As I said last week, Cataclysm's astonishing 1 to 60 revamp was inspired by how quests worked in Wrath of the Lich King, and I don't think it can be disputed that the 1 to 60 game is about as good as it could possibly be right now. Leveling even without heirlooms has gone a long way from the old "Kill X boars" or "Collect X parts of boars" quests we old grumpy cusses remember. Zones like Darkshore, Azshara, Westfall, Stonetalon, and the Plaguelands have seen significant improvements in quest flow and story, be you Horde or Alliance. Dungeons have most of their quests available to you as you zone in (an improvement patch 4.3 will add to many Outland and Northrend dungeons as well), and in general each zone has strong, unified quest changes that give them a unique feel.
Listing every quest chain and change to every zone would be impossible. Whether it's the Badlands with the varied storylines or Feralas and its quest to deal with the legacy of the Dragons of Nightmare, leveling quests became much more about you, the player, as you level through them. However, at the same time, they do much to reveal the changes the Cataclysm brought to the world of Azeroth and the growing conflict between the Horde and the Alliance, as well as internal conflicts between them.
This is done in small ways as well as large. For example, in Durotar two quest givers near the Dranosh'ar Blockade, Gor the Enforcer and Shin Stonepillar, spend more time arguing with one another and sniping at each other than anything else. In so doing, they reveal deep divisions in the Horde between those who subscribe to Thrall's vision vs. those inspired by Garrosh. It's a much faster and more involved way to get players to see the conflict between these forces rather than hear about it.
Superlative leveling design
Perhaps the superlative achievement of the leveling game (and there are many, many rivals) is the experience of questing through Westfall. Framed as a murder mystery that as it unfolds also becomes a kind of history of the zone's changes since classic WoW, Westfall and the new Defias quests manage to contain pathos, humor, outrage, vengeance, and reveal exactly what happened in the zone, and in the greater world at large. Anyone who met up with the Westfall Brigade in Grizzly Hills can appreciate seeing events come full circle, and the ultimate revelation of Vanessa VanCleef during the Defias attack on Westfall was simple yet effective. The biggest regret I can think of as far as the Westfall experience goes is that, ultimately, it seems to end abortively in running heroic Deadmines. I don't want Vanessa's story to be over so quickly.
Whatever your feelings about Garrosh Hellscream as a player, the quest To Be Horde illustrates his character and his limitations better than any number of short stories, novels or even articles on awesome websites like this one. I won't belabor the conclusions one can draw from it, rather urging you to experience it if at all possible. It provides the Orc, warts and all, in his purest distillation. Both his admirable and lamentable aspects are on display here, and the cracks in the Horde's facade all show. Very much worth your time and your play experience, at least in my experience.
Even without that, however, some of the best storytelling I managed to play through is in quest chains in the leveling content. The paladin pals in the Plaguelands went from an annoying couple of neophytes I could barely stand to have around to a deep, nuanced series of quests that showed me that even a Forsaken could realize Sylvanas was no longer sane, that a Tauren could help me save a Dwarf's life, that while the Scourge was no longer the threat it once was it was also not standing still, and that evil flourishes in places both great and small. At the end, Tarenar Sunstrike and Gidwin Goldbraids, who were NPCs I actively disliked at the beginning of the quests, had become if not friends, then respected colleagues. What's even better is that I got to see how the Plaguelands changed following the Lich King's defeat.
I don't feel like a discussion of how elegant and immersive the new questing is would be complete without discussing my two favorite chains, one in Feralas dealing with the last remnants of the Dragons of Nightmare and the other in the Blasted Lands, the excellent sequel quest chain that ends with You Are Rakh'likh, Demon. The original quest chain from classic WoW was started by the Fallen Hero of the Horde for both Horde and Alliance players and was an excellent example of vanilla's quest design. It was a world-spanning quest that ranged from the Blasted Lands to Azshara and back again.
The new quests are worthy successors that focus on the new questing experience's tendency to keep you in the same zone from beginning to end and make things more streamlined and accessible. Both the old quest and its new version are excellent quest experiences, but the new quest is a lot more solo-friendly. However, what really amazed me is how the second quest plays with your expectations if you did the quest the first time, confirming some of the preconceptions you have, playing with others, and revealing the ultimate fate of characters from the pre-Cataclysm zone. If you haven't done the Blasted Lands in Cata, no matter what faction you prefer, I really recommend you experience them.
1 to 60 in Cataclysm is an excellent way to really see the lore of the expansion play out in game. Next week, I'm going to look at the lore of Cataclysm's end game. Did it work as well as 1 to 60? Which quests are awesome, which ones fall flat? Why do I love the first half of Uldum and avoid the second half?
While you don't need to have played the previous Warcraft games to enjoy World of Warcraft, a little history goes a long way toward making the game a lot more fun. Dig into even more of the lore and history behind the World of Warcraft in WoW Insider's Guide to Warcraft Lore.