World of Warcraft: Cataclysm Review
With the launch of the third expansion pack for Blizzard's hugely successful World of Warcraft, a lot has changed for its players, but for those on the outside, everything probably seems to be the same. This game continues to pull in millions of subscribers - over twelve million, last we heard - and people's enthusiasm for this MMORPG, one that hasn't seen an equal since its 2004 launch, is at an all-time high.
The big deal is over the return to the original world of Azeroth as the home for everything new. In Cataclysm, a new villain, a massive dragon called Deathwing, has busted out of his hole deep in the planet's crust, and his awakening has busted up the lands of Azeroth that we've come to know and love over the last six years (or at least, know and love from levels one through sixty, then we dashed off to the other continents with our new characters).
There are a ton of new features going into Cataclysm covering all areas of the game: the leveling grind from 1 to 60 has been revamped with better quest structure and less running around, a redesign or at least a facelift on old zones has been added, the Worgen and Goblin races were introduced, new skill levels and recipes for all trade skills are available, and Archaeology has been unearthed as a new secondary trade skill that anyone can take alongside their main professions. Then there's the level cap increase to 85, several new 80+ leveling zones with somewhere around 1,000 new quests, better-written storylines with improved voice acting, plenty of new dungeons (and some interesting level 85 "Heroic" versions of low-level ones like Deadmines and Shadowfang Keep), guild leveling and perks, a range of raids, and a new outdoor PvP zone. Then there are rated battlegrounds that mirror what arenas have done for PvP, a couple of new battlegrounds to play in, a slew of achievements, and the ability to fly in the old Azeroth.
That last feature is one that shouldn't be understated; what many casual WoW players may have never known is that the two Azeroth continents, Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms, were never really complete - and that's why Blizzard never allowed flying there before. There were many places with broken geometry, flat areas with no land features and a single texture repeating for vast spaces, and all kinds of mismatched and unfinished stuff - including whole zones, like Mount Hyjal, that were never officially accessible in the original game. All of that has been redone and fixed and then razed by Deathwing to make an altogether more interesting, more fun, and better-looking Azeroth. And most importantly, this new version of the old world hasn't lost that charm it originally had way back when the game launched years ago.
As someone who has played in the PvP, the new level 80+ dungeons, the super-difficult Heroic dungeons that follow, and even a raid or two, I can't say that I've seen everything that Cataclysm has to offer, but I've spent dozens and dozens of hours in it already and have gotten a good cross-section of what the game's like at all levels. I've come away with the conclusion that if this isn't the best expansion pack Blizzard has ever made for any game, it's at least the best one they've made for World of Warcraft. Not only is the storyline a simpler, more raw tale, it's easier for players, both new and old, to get behind. You see, Deathwing is kind of an ass, and you're going to want to punch him in the face pretty badly by the time you get the chance to (whenever his raid zone is enabled, probably near the end of 2011). He's not just evil for evil's sake. He really does hate you along with everything you stand for.
Simply put, Deathwing as a villain is infinitely cooler and, well, less cheesy than Arthas was in the previous expansion, Wrath of the Lich King. Instead of showing up at the end of every major quest line, ordering one of his minions to become a mini-boss to try to kill you (conveniently not staying around to see if his underling actually succeeded, kind of like a Bond villain), Deathwing doesn't give a crap about you. He doesn't fight the piddly little ants that he towers above; he flies around Azeroth burning whole zones to the ground, killing anyone and everyone in the process. Neither Horde nor Alliance are safe, and players, monsters, and NPCs alike fall when he razes whole square miles of terrain. When he does get involved in players' quest lines, it's to do epic things, like bring back classic WoW villains from the grave, fight other world-ruling dragons at the top of a mountain while you play a tiny part in the fight, and in general, he simply ignores you for the puny mortal that you are.
The new races - Goblins for the Horde, Worgens for the Alliance - both get new zones to start in and have some really original and fun storylines between the two of them. These races have been fully integrated into the WoW populace by the allowance of any player to pay real-world money to switch existing characters to these races, so it was never a race to 85 and people have simply treated these new races as, well, one of their own. The fights between the Horde and the Alliance continue as before, and there are just new ways to play in that way.
One thing that's important to note is that levels 80+ are significantly tougher than before. Not only will the quests require you to use strategy instead of button mashing to complete them, but the dungeons, right off the bat starting with the level-80-accessible Blackrock Caverns, are tougher. You'll need to use crowd control abilities - you know, those spells you only ever used in PvP during the two years of the Lich King's reign - and the new Heroic dungeon bosses will challenge groups like never before. The upside is that there's a feeling of accomplishment in winning, rather than just yet another grind for gear, but the downside is that one bad player can spoil the whole experience like you haven't really seen in a long time. The Dungeon Finder is seemingly full of idiots, and they'll get you killed in what may seem like a million new ways.
But let's face it: World of Warcraft as a whole is kind of full of idiots, isn't it? The game itself seems to be teeming with people who either aren't very good at video games or aren't very good at social interactions, often both simultaneously, and Blizzard has, usually inadvertently, made these people's stupidity incredibly accessible to everyone else. The developers' efforts to raise the level of gameplay, interaction, community, and maturity have often been met with resistance, and I think it's safe to say that WoW will never escape this. That's why it's important to either already have a good guild of people you can join, or find one quick - because swimming with the pubbies in this game will lead you to quit in record time, especially once you hit level 85.
There's also the matter of time. This game will swallow your life up if you let it, as the developers have built in many super-addictive paths of progression and accomplishment, from levels, to gear, to PvP, to achievements, and professions. Since this review is probably best aimed at people who are either thinking of coming back or possibly starting for the first time (those who are already playing don't need to read a review!), it's important to point out that the key to success in real life as well as in WoW is in assessing just how much time you can dedicate to this game, then setting realistic in-game goals for what you want to do. If you want to be the best PvPer you can be, well, you can probably get close to achieving that with a couple of hours a night and maybe a few extra spent on the weekends. If you want multiple characters all raid-ready, each with maxed professions and top-level epic gear, that's not doable in those same couple of hours every night unless you're planning on raiding some time in 2012. Set your goals according to the time you have to dedicate to them, and know your limits for what you can accomplish in that time.
Hell, this review is already too long and I haven't even gotten into the difficulty of the raids, balance of the new PvP battlegrounds and outdoor zone, or the longevity of all this content and whether players will be bored of it in a month (like many were when Lich King launched). Overall, I think that the added difficulty doesn't really turn around into obviously better rewards than we got in past expansions; the sense of accomplishment with your group or guild is going to have to carry you, because there's still just a couple of purple-colored epics waiting for you when you finally down a super-tough boss after a week of attempts. (And the drudgery of the new trade skill, Archaeology, can turn into extreme frustration when trying for the best stuff it rewards.) But one thing's for sure: this content is going to last players much longer than the recycled dungeon and pair of extra bosses did for endgame Lich King players.
Cataclysm is a love letter to fans of World of Warcraft, as it celebrates everything that made the original game so successful while carefully updating the old game to the new standard of play that Blizzard has set. With that new design philosophy finally "coming home", the far-off lands of Northrend and Outland seem like a distant memory - well, at least, until you realize that you still have to visit them to level from 60 to 80 or so. Despite that, this expansion is chock full of new content for both new and old players, lowbies and power-gamers, and it's really one of the best experiences you can have in an MMORPG - assuming you've got the time to play as well as a good group of friends to enjoy it with.