My warlock is happy adventuring in the Southern Barrens. The scenery is new and vivid, the quests are varied and generally involving, and there is almost no one else around. I am guided from Northwatch Hold to a new oasis, then south to a camp, then further south to another fortress, all the while picking up fresh quests and working my way through them. I leave her to it, swapping back to my death knight, Gnomesblight, thinking that maybe I should take my 80th level self away from digging in Azeroth to the new region of Vashj'ir, where there is a call for heroes.
Before I go, I remember that perhaps I should pick some talents, so that I am not woefully underprepared. Talent selection is fairly easy now, needing to focus in one tree and having to put almost all your points in that tree before the other two open up for a bit of cross-training. Essentially, I pick and maximise just about every frost talent, except for those that require dual-wielding single-handed weapons, meaning little overall thought is required. I leave the cross-training talent points alone for now, only wanting to be prepared, not fully optimised. Now it's time to catch a boat.
I head to the dock, noticably phase out from everyone else when turning in the quest, then have to wait for the boat to appear whilst NPC soldiers natter on about kicking arse and taking names, or something. The boat arrives, I am taken for a ride, a cut-scene occurs. It has taken a while to get here and my attention has wandered, such that I am not sure if I need to be focussing on what's happening or if this is just another set-piece over which I have no control. Naturally, the scene just happens around me until, eventually, I am thrown back in to the game in front of an NPC with a quest. I could have made and eaten a sammich in the time it took to get here, and the cut-scene wasn't that dramatic.
Now I am underwater, which necessitates a botch job so that I am not forever struggling for air. And so I go on a first quest to attain my 'sea legs', although I can't trust a mariner who doesn't actually know the meaning of the phrase. I'm pretty sure someone who has their sea legs can't breathe underwater or swim faster. At least with my 'sea legs' I can explore further. Or just to the next NPC, who offers me quests to kill some rats. Underwater rats, of course, the goblins also presumably having their 'sea legs'.
I've read about players not getting used to the underwater combat, having trouble with gauging distances, and I have to agree. It is difficult to judge how far away a creature is with no frame of reference, which is what happens the first time you encounter a new mob. Is that eel as big as an epic sword, or as small as a gnome? You can't tell until it's biting you, at which point three more have joined in. The faux-3D of modern games works when there is an environment that augments the sense of depth, such as having ground or walls, where you can tell that the normal kobold is standing next to a giant kobold because they are both on the same horizontal plane, and you can also gauge the relative distance to them both. But when everything is floating in a nebulous 3D environment the visual cues are missing.
On top of the distance problem, mobs can now exist and attack from all directions, not just on the same plane as you. This has been seen before with flying mobs, and it was annoying then too, when an unseen chimera would swoop down as you were eating to recover the near-fatal damage from your seconds-previous last combat. You need to be much more aware of your surroundings and the possible threats in this underwater world, because the mobs can come from anywhere. It's not a terrible situation, though, and it can be managed. But it seems to be too much of a gimmick than a desired or desirable environment. I imagine the designers wanted to create a zone that allowed flying combat, but couldn't work out how to do so without ruining the experience of flight in the rest of the world, and so end up instead breaking swimming to be a peculiarity in Vashj'ir.
I am getting used to the underwater zone, just as I am overcoming the mind-boggling gear inflation once a few quest rewards and random drops brings my damage and survivability up to par. What I continue to find distasteful is the gated content. There seems to be no open access to the new zones, either here in Vashj'ir or in Mount Hyjal where my warrior started her new adventures. A single NPC gives you a quest whose completion lets you talk to maybe two more NPCs, who give you a couple of quests before sending you to the next small encampment where the process repeats. And if you ever decide to go wandering you may find some more NPCs, but they won't want to talk to you.
This isn't an adventure, it's a guided tour. 'Don't go astray, death knight', I am told, 'we're not scheduled to visit that camp until tomorrow. It's all on the itinerary. Just sit back, relax, and let us tell you the story. There's no need to go looking for it, we'll bring it right to you'. There's an obvious flaw in this methodology to quests, in that it severely inhibits an explorer's instincts. There may be plenty of new sights to see and new creatures to find, but there is no point in looking for them. You'll only have to come back and be productive here in order to later be productive there. Of course, an explorer doesn't need a point beyond exploring, but when the game essentially demands progression, and offers little for pure exploration, you need to make concessions.
I always enjoyed adventuring in Westfall and Duskwood, as both regions let me fill my quest log and run off in any direction to complete those quests. Now the number of quests in my log is barely reaching double digits, in binary. The progression is horribly linear, not allowing you to go astray for fear of ruining the, I imagine, finely crafted story you're supposed to be unfolding, regardless of whether you actually read the quest text or just the requirements for completion. I found the gated content quite irritating in Northrend, refusing to allow you to experience a new region if you were the 'wrong' level, even if you wanted to risk the dangers, and heavily restricting access to Dalaran again until you were a certain level. I thought it was a bizarre and disgraceful restriction then, but now it's worse, and phasing has to take some of the blame.
The introduction of phasing was great, allowing characters to alter the world around them, to see changes occurring because of your actions. It was a little restrictive when differently phased characters could no longer team together, but overall it was a good feature. Now phasing is everywhere, almost occurring from camp to camp as you progress through the quest you currently have. It's all part of telling the story, but it almost removes the first two Ms from MMORPG. You are phased from one point to the next, maybe seeing a few other players who happen to be on the same stage, but otherwise you won't be interacting with anyone else. Vashj'ir and Mount Hyjal are effectively single-player on-line RPGs, SORPGs. Only in dungeons, PvP, and cities do you feel a connection to other players, and even then you may not want to.
It is phasing that allows an MMORPG to create a cohesive storyline. The game no longer has to rely on static landscapes, or every player either needing to be present at the same time or have most of them miss the key event, like opening the gates to Ahn'Qiraj. And it is the overuse of phasing that is destroying the experience. I am struggling to motivate myself to continue this drudgery of hand-holding through the quest-lines, refusing to let me, a high-level adventurer who has faced epic foes, to go off on my own lest I encounter a particularly vicious crab. And it's not just the thought of doing these quests individually now that is demotivating me, because I know that if I want to level another character I'll be doing exactly the same quests again, in exactly the same order. If I don't like some of them the first time I'll hate them the second, and I probably won't have an option to bypass them. That's a crippling thought. This is no longer an adventure, it's a theme park.
Maybe it always was a theme park and only now am I realising it. I certainly can see the changes, though, and I know it was never always quite so restrictive. Luckily, there are alternatives. I am very much enjoying archaeology at the moment, which fully indulges my explorer urges, and there is always PvP to keep me amused. I may not be particularly good or useful in battlegrounds, or whatever new modes of PvP there are now, until I get some decent gear and remember how to play, but there is XP to be gained. I could probably stomach the odd bit of questing every now and again, but I doubt I'll be concentrating my time in the heavily restrictive new regions.