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WoW Wednesday: The Zones of Zandalar

The Battle for Azeroth has finally begun! Launching worldwide earlier this week, World of Warcraft’s 7th expansion has brought us to a world on the brink of war. Following right on the tail of the controversial War of Thorns and the short but sweet Battle for Lordaeron, the Horde and the Alliance now scramble to repair their devastated naval fleets and regain valuable allies for the war to come. As the Champion of your faction, it’s up to you to unite long forgotten ties, quell ancient evils, and save the world itself…

“Tha Heart o’ Azeroth… It might be tha only wae ta save her!”

In preparation for your journeying in Azeroth over the next two weeks I’ll be bringing you zone summaries and reviews for the newest zones in the game not only to give you critical thoughts on the newest leveling content but also to help you decide where to best spend your time as you level up in Kul Tiras and Zandalar.

 

Reader Beware: Spoilers Ahead!

This week we’ll be taking an in-depth look at the leveling experience for the Alliance and their aggressive negotiations with the kingdom of Zandalar. Summoned first by Magni Bronzebeard, the Speaker for Azeroth, he beseeches you to help the dying world in a last effort to mend her devastating wound. Taking the very Heart of Azeroth itself, Magni entrusts you with its keeping; to infuse it with Azerite and one day return it so the world can finally be healed.

Taking tally of the losses from the vicious Siege of the Undercity, the Warchief tasks particular champions of her Horde on a mission of great secrecy; to rescue a captured political prisoner that could dramatically shift the war in the Horde’s favor. Embedding heroes deep into the heart of Stormwind, you and some of your newest allies must rescue Princess Talanji, heir to the Zandalari Empire and her advisor, Zul the Prophet. Escaping Alliance pursuit by the skin of one’s tusks, the Horde’s away team makes landfall on Zuldazar, homeland of the first and greatest empire of Azeroth: Zandalar. Singlehandedly, the Kingdom’s impressive fleet could lay siege to Stormwind and level it in a day, something the Horde desperately needs to continue its war. However, the rescuers have instead found themselves amid a nation at war.

Princess Talanji of the Zandalar, directing the Horde across the region.

Upon their arrival it’s quite clear that King Rastakhan, ruler of the Zandalari Empire, no longer sees as much as he once did in his tenure. His advisers, the Zanchuli Council, whisper poison and misdirection in his ear at all hours of the day. The lord of his armies and navies, General Jakra’zet, openly cries his disdain against the Horde while burying his secrets in Vol’dun. Most alarming of all are the Blood Trolls, radical fanatics that have begun to wage a dark war on the Empire and who will not stop until all kneel before a newer, bloodthirsty Loa.

Marshaled by Princess Talanji, the Horde must work ferociously to keep a nation together and earn the trust of the King. Only by crushing the machinations of his chief advisers and securing his rule can the Zandalari fleet be bartered and used for the naval domination in the upcoming war.

As you venture throughout the new continents in Battle For Azeroth, you’ll eventually gain access to both Kul Tiras and Zandalar. However, as the former requires the smallest bit of work to unlock, we’ll first go over the three zones of Zandalar.

 

Nazmir

The Necropolis of Nazmir, home to the Loa of Death…

The swamps of Nazmir bear dark rumors in their trees. It’s often said that those venturing into the oppressive marsh never return, and the locals believe that. Several Zandalari mourn their Princess’ fate as she marches with you to the land of the Blood Trolls, assured that she will never return from her crusade. Even now, those cannibalistic savages wage war on the realm of Zuldazar, intent on sacrificing all to their great god, G’huun. Soon they will bind a great titanic construct to their will and unleash its wrath upon the world. Bargains and deals must be made now with the Loa of the Zandalari, lest not even the Horde be able to stop what the Blood Trolls can unleash.

If Drustvar is the Alliance’s dark zone, then Nazmir truly belongs to the Horde. Evoking design themes from both Gilneas and the Swamp of Sorrows, this zone feels like anything could strike out at a single moment. Music is often scarce or minor, playing on the empirical styling of Zuldazar while drawing forth stressful memories of films such as Alien or 1994’s Apocalypse Now. Nazmir’s design bleeds horror, and fans of the truly blood-soaked genres will feel at home here. Even while playing in the daylight hours, I felt as if I was walking onto the scene of the next great cinema scare.

“If dey free dat Construct, it will mean the end of Zuldazar!”

The questing structure is designed much like a chain of smaller hubs linked to each other throughout the zone. Completing three quests fighting a sect of Blood Trolls with then chain to the next series of three to four quests in aiding a Loa, for example. This almost episodic style of questing ensures that the varied story-lines of Nazmir never outstay their welcome or slow the pace of the area too much. As such while some story beats feel less impactful than they truly should each moment keeps the tempo of the ones before it. Those that do hit home often miss the mark as the story escalates, but the most impressive story beats still ring true.

Frankly, for me, Nazmir was a zone that felt the weakest in comparison to all the others in Battle for Azeroth. While it beautifully sets up the major villain of the expansion’s first raid and gives us a reason to truly fear what G’huun can do, part of me expected quite a bit more from the culture with quite a bit of legacy in the Warcraft universe. Veteran players will remember the Gurubashi Trolls and their blood god Atal’Hakkar the Soulflayer, the raid boss so nice they instanced him twice; once in the 5-man dungeon Sunken Temple and again in the 20-man raid Zul’Gurub, both of which were later remastered in Cataclysm. With both the Amani and Gurubashi having returned previously (with the aid of the Zandalari nonetheless), it seems as if both have been regretfully wiped off of the face of Azeroth despite many other minor tribes making NPC appearances on the island of Zandalar. While G’huun is a monstrous entity all on his own and these trolls are almost as horrific as the Gurubashi of patches past, there’s still a part of me that wishes for a true conclusion to the threat Hakkar made upon our return to Zul’Gurub.

 

Zuldazar

A Mojo Construct keeping watch over Zuldazar’s temples.

The King of the Zandalar has grown blind to his land and the enemies besieging its borders. His advisers, already distrusting of the Horde, speak lies and misleading words in his ears. Even now, one of his chief diplomats prepares to unleash a terrible evil and dethrone the King by bringing an apocalypse upon the seat of the Zandalari Empire. The Horde must scramble its forces and work from the shadows not only to expose the traitor in the King’s midst, but to earn the trust and respect of the rulers of this savage kingdom.

Fans of The Road to El Dorado will love the world design of Zuldazar and its capital, Dazar’alor. Relaxed percussive soundtracks permeate throughout the urban jungle and zone, more in line with the music of Crash Bandicoot than tribal beats expected in a deep and vibrant jungle. Things can get a little drab to look at on occasion with only two distinct color palettes; large swatches of dirt red and lighter gold for cityscapes, with shades of greens and blues for the tangled jungle. However, surprising NPCs and races make threatening cameos in the world, from the Mogu introduced in Mists of Pandaria to the various tribes of the Troll Empire.

Merchants in Zuldazar take a reprieve from the torrential rains.

Falling in line with those quaint surprises, the storyline of Zuldazar is far more enticing than Nazmir’s. Beginning immediately with a series of branching questlines, you’re introduced to the various diplomatic personalities of the Zulchani advisors and set to task on earning their trust. Later reuniting with the troubled group your player character is led to one of the more intriguing plot twists in Horde questing. The outside wars come home to Zandalar and things become far more interesting very early on in this zone.

Zuldazar contains some of the better questing content and story writing for the Horde’s campaign in Battle for Azeroth. In my playing, I truly wish I had saved it as the last Horde zone as it ties together not only missing threads from Mists of Pandaria but also creates a wonderful capstone in the lore of the disparate Troll tribes of Azeroth. This zone frankly would suffice all on its own as the capstone quest line as it feels far more complete, even with story elements related to questing in Nazmir. However, it also suffers in a similar but reduced fashion to Stormsong, where some of the necessary portions of the quest-line and lore lie outside the main focus of an otherwise powerful main storyline. This does not reduce its impact by any stretch, but it certainly reduces the force and verve.

 

Vol’dun

A Sethraki Temple under siege from the “Faithless.”

The sands of Vol’dun hide many mysteries to the unwary traveler. From exiled brigands and criminals to deadly Krokolusks, death is everywhere in this barren desert. General Jakra’zet, the lord of the Zandalari’s military might, toils away in these sands with dark secrets. Those that question his intentions are banished to the desert themselves. The Sethrak wage war to unlock a great weapon, one that the General is keenly interested in and one that could spell doom for the entirety of Azeroth.

Vol’dun is bleak. From its zone design to its plot, the zone feels hopeless to the extreme. Much like Fallout, however, Vol’dun handles this atmosphere by dotting the landscape with little bits of life; while the center of this area is a sea of sand dunes, scattered around its outskirts are oases, Sethraki settlements and the meager existence several exiles have created. To the north is the imposing Temple of Sethraliss and the majority of the Sethraki’s mighty army. Only when you reach the outskirts of Vol’dun do things get livelier, with a patch of green in a Tortollan Oasis, to the hijinks of an undead pirate crew.

A pair of Tortollans seeking refuge in one of Vol’dun’s scarce oases.

The main storyline is much the same as the zone; while it’s incredibly interesting with plenty of life dotting its landscape, much like the previous zones it bears the heavy and dark storytelling necessary to set up the biggest threats for 8.1’s Uldir raid. Things aren’t all bleary and bleak with segues into Vulpera rebels, undead japes, and friction between Sethraki factions. Featuring a compelling central conflict, things can throw players for a loop as story beats plod onward. After both Nazmir and Zuldazar these plot points don’t hold nearly as much surprise as before, victim to the necessities of developing the expansion storyline more than being a fun adventure.

I love the entirety of Vol’dun. Every single second felt like the biggest and most important adventure for the Horde to embark on, truly battling against all odds. The design for the zone, however, makes it all hard to slog through. Whereas Stormsong Valley had a beautiful zone and at times painful content, Vol’dun suffers from the opposite. After committing to some World PvP at 120, I find it feels better suited to a world-wide warzone than a questing hub.

 

The War Effort

As you venture into Zandalar to save the crown of Zuldazar the Honorbound, an elite Horde fighting force headed by Nathanos Blightcaller, are preparing to take the war to the Alliance’s newest allies on the shores of Kul Tiras. After getting permission for their vessel to dock in Dazar’alor, he will send you into the world to retrieve War Resources to supply the campaign. These resources can be used to upgrade your war effort, send champions of the Horde out on missions in the field or otherwise engage the Alliance in the same vein of the Garrison and Class Hall system of Warlords of Draenor and Legion.

Zones of Zandalar

Alliance Ships, docked for war in Borallus.

Using these resources, your forces can now look at setting up invasion points across the Kul Tiran homeland. These zones are less full-fledged leveling content and more introductions to the shores beyond Zandalar, establishing the Horde’s story points in each area. While the war is at your fingertips now, you can read about the zones of Kul Tiras here in last week’s column.

 

The Pride of Zandalar

King Rastakhan and his Zanchuli Council.

New to Battle for Azeroth is the concept of Capstone Quests. These quest-lines will put together a final overarching story-line for the continent, tying up loose ends and answering questions left from the content players have engaged with. Zandalar is now a realm at the greatest peril, with enemies on all sides and the greatest Loa incapacitated. It now falls to you, Speaker of the Horde, to protect the legacy of King Rastakhan and save the Zandalari people from the greatest threat to their future: themselves.

Zandalar, for me, was a difficult series of zones to get through. While some of this might be attributed to power leveling a second character just weeks into the launch of a new expansion, the other portion is from the sheer weight this entire continent holds above itself. It alone sets up all of the content for the first major raid and all the conflict that leads to makes it hard to see a win anywhere for the Horde. While Kul Tiras does help in somewhat preparing future patch content, it still manages to sprinkle a few victories for the Alliance throughout and keep things light. While the Greatest Empire of All is a joy to level through and enrapturing to explore, the future is bleak and can leave a player feeling hollow in the face of what comes next.

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About Phil DeMerchant

A young pundit of the Industry, Phil first fell in love with gaming through World of Warcraft and the 3D platformers of the Playstation Era. Honing his expertise over years of reporting, he now focuses on investigative work on appraising and evaluating industry practices.