Beautiful MMO Zones and the Players That Love Them

As a chaser to the awful window into depravity of my last post, and before I spend a good amount of time on relitigating leveling experience in new posts, I thought I’d touch on something that absolutely pulls me in about certain places in WoW and FFXIV – zone design.

Before continuing, this will have minor spoilers for the 5.0 MSQ of FFXIV, so if you haven’t finished it, be warned! Here are some screenshots to fill out the WordPress reader preview, featuring my FFXIV character in the “I can’t believe this counts as armor and actually reduces damage” set from Shisui of the Violet Tides.

My absolute favorite MMO zone at the moment is FFXIV’s The Tempest. The zone name is kept hidden on the Norvrandt world map for all of Shadowbringers, and it is not until the MSQ begins winding rapidly to its conclusion that the game even hints at the zone, so if you haven’t looked at the full Norvrandt map (which the game doesn’t give you reason to anyways), you can be genuinely surprised by it. When you get to the point that the story pivots there, the zone fires you rapidly through its many wonders – a sea floor exposed, then the magically projected city of Amaurot that lies there for Emet-Selch, his own loving recreation of his homeland and a reminder of what he fights for. The music is calm, serene, and beautiful. Perhaps Bioshock’s art-deco touches have lingered with me for 13 years (also, did you know Bioshock 1 is 13 years old? Yikes) but Amaurot’s open-world version captures my imagination so well that when I have nothing else to do in game and want to simply unwind, I hang out here with the music on, vibing (as the kids say).

FFXIV has tried this before with Heavensward’s Azys Lla, a zone that has an interesting tech-futuristic aesthetic but an unappealing color palette and some iffy navigation without having unlocked flying, which is mercifully easier in that zone than elsewhere. Azys Lla was, for me at least, a fun delight the first time but one that quickly wears thin, where The Tempest has a beauty and intrigue about it that make it last the test of time. A lot of the game’s non-secret zones do this too – the Ruby Sea has a sort of calm beauty about it, Coerthas feels realistically desolate but with all these clues to how life once was in the frozen wastes, and the Dravanian Hinterlands have some measure of appeal to me as well.

WoW is loaded with zones that have amazing vistas and serene landscapes as well. Much of Wrath of the Lich King has a sort of savage beauty, a realistic, wind and snow-swept landscape that fits the theme of the expansion perfectly. Vashj’ir in Cataclysm, for all of its faults, is an unsettlingly pretty zone that uses bright colors in contrast with deep dark waters as you push deeper into the zone. Pandaria is a wonderful land full of visual delights, from the obvious Chinese and Japanese architectural inspirations through to the biodiversity of the landscapes. Warlords of Draenor, for all of its faults, has some stellar zones visually, with my personal favorites being the snowcovered Frostfire Ridge and the brambly wilds of Gorgrond.

But the question I might pose is simple – what makes these zones beautiful to me? Well, one of the key points I often think of is how a zone portrays a sense of fantasy while still staying true to the theme of the game or given piece of content. I love all of Wrath of the Lich King because the zones rose to a difficult challenge – portray Northrend from WC III, but do so without it being a monochromatic trip through snowy places – and it met the challenge well. Each zone has a degree of adherence to the overarching Northrend biome, but breaks in believable, lore-infused ways. Sure, a Sholazar Basin might not be realistic to our reality, but as a Titan playground in the middle of the snowswept north, it works in WoW.

Back to FFXIV, I love the simpler zones like Ruby Sea and The Tempest because they capture something really cool and interesting while having a relaxing, simple main zone area. Ruby Sea has the whole Hell’s Lid area, and the constantly visible Heaven-on-High looming overhead. The Tempest, once fully unveiled through the MSQ, has the luminence of Amaurot shining through on the horizon, visible almost always when in the zone’s northern half, and then the act of exploring Amaurot, while not a particularly difficult task, is visually interesting and so different from everything else in the expansion and game. I enjoy the varied landscapes of the Dravanian Hinterlands in Heavensward, particularly how the space for Alexander becomes clear early on but looms until you unlock the raid, and how each tier of raid unlock presents some change to his positioning and the overall feel of the zone, even though nothing else about the zone changes to match. Lastly, I actually really love The Empty, where Eden hangs out. The zone’s original state isn’t much to see except the massive Eden hanging in the background, but as you progress the raids of Eden’s Gate and Eden’s Verse, the zone fills with elemental life, and it is topped off with the remastered overworld music from Final Fantasy VIII, my first fully-beaten FF title.

All of these have something that sets them apart from other zones in the games in question, but yet a connective tissue that makes them feel as they belong despite that, and it helps that these examples are absolutely beautiful to look at.

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