Wednesday, 13 November 2013

World of Warcraft - Cataclysm - Mount Hyjal

And welcome once again to Ramses Reviews, this time featuring another good ol' warcraft review. Specifically, we're going to be taking a look at Mount Hyjal, crown jewel of the night elf civilization, and the site of the most legendary battle in the franchise.

The Summit of Hyjal
Before we talk about the zone, let's take a minute to talk about zone design. Some zones are designed to feel like an environment. The great plains of the barrens, the forests of Elwynn, the giant cave that is Deepholm. These zones give the player a wide-open space to move around in as he wishes, giving the feeling of a large and free world. Other zones are designed linearly, rather than wide-open, with only a few limited paths available to the player. If done well, this gives the zone a feeling of escalation, turning it into a single grand adventure as the true scope and shape of the zone slowly becomes clear. Icecrown, Storm Peaks and Blade's Edge Mountains are examples of this being done well. If done poorly, like in vanilla stonetalon, it will feel arbitrary and restricting, with long underdeveloped 'corridors' connecting unfulfilling globules of concentrated content. Mount Hyjal, sadly, fits into the latter category.

Whenever I enter this zone, I don't see an environment. I just see 'location designed for quests X through Y'. Even before I started over-analyzing video games, these kind of zones always took me out of my immersion. Which is a real damn shame, because the environment they created for mount hyjal is quite beautiful.

Sure, it's not the most breathtaking sight in the world, but it works at being this pretty, sorta fairy-ish environment, and it has this definite air of enchantment over everything. Which works really well to contrast it against the domains touched by the invading fire elementals.

Clean and crisp contrast. Good work, art team. Well, I think. I'll admit that I'm not exactly up to date with how blizzard organizes its design teams, so I'm not sure whether art asset design and zone design are two teams, or one. Because I do have some issues with the zone design.

Back in The Burning Crusade, we got our first look at Mount Hyjal in a Cavern of Time instance called The Battle of Mount Hyjal. While it wasn't exactly a good raid lorewise (really scaling down the scope of the battle, removing furbolg, goblin and dark trolls, badly translating the mechanics from that mission, not translating the NPCs well, etc.), it did give us a preview of what the zone looked like. Mount Hyjal copies most of the landscape design from the raid (which in turn took it from the unreleased Mount Hyjal zone that was supposed to be in vanilla), so there is a direct translation from that version to this one.

And yet, there are a lot of things missing from the zone, despite the situation being almost exactly the same. The alliance and horde military encampments, the largest of their kind seen in world of warcraft to date, are gone. Sure, they got destroyed in the battle of mount hyjal, but there is literally not a single trace left of them. I could kinda buy that, what with druidic magic absorbing the ruins or something. However, in their place, there are now suddenly ancient night elf shrines and holdings. Where the hell were they during the battle and how did they survive it? Actually, that's a question that I'm going to be asking a lot throughout the review.

Aside from that, there is also the issue of the night elf base. In the Battle of Mount Hyjal instance, the designers were clearly just winging it by this point, as it was far smaller than the alliance and horde bases, with large tracts of undeveloped land. Still, there was some evidence that the night elves had bothered fortifying, with a handful of buildings, ancients and iconic night elf units (minus keepers of the grove, faerie drakes, hippogryphs, chimaeras, treants, owls, etc, since, as I said, the designers were obviously just winging it by this point).

In the Mount Hyjal zone though, there's not even that. In the ten years since the battle of mount hyjal, knowing demons and arcane-addicted idiots drool at the very thought of the well of eternity, the night elves have rebuilt none of the defenses except a single token hunter's hall, located on the side furthest from the entrance. There are no towers, no glaive throwers, no druid trees, not even any ancients. The weak point of the entire planet, left completely undefended. Even better, the night elves did apparently construct some new fortifications... they're just further down the mountain, where they'd be little use even if they weren't already on fire. Throughout this zone, it's going to be hilarious just how completely incompetent the defense here is.

Luckily for the defenders, the attackers are even worse. In the introduction to this zone, we're carried in by Aronus, a green drake. Apparently, Deathwing's minions have started their assault on mount hyjal, and are trying to summon Ragnaros. By the time Aronus actually gets you to the zone though, the new fortifications I mentioned have already been destroyed, and Deathwing himself has arrived, completing the summoning ritual and calling forth Ragnaros.

Yes, Deathwing and Ragnaros, together, attacking mount hyjal! How can the defenders of mount hyjal possibly survive this? By doing absolutely nothing. Yup, Deathwing just flies away from the completely undefended Mount Hyjal for no reason, and Ragnaros will spend the entire zone doing absolutely nothing except for a single quest where the player confronts him. That's some brilliant writing right there.

Actually, the phrase "does absolutely nothing except for a single quest" is another one that's going to be showing up in this review a lot. For example, when you have seen this, Aronus carries you to the top of Mount Hyjal, where you report to Ysera, the green dragon aspect. Ysera is one of the most powerful creatures on Azeroth, as well as being the ruler of the emerald dream and having an entire army of dragonkin at her command. She will do absolutely nothing herself, serving only to give you quests.

Further down the mountain, we meet Malfurion, the first and most powerful of the night elf druids, who has recently started merging with his animal spirits. He is currently a contender for most powerful mortal on Azeroth. He will also do absolutely nothing, except for a single quest.

Instead, everything is left up the player. Sure, it usually is, but most zones at the very least pretend to have other people doing things. This zone doesn't give a damn about that. It's not exactly subtle about it either. Ysera outright says that while she's busy wasting time (okay, seeking answers from the emerald dream, which is pretty much the same thing), you're going to have to be one to defend the world tree. Mind you, this is the very first quest in the zone. She's really just dumping responsibility on the first guy she sees and running home.

Okay, so it's the players job to do everything. Job one: defend the world tree from the attacking lava elementals and twilight's hammer spies. Naturally, being weak and disorganized, the elementals have reached the summit of Mount Hyjal and are laying siege to the world tree itself. Having spent the last ten thousand years of history preparing to defend this tree, the night elves naturally aren't capable of fielding anything more than a bunch of guys with hammers.

But what about the other allies of nature, you ask? Well, Ysera is in the tree, and the green dragonflight is present, but they're not actually bothering defending the tree because of reasons. The faerie drakes are also present. It's around this time that we got a very crude and poorly executed retcon that the faerie drakes, chimaeras and mountain giants seen in warcraft III only joined with the night elf forces to help defend mount hyjal (despite, y'know, faerie drakes and mountain giants only being added in the expansion that took place after the battle there, and chimaeras never being shown as possessing any more than animal intelligence). However, since that retcon was done in this expansion, you'd think that that would mean we'd actually get to see those guys defend mount hyjal, like their entire purpose in the previous game has now been revealed to be, right?

HAH! Dream on, little reader. The mountain giants are sitting this battle out, chilling around in Azshara and Winterspring. Chimaeras are as ignored a species as ever. The only ones present are faerie drakes, because they actually live on the mountain. So they'd have to help, right? Well, only if you bribe them with candy, and then only to help find a single guy. Thanks for nothing there, you little freaks of nature.

So, the player, without any help from the so-called guardians of Hyjal, saves the well of eternity, and therefore, the world (though, given that the twilight's hammer was so incompetent that they never thought of approaching the well from the three undefended sides, I'm not sure the world was in much danger to begin with). Huzzah, medals for the player and on to the next... what do you mean, we've only done four quests? Man, am I even slower than usual today.

Fact is, the guardians of hyjal aren't just incompetent enough to have let enemy elementals within ten feet of the I WIN button, they are so incompement that they failed to do anything anywhere on the mountain and they desperately need the player to go solve EVERYTHING. I mean, that usually is the case to some degree, but here it's just ridiculous. Every single threat is too much for the people here to handle. We're no longer adventurers. We're a one man army that apparently surpasses the night elf empire, the green dragonflight and the cenarion circle at the same time. Yeah, this zone is pretty much the killing blow for the dignity of the warcraft III night elf faction.

Let's do a quick contrast with the battle for Wintergarde in the last expansion to demonstrate what I mean. There, the scourge fortress of Naxxramas assaulted the alliance base of Wintergarde, raising a massive army of undead from the old catacombs beneath the city. The entire lower half of the city has already been lost to the undead by the time the player arrives. Now, the situation in wintergarde and on hyjal is roughly the same for most of the questing, though the latter is obviously more large-scale. Yet, Wintergarde was one of the most memorable battles in the game, and Mount Hyjal is hilariously silly. What did the former do right that the latter do wrong?

1. Wintergarde is an actual siegeIn Wintergarde, the defenders were behind thick fortress walls, entrances thoroughly guarded. This fortress served as a large safe haven, giving the defenders a place to store troops, supplies, siege weapons, prisoners, etc. In addition, it gave the defenders some wiggle room. Had the scourge broken through the outer perimeter, the defenders could have tried to drive the invaders back, set up a new defense perimeter slightly further into the fortress, or even retreated into the buildings themselves. Had the player not shown up, the defenders may not have been able to achieve victory, but they would have held out for quite a while.
In Mount Hyjal on the other hand, there are no defensive fortifications whatsoever. No towers, no real fortress-like structures and certainly no walls. I may have mocked the fact that the only thing defending the world tree was a single hunter's hall, but that's actually one of the largest and most elaborate defensive structures in the zone. What does the average night elf base look like?

That's right, it's a bunch of ruins surrounded by pretty flowers. That's seriously what you're going for? These bases have no room for retreat, manuevring, no place to store resources or extra soldiers. The second the enemy breaks through your line, that's it. There is no sense that the guys here could have hanged on for even a few hours had the player not arrived.

2. Wintergarde was an organized battle
In Wintergarde, there was a clear sense of direction for the ongoing fight. A handful of guards held the defensive perimeter. Small strike teams infiltrated the enemy compound with specific tasks. Other soldiers were held back inside the base, resting, preparing for an attack, etc. Smiths were forging weapons, generals were forging plans, a few individuals pursued other plans of their own. This didn't just go for the alliance base either, as the scourge did the same thing in their own base.
In Hyjal, everybody is either fighting for their lives, or doing absolutely nothing. There are no soldiers back in the base because, well, you see the entirety of the base in the picture above. Every single soldier is on the battlefield. Had this been an actual fight, it should have been over in a manner of minutes. Commanders do exist (you see malfurion and some random tauren in the picture above), but they don't do anything. Malfurion isn't making plans, he isn't observing the enemy, he isn't giving orders. He's just standing there, probably wishing he'd brought a book to pass the time. Strike teams have the same problem. They're there, but they aren't actually doing anything, except for maybe one or two guards. The majority of the team just stands there dead-eyed and slack-jawed, without any greater purpose in the world than serving as a quest dispenser.

3. The twilight's hammer are no scourge
The scourge and the twilight's hammer are both forces based around the usage of dark magics, occultism and the service of rather poorly developed dark lords. However, what differentiates the scourge from the twilight's hammer is that the former is also a war machine. Massive mines and forges churning out an endless stream of horrid, cursed weaponry. Great fortresses dotting the landscape, armies of thousands of soldiers ready to strike. Siege weaponry and massive flesh giants shattering walls as the please. Subservient states offering the service of their best and brightest. Massive flying fortresses to carry the undead hordes into battle. Even if you removed all the advantages undeath gave the scourge, they could still have matched the alliance and horde in battle by virtue of being a true army.
The twilight's hammer on the other hand, are a cult. They are deadly sorcerors and assassins, aided in battle by creatures summoned from beyond this world. They are very much not an army. As such, it's kinda silly that they keep trying to act as if they're an army.
And that's if you buy into what the twilight's hammer were supposed to be. What they actually are (even before cataclysm) is saturday morning cartoon villains. Every time we see them, they've come up with a different crazy plot that will totally win them the day and which, after we beat them, will never be used again. They've got poorly defined motivations, a bunch of anonymous mooks that have no reason existing and are in no way to be taken seriously as a villain. The only thing they're missing is the memorable characters, meaning that they don't even have the only good part of being saturday morning cartoon villains down. Suddenly having that silly villain waltz over a supposedly well-organized and serious army without any of their usual crazy schemes is just wrong.

Okay, the battles are pretty bad. How about the story? Well, it's kinda lazy. Ysera sends you to a few different night elf bases spread across the mountainside to help out with the trouble. The first is Malfurion's 'base', where his 'army' is fighting with Baron Geddon (seen previously in the Molten Core)'s 'army'. Of course, neither Malfurion nor Geddon do anything except for a single quest. In a demonstration of the saturday morning cartoon principles employed by the twilight's hammer, they've bonded armies of small elementals together into a few massive ones, to act as super-heavy troops that counter the night elf ancients. It's a cool idea, which makes a lot of sense in a twilight army. Of course, that means we never see them again. Seriously guys, what the hell happened in-between the last expansion and this one? There, you had plot threads, even small and obscure ones, that spanned the entire continent.

The player also helps out Alysra of the green dragonflight, who is apparently commanding the green dragonflight forces here. Which amazes me, because there are no green dragons other then her present. It's really weird; both the faction description and the zone make a big deal about how the guardians of hyjal is the united force of the cenarion circle and the emerald dragonflight, but that dragonflight is almost completely absent from the zone itself. Where are the flights of drakes? The armies of drakonids and dragonkin? The great armies of the emerald dream? Nowhere, because that would be conductive to the setting and story.

It turns out that the armies of the twilight's hammer aren't out to defeat the night elf army here at all, but are trying to retrieve Fandral Staghelm, the old arch druid of the night elves who went a little evil in the Stormrage novel. Considering that they only want Fandral Staghelm to help their armies reach the world tree, and the only thing standing between them and the world tree is that one night elf army, this makes absolutely no sense, but whatever.

So, the player goes to help out the wardens. Now, you may be noticing that this plot structure of going past all the leaders and assisting them is basically the same as the part of Deepholm with the stone lords, which I really liked. So why am I being so harsh on it here? Well, in Deepholm, we actually got to know the stone lords and how their factions worked and differed from one another. The characters had different personalities, had you go on different adventures, and gave you a bit of an insight in different aspects of earth elemental culture. Basically, it was your chance to get to acclimated to the actual world of warcraft. In Mount Hyjal on the other hand, the quests focus entirely on fighting the twilight's hammer, and it doesn't even really develop them. We don't get any insight into the world and we don't get any insight into the characters. Which, considering we've been waiting for ages to get see more of the wardens, the green dragonflight and all the other factions we encounter in this zone, is more than a little frustrating.

The Return
After escorting Fandral to Alysra, who takes him to the emerald dream, we return to Ysera, who gives us our next set of instructions. Apparently, the ancient guardians are returning. Now, let's be fair. The idea that the dead ancient guardians were simply banished back to the emerald dream on death and could, in time, return to Azeroth is one that has been seeded for a very long time. On the other hand, considering that this plot has been seeded for several years by this point, are you sure you want to waste it on a single zone in an expansion that is in no way related to the ancient guardians or the emerald dream? Especially if you don't have anything for those guardians to do? Any of these beings should have been able to single-handedly turn the battle, yet they never do anything, except for a single quest. You could cut the ancient guardians out of the plot pretty much entirely, and all you'd need to to do is replace their single-quest appearance by some artifact of theirs. Given that the ancient guardians went toe-to-toe with the strongest of the legion, and they're now facing some fire elementals that don't appear to be particularly strong, that would make a lot more sense storywise as well.

Plus, the explanation for how they're coming back is weak and a bit inconsistent. Ysera says that she learned that they're coming back because the barrier between dimensions was weakened, but that doesn't make any sense. It was the barrier between the elemental realm and the material plane that was weakened. Of course, this would support my long-standing theory that the emerald dream is the elemental plane of life, but even then it doesn't make sense. There never was any real barrier between the emerald dream and the material plane, at least not in the same sense as with the elemental plane. People hop back between the emerald dream and Azeroth (also, somehow, outland) all the time. There's no less than four wide-open gates between the planes, green dragons have the ability to freely shift between them and druids can just drop into a coma any given time they want to walk through the dream. Most importantly, the living ancient guardians are able to freely travel between the emerald dream and the material plane, so the problem clearly isn't getting from one plane to the other.

In addition, the resurrections themselves are all wildly different from one another, and don't really seem to fit Ysera's explanation. The first is Goldrinn, the wolf ancient that empowered Varian. He's technically already been resurrected, with the twilight hammer summoning a corrupted version of him called lycanthoth. First of all, that name is awesome. Second, this entire principle of corrupted ancients is never really explained, and they don't really seem as impressive in battle as you'd think. The player simply beats up his corrupted worgen (which only appear here, because, again, the twilight's hammer are saturday morning cartoon villains and can't have any influence of their plans extend beyond a single episode), and then lycanthoth himself, goldrinn being reborn immediately afterwards. He slaps his followers (which includes a lot of non-gilnean humans and two orcs, making me feel like I missed a bit of lore. Aren't these guys druids?) free and proceeds to do absolutely nothing for the rest of the zone until the player calls for him by the end. Again, what's the point of rezzing the guy?

After Goldrinn, it's Aviana's turn. Since the twilight's hammer can't repeat their plot because of reasons, it's instead about some weird prophecy, with Aviana being reborn in egg form. However, the twilight hammer steals the egg and the player has to get it back with the help of the druids of the talon. Wait, weren't those guys mentioned as dissolved in TBC? Ah well, the entire "merging all druid orders into one" thing was stupid anyway. At least these quests are kinda tied to the druids of the talon and aviana, so they aren't as bad as the other examples (plus, we get the memorable personality of Thisalee Crow), but you still don't really get a feel for what the druids of the talon are and how they tie into the world. Plus, the druids still don't do anything (not even a badly executed perpetual battle) until you call for them. Hell, the quest actually points out that they refuse to do it by themselves. They're really completely helpless without you. With the egg secure, Aviana is reborn... and will proceed to do absolutely nothing until you call for her.

During this time, the player also makes two brief excursions into the elemental plane. To be precise, the firelands. As plots for two of their episodes, the hammer cultists have started breeding evil fire buzzards and forging evil cursed weaponry in the firelands, and the player uses their portal to access the facilities and destroy them. And, just to repeat myself until I get boring, we never see either of these again. Actually a bit of a shame. Evil Fire Buzzards have the potential to be iconic.

After that, we move on to the shrine of aessina. The story here briefly stops making sense. The shrine of Aessina is further down the mountain than the shrine of Goldrinn, lying on the same path to the top. We know that the twilight's hammer armies used that path, since the shrine of goldrinn was overrun, and twilight supply slaves (who are all orcs and jungle trolls for some reason) carry supplies from there to the battle near the top. However, when you are sent to the shrine of aessina, everyone acts as if the twilight and fire armies have only just reached the shrine. The entire shrine is still intact (and has hilariously inadequate as a base as any other), with everyone concerned about the newly arrived elementals.

Actually, forget the twilight's hammer. Where the hell was this shrine back during the battle of mount hyjal? It's in the same spot as the alliance base was in that raid. You'd think that'd deserve at least a little mention. At least, the shrine of Goldrinn was abandoned during that time period, so it'd make some sense that it didn't have any effect. In addition, where the hell was Aessina during the battle of Mount Hyjal anyway? She not only survived the war of the ancients, but we've also been given every indication that she's been active in night elf territory since, multiple shrines dedicated to her, and even a new species in the form of the grell. The same goes for Tortolla, who's slightly further down the mountain, and who we help out after ridding the world of the nasty fire elementals near the shrine of aessina and saving the cute widdle cwitters.

Like with Goldrinn earlier, the twilight's hammer is making a dark copy of Tortolla. However, like you see when a saturday morning cartoon villain finally reuses a plot, all the details have changed. Unlike Goldrinn, Tortolla was never dead, so they haven't actually resurrected a false version or whatever the hell backstory of Lycanthoth was supposed to be, but they're instead draining Tortolla (considering all he resisted during the war of the ancients, I'm not quite sure how they actually managed to capture him though). His dark counterpart, Nemesis (also a cool name, though a bit generic) is also notably a lot more powerful. You aren't actually able to defeat him when you first see him, instead you first free Tortolla. With help of Tortie's adorable little turtle babies, you chase Nemesis into the firelands and slay him, restoring Tortolla to full strength.

Aessina has also come to Mount Hyjal by now, casting a spell to restore a lot of the damage caused by the fire elementals. The spell is actually really cool with Aessina giving an awesome speech that really taps into the power and mystery that is supposed to be linked to the ancient guardians, yet is absent from the rest of the zone. Very impressive. Though it does make me wonder about Aessina's exact position in the pantheon of the ancient guardians, since she seems to place herself above them. If the emerald dream is the elemental realm of life, would that make her its lord? I'm not saying yes, I'm just saying it makes perfect sense.

Infiltrating the Twilight's Ha... wait
What do you mean the ancient guardians segment is already over? Okay, Cenarius and Malorne get resurrected later on, but what about the rest? Where are Ursoc and Ursol? Agamaggan? Omen? All the unnamed ones? Where are the other druid orders?

Well, the answer to that all comes back to the single big problem of the zone: Mount Hyjal contains an entire expansion's worth of story. The thing it is trying to do is basically too big for an entire zone. The story here is basically the culmination of the long vigil, a gathering of all the guardians of mount hyjal both past and present to not only ward off an attack from the firelands, but to launch a devestating attack into the realm of the firelord himself and end his threat for good. The problem is that there's simply too many defenders of hyjal. You've got all the different ancient guardians, the druid orders, the sentinels, the wardens, the dryads, the keepers of the grove, the priestesses of elune, the furbolg, all the different types of ancients, the stone giants and three (bronze, red, green) of the dragonflights. And, frankly, that's being a bit stingy. Freyr, the blue dragonflight, the worgen, the grell and the nymphs of northrend should probably be included as well. Remember, this isn't like in warcraft III, where the world tree was attacked while most of its guardians were still sleeping. This is the night elves primed and ready for war, expecting an attack, without any emerald nightmare preventing people from coming to their aid. There is no reason for anyone not to be here.

However, you simply can't fit all those people in a single zone. I've mocked the hilariously tiny and inadequate night elf bases throughout this review, but had they been adequately sized, there simply wouldn't have been enough room left for any questing content. Even with the sub-minimal (not a word I get to use very often) amount of factions present, military bases as tiny ruins and quests shoved into an extra-dimensional realm, the zone design still gets cramped at times (though that isn't helped by the designers not utilizing the various nooks and crannies of the zone). Even if this concept had had an entire expansion devoted to it, you'd probably still have to make some painful choices about what to put in. A single zone in an expansion that's not related to this? Yeah, that's not going to work out. However, even if we were to accept that, it doesn't excuse things like this:

That's the night elf army facing the fire elemental legions near the shrine of Aessina. All of it. You sure you don't wanna stick some dryads in there, designers? Some ancients? Maybe another sentinel or forty? Because this is kinda pathetic.

And there's another thing. We're spending this entire zone helping out local leaders. We've helped out the watchers, the wardens, the druids of the talon, the cenarion forces under Malfurion, the emerald dragonflight and the cults of Aessina, Malorne and Goldrinn. Shouldn't we have an army following us as we progress? I'm almost wondering if the original plan was to do that in phasing, since the army actually does seem to be written into the plot. We weaken the twilight's hammer army near the top of the mountain, and destroy the bases that are providing them with supplies. This should allow Malfurion's forces to push all the way down the mountain... until they are stopped at the shrine of Aessina in the exact spot that pathetic lonely saber-rider is occupying in the picture above. There, they would be in a stalemate with the fire elemental armies, the player preventing the hammer from summoning Pero'tharn, who would be able to break that stalemate. Still, the fire elemental armies keep pouring forth, so the cenarion armies can't advance. However, the player goes further down the mountain and strikes at the flamewake, preventing the hammer from fully empowering Nemesis and giving Aessina the power to perform her super-cure miracle, which drives out the fire elementals and allows the cenarion armies to advance. And where would they end up?

That's right, the next area with a hilariously tiny night elf detachment. There, the army would be stopped by the twilight's hammer forces at the scorched plain, the remnants of the original night elf base that was destroyed before we even got here. The player assists the remaining wardens (who have nothing to do with the watcher wardens, but appear to be a cenarion counterpart to the sentinels. At least, that's my guess. It would be nice if the zone occasionally stated its own lore), turning the battle there in their favor. After that, the player goes into the firelands for a few quests to deal with Nemesis, which would give the army a nice chance to finish off the remaining twilight forces in the scorched plain off-screen.

You not only wouldn't need to alter a single quest in any way for this to work, but a lot of the quests would actually make more sense if there was an advancing night elf army. Why are people acting like the enemy armies at the shrine of Aessina are a new thing? Because the fire elemental armies there only came to counter the newly arrived cenarion forces. Why are the twilights holding back their armies while summoning Pero'tharn and empowering Nemesis? Because there is an army in their way and they need that extra little bit to push through it. Most importantly, you spend the final leg of the zone securing a leader to lead the army, which is kinda silly if there is no army.

Infiltrating the Twilight's Hammer
You return to Ysera, who says that there is only one person on the planet who has shown himself able to lead an army of mortals and demi-gods alike. A general of ten thousand years, whose experiences date back to the war of the ancients. SHANDRIS FEATHERMOON! Nah, just kidding, that would allow a female character to act independently. Instead, it's Jarod Shadowsong, which makes no sense. Okay, yeah, he led the night elf/ancient armies during the war of the ancients, but a few things have changed since then:
1. Jarod deliberately faded into the background to allow the new night elf government to take full control of its people. He doesn't want to lead the army, and instead left that duty to the sentinels.
2. While Jarod was the perfect neutral commander during the war of the ancients, that wasn't the case afterwards. In particular, he grew disenfranchised with the druids, who he thought were more concerned with the forests than with their own people (which is actually pretty damn accurate). This actually went so far that he went on a self-imposed exile that lasted several thousand years. Now he's suddenly decided as the perfect guy to lead the exact same people who caused him to abandon his society altogether.
3. The army here is nothing like in the war of the ancients. There, the defending armies were actually divided between multiple groups that had trouble working together. The tauren, the earthen, the night elf rebels, the ancient guardians. Their leadership was divided, and the only person in a position to lead them as a united force was Jarod. However, here, the forces are already united. The night elves and the tauren are a completely integrated army, having dedicated themselves to following the teachings of the ancient guardians and Ysera. There is no need for a leader that unites the disparate groups, because there are none.
4. Jarod Shadowsong hasn't led a battle in ten thousand years. The guy was pretty much done with fighting by the end of the war of the ancients, and has only served as a civil administrator since. After ten thousand years, there is a good chance he's more than a little rusty, and he has no experience with modern threats.

What makes it even sillier is that Jarod Shadowsong isn't even available. He's been kidnapped by the twilight's hammer. Apparently, they also thought only Jarod could lead the defense against them... which is why they thought only Malfurion could lead the defense against them in Darkshore? Yeah, that plot point is pretty much dropped entirely. Also, I'm a bit confused about how they got their hands on Jarod. Last we saw, he was the commander of the new watchers in Darnassus (which of course aren't seen in this expansion at all). That's not exactly an easy place for the twilight's hammer to infiltrate.

To get Jarod back, the player has to infiltrate the twilight's hammer. When I first saw this, I was very excited, because it would mean we finally get to learn more about the hammer. What drives an individual to want to annihilate everything. How its armies are organized. What its philosophies are. How its people live.

Unfortunately, this isn't Mists of Pandaria, so we don't actually learn that. We get almost no insight on the nature and motivations of the twilights hammer. Most of the questline is instead devoted to silliness, though thankfully not to the same painful degree as Uldum. The few aspects that we do learn don't seem to make much sense in the greater scheme of things either. For example, if twilight training is so brutal that only a handful of recruits make it to even the lowest rungs, where does their massive army come from? The members of the hammer don't really seem to be all-hating or nihilistic either, so I don't get why they wanna blow up the planet.

However, we do finally learn a single interesting thing about the twilight's hammer, and one that makes sense to boot. Namely, there is something of a divide between all the new-fangled modern cultists, and the old guard of ogres. Good idea, and one that makes sense considering how much the hammer changed in a short period of time. It's also one of the few ideas that's consistent throughout the expansion, with ogres almost always having bases or roles of their own. Though I do have to wonder why this old guard solely consists of ogres, and not some of the old orc members as well. Still, considering the rest of the expansion, that's a minor issue.

Eventually, the player manages to incite a war between the ogres and non-ogres, which you use as cover to take back Jarod, taking him to a nearby portal into the emerald dream. We finally get some dragonflight presence, with Ysera and three drakes opening the portal to let Cenarius through. You, riding one of the drakes (which reminds me, the guardians of hyjal rep really should have a green drake mount), hold off the twilight's hammer long enough for old mossy-locks to be summoned. With Cenarius on their side, the rest of the cenarion army follows. Yes, I said army.

Not exactly anything to write home about (seriously, where's the diversity?), but at least it's a start.

Or it would have been, had the army actually done anything. No, instead they just sit on that one island, until the one quest where you call for them. Also, you may notice that the ancient guardians, except Cenarius, aren't on the island. Apparently, they're doing their own thing (which, as far as I've been able to figure out, means that they're doing nothing until you call for them). What exactly was the point of getting Shadowsong to lead the armies again?

And it's finally time for the all the one quests where you call for the people who don't do anything. The cenarion armies and Goldrinn help you take down Azralon the Gatekeeper, the gatekeeper of the large portal to the firelands found here. And no, I don't mean they help you with the assault ot reach Azralon. They only help you fight the single NPC. The entire rest of the twilight army is left up to the player. And, of course, the one time the army does something, Jarod Shadowsong doesn't even show up. Really glad we wasted twenty quests on saving you. It's not like every single other aspect of the zone could have used more development or anything. Aviana and Aronus help you against Desperonia, the first viable broodmother in the twilight dragonflight. Tortolla helps you against King Moltron, monarch of the magma giants. And Aessina and Ysera can apparently just suck it, since they don't get to do anything. Again, there is this weird thing about the female characters not doing anything. Even Aviana didn't engage in the fighting, just hovering nearby which caused some nasty affect that aggravated damage.

We go through the final flamegate in the zone, to confront Ragnaros in the firelands, alongside Cenarius, Hamuul and Malfurion. It's actually a really well-executed battle, with cool voice acting and interesting mechanics and it's very satisfying to face a raid boss alongside some of the strongest characters in WoW, finally killing that bastard for good.

Wait, what? What do you mean we've driven him back to the firelands? This is the firelands. He dies here, he dies foreve... what do you mean this isn't the firelands? I've been through these flamegates before. They lead to the firelands. That's why they're called flamegates. The first one was used to access a place called the firelands forgeworks, the second to access a place called the firelands hatchery and in the third one, the guy at the entrance explicitly said that we're in the firelands. This place looks no difference from any of those. If anything, it looks a little more flamey.

Apparently, either the encounter design team, or the environment design team missed a memo in this regard. Remember, the opening of the quest had Deathwing summon Ragnaros into our world. It was what raised the stakes. The fact that we went through a flamegate to fight Ragnaros didn't make any sense in the first place. We should have fought him in the big Azeroth-based fire fortress. The fact that such a blatant error made it into the game is just saddening, especially since it's supposed to be the big climax of the zone.

General Thoughts
We've already covered the central problem of the zone, but I do have another observation to make; As you may have noticed, this is a fairly self-contained story. Ragnaros' forces don't show up in an organized fashion anywhere else in the expansion and the way the Twilight's Hammer is active in this zone outright contradicts the story for the Twilight Highlands. It's like this zone is from an entirely different expansion, awkwardly shoved into Cataclysm and having one of its main villains replaced by the twilight's hammer. And it's not like this is the only zone with that problem.

Deepholm revolved around the shattered worldstone, which could have been done by any villain (especially since all the material before this hinted that Deathwing was in Grim Batol, not Deepholm). Al'akir barely appeared in Uldum, the conflict between the Ramkahen and the Neferset predated the coming of Deathwing and the Harrison Jones storyline would actually make more sense if Schnottz was only working for himself. Kezan and the Lost Isles weren't even supposed to feature Deathwing in the original plans, and the cataclysm really didn't end up being that significant to Gilneas (had there been no earthquakes, the forsaken would probably still have driven the gilneans off to Stormglen). Vashj'ir, which we haven't looked at yet, has a story so insignificant to the overall expansion that they didn't even bother finishing it. Only the Twilight Highlands will end up fitting into the expansion. The others simply don't belong in it. They're from three or four entirely different ones. Just for funzies, I threw in my own example of such an expansion in the addendum.

It's not just the fact that the zones are unrelated that gives it that feeling though. It's also that most zones feel like they're continuations of something. In Vashj'ir, the zone seems to assume that we would already know why the earthen ring was there, despite us never getting such an explanation in-game. Last time we saw Thrall before Deepholm, he was stuck on an island without a ship and leading a small squadron of orcs. Now he's suddenly the leader of the earthen ring, and standing on a bunch of isolated rocks with nobundo and that tauren guy we never remember. Did we miss anything in-between? Mount Hyjal is probably the worst in this regard, with about a dozen moments where I just feel like I've somehow skipped over a piece of lore.

Finally, there's the ending. Cataclysm, especially the horde-alliance war, seems to be built around not having a sequel. By the end of the expansion, there are no major threats left active on the planet. Everybody in the horde wants Garrosh gone, everybody outside the horde wants Garrosh and Sylvanas gone and Thrall has nothing stopping him from just going back and taking the mantle of warchief again (with crazy world shaman powers, four dragonflights, the tauren and the jungle trolls on his side if anyone raises a fuss). And really, do you think he's going to be kind against the people who developed weaponry to exterminate everyone, used the cataclysm to commit untold amounts of slaughter and poisoned the land? Especially since he's besties with the druids and the faction that allied with those slaughtered folks now? Yeah, from all appearances, this expansion should end with Thrall getting back his throne, the forsaken getting labeled as 'not our problem' by the rest of the horde, Thrall and Furion doing their healing ritual on the world tree and the wailing caverns, and all the factions in the world becoming one happy alliance. Except the forsaken of course.

Really, most of the problems of cataclysm make a lot more sense if you assume it was the last expansion of WoW. Getting rid of Deathwing, the infinite dragonflight, the elemental lords and doing the war of the ancients in a single expansion? Well, players always wanted to participate in those fights, and this is the last chance we could do it. Same goes for seeing Uldum, Mount Hyjal and the Elemental Realms. Perfect set-up for a long-term peace? Means we're free to do a timeskip for the next installment of warcraft. Quest design that's inconsistent, sloppy and buggy? Hell, it's our last expansion, let's just play around with the system. I could almost respect Cataclysm as the last expansion to world of warcraft.

Of course, Cataclysm isn't the last expansion, so what the hell were they thinking?

Addendum 1
The nightmare of the depths
The defenders of Azeroth have been victorious over the mighty Lich King, though the cost has been great. Tens of thousands of soldiers lie dead on the battlefields of Northrend, and relations between the horde and the alliance have been shattered. However, from the depths of the ocean rises a new threat. Azshara has used the distractions of the legion and the scourge to strengthen her hold over the south seas, and now turns her eyes towards the rest of the world.
Level limit raised to 85
New races:
Goblins – With their power over the oceans, the naga have struck against the goblin homeland of Kezan, using dark magics to make mount Kajaro erupt. Only a handfull of goblin enclaves survive, spread over the south seas. Seeking protection against their ancient trading rivals, Kul Tiras, these goblins have joined the horde, lending their technological and alchemical mastery to its war machine.
Merfolk – The human kingdom of Kul Tiras' mighty navies were among the first targets of Queen Azshara, as she sent endless armies of her serpent-men to crush the kingdom. The humans, outnumbered and cornered, turned to the ancient titan machinery found beneath their island kingdom, allowing them to transform into the long-extinct merfolk. Now, they have joined the alliance, seeking to better understand their new form with the aid of the explorers' league and to take the fight to the naga.
As both of these races join the alliance and the horde during the events of The Burning Crusade, several new questgivers have been added to earliers quest hubs.
New zones:
Bilgewater Harbor (1-6): Phased version of Kezan, used as the goblin starting zone. Note: takes place near the beginning of the Burning Crusade.
Lost Isles (7-12): Fleeing from Kezan, one troupe of goblins crashes into uncharted isles. Natives, naga and a tirasian expedition beset them, and internal conflict drives them apart. However, with help from the player and the orcish warchief, they are able to overcome this, and establish a new city for themselves. Note: takes place near the beginning of The Burning Crusade.
Boralus (1-6): Phased version of Kul Tiras, used as the merfolk starting zone. Note: takes place near the beginning of The Burning Crusade.
Kul Tiras (7-15): The newly reborn merfolk, yet to gain control over their transformation, have sent messengers to call for the aid of the alliance. Until that help can arrive, the tirasians are forced to fight a desperate battle for survival, the player at the front lines. When help from Soutshore and Menethil Harbor arrives, the assembled alliance armies manage to retake Boralus from the attacking Naga, restoring the tirasian capital and using the recaptured titan machine to give the new merfolk control over their transformation (which, yes, is a blatant copout to have the tails work with mounts). Note: takes place near the beginning of The Burning Crusade.
The Undermine (80-82): While the surface of Kezan has been turned to ash, foul magics protected the undermine. Here, the naga have enslaved goblin alchemists, using them to perform twisted experiments on their kin. The cenarion circle and the earthen ring, sensing the nagas' defilement of nature, both send expeditions to stop them. They are later joined by the goblins, aided by forsaken, and the gnomes, aided by draenei, the former seeking to free their remaining brethren and recover the alchemical formulas of the tinkers' union, the latter seeking to steal goblin technology and smite the demons summoned by goblin warlocks to serve as expendable soldiers and cheap labors.
Vashj'ir (80-82): As the human and orc fleets clash over the isle of Balor, the naga ambush them from below, dragging their ships into the depths. It is up to the player and a small group of other survivors to free their people from the ocean floor and stop the naga plans.
The Broken Isles (81-83): As the threat of the naga becomes clear, both the horde and the alliance seek more information on the nature of the threat. Jaina Proudmoore and Grand Magister Rommath both launch expeditions to investigate the ancient library of Izal-Shurah, hoping to uncover the secrets of the highborne. The night elves have a presence in this zone as well, looking to retake their ancient city. The forsaken seek to recruit the undead remnants of the stormreaver, twilight's hammer and blackrock clans.
Tel Abim (82-84): An old tirasian colony, famed for its banana export. Having stolen several titan devices during their raid on Boralus, the naga started experimenting with these on the people of Tel Abim, hoping to turn them into an army of loyal merfolk. Tirasians seek to free their oppressed kin and recover the stolen titan artifacts, in which they are aided by the explorers' league. The goblins and orcs of the horde are trying to take the island for themselves, because of its tactical and material value.
Plunder Isle (83-84): Plunder Isle is the home of the southsea freebooters, legendary pirates whose fleets are feared accross the face of the planet. Now, their home lies under siege from the naga, and the freebooters seek the aid of mercenaries. Treasure, fame and even territory awaits those who choose to aid the freebooters.
Zandalar (84-85): The isle of Zandalar is torn in a civil war. While the majority of the race still serves king Rastakhan, a small cult of naga worshippers has taken to forcibly transforming zandalari in naga-like creatures themselves. With their island slowly falling to this curse, two more hidden zandalari cults have called on outside aid. The traditionalists, who seek a return to more tribal ways, have called upon the help of the darkspear trolls of the horde. The luminists, an old cult of moonshippers that started among the dark trolls, have called upon the night elves of the alliance.
The Maelstrom (83-85): Their new undersea fleets prepared, the horde and the alliance turn their eye towards Nazjatar itself. A temporary cease-fire in place, both forces seek to destroy the dark queen of the naga and shatter her remaining strongholds. The alliance arrives by means of a gnomish submarine fleet, with merfolk and druids of the flipper acting as vanguards. The horde arrives by means of giant turtles, with goblin divers and tauren wavebinders acting as the vanguards.
Tomb of Sargeras: In this ancient highborne vault lies the shattered body of Sargeras, killed by Aegwynn when he tried to enter this world through an avatar. Horrors, both ancient and recent, stalk these forgotten halls, feeding on the energies of any who dare enter. However, the tomb is also a place of untold treasures. And it seems that the naga have gotten that impression as well.
Palace of Rastakhan: The naga worshippers have made their final push, infiltrating the palace of Rastakhan himself. It is up to the traditionalists, the luminists and their allies to stop nagified zandalari.
The Abyssal Maw (4.1): Queen Azshara and her forces invade the abyssal maw, looking to enslave great Neptulon himself. It is up to the players to fight their way through the elemental plane of water and stop Azshara's forces.
Nyalotha (4.2): With the horde and the alliance lying waste to her armies, Azshara turns to darker and darker secrets, opening the ancient tomb of Nyalotha to unleash its horrors on the alliance and horde forces.

Heart of Nazjatar (4.3): Finally, the players move against Nazjatar, hoping to end the reign of the dark queen Azshara forever