Friday, September 23, 2016

Urban Questing in Suramar

A few years ago, I remember talking with a friend about how it would be cool if there were a zone in World of Warcraft that was just a big city. Technically speaking, you could make the argument for Zul'drak in Northrend being a city - the entire place is built up with paved (albeit crumbling) roads and its major geographical features are buildings.

But you could also make the argument that this wasn't quite the urban environment that qualifies something truly as a city.

Around Cataclysm, Blizzard sort of stopped doing cities. Actually, just after the launch of Cataclysm.

It was the first expansion in which there was no new capital city for us to go to. Stormwind and Orgrimmar (particularly Orgrimmar) got a lot of remodeling. We did see two other urban settings, though, both involving the then-new playable races.

Worgen players begin their adventure as humans in Gilneas City while the Worgen attack. Gilneas City is, actually, one of my favorite settings they've ever created in-game, and you actually wind up going through there twice - once as the 1-5 "kiddie pool" leveling sub-zone and again toward the end of the Gilneas quests. Rogues doing the Fangs of the Father chain would also go there to eliminate one of Wrathion's blacklist.

Goblins also started in a city, or at least an urban environment on the northern coast of Kezan. Personally I'm holding out hope that some future South Seas expansion (one of the handful of perennial expansion concepts) has us return to Kezan. But we do get to see what a place built entirely by Goblins looks like, and of course it's a cartoonishly chaotic mix of unchecked capitalism and pyromania.

But we don't spend much time there, and of course we cannot return (I hope only yet.)

The Battle for Gilneas Battleground, even, was originally planned to be a street-battle in the city (granted, probably an altered map,) but Blizzard decided that they couldn't balance things with all the line of sight issues, probably giving a massive advantage to melee classes.

So as someone who has hoped for a truly urban zone, I've been fascinated by Suramar.

Granted, Suramar City is actually just one part of the zone - there is plenty of space in the zone that is your typical open-air landscape. But Suramar City is dense - the streets of Suramar really do feel urban, with tons of people everywhere and a strong sense that there is actually a significant population.

I wouldn't be surprised if the number of NPCs in Suramar is much higher than those in, say, Stormwind. Though of course it is not the size of a real-world city (which would probably take up the entirety of the Broken Isles) being down on the street-level makes the city feel vast.

Not only that, but they also set the place up so that you are incentivized to go through the city carefully. You can disguise yourself to pass by most of the guards unnoticed, with only the occasional sharp-eyed guard or demonic emissary who can force you to drop your disguise. Running through the city undisguised will result in about a million guards descending upon you, and while granted, that's just good sport for my Death Knight, the greater convenience of using your disguise helps to reinforce the feeling of being a member of an underground resistance.

That's actually something we don't get often in World of Warcraft. There's rarely this sense of an evil empire we have to fight off. Generally speaking, we have safe places like Stormwind and Orgrimmar, or Dalaran, where the establishment might have its moral ambiguities (well, if you're Horde) but where you get the sense that common folk can feel safe. The threats we deal with tend to be the ones infiltrating and operating in secret. How many times have the guards in Stormwind Keep turned out to be evil monsters in disguise? (I count three.) But the point is that they're the ones that are in disguise.

Elisande's reach really doesn't seem to extend much beyond Suramar, but within that city, her tyranny (and of course the tyranny of the ones who have coerced her) feels heavy and oppressive, which makes it that much more satisfying to oppose it.

I'm very impressed with Legion so far - it is on track to surpass even Wrath of the Lich King as the game's best expansion - and one of the main reasons for this is the way that Blizzard is demonstrating how they can do things in this game that they've never done before, even twelve years on.

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