It has been six years since players first stepped into Azeroth, and still no MMO has come close to challenging the dominance of World of Warcraft (WOW). Blizzard works tirelessly to constantly improve the game at all levels. WOW has been through so many changes that it scarcely resembles its former self, but none have altered the experience as severely as Cataclysm. Although you can witness many of the changes via a patch, the expansion is the only way to try out the new races, professions, and endgame content. For veteran players, it is a necessary investment.
There’s quite a bit of lore to read through, so suffice to say that a dragon of unfathomable power, Deathwing, has escaped from his prison and he is seriously ticked off. Continents are literally ripped apart and balances of power are shaken to the core in Deathwing’s vengeful wake. The valleys of Thousand Needles are flooded, Darkshore is a mess of crags, and the Barrens has been sliced in half, but keep in mind that these are the exceptions. Most areas got away with only minor damage, if any at all, but the atmosphere of destruction is everywhere with the Horde and Alliance clashing more openly than ever.
Retired and jaded players have ample reasons to roll new characters. The Worgen (werewolves) have come out of seclusion to join the Alliance, and the Goblins have reunited with the Horde (finally!). Blizzard has learned a few lessons from previous starting zones, such as the painfully dull Draenei zone, resulting in the most engaging low-level quest chains WOW has ever had. High-level players will likely interact with the altered zones through the secondary profession of Archaeology. Although it can yield rare items, there isn’t much to archaeology besides following your map and digging up artifacts until you have enough pieces to possibly make something of value.
Many of the old quests have been scrapped or altered for improved flow (i.e. less pizza delivery) and higher experience gains. Sometimes it seems as if you can’t swing a sword without going up a level. It makes for a more enjoyable experience with less grinding, especially for players who want to focus purely on PVP, crafting, or dungeon-crawling. Don’t expect a smorgasbord of all new quests though. Most will be familiar, but you can often look forward to improved rewards and more mini-boss encounters.
Blizzard uses phasing, which was introduced and sparsely used in Wrath of the Lich King, to extremely good effect. Think of it as an invisible dome covering you in the world. You might be embroiled in a vicious battle against a monumental boss or rolling across a battlefield in a siege engine. Meanwhile, everything looks like business as usual to other people nearby. You might not even realize that it happened, but the heightened sense of importance and impact in the world is unmistakable.
Despite the new races and faster leveling, WOW is not the most inviting place for newcomers. There’s a catch-22 in which every feature added to please the old-timers represents a new hurdle for rookies to overcome. Some of the most basic functions that we take for granted can be quite confusing for the uninitiated, such as activating the ability to find herbs, where to get PVP rewards, or how the auction house in Booty Bay differs from that of Orgrimmar. Much of the information in the manual is outdated and useless, and after all these years, there is still no full in-game knowledge base akin to Age of Conan’s.
The reworked talents are my favorite changes. Instead of mixing and matching among three trees, players are locked into one choice for 31 points. By buying into a tree, you immediately receive powerful bonuses and/or abilities free of charge. Many talents have been altered, introduced, or outright deleted. Talents typically work together more cohesively, including some new functions for classes, and trees are much more clearly defined. Again though, the new talent trees might provide difficulties for newcomers, since many of the effects won’t be realized for 10-20 levels, but I suppose that’s what respecs are for.
There are five new zones for the 80-85 set, and they are simply stunning. The underwater realm of Vashj’ir and its seahorse mounts have received much of the attention lately, but it is the beautiful caverns of Deepholm and the Egyptian-inspired Uldum that struck me most, especially when you consider how long the Gates of Uldum have been lying dormant in Tanaris. It’s that foresight and dedication to atmosphere that keeps Blizzard at the head of the pack. Other MMOs may have technically superior graphics and more content updates, but no one can match Blizzard’s ability to create such captivating and exciting worlds.
A host of fresh dungeons, heroic versions, and heroic renditions of Shadowfang Keep and Deadmines should be more than enough to keep most guilds busy. Otherwise, two 85-exclusive battlegrounds similar to Arathi Basin and Warsong Gulch in mechanics, and the outdoor PVP of Tol Barad await more competitive players. Admittedly, I barely scratched the new dungeons and PVP areas, instead spending the bulk of my time enjoying the new quests and taking in the sights, but I’m more hesitant to offer decisive opinions due to future tweaks and rebalances that will surely occur. In fact, the newly introduced Rated matches and Tol Barad have overhauls already in the works.
Cataclysm isn’t the complete rebirth that many people expected. The majority of quests and locations are familiar, and stepping into Azeroth for the first time is sure to be mildly overwhelming. Cataclysm is an expansion for the veterans, and an amazing one at that. Never has the notion of starting a new character and revisiting old haunts been so attractive, and rarely has end-game content been this enthralling.