Where phasing failed
While the phasing mechanic is a unique and entertaining way to give players the impression that they are somehow changing the world and adds a new and unique dimension to storytelling, there are problems with using too much phasing in a zone. Phased players cannot see other players in the area, which makes the storytelling really stand out -- but this can also hamper players looking for groups, as they have to not only find players that are willing to help, but are also in the same phase of the quest line.
As mentioned above, Icecrown makes heavy use of phasing throughout the zone. But as more players made their way through the area at the beginning of the expansion, it became harder and harder for those who didn't race to 80 to find groups for the massive amount of quests that required groups in the area. Icecrown should be a group effort from a story line standpoint, as your entire faction is concentrating on defeating the Lich King -- but when you are the only one who can see the mob you are trying to kill and that mob requires five people, it gets tricky. As it stands currently in game, when I attend a raid at Icecrown Citadel, I see only a handful of the other players in the raid, because everyone else is in various states of being phased through the zone. It's a matter of moderation -- and while I can understand the need to blow us away with the new mechanic, it seems as though Icecrown overdid it to the point where it interfered with gameplay, something that I'm sure was not intended.
How phasing could be improved
I'm not a programmer, and I have very little idea of how the mechanics of phasing actually "work" -- I just sit back and watch the magic happen. However, it seems as though Icecrown was a case of simply overdoing it as far as phasing went. New mechanics can be fun, but as we've seen with vehicular combat, there is definitely such a thing as too much. Tone it down a little for Cataclysm, and keep a sharp eye on zone phasing so people don't run into the same problems as Wrath -- 5-man quests that can never really be completed because there's never anyone in the same phase to do them.
Where cinematics fell short
There are currently only two cinematic cutscenes in Wrath: the Wrathgate scene and the fall of the Lich King. In this case, it's not a matter of overdoing it; it's a matter of what more could have been done. There were plenty of other instances in which a cinematic would've been wholly appropriate -- Alganon's defeat, for example. Better yet, the trailers released for the game -- the Ulduar trailer, for example -- could have been somehow incorporated in game for better effect. While I enjoy checking out the trailers on the website, not everyone does so -- and with a scene like the one in the Ulduar trailer, it deserved to be highlighted in game.
The quality of trailer cinematics for the various patches that have been released has improved dramatically since the beginnings of gameplay trailers and zone introductions back in vanilla. It would be awesome to see this mechanic being used in conjunction with phasing a little more often and bring the cinematic creations into some well-deserved spotlight.
How cinematics could be improved
That one's simple -- give us more of them where appropriate, please!
Lore, overexposure and "Who's that guy?"
Wrath saw the reintroduction of several characters we haven't seen since vanilla: Tirion Fordring, the Scarlet Crusade and the major cast of characters from Light's Hope Chapel in the Eastern Plaguelands. Unfortunately, the awe and impact of seeing these characters actually progress was lost on many players who began playing during The Burning Crusade. Most players weren't concerned with the zones or the stories, and since entering Outland only required level 58, a large chunk of players simply skipped the Plaguelands altogether and skipped into Outland instead. This led to a severe case of "Who's that guy?" in which players who had started with The Burning Crusade or simply skipped over content didn't really get the same impact as those that played vanilla and actually remembered all the old quest lines and NPCs.
Wrath also saw the introduction of many new story lines and conflicts. As you can see from the short list I compiled on page one, it wasn't just all about the Lich King; there were hundreds of other quests and story lines to follow. Unfortunately, and perhaps because this is Wrath of the Lich King after all, it seemed as though a lot of the secondary story lines simply didn't get the exposure or depth of storytelling that the quests directly involving the Lich King and Icecrown received. How many people actually remembered and knew what Malygos was up to, when they finally got to the point where they could raid the Eye of Eternity? The quest lines in Coldarra were fantastic, but I had only a vague recollection of them after questing through the entirety of the rest of Northrend. The details were fuzzy at best, and I had to go back and actually look it up to fully understand what was going on.
This is pretty crucial; this is the first time in the history of Warcraft that an aspect has died (and at the hands of players, no less). As such, it deserved far more of an explanation that it really got, and one that was more cohesive than what was delivered. Ideally, this should have been something that was addressed in full at some point closer to actually raiding the Eye of Eternity, rather than starting out in one of two possible starting zones. Unfortunately, those who chose to start in Howling Fjord rather than Borean Tundra simply missed all Coldarra quests altogether, which left them even more in the dark than those who had actually played through the content.
With Naxxramas, Alliance players got an excellent explanation as to why the zone had relocated and what it was doing in Dragonblight. Horde players, however, were left mostly in the dark. Naxxramas was simply ... there, with no explanation. Mind you, Horde players were busy at Venomspite unwittingly helping the Forsaken with the Forsaken Blight, but it still would have been nice to see some kind of explanation for the zone's presence. Sholazar Basin was a beautiful zone and the majority of the quest lines were well presented, but the overall story line seemed to lack any kind of cohesive "ending" to it. If players then raided Ulduar, the events that were taking place in Sholazar made complete sense, but for those who did not choose to raid, it was left largely up in the air.
Some quest lines traveled from one zone to the next -- and in the case of Drakuru, a troll captured during a quest chain in Grizzly Hills, the midpoint of the quest line took place in an instance. Unfortunately, many players simply skipped the instance before hitting Zul'drak and seeing the "new" Drakuru, who was supposed to be there as a direct result of the events that played out in Drak'tharon. It wasn't until they went back and completed the quest (if they had kept it in their logs) that they realized they were responsible for Drakuru's presence. Requiring the completion of Drakuru's quest before opening the quest line in Zul'drak could have prevented this disjointed timeline -- instead, it was left as a somewhat unorganized mess.
I doubt it was intended to gloss over or lose the meaning of these important areas in Wrath lore, but the overall impression was at times disjointed, as if the focus had been lost here and there. This was especially evident with the introduction of the Argent Tournament, which had little enough story around it (Fordring testing people to find the champions worthy of barging into Icecrown Citadel and facing the Lich King) yet dragged on for months. With nothing more than a weak story to support it, the area grew very boring, very quickly for the majority of the player base. The main problem with the lore in Wrath is that the highlights of Wrath storytelling were masterfully executed, but they only served to make the points where the lore and storytelling fell short look woefully inadequate in comparison. This was, of course, because this is Wrath of the Lich King -- and now I'm going to talk about one of the major problems of the expansion: the Lich King himself.
One of the common complaints with The Burning Crusade expansion was that very few people actually got to see Illidan, even though he was touted as the major villain of the expansion and featured heavily in the trailer. If you were not a raider or did not have the manpower to raid the Black Temple, Illidan was simply ... absent. A footnote. For an expansion to feature a villain that figured heavily in the trailer and then fail to deliver the villain as promised to the majority of the player population was a weakness in storytelling. Blizzard acknowledged this going into Wrath of the Lich King, promising that the Lich King would feature prominently in the expansion so that players wouldn't feel left out.
And boy, did he ever feature. The Lich King showed up in zone after zone, quest after quest. Alliance players first saw him in the very start of Howling Fjord, while Horde players had to wait until doing Utgarde Keep to see him for the first time. From there, he popped up all over the place. You couldn't turn around without seeing the Lich King. At first it was frightening, then it was mildly interesting and then ... then it started to get really, really old. By the time the Lich King shows up in the Trial of the Crusader, he's little more than an "Oh look, there he is again" joke to those that had encountered him previously. There was a brief moment wherein he seemed an actual threat again when Halls of Reflection launched, but this simply wasn't enough to make him a true menace.
Much like the phasing in Icecrown and the presence of vehicular combat everywhere you went, it was a wonderful idea that was simply overdone. The main villain of a story should never be exposed to the point where he becomes anything less than a thing to be feared, and Wrath featured him so heavily that by the point that players got to enter Icecrown and defeat him, he seemed almost trivial. Instead of inspiring awe, he inspired a feeling of "Man, it's about time" in many players who had been waiting and waiting to take him down.
The last point that should be addressed is arguably one of the most important: races left behind. While the draenei and the blood elves were heavily addressed in The Burning Crusade, the draenei in particular were given little to nothing to do in Wrath. I expanded on this a little in last week's Know Your Lore -- it's simply a matter of where the focus is at, and the focus with Wrath of the Lich King was firmly set upon Arthas, Icecrown and the events in Northrend. This left little room for the blue-skinned aliens, because the events that were addressed all originated prior to the draenei's introduction into the Alliance.
Wrath is easily the strongest expansion from a lore standpoint and contains some of the best vehicles for storytelling we've seen to date. In the end, while Wrath had its weak points here and there, the good far, far outweighed the bad by an astonishing margin. The question that lingers in my mind is more of a "what if" than anything else: What if Northrend and its icy shores had been the focus of the first expansion, leaving The Burning Crusade and the events that took place on another world as the focus of the second? This would have addressed many of the issues listed above; the focus could have remained on those characters we got to know in vanilla, and players wouldn't have had the added distractions of The Burning Crusade foremost in their mind when addressing the Argent Crusade, the Scarlet Onslaught and the relocation of Naxxramas, to name a few. Once the Lich King and his Scourge had been addressed, players could then move on to other worlds, and the draenei wouldn't have seemed like an afterthought.
While on the one hand this would have been a more cohesive solution to things, on the other, we never would have experienced Wrath with the phasing technology and cinematic experience that we play through today -- and I cannot imagine it having even a fraction of the same impact without the technology that's been implemented. All that can be done is to take a look at Wrath, determine what worked, what didn't and move on from there -- and Blizzard is excellent at doing just that. The Burning Crusade took ideas that weren't fully utilized in vanilla and expanded upon them, making its own mistakes along the way; Wrath took Burning Crusade's mistakes and tried to correct them, in some ways wildly successful ... in some ways, not so much. I fully expect Cataclysm to continue this line of progression in storytelling and lore, and look forward to seeing what we're given next. From the faint rumors we've heard so far, Cataclysm is shaping up to be truly phenomenal experience.