Here we are once again. Teetering on the precipice of yet another World of Warcraft expansion.
Whilst waiting for the enormous Cataclysm beta download, I found myself with ample time to think about how to start this article. Oddly enough I recalled the first fantasy style games I fell in love with, and one in particular.
If there was ever a game that was likely to send me into a two-decade-long coma, Shadow of the Beast was it. It wasn't that it was boring, but insanely difficult, especially for a ten year old with crappy motor skills. I certainly became well acquainted with the death screen (which incidentally is still my favourite game over screen). Developers Psygnosis always managed to make sure you knew you were dead in their games.
Should that coma have come to pass, I would have awoken to find platform games (mercifully) no longer dominate the top of the charts, and seem to be relegated to entertaining the masses on XBLA, PSN and Wii. In general the fantasy genre is in pretty good shape however, thanks in no small part to Blizzard's efforts with Warcraft, and a certain Sir Peter Jackson for committing Lord of the Rings to film.
Now, there's no denying it, I may as well nail my colours to the mast early on. I have been, for some years, a fan of both Warcraft and Blizzard. That would be clear to anyone reading my previous articles on this fine website.
Even the harshest critic of the Warcraft brand would be hard pressed to deny however that Blizzard have taken the ongoing development and support of this franchise to unprecedented, and almost mind-boggling levels in this industry. And from very humble beginnings.
But alas, during Wrath of the Lich King I fell entirely out of love with Warcraft. Vanilla WoW was unpolished, but still a diamond; Burning Crusade was vibrant and broke all kinds of new ground; Wrath of the Lich King started well (albeit far too easy from a raiding perspective), but especially during the middle stages seemed lacklustre. Feel free to post your disagreements below in the comments; the editor has my forwarding address for any hate mail.
So I therefore approach this beta test as someone who needs to be pulled back into the fold and convinced it's worth playing.
If you're a keen Warcraft player you've no doubt been following our excellent Cataclysm diary. Rather than go over the day-to-day playing of said beta, let's take a close look at a few particularly interesting aspects of what is going to make (or break) this latest expansion.
Vanilla flavoured expansion
Cataclysm is a return to the Azeroth of old in more ways than one.
With no new major continent for this expansion, Cataclysm has provided Blizzard with the perfect excuse to remodel and refine Azeroth. Every zone on Azeroth has been touched by Deathwing's rampage and remodelled in some way. My first actions were to thoroughly explore the new Azeroth from the air now that flying mounts are usable in the old world.
There's significant devastation in some areas, others are mostly untouched. The Thousand Needles is flooded in its entirety, parts of the Badlands seared off, the garden in Stormwind has been vaporised and is now just a huge blackened pit burnt down to the waterline - and much more.
A particularly appropriate feature is a gaping chasm rending the Barrens in two. I recall, when levelling my first character, hoping that a fiery pit would open up and swallow the Barrens and most of the people playing there - odd how it is that sometimes you get what you wish for.
As a curious twist, in other parts there's signs of new life. Desolace, which was once little more than a depressing grey desert, is now showing signs of burgeoning life. I for one am entirely looking forward to seeing the old world once again buzzing with players. It's been largely abandoned over the last few expansions, except for the major cities.
There are new zones, of course, where the levelling to 85 will occur, and also as staging grounds to accommodate the new Goblin and Worgen races. Mount Hyjal, for example, is an imposing zone. Mountainous, rocky, riddled with lava, swarming with elementals and blokes that look a lot like Gehennas. Deathwing and our old mate Ragnaros are up to no good, and you'll get to join the glorious defence of the World Tree.
Levelling is... well, it's still levelling. It'll be the typical grind, try as Blizzard might I don't think the general populace will ever enjoy the need to level when a new expansion begins, no matter how beautifully presented it is.
Personally I've always found levelling a necessary inconvenience before I can go raiding and PvP'ing again. I know however that there's plenty of people who love following the detailed story-lines, so never fear, there will be ample lore for you to wrap yourselves up in.
Still forty-one points more than Beiber
Here's another positive change. Talent points. When it was announced that the level cap for the expansion would be 85 it was naturally assumed that that would mean five more talent point bringing the total to a weighty 76, and the trees would be, probably not expanded, but readjusted to suit.
In what is a fundamental change, this isn't going to be the case. For the maximum level of 85, a character will have 41 talent points total. Just to complete the picture here, that's less than a level 60 had in vanilla and with the talent tree sized trimmed back to 31 point talents at the upper level.
For levelling, no longer will a talent point be received for each level beyond 9, in most cases levels will be rewarded by either a talent point or new spells at the trainer.
So, why? And is it a good move? In my humble opinion, yes it's a good move and for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, the talent trees were becoming littered with rubbish, pointless and filler talents that were either of limited benefit and infrequently used or only taken because you had to take something to get to the next tier.