World of Warcraft: Cataclysm Preview

It’s been five years now, five long years of Blizzards continued dominion over the MMO genre with one single game, and you know what? it’s starting to show. In spite of a subscription base that has on occasions even managed to dwarf that currently attached to Microsoft’s X-Box Live service, we’re about at that point now where those numbers may have reached their saturation point. World of Warcraft is an old game in both it’s design and looks, and while heroically managing to fend off a wave of young MMO pretenders, it’s only a matter of time before something comes along that topples this mighty giant. So the importance of Cataclysm can’t be understated. This time it’s not just about introducing more of the same content, this expansion represents the first significant reinvention WoW has undergone since it’s release.

Appropriately Blizzard will be doing the only thing they can to fulfil this lofty goal, by destroying everything. Through the revival of Deathwing – a huge dragon last seen in one of the RTS Warcraft games – the entirety of Azaroth (excluding Outlands) will be subjected to a cataclysmic event not even the Mayans could have predicted. Coastal regions will be swept away with excessive flooding, towns and settlements will topple to the ground as earthquakes shake the world to pieces, while volcanic eruptions will see some zones torn in two. Details aren’t really important at this point, even casual players will know what’s coming, through the pre expansion world event currently playing out now, you can already experience the prelude to Deathwing’s return with ominous small tremors and random attacks by elemental creatures in towns and cities across the lands.

The intent is clear. Where the two previous expansions focused on end game content, Cataclysm will finally go back and redesign the old continents of Kalimdor and Eastern Kingdoms to apply what Blizzard have learnt through years of tweaking. Every zone will undergo a transformation that’ll change in it’s intensity depending on how much of that change is needed. Some may get off lightly, others will be so utterly deformed that they’ll feel practically new. What isn’t yet known is just to what extent the hundreds of quests residing in the ‘old world’ will be altered or abandoned, if at all. A brand new zone layout is all well and good but practically useless if all you do in it is the same tired kill and collect tasks for the lazy townsfolk you’ve done over a dozen times before.

What is known is that the quest phasing introduced in both the Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich king will at least be returning for the two new playable races. The Goblins, long requested to attain playable status by the WoW fan base, finally make an introduction and quickly ally themselves with the Horde, meanwhile the alliance numbers will get boosted with the discovery of the werewolf inspired Worgen. On top of the new questing zones, these two new races will also bring life to parts of Azeroth that have remained devoid of anything interesting for years, there’s a real push it seems to revitalise parts of the game that have been left to stagnate and decay.

Level 80 players needn’t feel neglected though, there’s still enough content being provided for those who’ve already dispensed with the slow grind to the top tier even if the level increase this time is only half of what’s been expected. The new level 85 cap is said to take as long to climb as it would if it where 90, though clearly new spells won’t be as numerous as they have been in the past. Still, new raid content, new zones to explore and an huge under water city with underwater mounts certainly do sound like they’ll keep the hardcore busy for a good few months, the fact you’ll also be able to take flying mounts through the rest of Azeroth merely sweetens the deal.

Player versus Player encounters are also benefiting from a wave of changes and improvements. Having taken what they learnt from Wintergrasp – a huge PvP only zone in Lich King – Blizzard will once again be designing an entire island suited specifically to watching both the Alliance and Horde paint the surface with each others innards. The difference here will be that where Wintergrasp remains largely inactive every few hours until it’s main fortress can be fought over, Tol Barad will have a cavalcade of daily quests and NPC factions who will reward special loot for your actions in helping them.

There’s also hints that another attempt may be made to rekindle tensions between the games two factions outside of it’s numerous battlegrounds. The Orc city of Orgrimmar will be turned into a gigantic fortress with intimidating guard towers peering out to any would be invaders. It’s open to speculation whether Blizzard will actually do anything to get players to engage in the kinds of outdoor PvP battles that where once part of the scenery, but their success with the Battlegrounds and the Honour System may have made any such efforts largely fruitless.

These are little more than the tip of the Titanic sinking iceberg of the changes and new features incoming, there are much more besides, and some even already in game. It’s inevitable really, when the cataclysm strikes it’ll do so for everyone regardless of whether they bought the expansion or not. Things such as the two new races, new islands and dungeons will be exclusive to those who buy the expansion, but the big stuff like the newly designed continents will be delivered by one very large patch. Some of those changes have already made an appearance. A new tidier interface and a less cluttered spell-book organising professions, mounts, skills and so on have made the process of keeping track of things a lot easier, while the inclusion of popular interface mods Quest-tracker and quick-loot have already proven invaluable.

Even the dated visuals have recently benefited from a bit minor tweaking. The most immediately noticeable being the new water effects, allowing simple things such as ripples and reflections which do actually add up to make a big difference. It’s a significant – even if a tiny sounding – update, but still, not a vast overhaul. It’s the conundrum facing Blizzard, they can quite clearly subject the game to a full blown graphical update, but such is the huge installed user base that inevitably they’ll end up excluding those users who’s computers aren’t up to scratch. For now the looks it seems, will have to upgrade gradually.

Which just about sums up Cataclysm. This isn’t another quick boost of ‘more-of-the-same’ content, it’s an upgrade, a rekindling of what made World of Warcraft special those many years ago. There’s no doubt going to many who will despise some of the changes Blizzard will and already have incorporated, the smaller level cap won’t be popular and the leaning towards an even more casual approach isn’t likely going to please the hardcore. But there’s also a sense of excitement, particularly for the WoW veterans, of once again being able to approach abandoned parts of Azeroth with a fresh pair of eyes. This may be an old game, it may look long past it’s years, but as long as Blizzard keep improving in the ways they have there’s no reason why World of Warcraft can’t survive for many years to come.

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