The evolution of Blizzard’s blockbuster MMORPG has been a six-year spectacle that has been impossible to ignore. The remarkable strides World of Warcraft has taken over the course of 3 expansion packs have put an ever-growing chasm between it and its closest competition. The latest expansion for WoW is Cataclysm, and as well as adding the expected new high-level content, it reworks large portions of the original Azeroth.
Given that a subtle change can have a large impact on gameplay, the cumulative effect of years of patches on WoW is quite staggering. In late November version 4.0 of the game went live, and the dragon Deathwing broke out of his underground prison to bring devastation to much of old Azeroth. Along with it came graphical upgrades, improvements to the interface, a Talent system overhaul, and new race/class combinations. These changes often involve trade-offs. The new Talent system, for example, helps to balance the game, but forcing you to the top of one Talent tree before you can put points into a second tree gives players less flexibility in their builds. It goes without saying that these revisions won’t sit well with everyone, but the overall result is a game that is more accessible and varied than ever.
If you’re ready to roll a new toon, you can now play as a Goblin (Horde) or Worgen (Alliance). Each includes a new starting area dripping with the usual Blizzard charm. Worgen start in Gilneas City, and they could be seen as the werewolves of Azeroth, able to shift between human and Worgen form while out of combat. Goblins are Azeroth’s masters of engineering and alchemy, responsible for a bizarre array of mechanical devices that dot the landscape, as well as motorcycle and rocket mounts.
I spent some time with the fledgling Goblins leveling in Kezan, and it’s definitely a slick addition to the world. The main story takes you through the final days of the island before it is destroyed by the Shattering. You manage to escape, but then find yourself seeking refuge on the Lost Isles after a shipwreck. While the quests still involve many of the expected killing and collecting tasks, they’re better disguised than ever, and they also employ the same phasing and vehicle mechanics introduced in Wrath.
New High-Level Zones
Unlike previous expansions, which added ten levels to the cap, Cataclysm increases the cap only 5 levels, from 80 to 85. The journey to the new cap takes you through an interesting mixture of new areas which are scattered around Azeroth. Players are eased into these new areas with quests that include occasional game-engine cutscenes. Some of the highlights include Vashj’ir, a group of underwater zones where players scurry around on sea horses, Deepholm, the vast cavern where Deathwing was held prisoner, and Uldum, a desert zone with an Ancient Egyptian theme. There probably isn’t quite as much here for high-level players as Wrath of the Lich King introduced, but coupled with the revision of parts of the old world it’s the most ambitious expansion for the game so far.
Cataclysm offers considerably more content than you will need to reach the level cap. Of course, that doesn’t prevent you playing through it if you so desire. As with previous expansions, equipment has essentially been “reset,” meaning that green items from Cataclysm quests have better stats than most level 80 epics.
The use of “phasing,” which changes aspects of the world based on quest progression, is even more extensive in the new zones than it was in Northrend. It adds some flare to the otherwise fairly routine process of questing, but it also makes grouping with other players on-the-fly a little more difficult, as you’re often not at the same stage in the quest. This could be the reason for fewer of the group quests that were introduced with Burning Crusade. While it makes for better solo questing and more compelling storylines, it also tends to discourage grouping outside of Dungeons and Raids.
Dungeons and Raids
Cataclysm follows a familiar pattern we’ve seen in the past with WoW expansions. Newly introduced instances, particularly heroics, start out quite challenging, and gradually get easier as players accumulate better gear and get to know the boss fights. People with a lot of time to play soon need more to do, so content patches add increasingly difficult Dungeons and Raids until it’s time for another full-blown expansion.
Currently, high-level players in Cataclysm have about 7 new Dungeons and 3 new Raids to keep them busy. Blizzard has also added level 85 heroic versions of two classic instances: Deadmines and Shadowfang Keep. As well, Baradin Hold is a PvP-unlocked Raid in Tol Barad, akin to the Vault of Archavon in Wintergrasp.
On average the new instances seem to be little longer than those in Wrath. Complicated boss fights are one of WoW’s trademarks, and that tradition continues with renewed vigor in Cataclysm. Crowd control is once again central to many battles, but the changes to healing and aggro probably require the biggest adjustment. The relative amount of mana consumed per heal has been increased, making it necessary to conserve it for emergency situations rather than trying to keep the party at full health all the time. They’ve also made it harder for tanks to hold aggro, so the damage-focused players in a group need to pay more attention to threat.
For players that have reached level 85, there are 2 new Battlegrounds in Cataclysm. The Battle of Gilneas is a 10 on 10 contest where players fight over 3 control points. Much like Arathi Basin, your team accumulates resources by holding one or more of these points, and the first team to reach 2000 resources wins.
Twin Peaks is another 10 vs. 10 Battleground but it uses capture-the-flag objectives akin to Warsong Gulch. With a river running through the middle it’s a nice change of scenery, and they’ve thoughtfully put in two graveyards per side to reduce the graveyard camping that Warsong sometimes devolves into.
While these are very good Battlegrounds, I’m not sure we really needed two more 20-player maps that use game mechanics so similar to earlier Battlegrounds. There’s a lot of potential for mid-size Battlegrounds that remains unexplored. Perhaps more significant is the addition of rated Battlegrounds, which allow pre-formed groups to compete in seasonal tournaments, much like the Arena system.
Level 85 players also have the option to jump into Tol Barad, which is divided into a new Wintergrasp-like PvP zone and the Peninsula that is the main daily quest hub in the expansion. The PvP zone is an 80 vs. 80 match on a map with Baradin Hold at the center, surrounded by 3 control points which the attacking side must take to win. I haven’t spent much time in Tol Barad yet, but there are clearly balance issues which need to be addressed. This is largely because it’s considerably more difficult for the attackers to capture and hold 3 buildings than it is for the defenders to hold one. It seems to me that win conditions more like Arathi Basin or Battle of Gilneas would be one remedy for this, as would requiring the points to be captured in a certain order. Rest assured that Blizzard has acknowledged the problem and is planning to fix it in a patch.
Guild Levels and Archaeology
The guild system has seen a major upgrade in version 4.0 of WoW. Guilds now earn experience and gain levels much like characters do. Rewards for guild advancement apply to everyone in the guild, and include things such as XP bonuses and reduced repair costs. We’ve seen similar features in other games, and they tend to strengthen the bond players have with their guild.
Archaeology is a new secondary profession which everyone can train along with Cooking, First Aid, and Fishing. It involves visiting various dig sites scattered around Azeroth and Outland, then using the Survey ability you are given to find fragments which can be combined into artifacts. Common artifacts aren’t worth much, but rare artifacts include more desirable items such as weapons, mounts, and pets. Although WoW’s secondary professions have never been much more than a diversion, I don’t know how many players will be up for the travel required by Archaeology.
The Bottom Line
With such an enormous and varied player base, Blizzard is faced with the impossible task of keeping everyone happy. I don’t agree with every change they’ve made to the game, but it’s hard to deny that the net result is a better game overall. Regardless of how you feel about the game’s evolution, there’s a lot to do in Cataclysm. The leveling experience is greatly improved for new players, and those at level 80 have several months worth of new PvE challenges to work through, depending on how efficient their guild is. PvP fans may not be quite as thrilled with the expansion. Although rated Battlegrounds are a nice addition, the two new BGs aren’t all that inventive and Tol Barad will definitely need fine-tuning, if not a major revision. Minor grievances aside, Cataclysm is another truly outstanding entry in the MMORPG genre, and it’s proof positive that World of Warcraft’s reign isn’t over yet.