Hyjal is home to the majestic world tree Nordrassil, once under siege by the Burning Legion and Archimonde, an eredar leader and lieutenant of Sargeras. In Warcraft III, we vanquished Archimonde at Nordrassil and subsequently went back and ended his campaign in Hyjal through the Caverns of Time. Now, Ragnaros the Firelord has returned to Azeroth with the help of Deathwing and has invaded the sacred mountain with one goal -- destroy the wardens of Hyjal and burn their tree to the ground.
Mathew: I had an odd experience with the story at Hyjal, mostly because at first, I couldn't have given a damn about the druids and the Emerald Dream and all of that. The first time I went through Hyjal, it was a sprint, and I never stopped to smell the roses, since we were racing to 85.
It was only after I did Hyjal a second or third time that I truly dug in and found the wonderful story of the zone. Now, I am 100% involved in the Hyjal story and am really excited to see where it's going. Now, the druids are my best friends, and there is nothing I want to do more than help ancients punch fire elementals in their fiery faces.
Alex: I think that my first time through Hyjal benefited from the fact that I didn't do it on my first Cataclysm character. My first time leveling, I actually went to Vashj'ir, so I felt no real need to rush through Hyjal when I finally got there. The story was solid, but it didn't feel as urgent as maybe it should have. Hyjal was burning -- sure, that's scary. I wasn't exposed to the source of that scariness, though. You see a glimpse of Ragnaros at the very beginning of the zone, but you don't get to witness him gaining any ground.
World of Warcraft needs to learn that sometimes it's okay for the players to actually lose in the story. If I had had a quest to defend part of Hyjal from Ragnaros and Ragnaros had kicked our asses and we lost that territory, that would have driven home that something bad is happening here and we need to find help.
WoW is afraid to let players lose (except for locking us in a stun so we're forced to watch a cutscene), so we won't see anything like that. Wrath of the Lich King suffered from that, too -- the Lich King never won. Not once. By the end of the expansion, the guy was a joke, and we'd made him our whipping boy before we decided to kill him.
Mathew: The story for me felt fairly straightforward, a little disjointed at times, but the basic premise of waking up the ancients to fight Ragnaros and drive him back to the Firelands was a big fireworks display of lore for the new Cataclysm player. I was excited, I guess, to help the ancients, but I also felt like my character personally fell to the wayside in favor of bigger and better heroes.
I agree about letting the players lose sometimes. It's more important to give players a sense of scale as opposed to strength, I think. For Hyjal, you're at the end of the campaign, really. Ragnaros has gained a ridiculously strong toehold in Hyjal, and the druids are trying to do the impossible to win. It would have been an awesome part of the story to lose and lose and eventually get backed into a corner, to see your ancient buddies then turn the tide with your help.
Alex: The questing felt disjointed my first time through the zone because there are very few indicators of where you should be going after you finish the first chain of quests started at Nordrassil. Ysera is supposed to show up and give you a little direction, but it's easy to miss her, and even with her advice, you can find yourself with no quests in your quest log and very little idea where to go. The zone is nonlinear by design, but the quests have a distinct gated flow that clicks after you've been through them once. It was a much better experience my second time through because I knew how things flowed best.
The battle with Ragnaros at the zone's climax felt like a real letdown, though. Fighting alongside Cenarius, Malfurion, and Hamuul should have been epic, but it felt more like I was cleaning up after them like a fledgling squire. "Oh no, these teeny little elementals are tickling me, please make them go away!" I wasn't fighting Ragnaros at all, despite being this awesome hero of Azeroth. I was picking up Malfurion's litter. That wasn't very fun.
Mathew: I was disappointed that each ancient's quest line wasn't a separate module of questing. It was odd that you couldn't progress through certain areas until you had finished certain "gate" points. I felt that was a step backwards in terms of vision. However, there were just enough quests per area for it to feel substantial. The quests were never hard to follow, and I thought it was an excellent introduction to the "new" way of hub questing.
Art direction and visuals
Mathew: Hyjal looked like Hyjal. I don't know if I can say much more than that, but that's not a bad thing. I like the look of Hyjal. It felt like we started at the mountain peak, looking down on the devastation caused by Ragnaros and his minions. The damage looked devastating, and the enemies looked suitably out of place and foreign. Personally, I'm a huge fan of seeing creatures like the lavawalkers and core hounds traipsing around. It really felt like the Molten Core was spilling out into the lush forest. I would call the whole zone very cohesive.
Alex: I think my overall opinion of Hyjal's aesthetics is tainted by being in the Cataclysm beta. I loved being in the beta, but sometimes you think, "I really wish they hadn't changed that." Early on, there was much more devastation to behold. Ragnaros's buddies from Molten Core had torched much more of the zone, and only the area immediately around Nordrassil felt safe. It was dark, oppressive, and you got the feeling you were in for one hell of a fight.
At some point, they prettied the zone up and made it much more green. Rather than having scorched his way across Hyjal, Baron Geddon now stands in a little circle of red in a sea of green. It increased the contrast between the territories held by the good guys and the bad guys, but at the same time, it made it all feel more artificial to me -- it started to strike me as silly. Hyjal became a Team Fortress 2 map.
That said, there are still huge portions of this zone that are just beautiful. Nordrassil itself is incredible. The Inferno (which we ultimately phase out) maintained that oppressive feel of Ragnaros bearing down on us, and this was the first place that level 80 characters would encounter Twilight's Hammer architecture. The art direction was great; I just wish the contrast between the green and the red wasn't so jarring.
Alex: I'm typically not a night elf fan, but I really enjoyed exploring their history in Hyjal. Awakening and gathering the Ancients just felt good. Goldrinn in particular was a lot of fun. Blizzard did an excellent job getting his ferocity across in his quests. In the two or three times he's doing something on screen, it's just brutal.
It was nice seeing the wardens again. I make it no secret that Maiev Shadowsong is one of my favorite Warcraft characters, period, so if we can't have her, at least we can have the other wardens. I'm eager to see more of then in patch 4.2.
Mathew: For me, the coolest part of the zone was the infiltration of the Twilight's Hammer cult and the quests associated with it. Giving the "valedictorian" speech at the end to send the cultists and the ogres into a riot was probably the most rewarding moment in the whole zone, and the resulting fallout was awesome to witness. You get a ton of lore into how Cho'gall is running things, why he prefers the ogres to humans and other native denizens of Outland/Draenor, and what the dragonflights are doing in the area as well. It was a really comprehensive lore experience, and I thought it was pretty cool that I got to be a part of it.
What worked? What didn't?
Alex: It's hard to lay out what worked for this zone, because it isn't the most revolutionary experience in the game. The things that worked are things we take for granted -- good writing, good scripting, things of that nature. In an overall solid zone, it's easier to point out what didn't work, even though the complete package is still very strong.
I think I've come to realize that phasing on a macro scale simply doesn't have the same punch as phasing on a micro scale. For example, did Aessina's putting out the flames in Hyjal and spawning the Regrowth have any sort of punch? Not really. It was cool, sure, but you don't get much emotional impact from a change on that scale. It's the small, character-level changes that phasing does well, not the massive, zone-changing ones -- especially when it's a starter zone like Hyjal that you'll be leaving soon and will never really experience the changes you caused, rather than an endgame zone that you may see every day (like the Isle of Quel'Danas back in patch 2.4).
I really want to stress how disappointing the showdown with Ragnaros was. I killed that guy back at level 60 -- not Malfurion, not Cenarius, and not Hamuul Runetotem. It was me and my pals. Nothing in Hyjal provided my character with a show of strength to get the point across that I was no longer capable of facing off with the big man, but suddenly nobody in the world trusted me to take him down. I was Cenarius's errand boy, and that did not feel good at all.
Mathew: The zone as a whole worked well because there were only a few bottleneck moments. What didn't work was the one huge bottleneck moment that was there. Phasing also worked well in the zone, but I was sad that we didn't get more lore about Fandral other than just breaking him out of prison. I guess we are just going to have to wait until patch 4.2 to see the rest of his story. I like resolution.
One other thing that worked well were the "solo bosses." Dragons, Baron Geddon, and others had boss mechanics that players had to deal with and avoid, rather than just mobs you had to kill. I thought this approach to working with the mechanics worked well to get players into the right kind of mindset for the expansion -- mechanic-driven and player-dependent.
Mathew: For me, the standout moments of Hyjal included infiltrating the cultists and then the subsequent green dragon attack on their stronghold. Fighting in the Firelands with the child of Tortolla was great, too. He was adorable.
Alex: All of the solo boss encounters that Mat mentioned were probably the best moments of the zone (with Ragnaros as the exception). I think Blizzard would benefit from continuing that trend -- not just elite mobs or mobs with names, but solo encounters that maybe require a little thought as to how best to approach them. Vanilla WoW had some difficult moments like that, but you don't get them very often anymore.
Thisalee Crow was also a very interesting moment in the zone. We're never going to see Blizzard turn World of Warcraft into a BioWare game, but the idea of a quest giving you a moral option in how to resolve a particular situation was something that hasn't been done before. It didn't have the best implementation ever, but it was a neat touch.
Alex: Hyjal was a solid zone. It wasn't Cataclysm's best, and it wasn't Cataclysm's worst. It was just a well-rounded, easy experience. The zone would have gained a lot from giving you a personal look at how badass Ragnaros is nowadays -- it would have put the whole thing in perspective -- but it was still a good romp without it.
Mathew: I agree with you, Alex. It was a well-designed and capable zone that was a good introduction to the new questing experiences in Cataclysm. The story was a solid look at one of Cataclysm's biggest conflicts, and we got to hear from characters we really haven't seen or heard from since Warcraft III. Hyjal, to me, felt like Warcraft III-2, if that makes any sense. It wasn't my favorite zone, but it did give me a better appreciation for the night elves. I still don't really care about the ancients, though. Personally, I want to see the night elves acting more savage and mountain man-esque. Overall, I enjoyed it, with some reservations that seem to be fixed, story-wise, in patch 4.2.
Next time, Alex and I return with a look at the other zone that started off Cataclysm with a watery bang: the lost, sunken city of Vashj'ir.
The news is already rolling out for the upcoming WoW Patch 4.2! Preview the new Firelands raid, marvel at the new legendary staff, and get the inside scoop on new quest hubs -- plus new Tier 12 armor!