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World of Warcraft: Cataclysm Review – Reshaping the World
Massively multiplayer online games are unique among their peers. All l games create a “world” into which players can dive, but these worlds are individual and often private. MMOs, on the other hand, place players into a shared world that all can experience together. The tradeoff, however, is some of the agency that players of more traditional games usually experience. The world of an MMO is typically static – changes, if made, come by way of addition.
Cataclysm therefor lives up to its name, regardless of what you might think of the expansion’s quality. It dramatically changes many of the zone that have existed since the release of the original world in 2004, and it also further refines Blizzard’s “phasing” technology, which allows players to experience individualized events even while playing on the same server as thousands of other people.
Yet there are obviously major risks with such revision, particularly in a game as popular as World of Warcraft. Indeed, Cataclysm is likely Blizzard’s largest challenge to date. The company has been well known for its execution in the past, but will this expansion leave Blizzard’s flawless legacy intact?
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The Shattering: 4/5 Stars
Let’s begin our tour of World of Warcraft: Cataclysm by addressing changes that are not technically part of the expansion. Two weeks prior to the release of Ctataclysm, Blizzard launched The Shattering. This is the name given to the world-changing cataclysm that swept Azeorth. These changes are not technically part of the expansion, because everyone receives them no matter what version of the game you have. They must be addressed, however, because they’re an important foundation that you’ll encounter if you decide to start playing.
The heroes of Azeorth have always started at level 1. Weak, with only one or two abilities and hopeless gear, the experience of becoming a god-slaying, Lich King killing, Deathwing-stalking badass starts at this lowly rank. And that was becoming a problem. World of Warcraft launched in 2004, and it was great for its time. But the old world of Azeroth, at over six years old, was showing its age. The expansion only added new high-level content - the old, low-level zones were rarely changed.
The Shattering brings these zones up to date by altering quests or adding news ones, changing the gear rewards, and adding new story elements. The results are successful – mostly. At their best, the new zones rival the best high-level content. The new Stonetalon Mountains, played from the Horde perspective, is an outstanding but silly homage to the war film genre. Thousand Needles, which has been flooded and is now dominated by a Goblin “speedbarge,” is another standout. The Gnomes and the Trolls have finally been given unique introductions as well – they only last until level 5, but they flesh out the lore of these races, which previously felt a little tacked-on.
There is no question that the new content is much better than the old, and that leveling is now a far faster and less arduous affair. Some players have gone so far as to call Cataclysm the “alt’s expansion” because it is now actually fun to roll new alternate characters.
With that said, Blizzard’s overall execution feels scattershot. While some zones have received complete facelifts, others – such as Duskwallow Marsh – have received very few changes. These older zones stick out like a sore thumb, as their quests simply aren’t to the same standard of quality as the new ones.
Still, even the old zones feel more fun than they used to. This likely is due to the major class revamps that Blizzard has executed. The balance of the game has never been better, and most players will have no problem leveling to 60 within a few weeks of consistent but casual playtime.
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The New Races
Not all of the low-level content is going to be available to new players who don’t purchase Cataclysm, however, because Blizzard has included two more new races with this expansion – Goblins and Worgen, who serve the Horde and Alliance respectively.
The Goblins are what you’d expect - short mischievous, green-skinned characters that make up for their lack of morality with buckets of attitude. They’ve been a part of WoW lore for some time, but up until now they’ve been a neutral faction in World of Warcraft. In typical Blizzard fashion, this remains largely true in Cataclysm because the Goblins which join the horde are part of a particular faction called the Bilgewater Cartel.
You don’t technically start as part of the Horde, however, as the Bilgewater Cartel begins as just another neutral Goblin faction. As a Goblin, you’ll take part in a unique 1-10 leveling experience that explains how the Bilgewater Cartel came to be part of the Horde. Along the way, you’ll take part in a number of phased events that show of just how personalized World of Warcraft can be. The 1-10 experience is great, and the Goblin models themselves are the best character models in the game so far. Better yet, the Goblins receive a number of cool racial abilities, like rocket boots.
Goblins are great, but unfortunately this may be because Blizzard spent more time on them than they did on the Worgen, the new Alliance race. The Worgen are, essentially, werewolves. Unlike most werewolves, however, the Worgen have conquered their animal bloodlust and can now take a place in society. The events leading up to this are explained in another unique 1-10 leveling experience, and while it lacks the character of the Goblin starting zones, the Worgen intro is better paced.
Even so, the Worgen have many downfalls. Their female character models are absurd, for example. While the males have a fierce stance, with large teeth and dangerous eyes, the female Worgen look as if they were taken straight from a furry fan-fic. The hunched posture of the males is gone, the fierce eyes are replaced with a pair of cartoonish, slightly saucy orbs, and – like every female character ever in WoW – the female Worgen have managed to hold on to their gigantic breasts despite their transformation into beast-women.
There are other signs that the Worgen are not well integrated into the game. They are given no racial mount, for example, but instead use “Running Wild” an ability which lets Worgen characters run at the speed of a mount when out of combat. While useful, it seems like a way to save time thinking up and modeling another racial mount. Up until this expansion there was no real indication that the Worgen would make a mass exodus to the Alliance. Of course, Blizzard pulled this trick before with the Draneni, who literally fell onto Azeroth from outer-space. But the Draneni were given a 1-20 leveling experience and also made up for their lack of prominence on Azeroth with their many appearances in the Outlands. The Worgen, on the other hand, remain rarely encountered by players even in the new 80-85 leveling zones.
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The New 80-85 Leveling Content
Even the best of the new low-level zones are put the shame by Blizzard’s 80-to-85 leveling experience. Yes, Blizzard has only added 5 new levels to this expansion, while previously they added 10 at a time. This seems to have given Blizzard more time to refine the experience of leveling, however, and the result is the best leveling content I’ve ever played in an MMO.
Players are given two great choices to start – Mount Hyjal and Vash’jir. Mount Hyjal is a more traditional zone, but an astoundingly well executed one with great quests and a clear over-arching plot. Vash’jir is also excellent, but it takes place entirely underwater and it is significantly longer. Not everyone will enjoy the three-dimensional movement required in Vash’jir, but it is a beautiful zone.
From there players will be moving on to Uldum or Deepholm. Of the two I prefer Deepholm, which also earns the title of my favorite MMO zone of all time. The entire zone is tied together with a strong storyline, the visuals of the zone are fantastic, and the zone ends by giving players outstanding items. Uldum is a lot of fun as well, and is noted for its “Harrison Jones” questline, in which players assist an adventurous archeologist in exploring the depths of various dangerous temples.
Finally, players will find themselves dumped into the Twilight Highlands, home of the Wildhammer Dwarves and Dragonmaw Orcs, both of whom have had their land torn asunder by the Twilight’s Hammer cult. Although very traditional in theme, the Twilight Highlands has some of the game’s best new quests and a very strong story that, at least on the Alliance side, provides a comprehensive overview of who the good guys and bad guys will be moving forward.
I honestly have nothing bad to say about the 80-85 leveling content. The zones are different, but all quite good. The quest rewards are outstanding, and Blizzard even seems to be getting the hang of something that has traditionally eluded MMO designers – pacing. While each zone has a dominate storyline, it is broken up into chunks that players will find easier to digest. Even Northrend, which I enjoyed a great deal, pales in comparison to these new zones.
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The New End-Game Content
Designing end-game content for an MMO is probably the largest challenge faced by any company that enters this genre. The issue is that while all players are thrown into the same world, but all players are not the same. Some tear through content in great strides, forgoing sleep for another hour of Azeroth. Others take it in small steps, logging in for an hour every few days, never worrying about learning the theory-crafting details required to take down bosses they’ll never fight. And, of course, there is every type of player in-between. Some want to craft, some want to collect mounts, and some want to just chill in the capital cities and chat.
Mechanically, Cataclysm doesn’t handle the challenge of end-game content much different from Wrath of the Lich King. You’ll still be facing both normal and heroic (i.e. hard mode) dungeons, you’ll be able to grind reputation for various rewards, and you’ll still be able to craft. At first glance, Cataclysm seems to have no legs. Only 5 levels – only 5 new leveling zones – what gives?
Dungeons – that’s what. Although Wrath of the Lich King featured heroic dungeons, they weren’t thought of as very heroic at all, and were generally easy to conquered by random 5-man groups with very moderate levels of game knowledge and a few pieces of decent gear. That’s not the case anymore. Heroic modes now require truly heroic effort to clear, and even normal mode raids have become noticeably more difficult. Heroic mode raids are tasks that few will ever be able to clear.
I don’t fundamentally disagree with this approach, but at the moment it feels ham-fisted. The jump between normal and heroic is fairly large, and can be jarring for unprepared players. It would be nice to have three or four levels of difficulty instead of just two. If you’re not willing to put forth the large amounts of effort required to prepare for heroics in Cataclysm, you may find yourself running out of content quickly.
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Although leveling cap increases are given the bulk of the press attention during any MMO expansion, the increase in the abilities of trade crafters during an expansion is also important. New, higher-level characters need new, higher-level gear.
Cataclysm does make the required increase to the profession caps, and adds some cool new things for players to make, some of which can be profitable. However, the professions still seem cobbled together. While World of Warcraft does professions better than most games, there are still some professions – like Engineering – that never seem particularly profitable. The amount of work required to level a profession is still a grind, as well, and as far as I can tell the professions have not been properly updated for low-level content. I noticed, for example, that the low-level blacksmithing equipment is poor compared to the low-level equipment now available to new characters.
One new profession – or rather, secondary profession – does make its debut in Cataclysm. That’s archaeology, the art of digging up stuff and putting it together. Although the concept sounds exciting, the execution is a textbook example of an idea that was rushed through to completion. Characters find artifacts by surveying specific areas on the world map. Successful surveys will produce between 3 and 6 artifacts. Completing even a common artifact requires 35 pieces, and you can only survey each area on your map three times before it disappears and you need to travel to a new dig site – which may be halfway across the continent. Tedious? Yep. And the few worthwhile rewards are unbelievably difficult to find.
Professions simply haven’t been updated with the rest of the game. While Cataclysm’s leveling content is excellent, the profession grinding is a clear holdover from a six-year-old MMO. Blizzard needs to overhaul the system and give players more freedom and incentive to take part in professions.
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The changes in The Shattering and the Cataclysm expansion have dramatically altered my personal view of the game. I've been a serial WoW subscriber for years, usually subbing for a month every expansion before finding myself bored and giving up. I've never had a level-capped character as a result.
Cataclysm has changed this. I subbed in October to check out the 4.0.1 patch changes, stayed for The Shattering, and I was impressed enough to buy Cataclysm. I'm still subbed, and I now have a level 85 character. The changes made to World of Warcraft recently have finally made the game engaging enough to keep me consistently interested. If you've previously quit because you felt the quests were boring, or the class mechanics repetitive, I recommend giving World of Warcraft another shot. You don't even need to buy the expansion right away (unless you want to play as one of the new races).
A collection of previews and in-depth reviews of the new World of Warcraft Expansion Cataclysm.