After the trope-ridden, lore-punting, grossly unsatisfying end of Cataclysm, Warcraft’s writers had a lot to prove in Mists, and they hurled themselves into it with the Jade Forest as the opening zone of the expansion.
I know there are concerns about what can be seen as a simplistic depiction of the Pandaren culture in this zone, but I’d like to set those aside in favour of a moment to bask in the successes of the writing.
The Forest is immersive. NPCs with strong personalities, histories and motivations are deployed from the moment you set foot on your respective faction ship; the opening quests are fast-paced and brutal, with heavy kill counts from the start; and your character is at long last treated to an external viewpoint in Lorewalker Cho.
That’s all impressive enough, but there’s an absolute killer of a storytelling technique used in the Jade Forest, tied seamlessly into the usual trends of levelling up, and that’s visual referencing.
Watch your character as you level. Specifically, watch your armour. Consider the way you’re given iLevel 372 armour in the first wave of quests, only to be presented with 384 kit not two quest chains later. It’s almost as though that first set is merely intended to establish your character’s aesthetic at the start of the expansion, rather than providing a long-lasting stat base to use while you quest.
Let me elaborate.
Wearing the faction banner
Even if you’re unfamiliar with the sets themselves, which Cataclysm and Mists newbies might be, it’s clear that the armour you receive when you first enter the Jade Forest, embroiled in the fight to oust the opposing faction and forcibly gain a foothold on this new continent, is the gear of a faction soldier. The Horde sets feature feathers and fur in reds and browns; the Alliance favours golds and blues.
These sets were originally introduced as tier nine raiding gear, which is unique in its approach to armour models. While other tiers provide each class with a distinct uniform, tier nine consisted of a set for each armour type. The only class distinction lay in recolours of that main model.
The models didn’t change merely between armour types, though. The Horde and the Alliance had their own take on each set. Horde leather wearers sported spikes and glows, while the Alliance wore pockets and a corset.
Tier nine visually aligned your character with their faction, while severing potential ties with the opposing faction that might have been found in the shared class aesthetic. These quest sets are doing much the same.
Wearing faction history
The thing about tier sets is that they also symbolise their raiding content. In tier nine’s case, this is Trial of the Crusader, part of the Crusaders' Coliseum.
The Coliseum was, in many ways, an absurd event. It was staged in Scourge territory prior to the assault on Icecrown, ostensibly to allow the Ashen Verdict to choose champions to fight their way into the citadel. It came across as a tad ridiculous because, well, who pauses mid-war to hold a jousting and arena tournament? In enemy territory, no less. (And yes, the Scourge crashed that party.)
But it’s worth considering the situation at the time. Faction tensions were at a high, in the wake of the Wrathgate, the Battle for the Undercity, and finally the Broken Front. Could the Horde and the Alliance be trusted to work together in Icecrown Citadel, when they’d already backstabbed and demolished one another out in Icecrown itself?
In placing Garrosh Hellscream across an arena from Varian Wrynn and asking them to be civil, the Argent hosts could gauge the probability that the Horde and the Alliance could work together at all when it came to the big attack. Essentially the Trial of the Crusader was a trial not of might but of tolerance.
Both factions failed it.
The third encounter of the raid instance was made up of the Faction Champions, who jumped down into the arena at their leader’s insistence, in direct defiance of their Argent hosts, to fight the raid. Just before the final advance against the Lich King, when they desperately needed to work together, the Horde and the Alliance turned on one another.
It's a clever thing to reference. As Sky Admiral Rodgers raves of the Horde's barbarism, shortly after giving the order to gun down unarmed soldiers, and General Nazgrim talks of how the natives can ‘stand tall with the Horde’ as though they’ve never done so before, the historical pig-headedness of the Horde and Alliance is referenced in the very armour you’re wearing as you watch on.
In putting us in this set, the writers have placed an abridged account of the recent history of the faction conflict into every scene. When Lorewalker Cho observes that you've seen a lifetime of war, you're essentially wearing it.
But what happens next?
Departure of the loyal soldier
Let’s not mince words here, what your character does is desertion. You’re granted leave from the main camp to meet with Lorewalker Cho, and when you’re done with that... you just keep going. You help a Pandaren couple gain their parents’ approval, you train at a monastery, you gather jade, you’re drawn into a new world that does not immediately appear to have anything like the strife and violence of your own.
You’re away from your faction for what must be days or weeks. Your character runs around absorbing all this new culture, learning about them, helping them, earning people’s trust and favour and respect, and as you do so your faction armour is replaced.
This new armour is somewhat like tier nine in that you gain recolours of a basic cloth, leather, mail or plate set. Unlike tier nine, these recolours are shared cross-faction. The boundaries of class and allegiance alike are removed.
As you forget your faction task and delve into Pandaren society instead, you visually begin to return to a neutrality of sorts. By the time you’re called back to camp by an angry Horde or Alliance missive, you’re visually much closer to your Pandaren allies than the group of people who have militarised some of the natives. You’re perfectly placed to feel the shock of the destruction wrought by your faction as strongly as Cho and the others.
For a storyline that’s been in dire need of some subtlety ever since Deathwing decided to flap around setting the world alight, the Jade Forest is downright beautiful.