Now that it's been almost a week, it seems I've had the time to get a better feel for this expansion.
Overall, questing is much more linear. It's not just Hyjal. There is sometimes a little variation in which order quests can be done, but it seems like some 90-95% of the quests out there are required in order to finish a zone's storyline. This makes it easy to get the questing achievements, but then I'm not sure how easy it is to skip ahead in a zone if there's a quest chain you just really don't want to do again, or you just want to do the "highlights" on an alt.
Hyjal did end better than it started, with more epic moments as the story wore on, though I don't think it ever really got away from the railroad feel. I loved Tortolla the turtle Ancient and hearing the story of how he'd held the line against the Burning Legion and never actually fell. When they dug him out after the battle he simply asked if they had won. Truly a good turtle to hold such a defense. I wanted to give him a big hug. Being able to fight alongside him was more rewarding than with any other Ancient.
The zone definitely has its moments, but I think overall it's been my least favorite of the new 80-85 zones. It's not just the linearity, but I felt there was too much time feeling like peon rather than a great war hero. Even the final quest line, which by rights should have been epic, wasn't as impressive as it was when we'd originally seen the villain. I just expected more chaos, more desperation, and I wasn't getting it.
Also, I thought it was kind of silly that the Guardians of Hyjal all appeared to be druids, but you'd see their forces standing out in the fields in caster form with weapons. It would have been cooler to see an army of cat, bear, and moonkin druids holding the line against enemy forces.
I ended Hyjal at level 82 using barely any rested XP. On future runs with alts I imagine I'll finish at level 83. While this isn't so much a problem with Hyjal, it could be with Vashj'ir.
You see, it's necessary to discover portal entrances in order to do instances in Cata. It's not so different from the pre-dungeon finder days, where after getting a bundle of quests a player might seek out the instance in which they can be complete.
But Vashj'ir is so huge that I dinged level 83, the maximum level a player can still run normal Throne of the Tides (the instance associated with Vashj'ir), before I finished the zone. Granted, I did Vashj'ir after Hyjal, but I also did it running on a minimum of rested XP since I was playing everyday. If I'd been on an alt running completely off of rested XP, would it be possible for me to level out of ToT doing Vashj'ir alone?
It's a discomforting thought, considering that the breadcrumb to go into ToT only appears at the very end of the zone's quest line.
Sure, you can go in beforehand, but you won't be able to do any of the quests. One of my guildies finished Vashj'ir at level 84. He won't be doing the Throne of the Tides quests until he comes back in heroic. Not that he'll never see ToT again, because he undoubtably will, but it's not conducive towards a smooth leveling experience.
Aside from that, Vashj'ir turned out to be much better than I expected considering it's an underwater zone. The speed boost from Sea Legs does apply to aquatic form, so if you're a druid it's quite pleasant coasting about as a seal for short distances. I really only busted my seahorse out for travel that I expected would take a minute or more. Anything else was just my seal form splashing about.
The first part of Vashj'ir isn't much on the wow factor, but once you get to the Shimmering Expanse, the second third of the zone, does it ever get pretty! And the questing gets more interesting. As other bloggers have mentioned, the Battlemaiden storyline is fantastic, and the climax simply awe-inspiring.
And in the third part of the zone, there's a lot of desolation but also an extremely fun moment of insanity. I won't spoil it, but you'll probably know what I'm talking about when it happens to you, if you haven't had it happen already. And don't forget, if you enjoyed all the running and screaming, you can do it as many times as you like until you finally turn the quest in. I took a screenshot to immortalize the moment.
My third zone of the week was Deepholm. I could have skipped ahead to Uldum, but I want to do all the zones in order, and Deepholm turned out to be quite fun as well. Though it also has a very strong storyline, it doesn't feel quite as linear as the previous two zones, because there are at least a couple points where it's possible to go to a choice of different areas before coming back and resuming the main storyline.
I was a bit disappointed though that if you killed the princess in Maraudon that Therazane doesn't say something to you. She mentions her daughter's death, but apparently has no clue who did it or that the killer is standing in front of her. Or perhaps our characters are just smart enough to keep their mouths shut.
Still, I liked questing and doing favors for rock elementals more than I thought I would, and I felt more like I was going after the brains of the Twilight Cultists in Deepholm than I had in Hyjal. There's also the most adorable little rock elemental called Pebble that you can meet in Deepholm. When I first saw him I wanted to keep him for a pet. Alas, it was not to be. But I can visit him at least!
The finale of Deepholm is probably my favorite of the three zones so far. Hyjal didn't feel epic enough. Vashj'ir was fun, but a little overwrought and buggy besides. But Deepholm had a good climax. I liked it and it really felt like the job was done. I could happily go back to questing elsewhere.
Last night I just barely started Uldum. I've heard it described as the zone of cinematics, and perhaps it is, but I haven't been disappointed by them so far. I got a good chuckle out of my introduction to the zone and if the rest of Uldum's like that, I'm gonna like it!