Finally, after more than a year languishing in Northrend, I leveled a second alt to 80 and into Cataclysm. Questing in Cataclysm was a fairly linear process, except at the beginning as players had the choice of heading to defend Mount Hyjal or joining an expedition to claim land off the coast of Stormwind. On my main, I chose to join the expedition and got to experience the underwater realm of Vashj’ir, only to have to go back and do Hyjal anyway to unlock the Firelands. I sent my first alt directly to Hyjal just for that reason. At this point, since the Firelands content is irrelevant for leveling, I decided to return to Vashj’ir.
On my first playthrough of Vashj’ir, I didn’t particularly like the zone. Yes, it is majestic in its beauty, but the problem that I had with it was also one of the things I enjoyed most about it: the zone plays as though you are trapped underwater. As mentioned, the (Horde) breadcrumb quests that lead there have the player joining an expedition (lead by the newly promoted Legionnaire Nazgrim!) to claim a strip of land that the cataclysm exposed off the coast of Stormwind.
En route, a kraken assaults and capsizes the vessel, and players find themselves struggling to survive at the bottom of the ocean. The first few quests challenge players to get their bearings and learn simple tasks like how to breathe. Before anyone can get comfortable and figure out a way home, the Naga attack and the zone shifts into a game of trying to repel the Naga (and save the shipwreck surivivors) while determining what they are doing. This ultimately concludes in a showdown with the Naga that involves Neptulon the Tidehunter and sets up the Throne of the Tides dungeon.
Part of the fun of playing Vashj’ir is pretending that you are trapped in the underwater realm. Swimming from underwater cave to underwater cave with the survivors loses the sense of danger and urgency once you realize that you can swim to the surface, mount up, and fly to land. Traveling to a capital city is an immersion-breaking necessity. Although vendors and repairs are provided regularly at each of the quest hubs, services like banking and profession training are not.
It defeats the flavor of the zone to hearth back to Orgrimmar to deposit items like stacks of savage leather in the bank while Erunak and several of Hellscream’s Grunts are clinging to life in a pocket of air in an overturned ship, but that pattern of intermittent questing has been ingrained in players over the prior 80 levels. A similar problem is encountered when traveling into the Jade Forest for the first time, as players are again given the experience of being stranded and are expected to ignore their hearthstone. Vashj’ir is different though because for the first two-thirds of the zone, there is no point at which players can feel comfortable.
The map of Vashj’ir is split into three sub-sections: Kelp’thar Forest, the Shimmering Expanse, and the Abyssal Depths. The expedition capsizes in Kelp’thar Forest, and players navigate their way to the Shimmering Expanse where they contend with the Naga. It is only after those two regions (which are large enough to qualify as zones in their own right), that players are able to summon rescue ships from their faction. Players are finally given the opportunity to catch their breath on the surface, and then they are faced with the decision of proceeding to Deepholm or continuing to battle the Naga in the Abyssal Depths.
The ongoing stress of being stranded undersea, while appropriate, can be annoying if one is not ready for it. On my first play-through, with each cave discovered I kept thinking, “This is where I can rest and travel back without breaking the integrity of the zone,” only to be proven wrong each time. Now that I know such salvation does not exist, I am able to relax and enjoy the zone as it comes.
Prior to boarding the doomed vessel, I emptied my bags of all non-essential items to make sure I could endure an extended tour. By no longer focusing on what isn’t there, I can appreciate what is. Like the inclusion of a Taunka member, Tosche Chaosrender, in the Earthen Ring, as the Taunka were only discovered an expansion prior and this establishes them as becoming members of Azeroth’s many communities. One other feature of Vashj’ir I failed to notice previously was the music. It’s a beautiful theme that conveys a sense of wonder at the landscape but also impending dread. Also, Vashj’ir features two of the most unique environments in Azeroth, as Nespirah and L’ghorek are enormous ancient demigods that players interact with by questing inside of.
Vashj’ir is an amazing zone and I’m glad I’m taking the time to replay it. I’ve hit the point where the rescue ships have arrived, and I’m going to continue into the Depths. It’s a shame that Vashj’ir is an optional part of the Cataclysm experience, because players who defend Hyjal miss out on this demonstration of Blizzard’s storytelling and world building prowess.
A quick sidenote after my recent diatribe about gear levels. Jumping from level 79 content in Icecrown to level 80 content in Vashj’ir was a bit jarring. There’s a HUGE jump in ilvls, and the stat bonuses on gear go from being double to triple digits. Normally when leveling you can usually steamroll through any normal opponent and even a group of them, but my first few fights were a struggle. My main issue with the gear level jumps had been their inelegance, but this is the first time where the process of leveling felt broken.
The problem rectified itself after a few quests and gear upgrades (new weapons helped immensely!), but there was a while where my rogue equipped a stam/int robe because the defense was well worth sacrificing the small agility boost from the old chestpiece. It was the right decision, but it did not feel or look right, and I was glad to replace the robes as soon as I could.
Virtual Realms are now Connected Realms! I wonder what it will be called when the feature actually debuts. http://us.battle.net/wow/en/blog/10551009/Patch_54_Feature_Preview_Connected_Realms-8_5_2013
The Burdens of Shaohao are short movies that detail Emperor Shaohao’s struggles against the Sha. Check out the beautiful animation and learn additional lore of Shaohao beyond what the Lorewalkers can teach. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-D–GWwca0g&list=PLY0KbDiiFYeNKrf7yg1O5KsHff-NdimhR
Blizzard music is now on Pandora! Now you can randomly enjoy your favorite WoW themes up to three times an hour while you burn out all your skips on getting past the movie soundtracks. http://us.battle.net/wow/en/blog/10534910/Blizzard_Music_on_Pandora-8_1_2013