But a location? All a place has to do is be there. It doesn't have to be realistic. And strangely, it doesn't even have to be likeable. Gamers thrill at dropped into poisonous dungeons, foreboding alien worlds, and sun-scorched, cannibal visions of the future. Super Metroid might be set on a decidedly miserable planet, but it's so atmospheric that it's impossible to finally escape from it without some attachment to it, gross ecosystem and all. Even Red Faction: Guerrilla managed an enjoyable sense of place, and that was a game about industrial facilities on Mars.
I'm not sure how much I ever liked Durotar, with its cracked earth and grumpy orc sentries, but that doesn't matter. I spent some important hours there, and it's familiar to me. Or at least, it was.
The changes mess with you from the very start. I remembered that the first quest in the orc proving grounds was to kill yourself some boars, but Durotar is now mobilizing for war. Those boars are now packed into fenced farming enclosures which double as training yards for newbies to get their feet (and weapons) wet. Killing my first few boars, I was trying not to think about the fact that I was going through all this again, or that I was having my hand held even tighter. Most of all I was trying not to think about the fact that this place that I had such vivid memories of was no longer how I remembered it.
As I pocketed another Splintered Tusk, a level 83 player came plunging out of the sky, astride an enormous drake. Another purpose of Cataclysm's world-twisting is to make the entirety of the original game's world accessible by flying mounts. This player landed right next to the boar pens and looked at me, gazing out from his nest of shiny weapons and armor. He was yet another anomaly in the world that I remembered; such powerful characters rarely alighted in Durotar.
He promptly took flight again, soaring off as quickly as he'd arrived, but my new character's contrast with his power took the wind out of my reverie. Grudgingly, I turned back to my work, this sea of idle boars. All the majesty that I remembered from this game and this place - the sense of adventure, the grandness of my quests. It couldn't have all been my imagination. Could it?
Hiking to the Horde capital of Orgrimmar, I found that it too was changed. I went about my business (and immediately got lost) with a stunned, fish-mouthed expression. It wasn't that I was saddened. Anyone who's seen their childhood bedroom gutted, or even emptied of furniture, will tell you that it's not simply a sad experience. It's something else, something not entirely unpleasant. Seeing these places change makes you realize your overwhelming connection to what they were before. It's fascinating. You feel your memory double-taking and making fevered corrections. "That's not how it used to be."
For a videogame to produce that emotion is a huge achievement, and at this point I hadn't even realized how much fun the guys at Blizzard were having with it. That happened next. After Orgrimmar, I travelled to the steep canyons of Thunder Ridge for a very different quest than had taken me there the first time.
The first time was all about heroism. Back in vanilla WoW as a Warrior, I'd come to slay the hardy thunder lizards that lived here, and, by returning with their scales, I'd prove myself and advance along the Path of Defense. I had this vivid image in my head of my old stubby orc running the huge creatures down, claustrophobic cliff faces on either side, taking swing after swing with his ridiculous two-handed sword.