One of my chief concerns, coming back to WoW, was that Cataclysm had scrubbed old Azeroth clean of a lot of exploration value in favor of rapid, linear progression. I am now willing to make a preliminary judgment on that. Which is that it is not the case.
From what I have seen so far of the new leveling content – the Tirisfal Glades, Silverpine Forest and Hillsbrad – it is indeed possible to advance very rapidly by focusing on efficient leveling – and efficiency is pretty much built in now. You would have to intentionally skip content or not be paying attention to miss the very directed breadcrumb quests leading you from one place to another, and the hubs themselves tend to dole out quests in small handfuls rather than the huge bushels we sometimes saw before. And the places you go to complete the quests are generally nearby – not necessarily right next to the questgiver, but no longer on the other side of the zone, much less the planet.
The new Mage is now level 30 with about 18 hours played, given the 10% guild bonus but no heirloom gear (I never had an 80 Hordeside.) This is definitely faster than I could have done it in the old old world, not so much in the 1-20 range, but certainly from 20-30. And the new Undead 1-20 areas are more like the Draenei and Blood Elf equivalents in terms of leveling speed. This makes me think that the story of leveling 1-30 in 6 hours is not impossible, but it certainly seems like an outlier.
However, the first thing I did, even before making a new character, was to take Vaktor out of mothballs and get him his Azeroth Flying License – the 250g tag that lets you fly in old Azeroth. I didn’t fly him around right away, but I’ve now dropped probably three hours doing nothing but, and there’s still plenty of stuff to find hidden away in the old world, some of which was (I’m pretty certain) not there before.
While you can fly in old Azeroth, by the way, you can’t in the Draenei and Blood Elf zones, which are separately instanced anyway. There’s a good, old fashioned invisible wall right there on the northern edge of the Plaguelands to stop you. That’s pretty lame, even though you pretty much need to be flying to hit it – and it makes me wonder just when Blizzard is going to go ahead and fold Burning Crusade content into the base game. By the time the next expansion hits, BC will be closing in on six years old – the expansion, not the game. I’d say it’s time, but really, Cataclysm was the time to do that.