The world team over at Blizzard have a unique opportunity with Cataclysm. The vastness of Azeroth was arguably one of the selling points of World of Warcraft when it launched in 2004, but the starting story experience of its individual races and cultures was the true reason so many gamers were hooked. The quests that you undertook in the first 20 levels shaped not only your character but also your impressions of your people and your place in Azeroth society. But now with Cataclsym, the designers have a chance to revisit those old stories and, in some cases, give players a sense that time has passed for not only the players but also the rest of the world. Examining a few of the quests that you might experience in the reshaped zone of the Northern Barrens gives us a glimpse of the kinds of ongoing stories that Blizzard tells in Cataclysm.
The fact that the world has changed is apparent as soon as you travel to the Barrens in the western continent of Kalimdor and see the huge chasm of molten lava that flows through the once-pristine steppe. Besides a goblin trike zooming along the ridge with its diminutive green-skinned owner at the wheel, things are clearly different here, but it’s the characters that make the difference.
Back in original WoW, the early Barrens chat was filled with the cries of newbs desperate to find Mankrik’s wife. Mankrik was lonely orc in a tent by the side of the Gold Road south of the Crossroads. The married couple was beset by deadly Bristleback quillboars, and got separated in the fighting. Mankrik asks you to find his wife for him, but her lifeless body is all that remains. Enraged by his wife’s demise, Mankrik tells you kill as many of the quillboars as you can. “I’ve killed every pig man I’ve come across since, but my thirst for their blood is far from quenched,” he says.
In Cataclysm, Mankrik has taken residence near the caravans that have begun pushing forward into the Barrens, but he is still obsessed with revenge. Once you complete his quest, however, he thanks you for helping him recover from the loss of his wife. “I cannot say that my hatred will ever cease for the quillboar, but it is satiated for now. Now I must rebuild my life.” By allowing players to help a familiar character deal with his anger and lust for revenge in Cataclysm, the designers make you feel like you are an active part of the world. It’s a subtle shift from the static quests of WoW because it dramatizes another part of an ongoing story.
The alchemical experiments of the undead Forsaken were a large part of their flavor in vanilla WoW. There was a Forsaken questgiver in the Crossroads of the Barrens that tasked you with collecting samples of the mushrooms that have grown in the oases in the region. But in Cataclsym, when you take the samples to a Forsaken agent in Ratchet, an Orc operative stops you and confiscates the precious cargo. “What are you two conspiring?” the Orc asks accusingly.
Such development is at the heart of the unfolding story of Cataclysm. The Orc was sent by the new mistrustful warchief, Garrosh Hellscream, to spy on his so-called allies. In a cutscene shown in the second expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, a faction of Forsaken led by Grand Apothecary Putress fires poisonous gas on Alliance and Horde forces alike, decimating them. Hellscream is careful to prevent another Wrathgate scenario by denying his undead allies access to anything that can be used as a biological weapon. We are shown in Cataclysm that Hellscream is actively trying to stop such betrayals from occurring again and the player experiences that first hand through participating in this quest.
Storytelling like this shows many things. First, the events of the previous story told in Wrath have significance in the world; they are not just isolated quests or dungeons that have no bearing on the greater world. It also shows the fear and suspicion that the leadership of Garrosh Hellscream is engendering within the Horde. Not only has he cast the Trolls out of Orgrimmar, but he is openly mistrustful of the Undead as well. I’m not sure how the story of the Horde will unfold, but I love seeing seeds like this planted throughout all of the content. A newcomer to the game will be entertained by the quests, and veteran players will enjoy learning how relationships have changed.
Originally, the Alliance had a small presence in the Orc-lands of Kalimdor, but the humans are pressing forward in Cataclysm. South of Ratchet, a band of pirates under the command of Baron Longshore plowed the South Seas for booty, and a quest in early WoW sent you to cut off the brigand’s head. But now in Cataclysm, the Alliance have taken control of the area. Horde players are asked to kill Alliance marines just as they used to kill pirates, but the military presence hammers home the point that there is still a war being crafted.
Baron Longshore isn’t out of the picture though. He’s been captured, and sneaking up to Longshore reveals that he has one more card up his sleeve. If the player chooses to break Longshore’s chains, he reveals the location of the treasure that he stashed away before the Alliance captured him. I’m not going to give away what happens next beyond saying that you shouldn’t trust a pirate, but once again, the brilliant references to ongoing stories enhance the game’s storytelling.
These three quests in the Northern Barrens are only a handful of the stories that have gotten an update with the Cataclysm wrought by the great Deathwing’s emergence. All over Azeroth, so many new and different stories are being told in World of Warcraft that in many ways it may feel like a different game. A lot can change for people in six years, but until the patch that shattered the world of Azeroth is installed on your computer, there was little indication that anything had changed for many characters in Blizzard’s game. Now with Cataclysm, the designers at Blizzard have progressed the timeline throughout the whole world in order to tell exciting new stories that will entertain both new and old players alike. It’s made Azeroth feel a little bit more like a real, breathing place, instead of just a bunch of pixels.