The battle was nearly won. Back and forth, a 16-hour war between the Frostwolf Clan and the Stormpike Expedition had ravaged this once-remote valley. Towers and strongholds had been put to the torch. Countless heroes on both sides had fallen to blade and blast. A rampaging troll king had been defeated. Air strikes had rained fire from the sky. Elementals had been summoned and vanquished.
At last, but not without heavy losses, the Frostwolf orcs and their allies had fought their way across the narrow bridge to assault the final bastion of the dwarves. All had sworn to see Vanndar Stormpike dead that day and the valley seized. They would kill him or die in the attempt.
The AV "zone"
The original version of Alterac Valley went live with patch 1.5. Along with Warsong Gulch, these two Battlegrounds were the very first ever added to WoW. Warsong Gulch was designed to be a more traditional PvP experience that anyone who had played Unreal Tournament or Halo could recognize. Some matches could last for a while, but the experience was meant to be a short-term PvP engagement.
Alterac Valley, in its first incarnation, was absolutely nothing like that. AV was not, in any modern sense of the word, a Battleground. AV was a zone.
The size of the AV instance and the 40-player limit were certainly factors in this perception. Mostly, AV was more zone than Battleground because it was absolutely packed to the gills with NPCs, bosses, and quests.
Faction NPCs guarded every tower, graveyard, and keep. They also patrolled their respective sides. Many of these NPCs were named elites that took dedicated teams of players to kill. Of course, there were quests to kill each one. There were also escort quests to rescue captured NPC elites from the other side's strongholds.
Believe it or not, the first NPCs that players would encounter did not always belong to the opposite faction. Troggs and kobolds guarded the mines and had to be cleared out periodically. A group of trolls known as the Winterax occupied the central hills. Their champion, Korrak the Bloodrager, roamed the Fields of Strife. Korrak was no joke. He was basically a raid boss in the middle of the zone.
Quests rewarded players for conquering these NPCs as well. In fact, the rewards for killing Korrak were so good that the earliest AV battles often began with both factions fighting over the chance to kill him.
In a prototype version of dailies, repeatable quests allowed you to rep up with the Frostwolves and Stormpikes. It may sound odd to do repeatable quests in the middle of a Battleground. On the contrary, it felt perfectly natural back then, but only because those AV battles lasted a long, looong time.
No resource mechanic limited the original AV Battleground. You couldn't simply bleed your opponent dry. There was only one path to victory: Slay the opposing general. The battle would not end under either Vanndar or Drek'Thar fell.
For that reason, said battles could last an entire day or more, not to mention that the variety of tasks that could be undertaken tended to dilute the number of players actively fighting the other side. The original AV even had gathering nodes and fishing spots! It was not unusual to jump into an AV Battleground at the beginning of your WoW session, spend several hours fighting there, and then log off for the night without any idea of which side might eventually win.
Blizzard offered NPC summonings to help you turn the tide. You could summon a cavalry charge, an air strike, and a raid-level boss to give yourself an edge against your foe. Such summonings required a massive amount of "quest drops" from the zone itself. But they were very much worth it. Lokholar the Ice Lord and Ivus the Forest Lord required an awful lot of blood/crystals, but they were imposing champions who won a lot of AV battles for their summoners.
The old summonings can still be achieved in today's AV. Indeed, they come in handy in dire circumstances. But the AV battles are so short now that it's difficult to trigger them. Newer players may not even know they exist.
Fun with portals
Because AV offered so much to do and the battles could take long hours to win or lose, getting in to an actual AV battle was a challenge. You couldn't jump in using a convenient city-based NPC or a UI element. To queue up, you had to ride out to the portal in the Alterac Mountains.
Battlegrounds weren't populated across realms, so the queue was often just as endless as the matches were. Players impatient for action would sometimes attack enemies waiting by the opposite faction's portal. In some cases, these clashes escalated until they were bigger than those occurring in AV itself!
No honor in AFK
The same patch that added AV also ushered in the first incarnation of the honor system. That system was based purely on participation time rather than winning. Players figured out early on that they gained honor in AV no matter what they were doing. The Battleground suffered an epidemic of players sitting in a corner of the zone AFKing for honor.
After years of complaints, Blizzard finally cracked down on it in patch 2.2 with a feature that allowed players to report AFKers. Later, the company issued penalties for players who received too many complaints, including account suspensions.
Nerfs and more nerfs
Over the years, Blizzard has scaled back the NPC involvement in AV time and time again. First, they reduced NPC damage. Then they made most of the elites into nonelites. Most of the NPCs have now been removed.
The infamous Korrak was relocated to the Snowfall graveyard at first. Players had to defeat him before they could claim that graveyard. Now retired from AV, he spends his golden years at the Amphitheater of Anguish.
Patch. 2.3 brought the resource mechanic, and the battles have been considerably shorter ever since. Despite the changes, AV still has quite a few quests -- far more than any other Battleground.
Each side claims imbalance
Players noted right away that the two sides of the map were very different. Horde players believed that the differences worked out in the Alliance's favor. They claimed that Alliance-side bottlenecks -- especially the bridge in front of the final towers -- were harsher. Their towers and graveyards were better defended with more effective walls and positions.
What couldn't be debated was that the Horde's ultimate stronghold had a fence that could be jumped if you knew how. Doing so placed sneaky Alliance players in the rear of the fortress where NPCs were light. They could skip most of the hardest terrain, seize the final graveyard, and assault Drek'Thar directly.
When the resource mechanic went live in 2.3, the perceived bias took a 180. Alliance players then considered AV to favor the Horde, because their starting cave was much closer to the critical map objectives. Blizzard eventually moved the cave farther back in 2.4.
It's disappointing to me that Blizzard has never attempted to recreate a modern take on the original AV. Nothing in WoW since has ever blended PvE and PvP in such a large-scale and potently chaotic mixture.
The Wintergrasp and Tol Barad world PvP zones have come closest to AV's origins, but even they featured relatively short, focused battles with very little NPC interaction. Maybe Blizzard just doesn't think people will care about the outcome of a battle that could take an entire day to win. Maybe Blizzard is right.
In terms of Horde/Alliance aggression, however, nothing has ever felt more like a living, breathing war than that first version of AV. A 10-minute Arathi Basin battle is convenient, but in terms of immersion it's not even close.
The original AV was one of Blizzard's most ambitious designs. I wouldn't argue that it was entirely a success, but I do miss that kind of experience.
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