WoW Factor: Assessing the zones of WoW Legion’s Broken Isles

    
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Aw yus.

I’ve now made my way through all of the zones in World of Warcraft: Legion twice. There’s something to be written about that, which I think is at once a success and a failing of design. Zones never become irrelevant or boring, but alts never get to bypass zones or do things differently, just in a different order. And it’s always ending with Suramar. But as relevant as all of that may be, it’s not what I want to talk about this week.

Whenever I’m in a new expansion, part of what I think about are the individual zones. Especially for this expansion, the individual zones matter a lot. You’re going back to them regularly, exploring, taking on new world quests, exploring more lore, and so forth. We’ve got only five new zones in this expansion, but they’re large and they’re important. So let’s step back and look at the zones of the Broken Isles, moving around in a logical and vaguely clockwork fashion. It makes sense to me, anyhow.

Ain't no passing craze.

Aszuna

Aszuna has always felt like the “intro” zone for the expansion. There’s something about it that just screams “default starting zone that sets the tone,” and I wouldn’t be surprised if the very earliest stages of design had the zone as your necessary starting zone before some bright spark had the idea of syncing everything. The result is that no zone in the region feels quite so… unfocused.

In some ways, this is a good thing. Aszuna’s story manages to cover the bleeding chaos from Suramar, the Blue Dragonflight, the Illidari, and the Naga all in one loose blend. However, it also feels much less cohesive than the other zones. If you’re pushing to get your Pillar of Creation and just move on, you end the zone without ever going back to the Illidari offensive or the blue dragons, following the story of ghostly Night Elves with a story that is at once interesting and not very well explained or explored. It feels kind of messy because it’s trying to cover so much disassociated ground.

Then you get down into the sea giants and the pirates, and things have gone completely off of the rails.

Visually, though, the zone is a real winner. There are echoes of some renewed bits of Desolace, but the area as a whole looks different from what we’ve seen before. There’s also a good use of specific areas to avoid visual monotony, something that some zones succumb to; Aszuna looks cohesive, but it also covers a breadth of different scenery and has some uniquely lovely spots to it.

As a zone, it feels very much like an intro zone, but there are lots of moments of those disconnected stories that I quite like, especially once you finish helping the brood of Senegos. It’s a pretty darn good zone! Just kind of jumbled.

Druds.

Val’sharah

Here’s the zone that managed to turn me off as soon as I saw previews of it. Val’sharah is very much a Night Elf Forest sort of zone, akin to Ashenvale and Teldrassil, and much like those zones I find it really ugly. The goal has always been to make these places feel ethereal and mystical, but they’ve always rubbed me the wrong way; the greenery feels artificially bright, the trees too alien to what actual trees look like, the overall impression of a cluttered and claustrophobic aesthetic.

Of course, the zone becomes much more nightmarish as you get further in, but really all that seems to change is the color hanging over everything. Visually, the heart of the forest and the Nightmare is just as unappealing as the rest, but with a less friendly set of hues. It’s technically diverse, but it feels oppressive and monochromatic all the way through.

The story of the zone almost single-mindedly follows the line of the Nightmare, which is a fine story that goes on for longer than it needs to. I always feel like I’ve spent about a million years chasing the big hostage of the zone after spending a million years getting the Druids to work together, and while each individual part is well, there are more individual parts than we need. Pick any two segments of the quest chain to remove and it would feel much more evenly paced. The diversion into the somewhat oddly placed Bradenbrook and Black Rook Hold is a welcome shift, although Black Rook Hold itself feels like a diversion that just sits there until the anti-climactic dungeon push.

Mind you, I really like that storytelling, especially since it concerns one of my favorite characters from Warcraft III. I just feel like the conclusion is all set for a charge into the dungeon that just… doesn’t come. There’s no follow-up when there ought to be one. Level scaling strikes again.

I feel comfortable saying that Val’sharah is the worst of the zones: It’s the least visually appealing and also the most oppressively single-minded in its storytelling, with some really great moments that are undercut by taking a bit too long to arrive or never quite paying off. It’s not a bad zone – I’d happily take it over, say, Alliance-side Twilight Highlands – but it’s the weakest of the bunch.

This is a cow story. (Yes, I like this picture.)

Highmountain

Tauren are one of my absolute favorite races in World of Warcraft, so I was excited about more Tauren in this zone… but I was also worried because the last couple of times we’ve had “new Tauren,” it kind of fell flat. The Taunka barely even made an appearance after being set up heavily, and the Yaungol were just big bads to beat up with no real examination and explanation. Thankfully, the Highmountain Tauren are the opposite of that and are a fascinating look at a people whom, as we are reminded here, we see only on the outskirts in Thunder Bluff.

The zone takes a page from Mists of Pandaria by starting with a very constrained opening story before fracturing off into multiple other lines. It always keeps to a fairly cohesive overall line; you’re dealing with the drogbar and the unity of the Tauren in the region, but you’re also dealing with different aspects of that same conflict so that it never becomes blasé.

Well, all right, all of the harpy stuff is kind of a big nothing, but that’s incidental.

Visually, the zone looks good, and I’m fond of the various valleys and cliffs that dominate the exterior. The rushing rivers add a lot of character, and it all feels unified, but there’s a lot of differentiation between different parts of the map. It all feels natural while also feeling very diverse. The biggest weakness, though, is what an enormous mess the southern part of the map and the coastline are; it’s not obvious how to reach many parts of the southern ridges or how to get down to the coast, and as a result the zone becomes more irritating to navigate, especially for world quests.

Still, I can’t critique it too harshly; this is the sort of Tauren-centric zone that I’ve been wanting to see for years, and it delivers handily upon that promise. It’s hardly perfect, but it’s one of the more solid examples of what the zone designers can do. I might even have called it the best in another expansion.

Whoa-dyn.

Stormheim

Vrykul are another personal favorite race of mine, even if I’m still salty about not getting to play one. There’s not much in the way of solid explanation for why the Vrykul are here, but honestly? I barely care. We get to see the Vrykul in detail, we learn about the culture of death that the Lich King perverted to his own ends in Northrend, we see Vrykul politics play out, and we even get a sense of the lore that led to the humans spread across the Eastern Kingdoms. On top of all that, we get more of the grudge match between Genn Greymane and Sylvanas, and it’s very well-handled all around.

It would be incredibly easy for these two stories to play off of one another badly, but instead they flow together naturally. There’s every reason for the ill-fated Skyfire and the Forsaken fleet to be out at Stormheim, and there’s every reason for both groups to fade into the background for a bit whilst you take care of things with the Vrykul. The story is fairly linear, but there are enough branches and diversions that I rarely felt as if I wasn’t able to tackle things in an organic fashion.

The zone itself is visually probably the weakest part of the whole experience, and even then it’s not bad. It suffers somewhat from the fact that it feels like a remix of other Vrykul areas, with strong throwbacks to the Howling Fjord in many parts, but it’s easy to navigate and even offers the intensely cool grappling hook sections to mix things up. There’s also a nice visual gradient to what’s going on, to boot.

All told, this may be the best zone in the expansion. It’s definitely very good, and it has a lot to recommend it; its biggest weakness is being a bit of a throwback in parts and lacking some much-needed explanation for aspects. I can live with those weaknesses.

What fresh hell is this.

Suramar

Oh look, Elven culture. Before I wrote this column, we were talking about the implications of elves in WoW and the way their culture must have worked, and I’m happy to see that Suramar bears out something that I’ve long said should be a central portion of Azeroth’s elves: casual, pragmatic cruelty. The Nightborne have definite echoes of Silvermoon and the Wardens, even Tyrande in her appearances out in Val’sharah. I like all of this.

The Nightfallen are also really compelling as they’re written; you really do get the sense that this is a ragtag resistance that you’re slowly building into a coherent force. Thalyssra herself is a very interesting character: She clearly has a strong sense of justice and morality, but she’s also not above pursuing the withered as a tool to fight back against the Magistrix and the “proper” society. Again, pragmatic cruelty is the order of the day here.

It’s a shame, then, that so much of Suramar feels like Standard Endgame WoW Zone, with stories that echo other zones without really saying much of consequence and far too much faffing about with no real guidance. Suramar City and the Nightfallen are interesting, but the Illidari stuff in the southwest? The druid line in the northwest? All of this is just boring, and without any of the interesting twists that might be suggested. The Moon Guard feels like a wasted opportunity, a culture clash that turns into nothing more than a losing matchup.

Visually, the zone is dominated by Suramar City itself, which feels at once familiar and novel, the lines and magic of Silvermoon with the aesthetic sensibilities of the Night Elves and mixed with a healthy dose of addiction. It’s very unique. The rest of the zone feels jumbled in many places, although it has stuff in it that I like a lot, including echoes of Azshara in its foliage.

Suramar is probably tied with Stormheim for the best zone, hence why I said that one just might be the best. Stormheim’s highs aren’t as high, but its lows aren’t as low; Suramar’s best parts are really neat, so I have a lot of enthusiasm for it even in places where it’s not as compelling.

Feedback, as always, is welcome in the comments down below or via mail to eliot@massivelyop.com. Next week, yes, I’m going to talk about dungeons.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with a decade of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.