There has been a lot of discussion lately about Blizzard’s obvious move towards more linear questing in Cataclysm. I thought I would give my take on the issue based on what I’ve experienced so far.
I’m actually thrilled about the new questing style. The main reason I enjoy the questing in Cataclysm is because it allows Blizzard to craft distinct and polished story arcs. My favorite quests in the pre-Shattering world were the long quest chains that provided a real story. These were the epic and memorable ones like the Legend of Stalvan, Darrowshire, or the Missing Diplomat. Blizzard has stuffed Cataclysm full of these stories, and every quest is oozing with lore. Yes, you will still have to kill X number of mobs, but there is a reason for it – you’re working to move the storyline along.
The rich quests combined with true terrain phasing allow you to truly affect the world around you in a way that’s never been possible in MMOs before. WOW has become more true to it’s RPG roots. Despite the guiding breadcrumbs through the zone, I don’t feel constrained by the “rails” at all – I can go off and do something other than questing at any time.
I do agree that it is an issue that you can’t replay the cinematics or pause them. I rarely re-read a chapter of a book or re-watch a scene of a movie (when I re-watch, I complete the whole thing, similar to playing an alt), but I understand that sometimes we get distracted by real life and miss out.
I’ve played games where it feels like you’re struggling against the game mechanics just to get through the story, and WOW isn’t like that. I love the synergy of learning to play your class, combined with a huge variety of quest types, interspersed with cinematics, and vehicle quests thrown in as fun mini-games. WOW has become more of what I fell in love with when I first started gaming. It has evolved far beyond the original style of MMOs begun by games like Everquest. I find that questing in Cataclysm feels more epic, more like what I’m doing matters.
I know that change is unsettling for people. Especially if they loved the game exactly the way it was. Unfortunately, WOW is always changing, and Blizzard continues to shake up their philosophies and designs. Gone are the disjointed quests that I click through without reading because I’m in a hurry to level. The leveling feels fast because I’m actually enjoying myself every step of the way.
WOW has never been a true sandbox game, as compared to EVE online (where most content is player-created and no goals are defined for you). In WOW there are various defined vertical progression paths, with gated content, whether it’s through professions, questing, pvp, achievement points, gear, or raiding. At level cap, WOW is certainly more of an open world, with many options for gameplay. Getting to level cap has been a bit more “open” in the past, with less breadcrumbs and guiding along through a zone, but I can’t say that I miss it. You had “options”, but it was a lot like the old talent trees – most of your choices weren’t meaningful. It was more the illusion of being open – you still had to do quests you didn’t like, and trudge through zones you hated. Does Hellfire Peninsula ring a bell to anyone? You actually have more true options in Cataclysm for leveling: in addition to questing you can level entirely through the dungeon finder, through PVP, through gathering professions, or archaeology.
If you’re looking for a sandbox game, WOW unfortunately doesn’t hit the mark – which is why it’s good there is competition in the MMO market. WOW also has never headed in the direction of games like Dragon Age or Bioshock – where the choices you make affect your gameplay. While I’d love to see a game like that succeed as an MMO, I don’t think it would be smart for Blizzard to change WOW in that way (maybe their new MMO?).
As far as repeatability goes, I’m sure that if you see a cinematic 10 times, you will get irritated. But very few quests are fun over and over – in the past, we usually didn’t read the quests again, just tried to get through them as quickly as possible. There are alternate ways to power-level your alts now (see the previous paragraph). The other thing is that while Blizzard doesn’t provide a lot of diverging paths in a single zone, you can often go to an alternate zone to experience an entirely different story.
I also think that while some people liked struggling to find the next quest hub in the pre-Shattering world, just as many of us hated it. To me, there is a big difference between exploring and getting lost. A lot of old-school gamers laud the days where games like Morrowind allowed you to basically do whatever you felt like, even to the point of breaking the game. I honestly think that sounds horrible. The learning curve is just too steep in those old games for me to even begin to enjoy them. I don’t have endless hours to wander – I want bite-sized chunks of polished story that I can experience. I find that sandbox games are intriguing, but without an obvious path forward, I get bored quickly. Perhaps I’m just not imaginative enough.
Do I think that there is still room to improve? Of course – but there always will be. I’d like to see more parallel questing for the same level range – ie. choices about what zone to go to, like Hyjal or Vashj’ir at every level. I’d love to see more side-quest content – fun subplots that are completely optional. The problem for Blizzard with adding this sort of thing in is simply time – is it worth their time/money to invest in side-quests, or should they focus more on end-game, dungeons, etc? I’m sure its an incredibly difficult balance. A lot of the fun side-quests that we discovered in the pre-shattering world were ones that Blizzard never even finished, like the Ravenholdt quests for rogues, or the pirate cove in Arathi Highlands. I suppose the incompleteness just added to their mystery though.
Small tangent here: It’s interesting that much of what Blizzard included as Cataclysm content are things that players have been wondering about for years. Blizzard has dispelled some of that mystery by actually finishing Azeroth. The Greymane Wall, Grim Batol, Hyjal, Uldum, the Maelstrom, etc. are all pieces of Azeroth that players have begged to see, and now we have them available to us. While the zones all seem spectacular to me, I’m sure its a bit of a let down for some players – the unknown is often more satisfying than the known.
The only other issue I’ve found is that its extremely easy to outlevel the content of the zone you’re working on – heirlooms, daily quests, gathering, dungeons, guild xp bonuses, etc. all contribute to this. I don’t really mind, as I’m in no rush to begin the normal level-cap heroic grind, but I know a lot of people feel like there is no point in questing once you reach 85. I know that I will see all of the content, whether its questing after I hit 85 or via an alt, so I’m not too worried. I’m not really even sure how Blizzard can solve it – its difficult to pace the questing due to the variety of ways that XP can be earned now. They don’t want to tune it such that a new player with no bonuses who is strictly questing would under-level the quests, so they have to go with the lowest common denominator.
Anyways, I’m extremely satisfied with Blizzard’s new questing strategy. I find the polished, linear story-telling to be very satisfying, and I don’t feel at all like I’m having my hand held – I feel the current of forward progression around me, but I’m not afraid to go off and do other things. When I did the Worgen starting area I spent quite a bit of time just strolling around and taking screenshots of the exquiste sets that Blizzard constructed. I’ve also explored parts of Azeroth that I never thought I would go back to due to Archaeology. I know there are also still plenty of fun things to discover that Blizzard doesn’t point out to you, like the rare camel mount that drops from the “camel-level” in Uldum, the rainbow generator in Feralas, or the rare stone drake Aeonaxx who you have to ride around Deepholm to kill.
It’s obvious to me that Blizzard has learned a lot over the past 6 years, and I’m confident that this is what the majority of their player base wanted. It seems to me that many people who are upset by the changes were extremely bored with the game as it was – I’m not sure that more of the same would have been well received. That’s not to say that you ought to enjoy the new design philosophy – if WOW no longer provides you with the experience you’re looking for, there are plenty of other games out there that might suit you.