The short answer, really, is both. The lists of reasons for both sides is similarly short:
- Allows for three-dimensional zone structure (think the floating islands in Nagrand, or Vashj'ir, which was a flying zone disguised by water)
- Allows for non-linear/random patterned activities (such as travel between archaeology zones, which are not directly correlated to flight paths)
- Flying is fun, especially on a druid or with a Sky Golem
- Masks otherwise cumbersome zone design
- Makes some zone challenges (generally, the mobs) trivial
There are some places that I absolutely prefer the change in access flight has made: anything in Blackrock Mountain, for example. Those chains! I used to parachute into the lava rather than run the chains.
I used to farm ore for extended periods on a ground mount, usually in Un'goro Crater, where I could go more or less in a circle and hit all the nodes up in the nooks in the cliff wall. I went back to Un'goro recently and discovered that a lot of those nooks... are gone. Closed up. That seemed weird, now that we have flying and getting into them wasn't even tricky.
The problem of flying making zone travel trivial is easily negated. You remember the forge camps in Blade's Edge? The cannons that would shoot at you as soon as you mounted up? Or the frostwyrms in Icecrown that made flying in front of the citadel dicey (even if there were a couple good ore nodes there). The air can be made dangerous. Imagine roving zeppelins of pirates that would shoot you out of the sky the same way a whale shark would just eat you. There are options for that. (I... kind of want roving zeppelins of pirates now, with ships that can be captured and/or defeated like world bosses. The Dread Ship Vazuvius takes flight!)
The real downside is when flight masks otherwise cumbersome zone design. I hadn't thought much about this until last night, when I was thinking about why losing flight would be bad. Really, no flight in a new space isn't bad - that space will be designed with no flight in mind. (As long as it doesn't have bridges with stunning mobs that my healer can't kill, a la the Timeless Isle, probably not a big deal.) The problem is when zones for levels without flying are designed with flight in mind.
How do you get from the Northern Barrens to the Southern Barrens?
- Possibly: via the ocean
- Land route: go to Ashenvale, go through the tunnel to Stonetalon, go to Southern Barrens
Better question: How do you get out of Mulgore, as a level 10, without getting shunted into the Southern Barrens?
- You take a flight path or a zeppelin. In order to leave Mulgore without dying a horrible death at the hands of a mid-level zone, you have to fly.
I was taking a level 58 death knight around hunting for herbs, got down into the southern part of Stonetalon, and vaguely recalled a road up the northern Mulgore wall that had the last newbie Tauren quest. Spoiler: You can’t get to that road from Stonetalon from the ground. If you want to get back into Mulgore without hopping a flight path, you have to get into the Southern Barrens and hop around the end of that giant gate.
That giant gate? Yeah, it’s basically fake. And getting into Mulgore (via a flight path/zeppelin) is basically the faster way of getting from the Northern Barrens to the Southern Barrens if you don’t have a flight path in the latter.
All of this is basically masked by flying when you’re hopping around on a high-level toon doing archaeology or leveling up a new gathering profession. But this is also why I wouldn’t level archaeology until I have flying. Between the humongous dig sites in Tanaris and Uldum, the sheer randomness of the locations, and not getting flight points automatically anymore, it’s just too painful on a new non-flying character. I leveled my rogue 80% of the way from 85 to 90 via archaeology on Kalimdor. There’s a dig site in Stonetalon that I’m not sure how to get to at-level as Horde without getting killed.
Exploring Kalimdor as a low level toon is a lot harder than it used to be. I don’t quest in Stonetalon or the Barrens anymore if I can help it. I used to avoid Desolace because it was so... desolate, but with the big patch of trees in the middle now it’s not as bad. Thousand Needles is annoying unless you’re a druid with aquatic form. I think this is why I just don’t level on Kalimdor anymore.
Contrast the experience of a new forsaken with that of a new tauren:
- Start in Tirisfal
- Move into Silverpine
- Move over to Hillsbrad - yes, plague! Forsaken happy!
- Hit up Arathi for a while
- Move up to Western Plaguelands - yay Anderhol!
- Move over to Eastern Plaguelands
- Maybe hit up the Hinterlands at some point to fill in gathering gaps, but you really don’t need to
- Take the rocket flight down to the Badlands/Searing Gorge or hit up the Blasted Lands (via Undercity Portal) to finish off before going to Outland
- Start in Mulgore
- Move to... where do I go? How do I leave the zone? There’s a path up the wall to... nowhere, or I can hop around the gate to... no, not there. Hopefully eventually find way to Northern Barrens
- Move on to Ashenvale, be horrified by the clearcutting going on
- Hopefully find the tunnel down to Stonetalon - this took me a while and I knew it existed!... because I used to play a night elf and :( :(
- Ugh, Stonetalon - goblins clearcutting even more, Grimtotems all over, and that druid school... did I mention the last tauren I leveled was a druid? I skipped Stonetalon on her after doing it on my paladin
- At this point I cut over to Desolace, because the geography of getting into/out of the Southern Barrens just turned me off trying to go there
- After this you can do Feralas, Tanaris, and skip up to Felwood and Winterspring (with its insanely amazing ore and herb spawns), with just the pain of traversing Thousand Needles the once... and then flying back up across the entire continent.
Most of my later leveling choices are based around quest density, occasional plot considerations, and ease of travel, even with flying. Hyjal over Vashj’ir (even though I love Vashj’ir, and spent hours there in the beta just mining, it’s just too spread out); Borean Tundra over Howling Fjord, even though the latter has better music and is more visually interesting. I skip most of Dragonblight because of Wrathgate but do most of Grizzly Hills and Zul’drak because of the Drakuru chain, and because I love Har’koa (even if I killed her boyfriend). Storm Peaks and Icecrown I don’t touch for leveling anymore. In Outland I’ll do Hellfire, maybe parts of Zangarmarsh, Terokkar, and Nagrand, but Blade’s Edge and Netherstorm are as good as dead to me for leveling zones. Kun-lai is too. big. and the linear divisions, filled with annoying hozen in the middle, mean I do just enough to open the rebuilt town and the gates and then move on to Townlong. I did Krasarang once, and never again because of Dezco’s wife. I’ll do Darrowshire every time, but not that. I leave the Jade Forest as soon as I’ve gotten Fishy from the hozen because I’m not breaking that statue again, dammit. Dread Wastes isn’t actually too bad for travel while leveling; only the dailies go into the really annoying areas for ground travel.
I’ve been doing a lot of leveling through the looking-for-dungeon anymore, especially prior to Outland. Leveling on the Eastern Kingdoms as Horde can mean a lot of long flights back and forth to the Undercity if you venture out of Lordaeron, and you can only do Lordaeron so many times, even if it is a relatively smooth trip through the upper 40s or so. Kalimdor has gotten convoluted for travel at the lower levels, and it’s really depressing if you’re not a goblin or a New Horde orc. The Plaguelands are actually kind of up-beat post-Wrath; you can save murlocs from slavers if you hit up the Blasted Lands at all nowadays; and you can get to honored with the Thorium Brotherhood without Dark Iron residue.
Eastern Kingdoms definitely fared better from the Cataclysm. Stranglethorn is... a bit confusing until you figure out where the roads have moved to, and I haven’t done the new Wetlands other than discovering that the hidden quest in the Thandol Span is gone. Azeroth lost some flavor in the Cataclysm, but not because of flying.
Isle of Thunder never got flying, and that’s not really a problem - it’s not a huge zone, everything is well clustered - but not being able to fly to it, even on a flight path? It’s a two-step process to get there, hearkening back to when flight paths didn’t auto-connect. If I’m going to get on a long flight path, that’s when I go get food or make tea or something. I have an unfortunate relationship with the fatigue line, flying or not. But I want to be where I wanted to go when I get back. The portal’s a kind of annoying extra step.
Overall, if the zones aren’t too big, are relatively well-designed in terms of clustered objectives, and have some clear roads for I’m-just-passing-through, lack of flight won’t be an issue. I think it would be a pity to waste the possibilities of what they can do with flight as an option (Deepholm I think was a good zone for it - that airship, the instance up on the temple, etc.), but if some of the zones (besides the PVP one) are permanently no-fly, I’m going to assume (and hopefully not get burned for it) that they’ve been designed with life on the ground in mind.
But since the mount for the collector’s edition is a flying raven mount, I’m going to guess we’re going to get to fly somewhere, at some point. How much and where and when is yet to be seen.