Saturday, October 17, 2020

In Exile

Exile's Reach is World of Warcraft's new, all-race, all-faction, all-purpose starter zone. It sailed in on the update formerly known as the Shadowlands pre-patch, blown loose from its moorings by the storm that pushed the expansion back to an as-yet unknown release date. 

Sorry. Sorry! It's hard to avoid the maritime metaphors when you've just hauled yourself up onto the beach from yet another MMORPG shipwreck. How many times have we done this now? Let me think... when was the last time? Oh, yes, that would be the New World showcase back in the summer. That long?

I love the classics, though, don't you? I mean, why re-invent the wheel, right? But I did find this particular cover version particularly ironic, what with the similarities to WoW's contemporary and so-far-back-in-the-rear-view-mirror-it's-barely-a-dot "rival", EverQuest II, but Norrath does have separate islands for the factions so it's not exactly the same. Is it?

Hard to be sure. So far, I've only run through this thing once, as a goblin with the Horde. Come to think of it, I can't recall seeing any dirty Alliance scum hanging around. Maybe there are two islands after all.

However it works, all brand-new players have no choice other than to begin in Exile's Reach. Experienced players, by which I believe Blizzard means any account that already has a character over level ten, get to choose whether to take the shipwreck or begin in their traditional racial starting zone.

Every character on my regular account (I have two - maybe three - I forget) belongs to the Alliance but I'm planning on starting a Vulpera as soon as I can get the pre-reqs done, which means having a Horde character of high enough level to do the quests. I maybe should have thought of that when they were running the months-long double xp promotion...

To kill two birds with one stone, or at least stun one of them a little, I thought I'd make a goblin and run her through the new starting experience. That also allowed me to take a look at the revamped character creation options. Hey, three birds! What is this, hunting season?

It's been so long since I last made a character in WoW I couldn't really remember how it used to be so any comparisons I might try to make between the old and new versions would be fairly meaningless. Also, WoW seems to be having some fairly serious connectivity problems since the big patch so I didn't see things at their best. 

I got disconnected just before I finished making my first goblin. Nothing saved so I had to make another. That one glitched half way through and changed several of the options I'd picked. It was hardly a slick, polished process. After about twice as long as I expected I managed to get a goblin I was happy with, a shaman, a class I don't believe I've ever played.

Things began with a short cinematic with very hyped-up voiceover bigging up the gung-ho collective responsibility of the Horde in what I thought was a peculiarly uncomfortable fashion. I wasn't quite sure if I was joining an anarcho-syndacalist collective or the U.S. marines. That tone, unfortunately, persisted for the entire time I spent in Exile's Reach and seemed set to continue into Orgrimmar, where I ended up, being given the tour by a relatively un-brainwashed goblin, ten levels later.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. How was Exile's Reach itself? 

Buggy, in a word. Really quite buggy. Like, late beta buggy. That buggy. Which I found surprising. Isn't Blizzard the company that's famous for its polish? Maybe that's Old Blizzard, as SynCaine would say.

After a few extremely basic tutorial steps (WASD, how to hit a target dummy)  I got sent to kill murlocs and retrieve First Aid kits they'd stolen. Yeah, didn't make any sense in game, either. Unfortunately I couldn't target any of them."Invalid target", every time.

I couldn't cast my one spell, a lightning bolt, but it didn't stop me killing the little blighters because right-clicking on them and auto-attacking worked fine. Didn't help as much as you'd think, though, because I couldn't loot anything I killed, which meant no first aid kits, which meant I couldn't complete the opening quest.. 


I fiddled around with that for a while and got annoyed. Logged in and out a couple of times. Tried another character to see if it was just happening in Exile's Reach (it wasn't). Eventually I found a supposed solution online (you just have to press "Alt" apparently) but when I swapped back to my gobin shaman for the third time the problem had magically fixed itself.

Not the greatest of first impressions. It occured to me that, had I been a brand new player, at this point I might have been thinking of playing something else. Since I'm a veteran I carried on. 

Some more bugs I experienced over the next couple of hours: 

  • being told to eat some food to recover my health every single time I opened my bags even though I was always at full health already
  • having as many as four flashing prompts on screen at once, all overlapping each other so none of them could be read
  • and finally (after I foolishly ate something to get the flashing prompt to go away) getting a huge banner stuck across the bottom of the screen telling me "Don't move while eating. Watch as your health recovers", which would not go away no matter what I tried.

Despite the flurry of irritating and inaccurate messages I persisted. It took me a couple of hours to get to level ten. I was quite surprised when I checked the time at the end. It seemed shorter. I probably lost twenty minutes fighting bugs so I guess it was. 


Experience and levels seemed to come pretty quickly and as advertised there was something to get excited about each time I dinged. Mostly a spell, which the game was very, very insistent I should know about. I was understanding of the first animated prompt to tell me how to open my spell book and move a spell icon onto my hotbar but less so when it was still happening at level nine.

The early stages involved a considerable amount of business around making sure my character was prepared for the danger of the fights to come. It seemed ironic considering the speed everything died. At no point was I ever in the slightest danger from anything. Most mobs fell down in two or three hits. If my goblin took any damage I didn't notice it.

Somewhere around level six, as I was running somewhere to do something for someone (to call the storyline generic would be rude to genres) I spotted a big mob with a fancy border around its name so I piled into it to see if I could get an actual fight. 

It wasn't touch and go, let's say that much. The thing did drop an eight-slot bag, though, so I was happy enough. I also received a ten-slot from a quest. With last year's Classic experience still quite fresh in my memory I suspect I may have gotten more excited about getting those bags than was wholly appropriate.


Visually, Exile's Reach is impressive. The opening area on the beach doesn't really set the scene for what follows, a romp through some very picturesque and spooky swampland. The ghost army was worth seeing, too.

In retrospect I kind of wish I'd gone a little deeper into the swamp, poked around a little, but the entire experience is very much on rails. There's little incentive to explore. The main sequence questline is extremely linear and although there's the odd side quest none of them actually take place off to the side.

As far as gameplay goes, the designers have managed to throw in several of their favorite tropes:

  • the one where you get turned into something else
  • the one where you ride an NPC as though they were a mount
  • the one where you dangle from a flying contraption
  • the one where you destroy hundreds of baddies with massive air strikes. 

Plus, naturally, all the kill ten and fetch quests you'd expect. I don't recall there being an escort quest but I may well have done one and forgotten about it.

The finale involves that nemesis of all introverted would-be soloists, the unavoidable, compulsory group instance. Being WoW, this is as automated as it possibly could be. A dungeon finder window opens, you click it and if you're lucky like I was you're in a group in less than five seconds. 

Astoundingly someone did actually take the trouble to type in "Hello everyone", to which I felt obligated to reply "Hi there", by which time the two players who hadn't taken time out to introduce themselves had already killed most of the trash and were lining up for the boss. We killed him and then (spoiler!) the real final boss spawned so we killed him too.


I was nominally playing a healer. A shaman is a healer in Wow, right? Or maybe it's not. Certainly nothing happens in Exile's Reach to suggest anyone ever needs healing of any kind. Well, other than that that blasted "eat your greens" prompt. Anyway, I did keep an eye on the other party members' health but since no-one ever went under 90% it seemed like a moot point.

There was loot that looked like it might be nice. It was blue, at least. I'd barely registered anything had dropped before I found myself alone again. I've never seen people disband so fast. I guess they had somewhere to be.

Back in the open world again, all that was left was a quick debrief and a wyvern ride to Orgrimmar. The wyvern person warned me it was a one-way trip. Frankly, I couldn't think of a reason I'd want to come back. Unless it was to bring a dictionary to show them the correct phonetic pronounciation of "Wyvern". It's Why Verne ffs, not Wivv Urn! What is it with voice actors? They do the same thing in Guild Wars 2.

Anyhoo... there I was in Orgrimmar, still bugged with that stupid food message. I was going to stop but the guy giving the tour was right in front of me and there was something about getting a mount so I carried on for a while until I got my three-wheeled hog. Or Goblin Trike as the game less than thrillingly has it.

According to Rohan at Blessing of Kings taking the tour option locks you into doing at least the Battle for Azeroth starting quests. I might as well do that anyway, since it will all be new to me. And I want my fox person!

Overall, and assuming the bugs get fixed, I wouldn't say Exile's Reach is bad. The story is perfunctory. Although there are a few amusing lines now and again, it all feels very bland. It's unoriginal but functional. It moves along at a good clip. I was never bored, at least.

But, compared with the rich, complex, involving storylines of the goblin or worgen starting areas, just to pick a couple of races, Exile's Reach is a huge step back in immersion and quality. Back in 2013, when I last played through the goblin Isle of Kazan, I called it " a fascinating place" and "genuinely laugh-out-loud funny". I also seem to remember it taking me something like two full evening sessions, maybe five or six hours, just to get to level five there, and all of it fun.

Somehow I can't see Exile's Reach ever fostering the kind of nostalgia that led Daybreak to spring the return of the Isle of Refuge on EQ2's audience as a glorious surprise. It does a job and I guess that's about as much as anyone expected.


  1. Interesting that you encountered so many bugs. My own experience on Alliance side was fine, and I was in fact happy to find that all the quests worked fine in a group, something I sadly still can't take for granted in many modern MMOs.

    Funny that the Horde starts in a swamp - sounds like they wanted to give some early faction flavour there too, as the Alliance mostly gets to quest on lush meadows instead...

    My experience with the compulsory group instance was that someone instantly dropped group. I don't know what good that will do them, since I'm guessing they'll still have to go back to complete the quest or something, but I thought it was funny and very emblematic of my experiences with grouping in modern WoW that someone would insta-quit even the tutorial instance...

    1. Ah, so there really are two islands and I guess they must be different, too. They can't use the same dialog and characters, even if they use the same plot. I'll have to make an Alliance character and run them through Exile's Reach now to see what the differences are.

      The bugginess really surprised me. What with that and the major connection issues the whole thing felt very rough and unfinished, not at all what I'd expect from WoW.


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