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The new philosophy for Cataclysm seems to be that each talent point option should be both potentially useful and should also affect the way you choose to play in a real and noticeable way. Also, it should hopefully prove to be a hell of a lot easier for Blizzard to balance both PvP and PvE without gargantuan talent trees and the plethora of combinations possible when mixing the talent options.

There's been some subversive mutterings that a reduction in the talent tree sizes are a continuation of the "dumbing down" of Warcraft in general, but these complaints are unfounded. If Blizzard can be successful in making all the talent trees packed full with real and interesting combinations and options it will be far more engaging than huge trees with excess filler talents.

There's plenty of work left to do regarding the talent trees, there will be many changes yet to be made and tested but this is an exciting prospect, and a good move from Blizzard.

In a related note, attributes are getting a substantial makeover and in conjunction some miscellaneous stats are becoming obsolete. For example, no more spell power; it's now incorporated with intelligence, which becomes the primary caster stat. No more mana per five; now incorporated with spirit. Hallelujah, the red-headed-step-child of the attributes is no longer just filler, but an essential caster stat.

DPS, tankin' and heals

Let's talk PvE.

One of the most interesting quotes I've heard from Blizzard over the course of the beta test was this one, made in reference to the healing philosophy Blizzard want to reintroduce in Cataclysm; "Remember when your raid would make a conscience effort to survive before doing damage, would bring stacks of bandages and use them throughout the fight to save their healers mana?"

I sincerely hope this kind of philosophy being reapplied to raiding means that it'll regain that extra depth that has slowly been evaporating as the years have gone by.

Except for certain Wrath fights, the role of DPS has seemed to essentially be about standing in the right place and mashing the buttons as hard as possible in order to exert numbers that are as big as possible. And while that might seem entirely reasonable, there was a time when survivability and attentiveness played a much larger role in raiding - and that made it much more involved and interesting.

Similarly, healing has increasingly been becoming glorified whack-a-mole without the need to ever think about mana conservation. To borrow from another Blizzard quote I read, and I'm paraphrasing here, "When everyone is full on health, you stop healing - except you keep healing anyway in case someone takes damage because essentially mana doesn't matter".

Expect to see the need for healers to actually have to make decisions as to when to heal and when to conserve. Also, in those moments when healing is not required, some mechanics are being introduced to allow healers to contribute DPS that will also result in personal mana regeneration.

The mechanics of the raid encounters are continuing to become increasingly complex as Warcraft develops over the years - which is great. It matches the increasing skill base of players (which is vastly improved from vanilla) not to mention endless mods and pages upon pages of boss guides and theorycrafting of every description to aid players. Bringing back some of these vanilla philosophies into the modern PvE environment is a magnificent idea; survival before DPS, damage mitigation and so on. Playing smarter, not harder could make Cataclysm PvE very interesting.

Raid sizes are working well and remain unchanged for another expansion. The most significant changes to the mechanics of raid formats are that both 25-man and 10-man raid ID's will be linked, thus you can only do one per week. The difficulty level will be "equal" between the two raid sizes, as much a possible I suppose. Also the same loot will be dropped from both, no doubt in greater quantity for the 25-man raids.

Crystal-ball gazing and other complaints

It's difficult to get a handle on how a beta is playing out, especially when it comes to an MMO like Warcraft. So much of the expectation, really the thing that matters is the endgame, that bit that doesn't really begin to settle for a few months and a patch or two.

However, from what I have seen Blizzard are refining some of what they did well (and not so well) throughout Wrath. And there is definitely room for improvement in some areas.

A few things I'd personally want to see fixed from how the last expansion panned out include how pathetically easy the early raids were. Any guild worth their salt blew through No-Drake-Sarth and Naxx with few wipes and little effort.

As a reward the gear received for those early raids had everyone running around with about 50% crit or more raid buffed from the first tier of raid gear. It was a bit ridiculous and resulted in Ulduar upgrades essentially "evening out" some of the stat imbalance.

PvP was abysmal early in Wrath. Thanks in no small part to the fact that damage had increased exorbitantly and health pools not so. Even now nearing the end of the expansion general pvp isn't all that well balanced.

Now PvP balance must be excruciatingly difficult to manage but I really hope a much better job of it will be done in Cataclysm than was achieved in Wrath. The jury on this aspect will be out for some time yet until we can connect the Cataclysm dots to form a real picture of how this expansion is going to play. Fingers crossed however that we'll see the end to the usual scenario where one or two classes or specs end up being one man PvP killing machines throughout an expansion.

So, will it be worth playing? This is the bit where I attempt crystal ball gazing and try to make a reasonable recommendation as to whether or not this'll be a good expansion.

Fortunately it's not a difficult question, I'm going to go with a big yes. For dedicated Warcraft fans, no doubt.

The upshot is Blizzard is showing no signs of cutting corners as the years go by, indeed they seem to revel in making their expansion content at release interesting and extraordinary. If they can keep the quality high throughout and bring back a little of the old fashioned charm, Cataclysm could be a real winner.