World of Warcraft has hundreds of interesting zones to see and experience, and it’s easy to miss lots of them in your race to level 100 in anticipation of Legion, or whatever expansion is coming out next whenever you are reading this. I’ve put together an objective list of the most interesting zones in the entirety of WoW, so buckle in for the adventure!
Introduced in the Cataclysm expansion, Deepholm is ruled by Therezane the Stonemother, a giant elemental woman who handles all of the business that one can handle in a place made up entirely of stone, including plants that can live in stone and animals that might be able to eat stone. The giant cavern contains beautiful glittering stones and lots of dangerous quests, and going here is a real payoff after learning a little bit about earth elementals in earlier quests in World of Warcraft.. Sadly, though, many players will have killed Therazane’s daughter Princess Theradras earlier in the game, but luckily the elemental lord of stone is pretty cool about her family being murdered.
Players of the many iterations of World of Warcraft will be familiar with the Hillsbrad Foothills. It is a common place to level characters, and I spent untold hours of The Burning Crusade doing quests and trying not to be killed by high-level players in this zone sandwiched between the mountains and ocean. It is a warzone in both the game’s fiction and its actual play, and beyond normal questing, a player can always experience the Horde leader Thrall’s escape from Durnholde Keep in the Caverns of Time. The deep lore history and shared experience of the Hillsbrad Foothills keeps it locked into my mind.
This location served as many players’ introduction to The Wrath of the Lich King and the drive toward defeating the Lich King himself: Arthas. The fjord leans into the Northern European flavor of the continent of Northrend, and the main antagonists here are giants (whose home you need to run through to properly smash them). And there’s so much more! There are walrus people. There are beautiful forests and mountains. Also, apparently, the Forsaken (the undead faction in WoW) are hanging out here cooking up a great new plague to attack the Lich King with. There’s a lot going on in this beautiful, frozen northworld.
This zone is pure, unalloyed World of Warcraft action. It’s literally a place created by a god to experiment with creating flora and fauna, and because of this it is a weird place full of elementals, goo monsters, and giant dinosaurs. It is also lush and green, and it was once a super dangerous place to go questing due to how many players would be running around trying to do the same thing you were. Even now the crater is teeming with strangeness that isn’t anywhere else in the base WoW experience, and doing certain questlines reveals some of the powerful creatures behind the veil of Azeroth.
Mists of Pandaria was a WoW expansion that pulled the game’s story into an Asian-themed continent known as Pandaria. Like all locations in the game, there’s a complex ecological system that ties together the physical space, the enemies you encounter, and the characters you meet, and in the Valley of the Four Winds that is all centered on the creation of massive pumpkins, tasty treats, and beer. In fact, most of the time that a given player will spend here is consumed by saving vegetation and/or beer from various kinds of baddies. It’s a glorious place.
This zone is the second area that many players would have reached in their playthrough of the first major expansion for WoW. It is a giant mushroom forest with a little bit of swamp, and I fondly remember running around in its beautiful blue-green tone fighting giant lightning bugs and weird creeping monsters with long legs and bulbous bodies. This zone also contains Sporeggar, the most wonderful little hamlet of mushroom people ever created in any videogame ever. It also blew my mind to find out that beneath the large Zangarmarsh lake there is a raid instance where you have to fight a bunch of nagas and, like, a naga queen or something. It was a massive jump forward in fantasy aesthetic for the game, and it’s just as amazing to look at today.
The small cluster of islands are the home of the trolls, and many low-level Horde players might remember having to swim through the treacherous fish-infested waters in order to kick ass all over a troll traitor named Zalazane. I’ve spent dozens of hours hanging around the Echo Isles and trying to kill the animals and trolls who had overrun it, and that was mostly rewarded with being killed and forced to run my way back across the short ocean distance in order to find my shattered body. This location is still very cool, very chill, and probably a great spot to roleplay an amazing vacation.
This location is mostly a forest, and it feels magical as hell. There’s a wonderful visual tone to the very large zone, and it is interspersed with night elf fortresses, demon spawning grounds, and a nice coastal area. There are giant living trees, and there are hidden troops that a player has to be aware of lest they be murdered by like ten of them at one time. This is also the staging ground for the player versus player map of Warsong Gulch in which the Horde and the Alliance compete for forest resources through the metaphor of a violent game of capture the flag. This is the core of a WoW experience; this entire zone is a strange collapse of systems, ideas, and aesthetics that somehow coheres into something truly amazing.
The starting area for Warlords of Draenor has no business being as interesting and cool as it is. This is where you create your staging point for the reclamation of Draenor from the alternate-timeline-creating enemies that are plaguing you throughout the journey from level 90 to level 100. This staging point, the garrison, contains a huge amount of the content of Warlords, and I spent way more time than I would have thought going out into Frostfire Ridge and skinning, mining, or just attacking enemies to see what was going on in the massive fort that dominates the landscape.
The Barrens was once teeming with life. It was a bad life, to be sure, because it was a zone that acted as a bottleneck for Horde players who wanted to proceed in levels. You could be stuck in the Barrens for days doing grindy quests, killing quillboars, and waiting for Wailing Caverns groups to form around you. Sometimes you would get killed trying to use a summoning stone and have to run back. All of this time consuming activity meant that you could spend a lot of time shooting the breeze with other players in the general chat of the zone, and so the first few years of WoW contained an experience known as “Barrens chat”: total goofs talking about goofy stuff for hours at a time. Now that experience is gone, one of many things robbed from us by the brutal calamity of the Cataclysm. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t live on in our hearts and minds, and that memory makes the Barrens the most interesting location in World of Warcraft.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released last year. It’s available on Steam.