Everything is in place. A platoon of soldiers stands side by side in the snow, their weapons at the ready. A host of helicopters hover overhead, ready to deliver their explosive payloads to the city ahead. Off to one side, the armada of giant spider robot things whirs in place and belches smoke into the air.

This is Gnomish Warfare 101: A battle just isn’t a battle until you’ve cracked into the giant spider robot things.

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I’m right at the outset of one of World of Warcraft‘s pre-expansion world events – the retaking of Gnomeregan, the fallen capital of the gnomes. After more than a year away from the game, I’ve made a point of reactivating my account just to have a hand in the retaking of this city. But Gnomeregan is no normal city. It’s a mechanical mecca of spinning cogs and whirring gears, a futuristic city of untold technological promise. A city that, if I had to be perfectly honest with myself, I secretly despise.

How did I end up here? Like everyone subjected to the steady hum of Blizzard’s hype machine, I had a chance to peruse the world-shattering changes in store for players in their newest expansion, delivered in the breathless amazement of Apocalypse Soon. Once-lush zones transformed into wasteland! Lava streaming out from fissures in the earth! But for all the cataclysmic direness of it all, I found myself curiously unfazed. Maybe I’m just a bit wasteland-ed out. After the Burning Steppes, the Blasted Lands, The Badlands, the Plaguelands (East and West), scenes of widespread desolation start to blur together for me. And as someone who still has nightmares about disastrously bad attempts on Molten Core, I think I’ve had my fill of lava, as well.

More interesting to me were the political shakeups. A splinter group of disenfranchised goblins joining the Horde. The worgen siding with the Alliance, much to the consternation of Team Edward. A posse of gnomes preparing to retake Gnomeregan.

Hold the phone. Gnomer? Really?

Forget all the continental Sturm und Drang. This is the kind of expansion news that turns my crank. As a die-hard gnome-lover, Gnomeregan has always been a sort of mecca to me – even before I had started playing. As part of a group of friends slowly organizing to give WoW a try, I used to flip through lore and concept art over at Blizzard’s official site, and I instantly knew where my alliances lay. They had me at “ride a giant mechanical ostrich,” something I had been eager to cross off my bucket list. Maybe it’s my particular style of role-playing that inclines me towards the wrinkled and the weak, over, say, the dudes who ride around on cats and flip when they jump.

It was screenshots of the gnomes’ fallen metropolis that most piqued my interest when we started playing years ago. Gnomeregan, the fallen capital of Gnomish scientific splendor. There the gnomes had dug too greedily and too deeply, and unearthed “troggs”: vicious, shambling creatures that seemed pulled from the pages of H.G. Wells. In their desperation, the gnomes had trotted out the big guns, and tried bombing them to kingdom come … which worked out as well as you might expect. Now the city is a shell of itself, irradiated and trogg-infested, patrolled by crazed robots and “leper gnomes” – old inhabitants with their senses scrambled by radiation. The end result has a mash-up vibe, combining pulp monsters with steampunk-ish dilapidation – sort of Fallout-meets-Final Fantasy. I had made up my mind. The first character I made was a gnome, and I immediately began grinding levels to get in there to see it for myself.

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And I saw it, all right … every inch of it, ghosting back to my corpse, death after death. Gnomer is hellish … the very excesses that had interested me in the first place are taken to their logical extreme, resulting in an instance seemingly designed to make you tear out your hair in frustration. It’s bafflingly complex, constantly looping and doubling back on itself, turning the standard “kick-in-the-door” heroics of earlier instances into farcical misadventure – you might get lost, wandering in circles until once-killed monsters start respawning right on top of you. It’s precipitously huge, filled with gaping drops and bridges to nowhere. Gnomeregan is full of annoying little alarm bots who scamper off to bring the whole place down on your head and mine-dropping dwarves who can blow your entire party to smithereens in an instant. These are only the legitimate ways to die – the place is also notoriously buggy, such that with one wrong step, entire roomfuls of monsters might come barreling at you.

All of this leads up to the final boss, Mekgineer Thermaplugg. A more classic villain like Edwin van Cleef might have a wide-ranging network of spies and contacts, but Mek has bombs, and bombs, and oh-god-why-are-there-so-many bombs. Any illusions I might have entertained about my own character’s heroics were shattered by humiliating defeats at the hands of Thermaplugg. Once you’ve had your ass handed to you by a gnome in battle armor and his shuffling legion of bomb-bots, it’s hard to look at yourself the same way. The final result is a Kafkaesque instance that lingers just outside of Ironforge like a stale fart.

That’s pretty much it for the Gnomes – it’s testament to their status as cosmic punching-bags of Azeroth that their content peaks at level thirty. The gnome’s memorable /charge emote – “For Gnomeregan!” – is a bittersweet reminder that no matter where else you might go, Gnomer will always be unfinished business. This might be why the equivalent campaign, Horde-side, for the Darkspear trolls to retake their ancestral islands fails to catch my fancy. Trolls, generally, come off as fairly laid back … they always struck me as pretty comfortable anywhere, the kind of houseguests that drop by and crash on your couch for just a little too long before shoving off again. Maybe I’m showing my bias here, but it seems like there are trolls everywhere. There are ice trolls, forest trolls, desert trolls, zombie voodoo hoodoo trolls. These guys come in 32 flavors, and, in contrast, the poor gnomes are stuck rotting in their filthy little crater, just waiting until someone wants a Hydrocane for their alt.

Until now. Blizzard’s pre-expansion quest campaign to retake Gnomeregan casts the much-maligned capital in a different light. It proves that, even in the midst of world-changing crisis, Blizzard has time for a little bit of love for the little guys. Past expansions have pushed onward and outward, advancing decades-long plot points while allowing players to push towards far-flung vistas – the otherworldly Outlands, or the vast expanses of the North. But in a lot of ways, the thematic experience of Cataclysm isn’t about heading outward, but coming home … and now, finally, the Gnomes will have a home to come back to.

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As simply an under visited and buggy instance, Gnomer relegates the gnomes to joke status – a one-note bit, buried under the steady swell of pretty races on prettier mounts, those fancy flip-when-you-jumpers with palatial hometowns that scan neutral on the Geiger counters. Blizzard has indicated that this scrimmage will only concern the top ground of Gnomeregan, and that the instance, in all its noob-crushing hopelessness, will remain as it is. Somehow, I’m comforted by this fact. Every generation of WoW players deserve a chance to learn for themselves what a hot mess Gnomer is, scampering around in circles with their bags full of grime-encrusted objects. But in pushing to take back what’s theirs, even if it is just a scrap of a scrap, the Gnomeregan Exiles become something different – something with poise, and purpose, and a shot at redemption.

Cataclysm is poised to offer WoW its biggest upset, a colossal conflict that will move mountains and crack continents asunder. So why, with all the large events afoot, am I most excited by one of the smallest? It might have something to do with how I process a game as large as World of Warcraft – for its entire geographical sprawl, spanning continents and worlds, the hilly backwoods of Dun Murogh still matter to me. I haven’t forgotten the very first quests I undertook, dreaming of mounts, raids, and epic loot. Dun Murogh might just be a few acres of snow to nearly everybody else, but it’s something, and it counts.

All of this has ended up with me standing abreast with the amassed gnomish forces and their mechanical monstrosities, waiting for the call to battle. Ahead of us, beyond the cannon emplacements and fortified walls, and enshrouded in a perpetual green miasma of radiation, sits Gnomeregan: A city that’s lured me to Warcraft not once, but twice now, a city I’ll always remember as a place of frustration, dashed hopes and wasted afternoons – a city I secretly kind of hate. But sometimes, even the things you hate are worth fighting for. In an instant, we receive the call to /charge, and a mob of robots, spider tanks and heavily-armed gnomes stream towards their home city with a righteous fury. For Gnomeregan!

You can have your earthquakes, and your primal gods, and giant ebon death doom dragons. I’ll stick to the small stuff. Unabashedly and unashamedly, this is my kind of scene – glorious, ridiculous, and with plenty of gratuitous Gs to go around. Who says you can gnever go home?

Brendan Main hails from the frosty reaches of Canada, where people are still a little sensitive about the whole “few acres of snow” thing. He lives in a palatial hometown, and flips when he jumps.

Question of the Day, August 17, 2010

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