, but the damage is big. However, that aspect of their backstory was cut, so the worgen are left without a connection to the main plot entirely.

But lets start our stories at the beginning, shall we?

The Isle of Kezan
For once, cataclysm decides to actually give players the relevant lore in a convenient way, with a quick and short explanation of goblin history and culture on the character creation screen: They were once slaves of the jungle trolls on Kezan, kaja'mite made them smart, they overthrew the trolls, and now they're powerful traders. Quick, efficient and very good to have for all the new players cataclysm attracted.

However, there's one line that I would like to draw attention to: “Goblins and their global trade conglomerates dominate all trade across Azeroth”. I'm going to address it later, but lets first just start playing for a while. Unlike with the other playable races in WoW, the goblin character actually exists as a single in-universe character. Specifically, you're the executive of the kaja'cola trading company, making you the second most powerful goblin in your cartel. And you're on your way to becoming the single most powerful, with you replacing the trade prince treated as all but inevitable.

While Uldum was the testing ground for the environment design that would eventually become standard in Mists of Pandaria, Kezan set the standard for quest design. Rather than having unique questgivers at every hub, Kezan introduces a cast of colorful characters early on, which will follow you through a prolonged experience. Some other cataclysm zones do something similar, but generally only for characters that are in high positions in-universe or characters meant exclusively as comic relief, which has the result of feeling a bit detached from the setting. However, in Kezan, most of the recurring characters are people you'd actually see walking the streets. The result is a far more personal connection to the ongoing events.

Another important aspect is that all characters that you're supposed to pay attention to are immediately given a distinguishing characteristic, making them stand out from their surroundings. Sassy Hardwrench, your executive assistant, wears a fancy chinese dress. Sister Goldskimmer, the local priest trainer, stands on a pile of riches from her 'tithes' and blesses the player when he walks by. Megs Dreadshredder, your marketing rep, wears a business suit and sits on a snazzy white tiger futon. Evol Fingers, the warlock trainer, and Fizz Lighter, the mage training, are having a magical fight, while Maxx Avalance, the shaman trainer, watches on without involving himself (on a related note, I wonder if goblins change their name after picking their career). Bamm Megabomb, the hunter trainer, and Slinky Sharpshiv, the rogue trainer and your masseur, are practicing their respective crafts, shooting targets (while standing on a megabomb) and sneaking around (while wielding sharp shivs). In the corner of your headquarters, Hobart Grapplehammer is doing mad experiments, while Assistant Greely is watching on and acting as the voice of reason. Finally, there are the sultry dressed Chip Endale and Candy Cane, one of which acts as boyfriend/girlfriend of the player, depending on the chosen character gender. Not exactly sure what exactly the non-relationship character's role in the company is though. Company stripper maybe? By the way, the warrior trainer is a mechanized cardboard cut-out. Most appropriate (and hilarious) commentary on class lore I have ever seen.

I'd like to stress that I haven't even done a single quest in the zone at this point, and I already feel more connected to the characters than I have in any other zone prior to this. Blizzard, you did a good job. Have a cookie.

The first few quests just feature the player being an executive, allowing for players to get acclimated to goblin culture, as well as just being a ton of fun. You start out by securing the kaja'mite mines, electro-shocking defiant troll slaves and killing some tunneling elementals that are eating up your resources. Again, I have to praise blizzard, as these quests also act as introductions for other bits of relevant information. Most notably, there's kaja'cola, your company's product, which temporarily boosts brainpower to come up with a brilliant/insane scheme. The writers even fill in the obvious plot holes, with characters pointing out that the trolls, for some reason, aren't affected by the kaja'mite.

After dealing with the mines, you start preparing your party that evening. The marketing rep gives you a sweet ride (no seriously, that ride is sweet. So sad that it isn't available as a mount) to go pick up your friends: Gobber the hogboblin, Ace the super-model and Izzy the token girl. However, if you're like me, you're just going to use the car to explore the island. And, my god, does the island look... honestly, the island looks rather crappy. Oh, don't get me wrong, the place is well-designed, with tons of fun little details (including a brief shot of the undermine no less). However, it's also a dump. Let me try to put it in pictures. This is booty bay, the largest goblin town prior to this expansion:

It's a tropical paradise, reminiscent of a 17th century pirate cove. Now, here's Kezan:

Yeah, quite a difference, isn't there? The entire 17th century pirates and explorers theme is now gone, replaced by some weird dieselpunk dystopia. The tropical paradise vibe is gone, replaced with that of a polluted hell-hole, with massive factories spilling out poisonous gasses, pipes across the island leaking black goo, piles of trash everywhere, sickly-looking vegetation (that bright green you see isn't grass, it's AstroTurf) and automatons replacing much of the animal life. Considering that the goblins who did stuff like this in previous expansions, the venture co., were the villains, it's more than a bit disconcerting.

Basically, the goblins have become caricatures of themselves. Sure, they weren't exactly serious even before this, but all of their traits are now even more exaggerated. Being an enterprising species was turned into full-blown modern consumerism, with references to anachronistic human resource departments, mandated training seminars and bling. Being a race of traders was turned into being the ones that control all the trade in the world, contradicting all the earlier games. A rather reckless disregard for personal safety became a complete and utter disregard for everything and everyone, and a love for explosions became a love for all kinds of destructive behavior, resulting in a mess so polluted I can't help but wonder where they are supposed to be getting their food.

Now, to be fair, this could actually make some sense. After all, the goblins we've interacted with up till now have pretty much exclusively been steamwheedle cartel. Having the different cartels have different cultures is a great way to differentiate between them, and it could lead to some interesting contrasts down the line. In that sense, having the bilgewater cartel (which is the one we interact with exclusively on Kezan) be more modern makes sense, since they're the ones in control of the kaja'mite, which may make you smarter, but also appears to be partially responsible for making the goblins as unhinged as they are.

However, that's not what we see in-game. At no point is a contrast made between the bilgewater and steamwheedle cartels. And, while the steamwheedle still use their old architecture, a lot of their new quests have shifted towards the same parodies of 21st century consumerist culture. It's really disappointing to see the game so close to making perfect sense in-universe with an interesting idea, and yet not using it.

Anyway, back the awesome questing. You go to the local shanty-town and beat up some people who owe you money, grab yourself some bling for the party, play in a professional footbomb match and wait what? Footbomb player? But... I thought we were the executive of a coca-cola parody. When did we suddenly become sports players? Even by the standards of this zone, this is weird. Seriously, are these remnants of an old questline or something?

Actually, we know they are, though in a different way. Specifically, the original intent for this quest was to show the goblins as being the source of their own doom, with the player kicking the footbomb into the volcano at the heart of the isle, which would eventually lead to the volcano erupting, destroying Kezan. However, because forcing a quest on the player where he kills most of his species by accident isn't very nice (and to better fit the expansion), it was instead changed to Deathwing arriving during the game, and doing something to the volcano.

Still, extinction is still some time away, and while some of your employees start panicking and preparing for a possible evacuation, the player has a party to run. After all, you're a goblin. Living a life of extravagant decadence while on the brink of death is pretty much your dream and... wait, you call this extravagant decadence?

Seriously, we're the second most powerful goblin in the entire cartel, and this is the best we can do? This place looks like the filthiest corner of Pittsburgh. Hell, with the walls around this place, it looks more like a prison than it does like a billionaire's private swimming pool. This is a a recurring problem of the zone. Despite all the goblin money-grubbing, the only luxuries on the island seems to be fancy clothes and cushions.

Anyway, after the party, trade prince Gallywix comes to your headquarters. By this point, it's abundantly clear that Kezan is doomed, and the player is desperate to get off the isle. However, Gallywix has the only way off the isle, and will only give the player access in return for massive amounts of cash (and considering you're the second most powerful person in the cartel and you still can't afford it, that's really impressive). At this point though, I have to once again begin scratching my head. There is no indication whatsoever that Gallywix has stopped other boats from leaving, or bought up all the ships on the island or something. He literally just has a single, solitary ship. And yet the game tells us that this single ship is the only way off the island despite that island being the trading capital of the entire world. Are you telling me that none of the other cartels have any ships on the isle? That there isn't a single zeppelin? Or just an air-balloon? What happened to that kaja'cola advertising balloon that we saw earlier in the zone? It's a blatant gaping plot hole, and one that will return with a vengeance by the time we get to Azshara.

Still, the questing is thoroughly enjoyable, with the player doing all sorts of ridiculous things to get the money. He commits insurance scam on his own headquarters, grabs the last few chunks of kaja'mite from the rebelling slave miners, loots looters hired by the trade prince, breaks into the trade prince's villa (which looks just as crappy as your place, if not worse) and even stages a bank heist. However, when you make your way on board the trade prince's crappy yacht, and hand over your life savings, he decides to just enslave you and the rest of your company. Well, damn. Also, your boy/girlfriend leaves you for the company stripper and they both work for Gallywix now.

Gallywix is planning to go to Azshara, have his slaves build a fancy palace, and spend the rest of his days as the richest goblin who ever lived. Not a bad plan, certainly. Unfortunately for him, he sailed right in the middle of a naval battle, with alliance ships attacking an orc vessel, trying to get at a specific target. Even more unfortunately, they are under orders to leave no witnesses, which means that they also open fire on the goblin yacht. Fortunately, the alliance really, really sucks at killing small amounts of green people, so not only do the goblins survive with minimal casualties, we later learn that the orcs survived as well.

Lost Isles
The goblins of the bilgewater cartel are now stranded on the lost isles, which look a lot more like the tropical paradise I imagined Kezan to be like, though obviously a lot less civilized. And I think I'm not the only one, since blizzard made the lost isles the background in the character selection screen for all goblin chars, rather than their actual homeland. While Kezan was mostly about the player looking out for his own interests, the Lost Isles are where he really becomes a hero. As Gallywix sits on his ass doing nothing, the other goblins barely holding out, the player becomes a key instrument in everyone's survival, saving goblins from drowning, recovering supplies stolen by the local monkeys and dealing with dangerous animals.

While you're out saving everyone's life, one of your former employees discovers that the lost isles contain a massive amount of kaja'mite (which is a rather convenient coincidence, isn't it?), and that the local monkeys are being affected by it. They aren't quite on the level of goblins yet, but the fact that they're using mining picks and making cave paintings says they're getting there. Investigating a local monkey cave, you discover that they are being led by... goddamnit... a pygmy witch doctor.

I've already commented on the pygmies quite a lot in my Uldum review. Basically, they're a racist caricature that equal the old minstrel shows in their sheer offensiveness, and the fact that they somehow made it into the game is utterly baffling to me. The lost isles pygmies are a little better than the uldum pygmies, since these ones at least have some degree of culture rather than just existing to serve the villain, but it's not much better.

In addition, I'm wondering why the pygmies even exist, what with the shortage of models that plagued the rest of the expansion. Each and every one of their appearances could have easily been replaced by a tribe of local trolls, and made just as much, if not more, sense. It's especially notable with the lost isles pygmies though. They worship a wild jungle god, have witch doctors, practice human (or in this case, goblin) sacrifice, can create voodoo zombies and would be connected to the kaja'mite. It'd be a perfect fit. Yet instead, we get racist caricatures! Bah.

Anyway, near the witch doctor, we find a dead orc, along with his journal, which I'd like you to keep in mind because it's going to important in one of my later points. You make your way to the orcish camp described in the journal, and meet Aggra. Aggra was introduced in The Shattering as Thrall's new love interest. In-game, she is a cloud of boring and exists only as a satellite character for her hubby.
Actually, come to think of it, TBC, WotLK and Cata all have a rather disturbing undertone in that regard, with almost all important female characters trivialized or becoming a satellite character. Malfurion is the one making all the leadership decisions for the night elves while Tyrande sits at home and does nothing (or, when she does something, fail utterly), Jarod gets the position of commanding the night elf forces while Shandris is stuck in some forgotten corner of the world, Liadrin vanishes from lore after a man shows her the error of her ways, Jaina only acts as Varian's personal assistant rather than a monarch, Ishanah is just there because Velen isn't available, Modera gets passed over for leadership of the Kirin Tor in favor of Rhonin and I could go on like this for a really long time. I very much doubt that this was intentional, but it's really not reflecting favorably, especially not after warcraft III did it so well.

Also, Aggra has really annoying voice acting. The actress doing her voice doesn't seem to have any idea that's she's supposed to be playing an orc, her voice lacking the growl that's so typical for that race. Instead, thanks to the actress having a bit of an east-European accent, she sounds much closer to a draenei.

You help Aggra's group of orcs out for a while, securing the path from both native flora and alliance assassins so they can explore the isle looking for the 'precious cargo' the alliance soldiers were after. One odd aspect here is that the alliance assassins are all members of SI:7. SI:7 is the stormwind intelligence service (similar in role to the CIA), so having them act as an army of assassins in foreign lands is a bit weird. Also, they wield giant honkin' katanas, which I can't imagine being all that good for stealth either.

The player makes his way across the alliance encampment, the orcs covering him, and steals a gnomish flying machine, using it to get on board the alliance fleet. Apparently, this is a multi-national operation, as all the sailors on the ships are wearing Theramore tabards. The player makes his way into the cargo hold and discovers that the 'special cargo' is in fact none other than Thrall himself.

That... really doesn't make any sense. Okay, first, the journal made it clear that the orcish forces Thrall has with him were taken from Orgrimmar, and that the war with the alliance had already begun. That means that Thrall visited Orgrimmar at some point after Garrosh invaded Ashenvale, ordered the forsaken to invade Gilneas, got Cairne worried enough that he saw a duel to the death as his only choice and almost got the darkspear trolls to leave the horde, and yet, for some reason, left Garrosh in charge of the horde. The guy was ruining every hope of the peace Thrall had been trying to attain, tearing the horde apart in his wake, yet Thrall did absolutely nothing? Garrosh was blatantly betraying the trust thrall had placed in him, ignoring the council he was supposed to listen to, and acting to satisfy his own ego, and Thrall leaves him in charge? What in the ninety-three thousand seven hundred and thirty six hells is wrong with him?

However, this isn't just out of character on Thrall's part. Remember, Thrall had been neutral for quite a while by this point, coordinating forces to fight the cataclysm. And yet the alliance sent a task-force specifically to capture him. From the perspective of most nations in the alliance, that makes sense. However, the soldiers here are wearing Theramore tabards. That means that Jaina, one of Thrall's closest friends, has ordered her soldiers to capture him and eliminate his companions, despite her knowing that Thrall is trying to stop the world from blowing up. Again: What the hell?

Worse, no one ever mentions this incident again, despite the dozens of times this should come up. Hell, Jaina actually shows up for Thrall's wedding, with no mention of the fact that less than a year ago, she ordered the groom jailed and the bride killed. And you'd think that this entire affair would get at least a token mention in Tides of War, but nope. Thrall just kills all the alliance sailors using the elemental spirits, and the entire affair never gets mentioned again beyond this zone.

On the other hand, there is something really odd about Thrall here. Namely, both the game and the characters refer to him as if he were still the warchief of the horde, a title which he had given up by this point, and there is zero mention of the earthen ring (indeed, Thrall's entire group consists exclusively of orcs) or any greater shamanistic organization. There's not even any shamans other than Thrall and Aggra present, with the other orcs being normal soldiers.

Whenever the focus of the questline is on the goblins, and their quest for survival in this new wilderness, it's an amazing experience. Whenever Thrall and his group show up, the entire thing goes off the rails, which we will see later on. Luckily, we're shifting back to the goblins for a while now, with the player deploying a 'town-in-a-box' on the next island over. Basically, it's a super-compressed town, fitted into a tiny box and sealed so thoroughly that you need a massive pile of explosives to open it. It's useful, straight-forward and hilariously dangerous. In short, it's a typical goblin device. BOOM!

However, the town is a bit smaller than the creator expected. While all the minor buildings are present, the docks and the oil refinery are missing, along with the trade prince. Yeah, you guessed it, the trade prince has run off with these essential resources, taking the goblins loyal to him along, and leaving the player and the characters he's grown to like to die. Of course, the player is a hero, so he stays and helps people survive, securing several sources of food using good ol' goblin mad science.

With food secured, you start moving to safety issues. First, you deal with the naga of nearby Vashj'elan and the other minions of the old gods that aid them. For once, the old god related stuff actually feels a bit creepy. I think this can be traced back to the players mostly dealing with down-to-earth stuff up till now. Sure, there's been magic, but, with the exception of Thrall's storm (which was supposed to feel big and impressive), it's been relatively mundane. There's been no random faceless ones and tentacles stomping around, no magic items that you're casually tossing around, no cultists constantly shouting cultist things. Even the naga themselves are treated less like an unknowable evil force, and are instead humanized, refusing to attack the player when he has surrounded himself with naga babies. Instead, there is just a single powerful dark being, hidden away at the heart of the naga compound, with a few tentacles in practical locations to block off the heart of the compound. The result is indeed very effective.

Unfortunately for the goblins, the naga weren't the real threat. Instead, it's the pygmies, who attack the town-in-a-box. While the player arrives in time to fight them off and save the town, a lot of goblins have already been taken away, and the player goes to the pygmy village to get them back.

Now, here's the reason why I'm slightly more forgiving of the Lost Isles pygmies than the Uldum pygmies. They're not just stooges for the actual bad guys. Instead, they have cultural traits of their own (turtle motif, shamans with volcano hats, dark magic), act as an independent power and actually influence the story. They're still racist caricatures, sure, but at least they're interesting beyond that.

While the player defeats the pygmies of Oomlot Village, the shamans from higher up the volcano retaliate, sending an army of zombified goblin captives against the town-in-a-box. After you brutally slaughter the shamans and burn most of the goblin zombies, you turn your eye to the heart of the volcano, where Volcanoth, a fire turtle worshiped by the pygmies, lives. Naturally, since you're the goddamn player, you kill volcanoth. And, since you're a goblin, you do it using improvised explosives.

Did I mention this was in the heart of a volcano? Yeah, this is not ending well. The volcano erupts, destroying most of the southern half of the isle, including the town-in-a-box. Oops. The player escapes the volcano on a plane, which heads for Thrall's current hiding place. Yes, that means that the entire questline is about to take a massive nosedive once again. For one, rather than actually helping out your nearly extinct people, you spend the next few quests once again fighting alliance forces. Sure, you eventually learn that Thrall has promised to help 'rescue the goblins and deal with gallywix', but you don't actually know that Gallywix has captured your fellow goblins when that's revealed, so it just serves to confuse.

This is also the first appearance of aggresionitis hominum, an odd disease that causes orcs to act like it was humans who started the local conflict while the orcs did nothing to provoke them. Every time it appears, I get taken out of the game instantly, as it feels so out-of-place. The appearances of aggresionitis hominum are really sparse and often come from characters that are supposed to know better, so it's pretty unlikely that it's supposed to serve as commentary on orcish ignorance or something. Instead, I suspect it's just stuff from an old draft that accidentally got left in.

This time, Theramore isn't involved in the attack. Instead, it's SI:7 and a squadron of Ironforge paratroopers. Just... don't ask me how they're paratrooping from one-man planes. Or where the planes suddenly came from. Or why they're landing in their own compound and the ocean, rather than behind enemy lines. Or why they don't drop loot. Or why there's a worgen and a night elf serving as Stormwind Intelligence commanders. In fact, avoid any questions at all.

Finally, we return to the goblin plot, as we're finally given the sort of crucial information that Gallywix has captured our people. Of course, the orcs don't come with you to help free your people, meaning that at least half of Thrall's promise was worthless.

Turns out, Gallywix has started a massive kaja'mite mining operation beneath the volcano. Even with the volcano growing more and more unstable, the sheer value of the stuff makes that totally worth it. Small sidenote, but it's good to see characters still act when out of their element. One of the people holding the line amongst the free goblins is sister goldskimmer, the priest trainer, who stands at the front line and is ready to whack anyone who crosses her field of vision.

So you enter the mines and it's quite an impressive operation. I was initially ready to call nonsense on just how many people Gallywix has working for him (even the amount of goblin zombies seen earlier was already stretching my suspension of disbelief), despite only having a single yacht. However,
blizzard was again one step ahead of me, and the characters actually comment on Gallywix having people they never saw on the yacht. It's likely that he somehow managed to get reinforcements or stashed away a large amount of soldiers in the parts of the town-in-a-box he obtained.

The player fights his way through the mines, freeing all the goblins, and even getting his gang of friends from Kezan back together. With the mining slaves freed, you start moving against Gallywix, destroying his soldiers, sabotaging his oil platform and killing your old boy/girlfriend. Finally, the orcs show up, working with Sassy Hardwrench and the player to free the slave pits. Well, when I say working with, I mean they let the player do all the work. There's not even the token never-ending battle that's usually done to portray NPCs fighting (and which has already been used several times in this very zone no less). Despite the orcish incompetence, the player manages to free the last few captured goblins and kills the company stripper.

Well, at least now it seems the orcs are finally doing something useful. Thrall and his forces are attacking Gallywix's compound, soon joined by the player in an awesome shredder armor. Finally, you bring Gallywix to his knees and then... Gallywix tells Thrall that he'll totally reform his ways, be a good guy, and do whatever Thrall says. And Thrall buys it. WHAT THE HELL?

Seriously, this is just unbelievable. Thrall not only lets the guy go, but he actually supports him as the leader of the steamwheedle cartel. The guy who he only met twice, first insulting the orcs and betraying his people, the second time actually trying to kill Thrall. This is... this has to be a hallucination or something. From a storytelling perspective, this is just impossible. There is no way either the player or Thrall is trusting Gallywix ever again, right? Please tell me the writers are joking? I mean, sure, if Gallywix was killed, the player would be the most likely to succeed him, which can't work from a gameplay perspective, but there's alternatives. Why not put Sassy Hardwrench in charge? She's the one that's been doing most of the leadership throughout the last two zones, and the one who worked closest with Thrall.

Still, despite that horrible, horrible, horrible, horrible writing screw-up, this is a somewhat happy ending. The yacht has all the goblins you got to know over the past two zones, ecstatic that they're finally out of trouble. It really was fulfilling to have helped all these guys. Sure, they're not exactly good people, but they're your people, you know. Thrall has invited the goblins into the horde. Sure, that's not very neutral of him, but between not stopping Garrosh and being attacked by alliance soldiers, he's not exactly credible as a neutral character anyway.

So, you head to Orgrimmar, carrying a package Thrall gave you to deliver to the new warchief. In the city, you discover that the package is an SI:7 emblem, which Thrall sent to Garrosh to let him know the alliance tried to assassinate him. Well, I guess the questline is finally ov...



Okay, we're meeting with Garrosh now. First, he tells you that goblins aren't welcome in Grommash Hold. Considering Grommash Hold was built by goblins... go **** yourself, jackass. Then Garrosh says that he's already put the goblin cartel to work and that we now serve him...

/leave horde


WHY ISN'T THIS WORKING? This is the single worst ending to the zone you could possibly have. Despite assisting Thrall throughout the Lost Isles, he breaks his promises to the player. He doesn't help free your race. He puts Gallywix back in charge when you finally have him on the ropes. And then, when you have managed to free your people by yourself, he ropes you into the horde and sends your people to someone so he can re-enslave them? He betrayed every single goblin (well, except gallywix) in the horde, who players have grown quite a personal connection to by this point, mind you, and the writers are expecting the players to just blindly accept this and consider it a happy ending/beginning? The hell are they on, and where can I get some?

Aside from that idiocy, I can't figure out the significance of the SI:7 symbol you're handing over to Garrosh. He's apparently visibly taken aback by the thing, but I don't know why that would be the case. The horde and alliance are at war, and Thrall was technically flying the horde flag at the time. Sure, if we'd told him they were specifically after Thrall, it would be shocking, but all you do is hand over the insignia without any explanation. Well, after long and hard thinking, I arrived at two possibilities: One, Garrosh can smell plot-points, which would be consistent with the rest of the expansion. Two, this is once again a remnant of an older version of the story, and this was originally the event that set off the alliance-horde war. Though that would make the involvement of Theramore soldiers even more questionable (though fitting with some of the timeline oddities seen in the southern barrens).

The transition from the lost isles to Azshara is not a smooth one. Back in the Deepholm article, I mentioned that Cataclysm was essentially an abomination, sown together from the dead remains of three entirely different storylines. Both the lost isles and Kezan were part of the survival plot, where the focus was on desperate survival after a world-shattering cataclysm wrecked most of the planet. As such, it focuses on a small group of people building an existence in a world where everything is trying to kill them. It's the small scale that makes it personal, and drives home just how close the entire bilgewater cartel is to total annihilation. It's a new world, where the former global powers are now weakened enough that every hostile group, no matter how insignificant before (see: Pygmies), is a credible threat. We are titans brought low, trying to work ourselves up from the mud.

However, Azshara is part of the war storyline, which focuses on the clashing of two titanic super-powers with all their might and resources. These are the champions of the planet, rivaled by none, forced into battle for the sake of survival, global supremacy and to appease the daddy issues of their respective tyrants. To destroy each other, they field the most massive armies on the face of the planet, grasp at every dirty trick in the book and even reshape the very face of the world in order to achieve supremacy.

You might notice that those two storylines are pretty much diametric opposites of one another and couldn't possibly be going at the same time. And you're right. So whenever the game switches from one to the other, you can almost hear the setting breaking itself apart when everyone's suspension of disbelief snaps. And while it happens frequently throughout the expansion, nowhere is it more severe than right here. Last zone, the entire bilgewater cartel was reduced to a handful of refugees on a single boat. Now, the bilgewater cartel, made up solely of the survivors of that single boat (which must have suffered pretty epic losses throughout the lost isles), is a global superpower, capable of going toe-to-toe with the ancient night elf empire, the naga and the furbolg at the same time, while still having enough resources left to casually reshape the entire zone, build a new capital, assemble a fleet and launch expeditions to every corner of the planet. It reeks of an utter apathy regarding the setting on the part of the writers, and results in a setting where even the most dedicated lore fan has no idea regarding the status of anyone in the world.

Adding to that is a really weird timeskip. Note that you arrive in Orgrimmar at the same time as the rest of the goblin population, since you're all traveling on the same boat. However, by the time you finished talking to Hellscream, the first thing you do after getting off the boat, Azshara has already been entirely reshaped by the goblins. That has to be a timeskip of at least a few months, happening in the middle of a conversation (seriously, it starts with Hellscream saying goblins aren't welcome, and it ends with him saying goblins have already been put to work reshaping Azshara). Jarring is what it is. Still, while its place in the story is utterly jarring, the questing experience of Azshara is still pretty enjoyable (though by no means as good as the previous two zones).

As I said, you start out after an oddly long time-skip, with goblins firmly entrenched in the zone. They even took time out of their busy schedules to reshape the entire place into a horde sigil. What a cute and completely implausible waste of resources that could have gone to a million better uses (like shaping Teldrassil into the shape of a burning teldrassil). However, the goblins have run into a slew of problems that they need you to help out with, and your orcish masters want you to do some stuff for them too.

First, you gotta bring order to a woodcutting operation. The goblins made some programming errors with their automatic shredders causing them to go berserk, and the night elves have entrenched themselves in the trees. Killing two birds with one stone, the player takes control of the shredder, and uses it to beat back the night elf forces, even killing a powerful ancient of war. Having secured a source of wood right at the gates of Orgrimmar, you move on to the massive nearby quarry, created by goblins having moved an entire mountain range. Again, these are the guys who were near extinction last zone. Apparently, there's been some problems with basilisks moving into the area and turning all the workers to stone. Naturally, the player fixes the problem, and the quarry resumes work.

Which lead to a question. Remember, the entire reason for the war between the horde and the alliance is because the orcs of Durotar need the resources of Ashenvale. However, thanks to goblin ingenuity, those orcs now have a massive quarry just north of Orgrimmar (which also produces large amounts of iron, and unspecified valuable minerals), as well as access to large amounts of wood (azshara isn't exactly as forested as ashenvale, but the lone trees are still really damn big). Food is also less of an issue, with large amounts of game in Azshara, goblins mass-producing cheap fast food (we see beverage cans, patties and take-away noodles everywhere) and the fishing done by the goblins.

So why are we still waging a war for resources? I mean, I understand why the war would continue (cycle of revenge and daddy issues), but why are all the members of the horde still acting like the war is waged for resources? You're exploiting the planet on a scale and to a degree never before seen on the face of the planet. Then again, the horde controls an area roughly the size of all the seven kingdoms thrown together, and consists solely of endangered species. I think your problem is more with resource management than resource acquisition, garry-cakes. Ugh, this war is getting stupider by the second.

To secure their new facilities, the goblins have sent the bilgewater battalion to deal with the naga. Of course, the battalion recruits the player, and he spends a while playing around with explosives to deal with the naga. Now here's part of the reason why Azshara is still fun to play through: It's creative. While it doesn't have the atmosphere of the goblin starter areas, it does replicate the memorability of the quests. For example, the player here has to traverse an actual minefield to loot the corpses of goblins who didn't survive the minefield. When he touches a mine, it doesn't just do damage, but it also knocks the player back, possibly into another mine. It's actually quite fun to let yourself get knocked around like this. Plus, it also works on enemies, so pulling one into the minefield is bound to have fun effects.

Despite Azshara sticking out as a sore thumb in the goblin storyline, it is actually rather effective in the world-building department. You get a real feel for goblin culture throughout the entire experience, or at least the rather caricatured version of it the goblins now follow. There's tons of fun little details that make the world feel more complete. My personal favorite is the presence of the airborne priest, expensive mercenaries that drop into hostile situations to perform exorcisms and heal the injured. It's just so... goblin. Though I will admit that making them Light worshipers feels a bit out of place.

However, it's not just the goblins that get expanded upon, but also the other people in the region (which is nice, because vanilla azshara was so underdeveloped its not even worth doing this zone in my comparison format). You even play through a vision of the war of the ancients at one point, discovering where rebel-aligned highborne mages hid a powerful magical artifact when their city was under siege. There's even a nice contrast between goblin and blood elf culture. When a blood elf discovers that this group of highborne possibly saved the world, only to be forgotten by history, her plan is to make sure their legacy is honored. The goblin on the other hand doesn't care about that, just continuing his planned destruction of the site to be replaced by a fuel depot. On the other hand, it would have been nice if the powerful highborne artifact you discovered was ever mentioned again.

After your little time-travel, you take the rocket-way for the first time. The rocket-way is a highway for rocket travel that spans the entire rim of the azshara crater, AND IT IS GLORIOUS. And I finally get to see some of my mates from the lost isles again, having been sent to meet up with Assistant Greely. Cool. And... Hello, Greely? Don't you remember me? Seriously? Well that was weird. Maybe Hobart grapplehammer remembers me? Not him either.

Ugh, another really disconcerting disconnect from goblin starter zones. Despite the fact that I spent over two zones with these characters, saving their buttocks on multiple occasions, they don't even acknowledge that they recognize the goblin player. Considering how little trouble it would be to add some alternate dialogue, it's a real damn shame that the personal connection with these characters, which was a big part in what made the last two zones so enjoyable, is just severed instead. The most positive thing I can say is that at least blizzard learned from its fault here, and made sure that didn't happen next expansion.

Naturally, Greely and Grapplehammer have been working on insane experiments, and all hell has broken loose, with the player needing to save everyone, put out the fires, secure the rare materials, kill the mutant hordes, discover the secret behind azsharite, shrink down and ride a mouse and launch a family of super-intelligent raptors into space. No, really. Gloriously silly, but so totally forgivable. By this point, I think the player is like a cosmic force, created specifically to balance out the insanity of the rest of the goblin race.

To offset the fact that I forgave this, the game casually decides to give the player a bomb that can level entire cities, which is then loaded in the hilariously giant cannon in bilgewater harbor, the new goblin capital. Sure, just give one faction in the middle of a global war a superweapon and never mention it again, that makes perfect sense. Doesn't anyone on the writing team keep track of threads left hanging or something?

Bilgewater Harbor is awesome by the way. Placed on an artificial island in the middle of Azshara, it's a cross between an incredibly well-defended fortress and a haven for debauchery, popular with soldiers on leave. It's a lot of fun to walk around. On the other hand, there's again the problem of recurring characters not recognizing you. Oddly enough, the characters from the slums in Kezan who you beat up are also present. How the hell did they get on Gallywix's yacht?

However, those aren't the people who raised my eyebrow the most. Hiding near the local slums is none other than Kalecgos (the dragon that essentially took over leadership of the blue dragonflight after the death of Malygos, eventually even becoming the new blue dragon aspect), hidden in his human form! Not entirely sure why anyone is allowing a human to just freely walk around a horde town though...
Nor am I entirely sure why Kalecgos is even here. Sure, he needs help, but you'd think that the night elves or the kirin tor would be more receptive to that sort of thing. The Kalecgos questline is one of the obligatory “oh right, the old gods exist” questline of which one or two can be found in pretty much every zone that doesn't feature minions of the old gods as a main plot.

We already saw an example of such a questline with the naga back in the lost isles. Despite the fact that they were pretty much pointless to the lost isles experience, and could be left out without anyone even noticing, the naga quests still rank amongst the best of the obligatory old god questlines, because they were genuinely creepy and didn't stick out like a sore thumb.

The others were not so lucky. They fail utterly at being creepy (or evoking any emotion whatsoever) and they don't fit into the overall plot. Most notably, no one in the zones outside a handful of unimportant mooks ever seems to care about the presence of old god forces, despite the fact that those forces are trying to blow up the world. We've already seen a really blatant example of this in stonetalon mountains, where the player is sent to old god-infested stonetalon peak, stumbles around for a few quests, and then goes away. Despite the fact that the entire mountaintop is still a nexus of dark magical powers spreading tendrils of corruption across the land, every person in the zone just forgets about it. Same deal for the shrine of Aessina in Ashenvale.

Oddly enough, you can even have the obligatory old god questline in a zone that's all about the old gods. In that case, it's a different part of the old god forces that shows up and is promptly forgotten about afterward. This is usually limited to emerald nightmare stuff though, one example of which we saw back in Darkshore, and which we will discuss extensively when we get to Mount Hyjal.

The Kalecgos questline isn't too bad though in that regard though, mostly because you don't actually end up interacting with the old god forces a lot. The basic idea here is that the black dragonflight is now hunting the members of the blue dragonflight, and Kalecgos wants the player to convince Azuregos to get to safety. A bit questionable that the black dragonflight has enough manpower (drakepower?) to pull this off, but otherwise a decent idea for a plot.

However, Azuregos is a bit loopy, due to having died a good number of times (a shout-out to vanilla, where he was the only interesting feature in the entire zone). While his loopiness certainly makes the quests memorable, what with him befriending a murloc, falling in love with a spirit healer, etc, it's a massive, massive plot hole that they have apparently canonized spirit healers constantly rezzing everyone. For the sake of my own personal sanity, I'm just going to pretend the entire questline is non-canon because I fear my mind might implode. Writers, look up gameplay and story segregation, and please don't do this again. Thank you.

However, that doesn't mean the questline isn't enjoyable. If the problems of fitting into the universe were addressed, this might well have been one of my favorite questlines, because of the quests you do for archmage Xylem. He gives you several tests and trials that barely involve combat, but instead focus on movement. While I'm kinda wondering why Xylem decided to set up his school in Azshara, the experience is a lot of fun nonetheless. On the other hand, it's kinda stretching my suspension of disbelief that I'm an apprentice to archmage Xylem while playing on a rogue, shaman, or any other non-mage class. Doing this entire thing as a mage only questline in Winterspring (which would tie in well to the blue dragons) seems a lot more logical.

You do actually end up interacting with the old god forces once, near the end of the questline, when you, Azuregos and Kalecgos assault a black dragon encampment. This again leads to the question of why everyone in the zone is so casual about these guys being present, and why they haven't had the horde shove axes into their every orifice yet. Hell, Bilgewater Harbor has an army specifically assembled to fight the forces of the old gods. Again, a reason why this quest feels more than a little out of place in Azshara.

We move back to bilgewater harbor, where we temporarily join the bilgewater batallion (which, for some reason, also has orc and forsaken members). This group of soldiers is now tasked with taking the shattered strand, an ancient night elf ruin now inhabited by the naga, and recovering an artifact we spotted during an earlier quest, which allowed the naga to enslave sea giants. In addition to the bilgewater batallion and the return of the airborne priests, we also meet two other arms of the goblin military in the form of gob squad, a small group of elites, and the goblin army merging and acquisition team, which is a really complicated way of saying they get people stuff. Always good to see a diverse military. Of course, the player resolves the entire situation in time for tea, bringing back the powerful artifact, which we will never see again. Seriously, that's like the third one this zone.

With all the other threats dealt with, it's time to go back to the night elves. In the north, the night elves have set up an encampment where they practice arcane magic, which they newly started doing this expansion. The entire new classes deal is something we'll address another time. However, because the night elves are new at arcane stuff, they haven't really covered some of the basic safety lessons yet. Of course, that'd make more sense if there weren't also said to be highborne at the camp, and those guys are supposed to be better at magic than even the high and blood elves. Of course, that doesn't make any sense either, because the blood/high elves are highborne who spent ten thousand extra years studying magic, while the highborne that joined the night elves all come from a single complex where they haven't exactly been doing much research. Of course, that doesn't make much sense either, since why would those highborne stay in Dire Maul and not have any impact outside of it and why is my head starting to hurt? Ugh, stupid plot hole pile-up. Long story short, you screw over the night elves with some basic magic. Minor thing, but I do really like the name of the night elf mages: illuminators. Fits perfectly.

The night elves are also teaming up with the local blackmaw furbolg. Originally a part of the timbermaw tribe, they split off when the horde started blowing up Azshara. A shamanistic species like the furbolg can't exactly sit by and let that happen, can they? Of course, that just puts a bowtie on the elephant in the room: Where the hell are all the orcish and tauren shamans, and why aren't they trying to stop the goblins or any of the dozen others environmenticides committed under the rule of Garrosh? You'd think they'd at least speak up, but nope. It also puts a top hat on the other elephant in the room: Where in the nine hells are all the alliance furbolg? They've got like three tribes as their allies, yet we never see them as part of the alliance armies. With the aid of the player, the horde manages to prevent yet another tribe from joining the alliance, using a night elf disguise to play the two factions against each other.

Finally, the player moves to the western front, known for its lack of quietness. Supposedly, the player is dropped in by an airborne priest, but that quest was broken for me, so I had to walk. Stupid cataclysm bugs. Aside from that though, the questing is pretty good, feeling like a suitably big battle to end the zone with and having a really cool assassination quest alongside your old masseur, Slinky Sharpshiv (though, of course, she doesn't remember you).

One thing that does bug me, and which lends more credence to my theory that the war was originally kicked off by a different event, is that this conflict doesn't fit in the cataclysm timeline. The war with the alliance, which started with the horde pushing into ashenvale, obviously started before this. However, the purpose of these quests is to get the night elf outposts out of the way so the horde can start pushing into Ashenvale.

General thoughts on Goblins
The goblins are a really good fit for the new horde race. While they're culturally distinct from the core of the horde, their race had already integrated with the horde to the point that you could probably already consider them a horde race back in WotLK (where goblins were members of the warsong offensive). Considering that, I'm a bit disappointed that it's the bilgewater cartel that's joining the horde, rather than the steamwheedle goblins that have become more and more associated with the horde as time went on. Though, for the record, I would be incredibly pissed at the writers if I saw the steamwheedle goblins doing some of the more destructive things.

In a way, the goblins and worgen perfectly encapsulate the way their factions have been handled this expansion. On the plus side, that means that the goblins get fun quests, a large in-game presence and a large cast of characters they get to interact with. On the down side, it also means that the goblins are turned into unsympathetic caricatures of their former selves, derived of the things that made the horde so unique.

Think back to when world of warcraft first came out. Some friend asks you to name anything unique about the warcraft story. How many of you would have told him some variation of 'the usual generic villain races are treated as actual people, often good people at that'? It was one of warcraft III and world of warcraft's most distinguishing features, making a rather large impact on the fantasy genre. While warcraft definitely wasn't the first franchise that did this, it was the one that did it most notably and influentially, and didn't just do a cheap complete role reversal.

And then cataclysm came out, and threw all of that away. Since this post is supposed to be about goblins, I'll keep to them, but trust me: the other races will get their turn as well.

The goblins of warcraft III and World of Warcraft were basically idealized capitalists. They lived in an environment where everything was for sale, to the point that goblin suicide bombers were a rather cheap commodity. However, an often overlooked part of that is that the goblins were also individualists and legitimate entrepreneurs, all qualities that were lost in cataclysm.

Individualists: While some larger organizations existed, they were benign entities that were necessary for goblin society to function (tinker's union, banks, trade fleet, town guards), and were usually not concerned with making profit. Actual businesses tended to be small, individual stores. Mass-production was a concept entirely unknown to the goblins, and something that would not fit in their culture at all. Goblins were individuals, always trying to discover the next best thing, or cornering a market niche.
On the flipside, that also meant that goblins had individual responsibility. Union regulations, insurances, safety standards and words like that shouldn't appear in their vocabulary. Those things are for gnomes, dammit! Speaking of races other than goblins, the old goblins were also a lot less... goblin. Okay, that came out nonsensical. What I mean is that while the majority of goblin society was made up of goblins, you could find plenty of exceptions, and not just at the lowest rungs of society either.

Legitimate Entrepreneurs: While most goblins certainly weren't above pulling a fast one, they did actually try to develop legitimate businesses and innovative products. In fact, I would argue that the old goblins weren't even all that money-focused, and more focused on creating a business. Remember the old raptor horns quest from the barrens? One goblin thought that raptors got their intelligence from their horns, so he asked the player to get a few to make smart drinks from them. However, when that didn't work, he didn't try to sell his drink anyway. He instead switched gears to a different ingredient, asking you to get wailing essence from the wailing caverns.
And there's tons of examples of that throughout old questing. Sure, making globs of cash was still a goal for many goblins, but they weren't mono-maniacs about it. The race-cart track in Tanaris is a good example of this, with goblins racing and tinkering for the glory of defeating the gnomes. There was no large public, no real market, and yet these goblins gave it their all.

In fact, if I were to look solely at the culture, I'd argue that the in-game goblins are closer to a dark twist on the gnomes. The gnomes are the 'modern' race, with a culture based extensively around anachronistic concepts, with wacky engineering as a centerpiece. The goblins, at least how they were before this expansion, were anachronistic, sure, but it was to a far lesser degree, and wasn't the central theme in their culture. Even if you removed every single bit of technology from goblin society, it would have still been recognizable. This is partially because wacky engineering was not what their culture revolved around. Sure, they had some cool technology, but it was just another business of theirs. In fact, the iconic goblin technologies were rarely even seen used in goblin towns, instead being mostly tools for the horde.

Which leads to my final point: Goblins have become crutches for the orcs. That means that the goblins get constantly slammed in the ground by the big green guys, but those very same green guys would crumple hilariously without them. Without the goblins, the cataclysm orcs would be nothing. Orgrimmar was built by goblins, goblins are doing the exploitation of ashenvale, goblins are responsible for constructing the orcish fleet (both naval and aerial), goblins build the siege weapons, etc. Goblins are involved in every single orcish offensive in the game, plus a few of their own. It's something that reflects very poorly on both races, as orcs are no longer allowed to do anything other than obsess over battle, while the goblins never receive recognition for either victories or atrocities. I've heard cataclysm criticized for being too much about humans versus orcs, but frankly, it's closer to humans versus goblins.

Gilneas City
Well, we've got the goblins down, that means that about three-quarters of the work is done. The worgen experience is not exactly prolonged, with only a single zone dedicated to them, compared to three for the goblins (though it covers the same level range as the first two of those). However, there's a pretty clean dividing line in there, so we're going to do it in two segments anyway.

We start as a human in Gilneas City somewhere in the past, though it's unclear when. The opening narration is clearly taking place during the events of warcraft III, with the undead scourge besieging all of Lordaeron and the worgen a mysterious new threat whose existence is only rumored about. However, that's contradicted by the first thing you see when you start walking around, which is Prince Liam Greymane stating that the scourge have been fought off somewhere in the past, and large portions of the nation have been overrun by the worgen. Really sloppy there, writers. And it won't be the last time either.

We start out with the capital city under siege by rampaging worgen. Liam Greymane leads a defensive force in the hopes of holding off the attackers long enough for the civilians to escape. The player, one of these civilians, decides to help out. A second civilian, Gwen Armstead, is also still hanging around, securing supplies. With the aid of the player, and cover from Liam, the civilians of the merchant square manage to escape, retreating to the still-secured military district.

Like happened in the goblin starter zone, you're quickly introduced to a cast of characters that will stay with you throughout the leveling experience. However, while it is by no means badly done, it doesn't hold up as well as the goblin experience either. The main difference is that you never get the chance to connect with most of the characters, especially the class trainers. They're just generic members of their class who follow your questing hubs. The only ones who stand out are your own class trainer (who you interact with in a quest, and has some history with you, which is a really nice touch) and Celestine of the Harvest, the druid trainer, whose (relatively) bright clothes set her apart. I love the Gilnean setting, but man, is it not good at giving characters unique appearances.

We then meet two other high-ranking members of society. First, there's king Genn Greymane. He's the king, easy enough. There's also Lord Godfrey, a ruthless and slightly dickish noble. King Greymane asks you to go to the prison and get someone called Lord Crowley out. Crowley was an old friend of Greymane, but participated in an insurrection. With the worgen threat, Greymane thinks Crowley will be necessary to achieve survival. Having played through the zone several times, I'm still not entirely sure why he thinks Crowley would be useful, since he's later surprised when Crowley reveals that he had weaponry stashed away.

By this point, something has really started to bug me: I have no idea what's going on. Okay, that's a lie. I know what's going on, but only because I'm a complete and total warcraft geek. However, let's use our imagination for a moment and pretend we're new players. We've been hearing lots of excitement about this world of warcraft thing and its cool world, and our friends have told us that cataclysm will be a good jumping on point. Okay, let's start.

We do get some basic info on the character creation screen. The worgen were created by some guy called archmage Arugal, to fight in something called the third war against something called the scourge. However, the people who fought alongside the worgen got infected and became worgen themselves. The curse spread quickly throughout Gilneas, and most people are dead. Those who survived the curse now seek a new destiny for themselves.

Okay, that's clear enough, and gives a good amount of starting info. However, we also get constant references to the northgate rebellion (though it takes a while to figure out that everyone is referring to the same thing, since they don't use the same terms). Liam says his soldiers managed to beat it, Genn says Crowley took part in it. However, no one ever explains what exactly this northgate rebellion is, the reasons behind it and how it was stopped. All we get is the word 'politics', which is not a satisfactory answer for something that will act as an important divide between the important characters, and will be constantly referenced.

Anyway, we go free Lord Crowley and his people. For some reason, they're on the prison rooftop from which they easily have escaped, rather than an actual prison. Seriously, designers, what's the deal with that? Crowley gives us the location of a nearby arsenal, which we give to greymane. Greymane then tells us to go to the arsenal and meet up with the guy he already sent there. Wait, what? But he didn't know about it until we told him. How could he already have a guy there?

When we walk up to that guy, he suddenly turns into a worgen and smacks us! Oh n0ez! Luckily, some girl comes in and shoots the thing. She's called Lorna Crowley, and says she's the daughter of Lord Crowley. So... why did she pick this exact moment to walk in? And how does she know that the worgen she shot was the guy king greymane sent? She only walked in after he transformed, and there's no indication she knew the guy (so she couldn't have told by his clothing).

Genn now has enough firepower at his command to level half the military district, but before he can open wild fire on the worgen hordes, he needs you to get an important alchemist to safety. You do so, and Godfrey gives the order to open fire. Sure enough, the multitude of cannons are now one cannon, it shoots once, and everyone immediately retreats because the worgen might come back in force. That's not exactly living up to Genn's earlier statements.

And the sloppy writing keeps coming. When Godfrey sends you to Greymane Court, he says that it's because it's the only place left in the city where they could defend themselves without being boxed in. However, when you arrive at the court, it turns out that the reason we're going to Greymane Court is that the civilians can escape through the city gate there and reach the safety of Duskhaven. Nothing to do with not getting boxed in while defending. It's not like these are huge writing flaws or something, but they do kinda add up after a while.

While the civilians make their way to duskhaven, Crowley volunteers to stay behind and lead a group of soldiers to distract the worgen, making their last stand in the cathedral with no chance of survival. Crowley gives the player the choice to join him. And by gives the player a choice I mean that his text acts like you have a choice, but the game won't allow you to do anything other than accepting.

Small note, but the music here really doesn't fit. Gilneas city is essentially zombie apocalypse (featuring werewolves) meets survival horror. However, the music seems to have been written for a mystery horror, with a slow, eerie build-up. Which really doesn't fit if there's already a thousand werewolves trying to eat your face. Speaking of sounds, most of the accents of the generic Gilnean NPCs, both male and female, sound really fake. And it would have been nice if Crowley's rebels didn't say “for Greymane!” as a generic quote, and royalists didn't say “we've been walled up for far too long.”

Finally, its time to make your last stand at the cathedral. For some reason, the only people there are members of the northgate rebellion. Seriously, no royalists willing to make the ultimate sacrifice?

Cutscene time! It's a rather jumbled telling of what happened to the player, which really confused me the first time I watched it. Back in Gilneas City, you were bitten by that guy who transformed before your eyes. As anyone who knows werewolves realizes, that's what's responsible for changing the player into a werewolf himself. However, the cutscene shows the worgen breaking into the light's dawn cathedral, followed by horrific screaming by everyone inside, then the player getting captured by fellow Gilneans again.

So, my obvious question: How did the player and the others in the cathedral survive? The player was bitten quite a while before the cathedral, so we know that the transformation process takes some time. Worgen attack with intent to kill, as seen on both the player, and an NPC all the way at the beginning of the questing experience. We also know that they still attack people who are infected, since that's what's been going on in the last few quests with the player. So why didn't the worgen, y'know, kill everyone?

In my opinion, the worgen starting experience should have either been twice as long, or half as long. As it is now, we start in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, with little to no idea what's going on and little investment in our surroundings. To make Gilneas City feel like a worthwhile and tense battle, you need to first make us care about the setting. Give us a few quests where Gilneas is still in an intact state, to get us to know the people and their ways. Show us why the northgate rebellion is significant, what the deal is with those weird druids and introduce the characters more properly. Basically, a worgen version of Kezan.

Alternatively, just leave out the battle for the city entirely and start after it, where we are now. Really, the entire questing up to now can be summed up in two lines: “Gilneas City fell” and “You became a worgen”. Sure, there was also the re-acceptance of the northgate rebels, but you're never actually told what the northgate rebels are. In addition, we chose to create a worgen character, so why not actually have us start out as one? As a bonus, it would prevent the major disconnect between the city and post-city questing. Remember how the worgen were a force akin to the zombie apocalypse that had taken over most of Gilneas and outnumbered the Gilneans dozens upon dozens to one? Well, I'm glad you do, because blizzard apparently didn't. From this point onwards, the feral worgen barely show up, even in areas that we'd been told they controlled. There actually is sort of an explanation for this, but when you run across it, it feels anti-climactic.

Anyway, back to the story. The player is now a worgen. He ran wild for a while (and by while I mean about six or seven years, not that anyone in the game bothers to tell you), before stepping into a bear trap and being dragged to Duskhaven. Using a potion created by Krennan Aranas, you have regained your human mind, though not the body.

When Krennan asks you to get a few potions for him from a nearby shack, you are ambushed by one of the forsaken, who got past the reefs that protect the shores of Gilneas when they were destroyed by the cataclysm. From this point onward, the forsaken are the main villains of the zone. Liam Greymane, while wounded, leads a defense against a small group of aggressive forsaken, which for some reason includes abominations with oddly deep, sexy voices. It's really disconcerting, and is gonna give me nightmares for weeks to come.

After helping Liam for a while, the player goes to help Lord Godfrey, who is leading a militia force to attack the forsaken landing (y'know, everyone in duskhaven seems awfully casual about both the attack by the undead and the fact that you're a werewolf.). I actually really enjoy the character of Lord Godfrey. While he initially argued that the player should be put to death because the potion had never worked on people who had been worgen for so long, your actions have at the very least convinced him that you're on his side. While he is mistrusting by nature, the guy is by no means dumb, and seems plenty willing to reconsider his stance. And really, much of his doubt comes off as perfectly reasonable. Particularly, he isn't fond of the idea of worgen in his ranks because he's afraid Krennan's potion might wear off after time, which is a sensible concern. Still, he doesn't have much of a choice, so he chooses to unleash you on his enemies, giving you a tactical mission to take out the forsaken catapults and cannons, along with just asking you to slaughter some enemies.

Also, for some reason everyone in Gilneas seems to be oddly knowledgeable about the forsaken, despite the fact that they locked themselves off from all outsiders before the forsaken even came in existence. For example, one of the local farmers who asks you to save her children states that the forsaken know no mercy. Godfrey states that the dark rangers are hand-picked by Sylvanas herself. The fact that they even recognize a dark ranger should already raise an eyebrow. Hell, the fact that they know the difference between the scourge and the forsaken is already a stretch. But now they know the internal workings of the forsaken army? HOW?

When you complete the dark ranger-killing quest, the camera shakes wildly for half a second, indicating a large earthshake. So you walk outside to look at the damage and HOLY ****. That's.... quite a lot more damage than I expected from a half-second earthshake. Half of the region around Duskhaven has now sunk beneath the seas. All the buildings have taken oddly little damage though. Farm-houses tend not to be built to withstand this sort of thing.

Because the player is a goddamn werewolf, he jumps in the water to save the lives of some of Godfrey's men, but it's not enough. There were way too many soldiers in the collapsed area, and the destroyed area keeps expanding. The Gilneans now have to leave the safety of duskhaven behind. During the evacuation, you also see a recurring enemy for the first time: Koroth the Hillbreaker, an ettin. I'm going to have to do a long talk about the ettins some other time, but for now its sufficed to say that you're never given any explanation what they are in-game.

All the duskhaven villagers flee to greymane manor, soon followed by the player. We also meet two more members of the greymane family here: Queen Mia and Princess Tess. They tell the player to head to the observatory where the king is waiting. From here, the player can see the now-flooded duskhaven, and that the forsaken invasion isn't over yet, with a small fleet of forsaken ships and an orcish gunship heading for the coast. That is, if you can stand the 'camera'-work in the cutscene. Seriously, the zooming and the shaky camera are not nice on the eyes.

With the continuing collapse, the populace has to move further inland. Traveling by stagecoach, you travel to the coastal village of Stormglen (though not without taking a moment to help Liam Greymane on the way there, again engaging Koroth). From there, you travel north to figure out what caused the worgen to stop attacking.

The answer?

NIGHT ELVES! Yes, night elves. Why? Hell if I know. We're given some basic explanation about the worgen (there used to be some druids who let the power of the beast overtake them, turning into wolves. They were banished, but not before the curse started spreading. Which actually has nothing to do with the worgen in Gilneas, but the night elves apparently don't think we would want to know our own backstory), but it's all short. In addition, no explanation is given why the night elves suddenly showed up out of nowhere. As I said, we've been roaming around in worgen form for six or seven years by this point.

However, the night elves have now managed to make the feral worgen, including lord crowley, non-feral! Huzzah! Wait a minute, since when can they do that? The worgen have been a threat (albeit minor) since all the way back in vanilla. They were in ashenvale, duskwood and silverpine forest, with the scourge creating some more in the grizzly hills. Why is this technique only being pulled out now?

At this point, the forsaken are also mentioned to be after the scythe of elune. Crowley states that his men have been moving the scythe around ever since the forsaken invaded. Apparently, the forsaken want to use the scythe to turn all of humanity into worgen. Wait, when and why did the scythe get here? Wasn't that thing lost in Duskwood? And how do the forsaken know it was here? And didn't that thing just summon worgen, rather than turn people into worgen? Plus, why do the forsaken think turning humans into a race that is both stronger and less susceptible to the plague is a good idea?

Okay, okay, I'll be fair for a moment. Some of these questions were actually answered in the Curse of the Worgen comic books. Of course, curse of the worgen was only on its first of five issues when cataclysm came out, meaning that even if you were willing to shill out money to pay for something that should have been in the game, you would have to wait four months.

Though the forsaken get their hands on the scythe of elune, the player quickly steals it back. For some odd reason, the game doesn't actually call the item 'scythe of elune' though, just 'mysterious artifact', with a tooltip that looks nothing like a scythe. I was expecting a twist, but nope, it's the actual scythe. Using the scythe, the player undergoes a ritual that will permanently keep him non-feral (turns out Godfrey's worries about the potion running out were right), and also allows him to transform between human and worgen form.

When Genn comes in to meet with Godfrey, the king suddenly reveals that he too is a worgen and can change between shapes! Wait, what? But... when did the king get infected? He was surrounded by soldiers at all times during the battle for Gilneas city, and stayed in his observatory afterwards. Nowhere in that time frame could he have gotten infected. And when did he undergo the ritual? And why didn't he tell the player about it?

...You just put that in as a reference to the british royal family, didn't you?

Godfrey's character then gets assassinated. And no, I don't mean by an assassin. I mean by the writer. Up till now, while he's been distrustful, it was a tempered form of distrust, offset by a good mind and a need to protect his nation. He grew a downright respectful relation with the player, despite that player being a worgen, and was actually trying to recruit Crowley and the other formerly feral worgen.
I could even understand it if Godfrey was just attempting to start a revolution against the king because he doesn't trust the guy whose been turned into a werewolf and didn't say anything about it. But no, he kidnaps the king and tries to sell him to Sylvanas to save the life of himself and a few fellows. He's not just betraying his country, but he's also being really, really stupid about it. And when he fails, he just kills himself because he doesn't want a worgen king. What makes this even more of a disappointment is that Godfrey was the only distinct personality amongst the Gilneans. From what we see in the game, there is no real difference between Lord Crowley, Genn and Liam, with Lorna only standing out because she's a badass, not because of any difference of personality.

To pad out the zone, the player then frees the mining town of Emberstone from forsaken occupation, before moving on to Gilneas itself. The only thing it does for the story is make me smack my head that the forsaken didn't actually kill and raise the populace of the town, just so we have someone to rescue. Also, the Gilneans somehow know the name of all the forsaken commanders in the town.

However, now, it's time for the centerpiece of the zone! The battle for Gilneas City! WOO! Yes, it's time to take back the town from the feral worge... wait, the forsaken? When did they conquer it? Ah well, regardless, the battle is gloriously awesome. It starts with prince Liam Greymane, epic warspeech and sword in hand, leading a massive army of every able-bodied non-cursed Gilnean into the city, right into the merchant square. FOR GilneaS!! CHAAAARGE!

Seriously, I love this part. It's an actual large-scale NPC battle in WoW, and one that actually works, though the Gilneans seem a bit too inclined to target individual enemies en masse. With the merchant square conquered, Lorna brings in cannons from Emberstone, which the player uses to gun down the abominations of the military district. Meanwhile, Crowley's worgen have begun their assault, which the player supports using stolen forsaken catapults, bringing down a massively powerful undead. Finally, you team up with Genn Greymane and attack none other than Sylvanas herself.

Sylvanas is defeated. However, she fires a single, poisoned arrow at Genn. The only thing that saves him is Liam, jumping to intercept. However, it wasn't for nothing. Gilneas is ours again! Glorious battle, everyone. Okay, except the music guys. When Liam and his soldiers charge, this epic, perfectly-fitting battle music starts. However, it's soon replaced by the rather dreary standard zone music. Darn it. Still, it was an awesome victory.

Well, for a few minutes. The player and Tobias Mistmantle follow Sylvanas into the cathedral district, where we overhear that she's planning to use the plague against Garrosh' orders, something that would melt the bodies of everyone in the city into putty. Genn evacuates the city again, rather than risking every Gilnean's life against a weapon of unknown power. It's a dark moment, sure, but a perfectly justified one. As he does such, he asks the player to hold off the plague catapults for a while, using a stolen forsaken bat to bomb the bajeezus out of them.

The Gilneans escape, though there is a small problem with ghosts in the local graveyard attacking them. The player of course lays the ghosts to rest, and Liam is buried, his father vowing that he will return. But for now, the people must leave Gilneas, the elves having sent several ships to evacuate them, and help buy the Gilneans enough time to do so. The player rides into battle on a glaive thrower, slaughtering wave after wave of orcish soldiers. The player even even goes aboard the orcish gunship with Lorna Crowley to crash it into the forsaken encampment. AWESOME. With the gunship down, the night elves evacuate the worgen, bringing them to Teldrassil, which will act as their new home.

Yeah, we're going to have to talk about that...

General thoughts on the Worgen
Like I said, the worgen and goblins perfectly represent what happens to their factions this expansion. On the plus side, that means that the worgen get/retain an interesting culture, and have interesting developments that you want to see explored. On the downside, that means that the worgen get a rather shoddy story, distinct characters dropping off the map completely, lackluster in-game representation and a very notable lack of direction, meaning that those interesting developments never get explored.

The worgen are probably the most excessive example of both the plus sides and the down sides. While the starting zone is sloppily written, the Gilneans are well-developed, with a distinct tone and style in their stories. Note that I used the word Gilneans there, not worgen. That's because the worgen aspect of the worgen barely gets any exploration at all. For the vast, vast majority of the starting zone (all but about five quests), the player interacts only with the Gilneans who weren't afflicted with the curse. Of the eight notable Gilnean characters in the zone (Lorna Crowley, Liam Greymane, Genn Greymane, Lord Crowley, Lord Godfrey, Krennan Aranas, Gwen Armstead and Tobias Mistmantle), only three are cursed, and all three of those had more screentime before they were cursed than after. If you look in the howling oak, the Gilnean district in Darnassus, you'll notice that there isn't a single named worgen to be found. Even Genn Greymane stays in his human form. Basically, what I'm saying is that, based on the starting zone, the player will be a Gilnean first, and a worgen second.

And there's nothing inherently wrong with that, because the Gilneans are awesome. However, like I said, the alliance races all have a very notable lack of direction, so the Gilnean-before-worgen thing won't be consistent at all. Particularly, after the starting zones, the worgen race seems to shift to a worgen-before-Gilnean mentality.

Well, sort of. Remember, the worgen have barely gotten any development in the game, so players who don't read the books and aren't familiar with vanilla won't actually recognize it as worgen mentality. Instead, it looks more like the Gilneans have randomly turned into furry night elves. After the Gilneas zone, there will only be six quest hubs where the worgen have a notable presence. There is farwatcher's glen, which is a night elf town. There is the shrine of goldrinn, which is a druid shrine dedicated to one of the night elf ancients. There is Talonbranch Glade, another night elf town. There's feathermoon stronghold, a night elf military outpost. There's Raven Hill, a Stormwind town. And finally, there's Durwich, which is the only actual Gilnean town. Yes, there is only one truly Gilnean city, and it's not only on the other side of the planet, but it's also still based entirely around druidism. The Gilnean identity that we fell in love with? Nowhere to be found.

Something you may be saying: That just sounds like the direction randomly switched, not that they don't have any. Well, that's indeed somewhat the case. However, the furry night elf worgen don't actually have any role in the story either. Mostly, they just stand there. Farwatcher's Glen seems to be missing a few quests, and the few quests that are there have no relevance to the questgivers being worgen. Same deal for feathermoon stronghold, where the worgen presence basically amounts to “oh, there's worgen sentinels now”. It's something, I guess, but not much. In the other cases, the worgen present don't actually represent a direction for the worgen as a whole. The worgen of talonbranch glade are actually transformed night elves, the cultists at the shrine of Goldrinn are never given any backstory, the worgen in Raven Hill are a small group of travelers and, like the worgen of Durwich, they're at the other side of the planet compared to the majority of their populace.

Actually, I'm still not sure where the majority of their populace is supposed to be living. The 'worgen district' in Darnassus consists of a single large tree. There's some other Gilneans in the town, but the majority are at the tree. So... do they all just live in a single tree without toilets, heating, running water, beds or any privacy whatsoever? Must be cramped in there. Is there an actual Gilnean district we're not seeing? Do the Gilneans actually live in the rest of Darnassus and do they just gather at the tree? I hate to draw a comparison with the goblins again, because I actually like it when the factions are handled differently, but the Gilneans did really need their own equivalent of Bilgewater Harbor.

So, long story short. I enjoyed both the goblin and Gilnean starter zones, the former more than the latter, though the massive difference in quality between the zone endings is almost enough to close the gap. However, when it actually came to the way they were represented in the world as a whole, I was incredibly disappointed. Next up, we'll be extending our gazes at either mount hyjal or the orcish zones, depending on which I finish writing first.