The Good: The story, in-game cutscenes, Goblins starting quests
The Bad: Gilnean accents, the level and instance grind
The Ugly: Another reason to feed your WoW addiction
The hype and premise started before the game was even released. A pre-release patch sundered Azeroth into an almost unrecognizable shadow of its former self and an eons-old nemesis escapes from its prison in Deepholm. Classes were sundered as well, with a total revamp of the skill system. All of this, mind you, to set up the Cataclysm expansion. What the expansion gives you is two new races with their own novel starting zones, and several new zones that carry the ever-expanding World of Warcraft lore to new heights. The level cap has been raised to 85, and while grinding is still a pain, the end reward is interesting new heroic dungeons and raid instances to explore and all new epics for your character. Expect your WoW addiction to reach a whole new level of intense.
The transformation began before the Cataclysm actually hit. A pre-expansion patch tore apart Azeroth, transforming the world into a specter of its former self. Old dungeons were eliminated and the skill system was blown apart and reformed. The game’s graphics were also significantly upgraded. So what did the final unleashing of the Cataclysm bring?
The biggest change is the addition of two new playable races to Azeroth, the werewolf-like Worgen to the Alliance and the money-grubbing, technology-hungry Goblins to the Horde. Each new race has its own starting zone and new elements of Warcraft lore to explain why the sides chose their faction. The Worgen starting area of Gilneas is dark, but noble. The inhabitants, sporting snobbish British accents and most of the men wearing top hats, have been closed off from the outside world, but the incursion of the Forsaken and the vicious Worgen creatures have forced them to rethink isolation. By the time a new Worgen character has completed the new zone, they get a vivid, believable picture of how the shapechangers chose to align with the Alliance.
The Goblins, on the other hand, offer a much more freewheeling beginning experience. The quests are innovative and incredibly entertaining, offering one of the most novel early level designs offered in any MMO. Goblins have always been money hungry and keen on technology and the new starting zones of Kezan and the Lost Isles plays that to the hilt. Who can argue with getting your own car for the first five levels? Goblin players get blasted by nature and the Alliance navy, and an encounter with a former Orc chieftain all but seals their admittance into the Horde. Concluding the Goblin starting zone was a letdown only in that I wanted to experience more of the frivolity of the well-designed quests.
If players wanted to power-level to the new level-cap of 85 instead of starting from the beginning, then they could begin in two of the newly opened zones. Being the story and lore buff that I am, I found Hyjal to be more of a treat than the underwater area of Vashj’ir because of what seemed like a more cohesive story arc. The zones of Deepholm and Twilight Highlands also offered a good measure of believable lore and enjoyable quests.
The other new zone of Uldum was a bit of an enigma, as it couldn’t seem to decide if it wanted to be part of Azeroth or part of an Indiana Jones movie. Blizzard has always done a great job of integrating pop culture references into the game, but more than half this zone was dedicated to the WoW counterpart of the whip-wielding Jones. The zone was fun, but perhaps a bit too much entrenched in the Jones mythos.
The expansion does offer a departure from previous x-packs with a heavier usage of in-game cutscenes. The Wrath of the Lich King expansion offered a memorable cutscene at the Wrathgate, but Cataclysm goes far beyond that with more than a dozen cinematics using the in-game engine. There are a few that seem to be thrown in as afterthoughts, but the majority offer a compelling visual treat.
Several new instances and raids have been added to further push the story lines. Blizzard promised a major revamp in the way dungeons should be approached, with crowd control playing more of a factor and class roles being more skill based than a face roll. Early experience proves them correct as many pickup groups through the dungeon finder easily exposed players who needed to learn their classes better, with heroic dungeons being even more difficult for players trying to get carried through. Though not a fault of the design, it could easily pose some enjoyment issues for people expecting things to have stayed somewhat the same.
If there is one area where the game does stumble, it is the end-game. Again, once players cap, they fall into the never-ending cycle of grinding instances and faction rep to get better gear. Blizzard has instituted a new system of guild perks for the instance and raid grinds, but the repetitive nature of the whole end-game can make for a trying and possibly boring experience to all but the most die-hard WoW players. After having attained level 80 and geared out eight separate characters, I can’t see myself doing that again to 85 even with all the new content.
Even the new archaeology secondary profession is a level grind, forcing players to fly all over the Eastern Kingdoms and Kalimdor for little if any early reward. Rare and epic items are available at random, but being almost three quarters to max level, I was able to piece together only common items with little return for the work involved.
All things considered, Cataclysm offers a great return on its relatively modest $40 price. Servers have been remarkably stable for the game, considering the number of people playing early on. Hardcore raiders will find all new goodies to attain, while the more casual players or those interested in the lore will enjoy the new areas and all the creative nuances Blizzard is known for.
(Originally published in EGM(i))