World of Warcraft: Cataclysm Preview
In less than a month, Azeroth will be ripped in two by Deathwing, one of the classic villains from the early days of Warcraft. Blizzard's third expansion pack to World of Warcraft intends to focus on revamping the original lands of Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms while also unlocking new areas, adding tons of new levels and content, and on top of all that, fixing some of the lingering problems with the original lands that we've been playing since 2004.
I'm not going to describe every single little change that's coming to Cataclysm, but I'll instead talk about a relative few major changes and discuss the state of the game going into the expansion.
Most of the world has been bashed apart, opened up, redesigned, and made much more interesting, and the quests have been redone in the much more easy-to-digest style that Blizzard's been doing the past couple of years. You won't be running around between multiple zones, searching for two quests over in Desolace before dropping back to Stranglethorn Vale for another pair - instead, the quest hub system that's been so popular in Wrath of the Lich King is here, along with more enhancements to the phasing system that changes the visible world around to match your quest progress. As seen in the last expansion, phasing is a fantastic system that really makes you feel like you're making a difference, even if you're keenly aware that every other player gets the exact same experience when they go through.
The total experience from levels 1 to 60 has been redone for all players, not just for those who buy Cataclysm, with the entire quest line for both continents revamped or just thrown out in favor of entirely new adventures. As of patch 4.0.3 this week, the world has been torn asunder by the big, bad new villain, the dragon named Deathwing, and almost all zones have been changed as a result - some drastically. When the actual expansion is launched on December 7th, a range of new features are going to be unlocked, like the level cap increase to 85, new races, new class options for existing races, and the ability to fly in Azeroth like people do in Outland and Northrend. Let's go into some of these new features.
The level cap will be increased up to 85, and players will have a few new leveling areas to try out. The most high-profile of these is Mount Hyjal, a zone that's technically been in the game since day one, but it was never fully implemented until it became a historical raid zone in The Burning Crusade's Caverns of Time series of dungeons. There are other new areas along with a new underwater zone that promises to be interesting. Along with new spells and more talent points, you'll also see the requisite tossing out of all the old gear in favor of new stuff along with plenty of surprises in the way of goofy, fun items, mounts, non-combat pets, and more.
Now, your interactions with the guild won't just be happening in chat channels. You'll be able to help your guild progress towards milestones that, once achieved, give every member some kind of bonus. It seems for now that most of the bonuses are of the variety that add fun and unique things rather than, say, serious combat advantages in raid zones or PvP. Leveling the guild up through XP is one way to do it, but the other is through achievements, and unfortunately, some of these achievements also seem like they'll be having people grind out annoying or dull things - like the one that asks you to complete 15,000 daily quests. That'll take weeks (or more likely, months for some guilds) to complete, and frankly, I kind of expected something a little more interesting or varied from Blizzard, like exploring very obscure parts of the world, doing silly things, getting certain non-combat pets (maybe rare ones) to interact, or dying in hilarious ways with an audience watching. Or maybe just a good Hogger raid. I guess all we can hope for is that with a few drinks and some Ventrilo, maybe these guild achievements will be a blast in groups anyway.
Of course, all the existing trade skills are being upped with the requisite set of new recipes and wacky new items, and a new secondary skill - as in, like first aid, fishing and cooking, where everyone can pick it up - will be added. It's called Archaeology, and you'll be investigating clues into the old days of Azeroth (especially since Deathwing's little temper tantrum unearthed a bunch of old junk). It promises to be an interesting skill with epic quest lines, unique rewards like pets and mounts, and more.
New to World of Warcraft in Cataclysm is the rated battlegrounds system, a PvP mode where you pre-make a group of people (exact numbers have been changing, but right now it's 10v10 and 15v15) to compete in battlegrounds as one would an arena match. There will not be a system for queueing up for it on your own - it's 100% pre-made groups - but it should prove to be really interesting. It'll be interesting to see how it handles same-faction matches on some of the battlegrounds, but either way this is a fantastic, yet simple way for Blizzard to put some much-needed scale into their serious matches. Sometimes, 3v3 or 5v5 matches are just not epic enough.
World PvP will be back, but unfortunately it will probably only offer a good fight on those few servers with balanced Horde/Alliance populations. For the rest of us with population balances at 80/20 or worse, the only thing Blizzard has done is limit the number of people on each side that can take part in a battle. Of course, lots of people would probably switch sides if it didn't cost money to do it; going forwards, Blizzard should consider opening up free faction transfers on select servers.
The Alliance get the Worgen, a bunch of wild werewolves that can transform between their human and beastly forms, while the Horde finally sees goblins being brought in full-time to pick a side in the conflict. Both of these races' new starting quest lines are great and will last you into the teens before you're set out into the world, but I have to say that the goblins' introduction is one of the best we've seen yet in World of Warcraft. You'll start out driving around a kickass Brutal Legend-style chopper around town, picking up your friends and putting on a wild party, then having to kill off the jerks that crash it. Then a volcano explodes, and you've got to frantically get off your awesome little island before it's completely covered in lava. (Thanks, Deathwing.) On a leaky boat, you'll shipwreck on an unfamiliar island and will be forced to join the Horde as you've got pretty much nothing left but a soggy chunk of lumber in your hands.
For the Worgen, there's the problem of your character, upon creation, being imprisoned in the city of Gilneas, and your character's introduction has you breaking free and joining the world of men. There's still a lot of mystery here behind the origins of these Worgen that can shift to human forms at will, and while the Goblins' intro is more of a crazy fun time, this is a little more brooding and slow-paced.
The end result here is that both races wind up as fantastic additions to the game, and I can safely say that my early hesitance on whether they were worthy to join the playable cast was unfounded. They're great, and the fact that Blizzard is allowing players to immediately switch their current characters' races over to Worgen and Goblin shows that it's not about racing to 85, exclusivity while playing as one of the new races, or anything else other than just getting those races into the game as quickly and smoothly as possible.
A lot of things have already changed in World of Warcraft in anticipation of Deathwing's rebirth. Some classes have had major changes happen, while others have had smaller tweaks that make things more focused and fun. Some have seen this as a dumbing down of the game's core mechanics - everything from the removal of some melee stats to the simplification of many spells and buffs has some players up in arms - but Blizzard has said that the depth is being re-added in Cataclysm in new and different ways. Now, you'll be worrying less about whether you need to gem for Crit vs. Armor Penetration, and more about what happens in this given boss fight when your gear all of a sudden becomes a non-issue.
To prove the point, Blizzard has announced that there's a renewed focus on crowd control once again. Yep, get out your Polymorph, Repentance, Sap, Shackle, and other shutdown abilities, because these will be important elements to many fights once again.
Many of the new group and raid encounters will offer unique challenges that really break free from the usual MMO mold of boss fights. As a big fan of fights like Flame Leviathan in Ulduar or the airship battle in Icecrown Citadel, I fully welcome it. Of course, classic boss fights are in, as well, but things will be a little more diverse this time, and the achievement system should do a lot to help keep the new raids interesting.
One of the most disappointing things about Wrath of the Lich King was that the endgame was largely unfinished when the expansion launched. Once you made 80 and started raiding, all you had was one raid zone and two quick boss-fight zones, and a very large number of guilds were able to kill every boss available within only a few weeks of the release of the game - then they had to wait nearly six months for Blizzard to launch the Ulduar raid zone. Compare this to The Burning Crusade, which was content-complete within a good four or five months of launch, and it was difficult enough that people had to do one step at a time - very few guilds got ahead of Blizzard's release schedule with TBC. It remains to be seen whether we're definitely going back to the Burning Crusade level of difficulty, but signs are pointing to that at the moment.
On top of all this, Blizzard has promised that this time, we'll have plenty to do as raid groups right when Cataclysm is released. As far as I can tell, there will be more than a dozen bosses to kill in several raid zones on launch day, and while that may not seem like much compared to Wrath's 16 boss fights, these new bosses will be available in both normal and hard modes along with a new set of achievements to start on. On top of that, this is new content, not just a wholesale recycled zone like Naxxramas was. The questions we have are whether people will be finished with it all (and bored out of their minds) before the next content patch is released, as well as how long Blizzard will take to pump out new endgame content. These questions can only be answered as we move forwards, but to me, this was the biggest problem with the last expansion pack and it needs to be aggressively worked on here in Cataclysm.
One of the most important parts about World of Warcraft is how other players affect the whole experience. If you've found a great, stable guild to play together with, then you know just how much fun this game can be. But with the wrong group of people (or none at all), it doesn't matter how good the actual game is, because a few bad apples can spoil the whole experience. From hours of failed attempts in ill-fated raids to wholesale guild implosions, cliques to trade chat spammers, there's a lot that can go wrong in the simple matter of dealing with other people in this game.
And this is one place that Blizzard hasn't made a lot of headway. It's a sad reality that the maturity level in World of Warcraft isn't really the best, and Blizzard's attempts to curtail these issues through policing of chat and going after people botting and hacking have simply gone by the wayside in many cases. On my server (and most others from the way I understand it), trade chat is used as a global chat, with consistently awful political, religious, and pop culture pissing matches going on. People cuss, throw out racial slurs, and more, and while some of them are surely suspended after being reported, there's a whole separate level of lawlessness to all this. Sometimes it's nice to see a laid-back chat that doesn't jump all over someone just for tossing out an f-bomb, but other times it's just embarrassing to be even remotely connected to the things some players say publicly.
But I'm not just on a soapbox tangent here - this is something important to Cataclysm. The key thing is that if you have been away for a while and are thinking of coming back to the game, make sure you've got some friends you can play with, and choose your guild carefully. All players, no matter how awful, will want to be in a guild due to the new progression systems, and I foresee even bigger implosions, splits, and other events that ruin otherwise good guilds. Blizzard's attempts over the course of the last year to make people more responsible for their words in public chat have been met with huge opposition, which means that if you're going to swim with the pubbies, you had better be ready to deal with a hell of a lot of tired memes and childish idiots ruining dungeons, raids, and more. Frankly, this game is only at its best with a good group of tight-knit players that know how to have fun. While they don't need to be hardcore raiders, it does help to have a common goal. If you're thinking of coming back to WoW for this expansion, have (or quickly find) a good group of people to play with. Otherwise, once you make level 85, it won't really matter how good the game is.
I suspect that people who are already planning to jump into Cataclysm when it launches on December 7th are not reading this article. They've played the beta, they have their preorders in, they've gotten multiple characters to 80 in anticipation, and they've set up their heirloom gear for their new characters. The article you're reading is not for those people. I imagine that the ones reading this are people who have been away a while or are thinking of trying it the first time.
Let me be clear: the reason that World of Warcraft is the most successful MMORPG right now is not because it's objectively the best one; it's simply because it's the best game for the most people. It's packed to the rafters with fun content, and there are really only two things that can ruin it for you: 1) not having the time to do what you want in-game (and possibly ruining your daily life in trying to make it fit), and 2) the seemingly endless droves of people that have decided to make Azeroth into a permanent home for their worst behaviors and idiotic impulses. If you've got a way around both of those, I invite you to join in and have a total blast in the best MMO ever made. If not, stay away. I see no good reason to get involved in World of Warcraft if you're not ready for it.