When a game has been around for over 10 years and 6 expansions, you know that there will be a lot of ground to cover. Countless hours were spent searching every nook and cranny of Azeroth and it is now time to highlight some of the very best it has to offer. It was a challenging list to narrow down resulting in a lot of fantastic as well as a few awful but memorable ones being cut.
Warlords of Draenor made great strides in improving the already cinematic story telling that began with the Wrathgate in WotLK and has grown over the years, but the biggest problem was the stories in each zone were still stand alone and irrelevant to the overarching expansion story. Legion has made it a mission to link every zone and every story, and all roads lead to Suramar. Or perhaps, all flight paths? Wherever you decide to go on the Broken Isles, your flight down will take you right over Suramar, giving you a beautiful view of the city and of course the dire looking Nighthold, and every zone connects to your final destination.
That says nothing about the questing, and nothing frames the desperation of the ongoing storyline of rebellion and loss as Suramar does. The city itself is expansive, gorgeous and alive; if I could choose any faction city, this would be it without a question. Questing is unique and varied, including withered training which involves leading an army against hordes of foes. Nothing though quite tops the main feature, as many quests and dailies in the city take advantage of a stealth system which includes grappling to roof tops, hiding in baskets and avoiding foes that can see through your disguise. Sure, it’s basic compared to games built around stealth mechanics- but it’s always nice to see something new and unique to break up the doldrums of kill questing.
The one notch against Suramar is the elite section of the city is insurmountable; absolutely packed with foes and with nothing of interest beyond the occasional daily.
4. Valley of the Four Winds
Blizzard did something different with the story in Mists of Pandaria, focusing for the first time on the battle between Alliance and the Horde. Of course, this was the basis of the RTS games so long ago, but the MMO has always kept it on the sideline, with major storylines revolving around deadly monsters and the battle being relegated to single zones or battlegrounds out of sight. On Pandaria, the war is in your face and often times brutal, but while Suramar above catches the dread of ruthless occupation, Valley of the Four Winds does the opposite.
The Valley is simply charming and rural, its big secret is the inhabitants are trying to live fulfilling lives. What it does so well is show that even on Azeroth, people do have normal lives and normal concerns away from cataclysms and burning legion invasions. You’re introduced to this zone second, after you’ve gotten a rudimentary understanding of the land and the dangers you’ve unleashed through your faction’s war mongering. The Valley allows you to see how the pandaren lived without the Horde and Alliance, and this is ever more poignant as a baseline compared to what happens later on as a result of the war’s destructive climax.
3. Mount Hyjal
Hyjal is perhaps the game’s most legendary zone, years before it even came out. Everyone knew where it was, and you would hear tales of people sneaking in through clever wall climbing and finding a barren zone under construction. It was also featured in the Caverns of Time as you went back to face Archimonde. With Cataclysm, the legend became reality, and what a reality it was. Bringing back the original epic raid boss, Ragnaros as a villain, as well as revealing the traitorous Staghelm (whom nobody ever liked to begin with), the journey down the mountain to open up the Firelands was the most epic use of the game’s reputation system to date.
Gating behind reps had been common throughout the game, but with Hyjal and the Firelands you had a multi tiered approach to dailies, which were more concentrated and unlocked more as you did more. It felt like a siege, but most importantly it was always active, whereas many other daily areas rapidly went empty largely due to very limited value in rewards and an extreme time commitment to completion.
The ability to get the entire server on board in the siege of the firelord’s lair made this zone feel extremely relevant to the attached raid, and that sort of connection had been often abysmal in previous cases.
2. Kezan and the Lost Isles
Technically yes, this is two zones when put together make up the goblin starting zone, but goodness what a two zones these were. Starting zones have regularly been a mix of tutorial and introduction to the story, and as everyone knows, tutorials suck. WoW’s had plenty of decent starting zones, there’s nothing wrong with them and they mostly stand out as just as good as any other zone if not a bit more packed with content.
Kezan though is different. It captures goblin culture beautifully, in something that is quick paced, crazy and hilarious all at once. The biggest downside is that once you leave you can’t go back, but the best part is you can enjoy this zone as long as you have a free character slot. If you have not made a goblin, make one if for no other reason to enjoy this gem.
1. Timeless Isle
This is how an MMO should play, all the time. Blizzard created this island as the Mists catch up mechanic, and it performed that task beautifully, but there are other areas that have that mechanic, some of which were forgettable if not downright awful (I’m looking at you Tanaan, if I ever do a bottom 5). It had neat side events, like an entertaining quartet of world bosses with major lore backgrounds, a unique take on pvp and even a battle pet tournament (the real WoW end game).
Flight was taken away, but it worked as it let them create a series of jumping puzzles and encourage exploration. The vital part though was rares with valuable collector’s items. This, again, is nothing new. Everyone knows the legend of the Time Lost Proto Drake, aptly named, and many hunters know the agony of tracking down the rarest of pets for hours if not days. While being one of the most compact zones in the game, and also heavily populated with said rares, that also isn’t what made the Timeless Isle so special.
Whether you sought the rarest or just something you really wanted, chances are at some point you’ve tried farming something in WoW, and if that was a rare world mob you likely spent a great deal of time and have screamed at your computer when someone swoops in and snipes it a second before you. Rare farming was aggravating, most players did not want to do it at all, and even those that did generally despised every part of it except for the reward- if they ever even got one.
Timeless Isle flipped that on its head by making all the rares spawn within moments of each other, by corralling most players into a single zone, and most importantly by introducing rares that would reward everyone who participated, not just the first person to get off their instant spam at the spawn point. What’s important though isn’t the convenience, as nice as that was.
The reason this is the number one zone, and should be the gold standard for mmo zone making is the result. Players cooperated with each other. To someone who doesn’t play mmos, that might not sound ground breaking- but for the rest of us, that’s like discovering the world is actually round. Zone chat was filled with people letting others know when rares were up, people tagged and waited for others to trickle in and arrive rather than simply going all out on damage. This isn’t guildies, this is random people in a game that is often maligned for its toxic community, naturally cooperating on a massive scale due simply to the intelligent design of the zone.
It also introduced cooperative concepts that have been the backbone for the current expansion, Legion. Hopefully, we’ll see another zone of its like.