How do you review something like World of Warcraft: Cataclysm? The game is an organic entity, a work in perpetual progress, ready and able to change at need. Any of the points discussed here may very well be changed or removed by the time this piece goes out. Today’s issues are tomorrow’s patch notes.
Besides, World of Warcraft is a strange beast as it is. Simply uttering its name can inspire the full gamut of emotions, from weary eye-rolling to excitable babbling. That the MMORPG reached an all-time high 12 million subscribers earlier this year is a great indicator that World of Warcraft keeps moving from strength to strength. No doubt, Blizzard’s golden goose keeps on trucking and Cataclysm is a comprehensive reimagining of the world of Azeroth, sure to bring old hands back and reignite the passion of current players.
More than an expansion with a handful of new zones, dungeons and raids, Cataclysm is closer to something like World of Warcraft 2.0. Much of the change brought about by the dragon Deathwing’s return was delivered gratis to the playerbase when Blizzard patched in sweeping alterations to the original world. Starting zones, early levelling zones and fan favourites have been revamped from the ground up (literally: flying around Azeroth is now available) while quest chains for most areas have been redesigned to provide a wholly new experience.
That said, as with the two earlier expansions Cataclysm does bring a wealth of new content to the table and, in particular, offers two new races – goblins for the Horde and the worgen for the Alliance.
Both starting zones for the new races have beautifully crafted quest arcs that are the perfect platform to let the stories unfold. The sinister tale of the worgen curse inflicted upon the people of Gilneas is a carefully paced, pleasing experience. The Goblin starting areas are easily the most fun of all races, and you could be forgiven for getting completely side-tracked as you rush around the island of Kezan and The Lost Isles.
At the top end, levelling from 80 to 85 is an enjoyable experience if perhaps lacking in the excitement of earlier expansions. When first walking through the Dark Portal or arriving on the new continent of Northrend there was a real sense of scale, a big new world to explore and something epic to partake in. Cataclysm’s new zones perhaps lack a little of that wonderment.
With five new zones to visit, from underwater adventures to the elemental plains themselves, there is a wide range of new material to sink your teeth into but everything feels a little fragmented and lacking in continuity. You don’t flow from one area to the next completing long-running arcs. Instead, you fight your way through a zone completing one or two major arcs and then take a portal from your major city to the next area.
That’s not to say the new quests and storylines aren't both deep and involving, but each zone feels separate and not entirely part of a whole.
Graphically, Cataclysm shows that there is still some life left in the six-year-old engine. Water looks amazing and much work has been put into the goblin and worgen characters. Textures appear more vital and I defy anyone to avoid pausing in the desert of Uldum to take in some of the glorious vistas on offer.
All good and well, but Blizzard’s designers have also made fundamental mechanical changes that will alter the experience for every player at the most essential level.
The most evident change to the mechanics can be felt in the new dungeon and raid experiences. As World of Warcraft has progressed through the years, the way players have fought through dungeons has slowly changed. Damage-dealing characters have had increasingly powerful area of effect abilities while tanks could easily hold the focus of large groups. For their part, healers could casually flick through a magazine with one hand while spamming healing abilities with the other, hardly giving a passing thought to mana consumption. Dungeons, Heroic or otherwise, became a rushed and uninteresting experience.
Not so in Cataclysm. As in “brown box” World of Warcraft, tanks have a much harder time of it holding the attention of groups while overzealous damage classes targeting the wrong enemy or unleashing too much damage too quickly will find themselves inspecting the floor.
Healers have had to deal with some drastic changes too. Mana, recently incidental, is now a very precious resource. Spam healing will quickly see healers run dry. Decisions must be made as to which spell to cast, whether to top up that damage dealer or save mana in case the tank needs a mana-heavy burst heal.
This welcome issue is compounded by the increased life pools for players. At level 85 characters can be expected to have upwards of 80,000 hit points so it is easier and more efficient to leave a party member at 50% life than to spend 30% of your mana bomb-healing them up. Healing has become less reactive and more about mana management.
While it takes some getting used to – and with forums everywhere choked up with “Healing is Broken” or “Learn 2 heal” threads – Blizzard has admitted they are watching healing carefully and have already implemented a hotfix to remove a Holy Paladin exploit that let the class heal too efficiently.
Clearly, the developer wants players to think harder about what they are doing while in dungeons. The challenge is well-received. It’s fun to have to stop and think again. Crowd control has a role to play again and spells such as polymorph and hex, or abilities like sap are no longer largely the province of the Player vs. Player set.
For now, the problem is that anyone using the dungeon finder to put together a random group can have a chunk of time wasted as a player who doesn’t understand the new (or old, if you like) mechanics will likely cause a multitude of wipes as well as angering the group. Until people come to grips with the way things work, expect a few rage quits. Luckily there is a wealth of new and remodelled dungeons to master your craft in before heading to the newly-available raid experiences.
Also implemented over the series of expansions were more and more talent points. As you levelled up you could spend five points in a talent you didn’t particularly care for just to move up to the next tier of talents. The new talent trees have only 41 points. Blizzard has stated that the reason for this change is to help with game balance and to make talent points more meaningful. It does this to a degree, but it can still feel like you are given the same basic choices and that to take other talents would be a waste.
In Cataclysm, any character reaching level 10 will be asked to specialise by spending their first talent point. Once you choose from one of the three trees on offer you’ll unlock multiple abilities specific to that tree and must continue putting points in that tree until you have spent 31 points.
If a Shaman chooses an enhancement talent at level 10, for example, he or she will instantly unlock Duel Wield, Stormstrike and other passive enhancement abilities. Choose the Restoration tree and you unlock Earth shield amongst other things. This change makes the levelling of some characters much more enjoyable.
All these core mechanic and basic gameplay changes breathe new life into World of Warcraft. Everything feels more coherent, simpler and easier to understand without being watered down. Dungeons take concentration, some strategy and planning, and the three archetypes – tanks, damage, healers – must now really think about what they are doing. It’s interesting that such a step forward in gameplay has required a step back to earlier incarnations of World of Warcraft.
To go along with the more drastic changes present in Cataclysm are the smaller additions. Archaeology is a new secondary profession available to everyone and has the player travelling the world digging at the sites of ruins to piece together ancient treasures, be they vanity items or powerful magical items.
Always wanted to be a Tauren Paladin? A full-bearded Dwarf Shaman? Have at it as new race and class combinations are now available in Cataclysm. While some of the new choices seem to counter the lore of the world it is nice to have a fresh look at a class from a different race's point of view.
Guilds now have an achievement system meaning that special actions taken by the guild unlock achievements. Completing quests and killing things, amongst other actions, now gains experience for your guild which in turn unlocks perks such as increased experience for killing monsters or increased mount speed for all members.
If “pwning teh noobs” is more your flavour, then Cataclysm will not disappoint either. The expansion introduces rated battlegrounds and arenas, giving players the chance to compete with others of their skill for top-of-the-line PvP gear.
Whether you are a casual player looking for some new levelling experiences, a manic PvPer looking for the next challenge or a PvE progression player, Cataclysm has something for everyone. Like the expansions that preceded it, Cataclysm is growing and evolving.
The world has been altered and will never be the same again, but once you come to grips with the new world order Cataclysm is a great step for World of Warcraft and is a solid building block for the future of the game.