Before Cataclysm launched, I'd been leveling a baby Forsaken mage and noticed an exciting pattern in the redesigned Brill / Silverpine / Hillsbrad zones - the inclusion/frequency of what I call Celebrity NPCs. By this, I mean recognizable and/or noteworthy NPCs, such as Helcular, Balinda Stonehearth and of course, Sylvanas.
We saw this a few times in Wrath, particularly the Battle for Undercity, and fighting alongside Jaina/Sylvanas in the Icecrown dungeons. The Battle for UC, while initially exciting, was flawed in that your partners were INVINCIBLE. Really, there was no point in you even being there except to spectate. I can certainly understand why it was designed this way, but it still felt rather lackluster and anti-climactic. When I did it as Rades a few months ago, the only thing I really looked forward to doing was SHOOTING VARIAN IN THE FACE. (Which I did, and tanked him face-to-face before Jaina froze us. ;D)
Don't worry Thrall, Varian's a chump. I got this.
The ICC 5-mans were much better, in my opinion. It felt way more believable to be there as one of Sylvanas' soldiers, rather than her peers. Blizzard avoided the "why don't these Boss NPCs just one-shot all these trash mobs?" dilemma by having them largely absent and/or sending us players to do all the dirty work, and I'm fine with that. Even the escape event works, since Sylvanas/Jaina are too busy destroying the ice walls to deal with the oncoming swarm of Scourge.
I'm glad to see that in Cataclysm, Blizzard has gone with this approach, where the players are the ones doing the killing/action work while the famous partner is channeling a spell, waiting for an opportunity to strike, etc. Does it make total sense? Not always, but that's fine. It's perfectly alright to sacrifice a bit of plausibility for a fun, exciting story.
It also seems like Blizzard has really embraced the NPC as a storytelling device, while managing to not exclude you (the player) from the story. We now receive quests from figures we've worked with before, spy on well-known enemy bosses, and actual interact with colorful, memorable NPCs with REAL DIALOGUE instead of just handing them a handful of bloody furs and moving on.
I love this new direction, for a few reasons. From a lore perspective, it's amazingly immersive. I really feel like I'm a part of Azeroth when I'm actually carrying out missions for Sylvanas and accompanying her on the battlefield, or doing quests involving old friends/enemies like Helcular and Balinda. It feels like I'm actually there in the world and influencing events.
I was THRILLED upon arriving in Hillsbrad to see good old Helcular waiting for me there with some new objectives. Pre-Shattering, there was a Horde quest where you resurrected him, and he'd go on a murderous rampage against the NPC guards in Southshore. He was abnormally high level for the zone, Elite, and he'd stick around for quite a while, so he became infamous for ganking unsuspecting Alliance players, making him sort of a Horde cult hero. ;D
And later on, when I saw Alliance Alterac Valley bosses Balinda Stonehearth and Vanndar Stormpike walking around, I felt much more personally involved than if they had just been two random, meaningless NPCs who I'd never seen before. As the questline went on, my amusement at seeing them quickly turned into OUTRAGE and I wanted to head into AV and kill them IMMEDIATELY.
This funny questline turned into one of the most emotional stories EVER.
Really, it makes perfect sense. Blizzard has all these established, well-known people already floating about in the game - why not work them into the storyline instead of creating Random Dwarf Captain #14? There's some quests in Twilight Highlands where you need to infiltrate and strike back against the cultists, and it warmed my heart to see that I'd be working with well-known rogue Garona (Alliance works with just-as-cool Matthias Shaw). Experienced players will recognize them and be more interested - or in my case, freak out with excitement - and new players might encounter them later on and remember them from their earlier days. It's Win-Win!
Another favorite moment from Twilight Highlands came when I encountered Earthcaller Yevaa and her Earthen Ring initiate Goldmine, two NPCs that I had helped back in Deepholm. Instead of "Alright random person, what can I do for you?" it was "Oh hey! It's her! And him! Awesome! :D" Even better, one of Goldmine's quests is actually a followup to one of his Deepholm quests! Recurring minor characters over different zones is something pretty uncommon, so this really stood out to me.
This also works very well for dungeon lore. Previously, we never really had any personal association with a boss like Arugal in Shadowfang Keep - he was just a guy there to be killed. Sure, there was some lore available if you were curious and spent some time looking into it, but I imagine many players really had no idea who he was. But Lord Godfrey, his replacement, is a whole different matter. Any player who's played through either the Worgen or Forsaken starter zones knows who he is and what he's done, and most importantly, has a personal reason to want him dead. It's much more effective.
Something else I've been very impressed with is how Blizzard is adding more and more quests that give you temporary/recurring NPC partners, which is a really clever storytelling technique. Some of the most emotional moments I've experienced in the post-4.0 Azeroth have come after spending a few minutes adventuring alongside an NPC helper, and gotten to know them a little. It's funny how attached you get to these simple characters who have but a few dialogue lines of flavor.
I'm not sure what it's like Alliance-side, but any Horde players who've played through some of the early zones will definitely know what I mean. Some of the Echo Isles, Silverpine & Hillsbrad quests where you have an NPC partner or three are incredibly memorable and interesting. (And sad.) (And HILARIOUS.)
The Orc Sea Pup is like Kachunk in naval form! (Even same hairstyle!)
NPC partners are also a great way to introduce new players to the game lore/culture they've just become a part of. For instance, a new Forsaken player gets a little warrior friend who tags along for a few quests. One of the things he does is excitedly tell you that he hopes he can meet the Banshee Queen. And later on, he tells you that he wants to eventually become a Deathguard (one of the Forsaken's elite soldiers).
It's quite charming, and it also introduces a fair bit of cultural atmosphere, explaining what the Forsaken hold in high regard and how some of them think. It's almost like saying to the player "Hey, you're new to this? So am I! Let's be friends!" I would LOVE to run into this guy later on, all "grown up" and now a proud Deathguard.
Another pleasant side effect I've noticed with NPC buddies? They makes solo questing feel less alone. Now I'm not saying they're replacements for real friends or anything, but I honestly find the game very different when I've got an NPC buddy with me. Suddenly a generic "Kill 10 rats" quest becomes "Go out and have fun with Zuni/Johnny Awesome/Gidwin Goldbraids, and see what they say and what they do! Oh and kill 10 rats." I usually postpone handing in these quests simply to see what other funny things my buddy will say, or what other mishaps they'll get into that I can chuckle about.
For example, in Western Plaguelands you get a troll druid partner named Zen'Kiki, who is new to being a druid. He "helps" you in fights by shifting into random forms, and reacting differently in each one. As a cat, he forgets about the fight and just leaps about, just thrilled and entertained to be a cat, and in moonkin form he accidentally moonfires himself CONSTANTLY, going "Ouch! Yowch! It burns!" Both made me genuinely laugh out loud.
Screw Malfurion - Zen'kiki for Archdruid! (image from Wowhead.com)
Keep in mind that I don't even play on a roleplaying server! I can only imagine what a treasure trove of character-building moments these quests are to RP players.
Plus, of course, there is always the VERY REAL possibility that sometimes, bad things happen to your NPC pals... :|
It all makes for delicious storytelling, though! I can't wait to finish exploring all the old zones and see what other celebrity NPCs make appearances. (I really, REALLY recommend that any Horde player go do the new Hillsbrad quests, even if you outlevel the zone. They're amazing.)