So now that Cataclysm has been out a while and the instance group is back in Azeroth, my general impressions are starting to coalesce. Suffice it to say, Azeroth has indeed been shattered though perhaps not in the way you’re thinking.
The best way of summing it up is probably to describe how our little group used to play. The stated goal was to adventure through Azeroth experiencing all of the instanced dungeons at level and with a static group.
Back in the day, that typically involved questing through a zone or series of zones following a line of quests that ultimately led you to some confrontation with enemies in a challenging instance. The dungeon could be run just once or multiple times as you saw fit before you moved on to another area or followed a quest story line to another area with another instance.
A perfect example of this at the low level in Ye Olde Azeroth was the defias quest line through Elwynn Forest/Westfall/Redridge/Stormwind that culminated in the Deadmines instance and continued through to the Stockades, etc.
Was a time when we planned our adventures to gain experience, explore new zones and pick up the lead in quest lines to the next dungeon. Travel wasn’t trivial (remember those long mountless runs from Southshore to Scarlet Monestary?) and coordination was at times essential so all group members were on the same stage of a key quest.
Dungeons were spaced out enough to require gaining in-world experience and without instant travel to dungeons, running instances took on something of an expeditionary quality. Each dungeon was the culmination of a chapter of a shared adventure for our group.
With the advent of the meeting stones (2.0, the summoning version rather than the group matching version), the world shrunk, but not so much that you never actually knew where the dungeon was located. It was an accomodation to facilitate coordinated play and generally a good thing. A few party members had to travel there, and once there the group could explore the zone, run the dungeon, etc.
As a result, pre-DF, Azeroth and its dungeons were still part of a cohesive whole. My memories of those instance runs are inextricably intertwined with the lore associated with them and the zones surrounding them. Sharpbeak anyone? The Onyxia line?
With the addition of DF, dungeon crack became cheap and accessible. Of course, the first iteration didn’t really change anything other than travel time. Now with refinements, the typical dungeon experience looks something like this:
Dungeon finder into a dungeon, stop by the quest/concession stand, go in and enjoy the show. Quest progression mechanisms no longer even require returning to the quest giver for a turn in– some “communication” device typically permits you to get the quest update to kill boss 2 after killing boss 1 without having to retrace a step.
As our recent adventures have shown, the difficulty/level spread of instances and the rewards gained from them means that our group will likely have difficulty staying at level experiencing the game ONLY via the dungeon finder.
Post-Cataclysm, post-DF, WoW and Azeroth feels like at least 3 distinct games: The zone-based contiguous world, the PvE instanced world and the PvP instanced world.
Even further, with the Cataclysm changes, the PvE zone world has really become an individual-only quest/story space. With Lich King the addition of phasing really took the last vestige of worldliness and isolated the PvE player in his or her own story box. The even more excessive linearity makes the possibility of coordinated group play even less likely. When I never have more than three quests in my log at a time for the new zones, the likelihood that a guilding or friend has any of those at the same time is minimal.
There is nothing more frustrating than trying to play with friends and guildmates in the “open” world who are in a different phase. Below the level cap, your choices now seem to be either solo-exclusive or anonymous group.
The new Cataclysm zones/experience takes this to a new extreme. While entertaining at one level, I almost can’t imagine trying to drag a coordinated group through the new content with all of its phasing and cut scenes. That situation is further compounded by the fact that there is essentially zero group required/desired/necessary content in those zones. Frankly, why Blizz decided to require players discover the new dungeons is beyond me other than to impose some kind of a time tax to avoid trivializing the expansion even more quickly than it has been.
So for now, I’m still enjoying Cataclysm, but I’m waxing nostalgic for Azeroth-lost. Like Wilhelm, I’ve come to the conclusion that to get the most out of new Azeroth, I’ll have to consciously experience it exclusively in each of its accepted modalities– or I’ll just have to emulate Bhagpuss and just go play in the world the way I feel like when I feel like. Words of wisdom.