Regarding old-school MMO design: yes and no - it's really an individual thing, obviously. I agree with you about the zones (I played one of the aforementioned bards, so I loved running EVERYWHERE) at least in terms of having them sort of sprawling and not entirely linear...but I can also appreciate having some structure help you along. It was way too easy to end up unsure of how to progress in EQ because you'd hit a cap on what you could reasonably do on your own, a consistent group wasn't easy for you to find and the game's structure didn't really help point you in the right direction to move forward. In some areas you might find yourself surrounded only by mobs way too low for you to gain anything from killing them or way too high for you to have a hope of killing them, with you stuck in the middle. I think something of a middle ground is best - zones that have at least a loosely defined path of progression but aren't exactly "safe" to quest through due to a need to watch for future threats on the prowl.
As for the hilarious fun of those train shouts, I think that has more to do with most modern MMO's leashing mobs than zone structure. You don't really get the fun of a "WRAITH TRAIN TO ZONE!" moment in WoW, for instance, not because it lacks threatening creatures in the open, but because those threatening creatures stop chasing people after about 40 yards. Sometimes I miss trains; other times I'm glad I don't have to run all the way across a zone just to make one angry wolf stop chasing me. It's a mixed blessing.
But death penalties? Especially death penalties that involve either destroying your gear permanently or removing experience you've earned? Hell no. I'm careful about dying regardless; I don't want massive penalties for death on top of, y'know, being dead, especially in an online game where a good 50% of my deaths are entirely beyond my control as they're caused by lag, sudden disconnects, needing to deal with RL activities and getting killed while AFK because there's no way to pause, etc. Corpse runs have never been, and will never be, a boost to fun, and I'm glad to not have to deal with them anymore.
I'd say the majority of MMORPG evolution over the last decade or so has been for the better. Do I miss some quirks of older games? Sure, sometimes...but not enough to want them back. x.x
...err... [/derail] >.>;;
Edit: I do really miss just hanging out in CB or BB with my 50+ bard, though. Was nice just chilling at the zone entrance, AE replenishing the low-level folks who were resting up after fighting orcs/gnolls, busting trains when they hit the zone border, generally being a cool guy who didn't afraid of anything. Instances are great for actually running an event with a group, but they don't really compare to an open "dungeon" zone where everyone is there together.