Under the Burning Skies: Val’sharah

With the rain and the thunder of Stormheim behind me, I now turn my eyes to the lush groves of Val’sharah for my second Legion zone.

The Val'sharah zone in World of Warcraft: LegionAs this is an area steeped in the culture and history of the Night Elves, it seems only appropriate that I send my monk. With the Wanderer’s Companion in hand and the backing of the Order of the Broken Temple, she is ready to teach the Legion to fear the night.

Andu-falah-dor.

Val’sharah-sharah, whatever will be, will be…

Just as Stormheim was a clear play to Wrath of the Lich King nostalgia, Val’sharah is a clear throwback to old Night Elf zones like Teldrassil and Ashenvale. Visually, it’s almost exactly a graphically updated Ashenvale, and the music is deliberately similar.

I have less fond memories of those areas than I did for the Howling Fjord, so the play to nostalgia isn’t as effective for me as it was in Stormheim.

I do like Elves, though, and this is very much the Night Elves’ show. The whole zone is so unrelentingly Elfy I can hear Syp squirming from here — an image which can only endear me to the zone. 😛

I particularly liked seeing all the updated Night Elf architecture — it’s absolutely gorgeous. I’m glad the game is finally letting go of its human/Orc obsession, at least for a little while.

The bleak coast of Val'sharah in World of Warcraft: LegionWith that being said, though, I think my favourite part of the zone was the wind-blown coast around Black Rook Hold. It’s stunningly beautiful, albeit in a very grim manner, and I wish we could have gotten an entire zone with that aesthetic.

All in all, I’d say Val’sharah, like Stormheim, is firmly in the “okay, not great” category. It’s not unpleasant, but nor does it rank among WoW’s more memorable experiences to date.

I’d say its biggest problem is that its pacing is off. You start out doing a lot of pointless busywork to gather a bunch of archdruids that you never see again, but then everything starts going catastrophically wrong at once, and that half feels too rushed.

It was nice to see Tyrande out and doing things again, but I would have liked to see her doing more. This is Tyrande frickin’ Whisperwind. There should have been a scene where she murders a whole cohort of doomguards with her bare hands or something.

Similarly, I like the idea of bringing Xavius back again (even if this is, like, the third or fourth time he’s come back from the dead), but he didn’t get enough attention. I wanted more explanation of how he’s come back again, and why now, and generally more build-up to make me truly hate him as a villain.

That’s not to say he didn’t do much. I don’t want to spoil things too heavily, but suffice it to say we lost yet another character. This expansion’s body count is absolutely insane, and I’m only two zones in.

A cave in the Val'sharah zone in World of Warcraft: LegionI’m not necessarily against killing off [REDACTED]. But it happened too quickly, too suddenly, and with too little struggle. There should have been more of an attempt to save them. We as heroes seemed to just give up right out of the gate, and [REDACTED] should have put up more of a fight.

Also, while I enjoyed the story surrounding Bradensbrook and Black Rook Hold, as well as seeing Jarod again, I really don’t like how the game is just sort of hand-waving away all the murder and treason Maiev’s done.

This is one of those times where I really wish WoW had something like Bioware’s story choices. My monk is a loyal Sentinel. There’s no way she would have let Maiev walk away a free woman. She’d have brought Maiev to justice or died trying.

Finally, Val’sharah’s dungeon, Darkheart Thicket, is once again good but not great. I found it better paced and well-balanced than Halls of Valor, but it’s a bit visually drab.

It was very nice to be tanking again, though, even if brewmaster is not quite what it once was. I’m surprised other MMOs haven’t followed WoW’s lead in rethinking the traditional tanking model. Since active mitigation, tanking in WoW is vastly more fun than in any other game I’ve played.

I think I did reasonably well considering I’m out of practice and had never done the dungeon before. A few pulls got a bit hairy, but nobody died, and at the end, one of the DPS even complimented me on my tanking. You don’t see that often.

My monk posing with Fu Zan, the Wanderer's Companion in World of Warcraft: LegionSo that now makes two zones down, both adequate but not spectacular. It almost feels like the leveling zones became an afterthought while all the best effort was put toward the artifact quests and class stories.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though, as we’re still getting awesome story content. Just not in the way we usually would.

Under the Burning Skies: Stormheim, Artifacts, and More

Now that World of Warcraft once again has a new setting that I care about, I plan to take an in-depth look at each new zone as I play through it, just like I did back in Pandaria. Except this time, we’re not venturing into the mists; we’re battling under the burning skies.

The Stormheim zone in World of Warcraft: LegionIn keeping with the Mustering of Azeroth, I’ve also decided that I’m going to play through each zone on a different character my first time through.

To start, Maigraith ventures into Stormheim.

But first…

One thing that has surprised me about Legion is the wealth of pre-max level content outside the standard questing zones. That’s not something we’ve really seen before — at least not on this scale. It does sort of screw up my desire give each zone its own neat little post, but I’ll soldier on.

Firstly, there’s artifacts. I knew about artifact quests going in, but they’ve turned out to be far more lavish and involved than I expected.

Put simply, I think artifacts are probably the best thing to happen to WoW in years. Artifact quests are absolutely fantastic, full of excellent story-telling, epic adventure, and an unusual (and welcome) level of challenge for WoW’s solo content.

My favourite so far is probably Ashbringer — because Ashbringer — but the brewmaster artifact (Fu Zan, the Wanderer’s Companion) is a very close second. It was almost a microcosm of Mists of Pandaria as a whole — fun and whimsical at times, but deadly serious where it counted.

My monk on the quest for Fu Zan, the Wanderer's Companion in World of Warcraft: LegionAfterward it occurred to me there was a double purpose to all of the Monkey King’s tasks. On the surface he just wanted me to brew him some beer, but in the process I basically saved Pandaria’s food supply. Clever.

I adore how much the artifact quests utilize the entire game world, not just the new content. It makes the world feel so much richer and more alive, and it once again hammers home that nowhere is safe from the Legion.

This probably the first time in WoW’s history it’s matched the cinematic scale of the old RTS games.

On the other hand, I’m less impressed with the new class halls. I’m still not clear on what the actual point of them is supposed to be. I like the class-specific storylines so far — adventuring with the Black Harvest especially — but I don’t see why they need to be tied to a somehow even more half-baked version of garrisons.

And I really don’t like what they’ve done with professions. I think the idea was to make them a bit less boring, and that’s a noble goal, but in practice it seems like all they’ve done is taken a tedious, unrewarding chore and made it even more tedious and unrewarding.

My paladin seeks Ashbringer in World of Warcraft: LegionNow, onto Stormheim.

Pinin’ for the fjords:

A lot of Legion seems to be a calculated attempt at playing to nostalgia of longtime WoW veterans, and Stormheim is one of the clearest examples yet. It’s basically the Howling Fjord 2.0.

The environments are similar, the musical callbacks are not even remotely subtle, and the subject matter and story are eerily close to that of Wrath of the Lich King’s eastern starter zone.

Mind you, I like the Howling Fjord, so none of that is necessarily a bad thing.

It also struck me that Stormheim feels much more like a sequel to Mists of Pandaria than Warlords of Draenor ever did. Right away you’re back on the Skyfire with Admiral Rogers and Mishka, and the early quests have a feeling of being lost in a strange land that echoes the Jade Forest. It’s almost like WoD never happened.

Again, not complaining.

Stormheim's Runewood in World of Warcraft: LegionOverall, I enjoyed Stormheim, but not as much as I was expecting to. I do very much appreciate the Norse flavour of the zone — though the constant mispronunciation of the J’s is driving me up a wall — but there aren’t a lot of big revelations or “wow” moments, God-King Skovald is just a much duller version of Ymiron, and boy is it a frustrating zone to navigate.

Is it my imagination, or has Blizzard’s decision to scale back on flying coincided with zones becoming much more difficult to navigate from the ground? Yo, dawg, we heard you like cliffs…

Similarly, the zone’s associated dungeon, Halls of Valor, is good but not great. It’s very pretty, but it has a bit too much trash for my taste. TSW has spoiled me in this regard.

The one thing I did really appreciate about Stormheim is its weather. Obviously, WoW has had weather effects for a long time, but never before have they been so dramatic — not even in rain-drenched Pandaria.

When the rain blows into Stormheim — which it does often — the entire character of the zone changes. It gets much darker, and the gloom and driving rain gives the area a much grimmer, bleaker feeling. It’s incredibly beautiful, albeit in a very stark way.

The rain pours down in Stormheim in World of Warcraft: LegionAlso, man do I ever want playable Vrykul now.

Like, so bad.

So, so bad.

* * *

So right now Legion seems to embodying the wildly inconsistent quality we’ve come to expect from World of Warcraft over the years.