Cataclysm seems like a misnomer for World of Warcraft’s third expansion. An accurate description of the events that have befallen Azeroth it may be, but it hides the true purpose of what Blizzard are trying to achieve here: to fix and mend the game of the flaws it has been burdened withsince launch. This is a rebirth of WoW, not it’s end. But it’s that wave of unnatural disasters that stick out the most, tearing this huge online world to pieces through tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, reshaping it in the process. The results vary in their intensity.
Stepping foot into the new Azeroth can be a sombre yet fascinating experience. Familiar hunting grounds have either been spruced up slightly or had their entire layout forever altered by the destructive force of the games new villain Deathwing. It’s this huge dragon, held together by pieces of armour seared into his body, who is responsible for the wave of destruction now unleashed upon the lands. And although never quite as prominent a figure as the Lich King, who often appeared in quests throughout Northrend, the effects of Deathwing’s presence can be felt everywhere.
Areas such as the desert region of Thousand Needles have been completely flooded, turning what was once a dry and arid landscape into an oceanic one; past roadways and structures now buried beneath the water. The Barrens, what was once the largest Horde questing zone, has been torn in two, separated into two smaller questing hubs for different levelled players. Darkshore has been obliterated by flooding and twisters, Stonetalon Mountains is now at the mercy of some destructive volcanic lava flows and Desolace has been turned into a lush, green paradise. Visiting these areas once again feels new, it brings back that sense of awe and wonderment of exploration that the game only managed when you took your first steps in it.
But it hasn’t been a total overhaul. Not every zone needed change, areas such as the Tauren starting zone of Mulgorehave gotten off lightly with regards to falling to Deathwing’s destructive return. Places that the majority of people enjoyed prior to Cataclysm have been spared, and yet even these posses new characters and quests to show how things have evolved since the disasters hit. These are often subtle things, things you’ll very rarely notice, but show just how dedicated Blizzard have been in evolving Azeroth. This extends as far as general questing.
Many of the old quests do remain, their simple objectives and repetitive nature largely unchanged, but they’re now boosted by hundreds of new quest lines that have been created with that same design flair which made Wrath of the Lich King such a joy to level through. Phased events also show up from time to time. These load up different areas of a particular quest dependant on how far you’ve progressed, anyone not on the same quest is left out, this leads to more story driven adventures. The result is a game world where very few things you do feel repetitive or tiresome, they even now provide a healthy dose of worthwhile rewards in both armour and money, allowing for that progress through the first 60 levels to feel like less of a chore than it has been in the past.
The game now encourages you to start again, to level up through the world and experience it’s many beneficial changes. Appropriately, this is why having two new races introduced in this expansion pays dividends. Goblins, the short green skinned denizens of neutral towns throughout Azerothhave now joined forces with the Horde (those towns do still remain neutral however.) While the Alliance have their numbers bolstered by the Worgen, a race of werewolves who have remained enclosed off from the rest of the neighbouring lands in their city of Gilneas, until now.
There’s a remarkable diversity in both the tone of the quests and the style of each of these two new races. The Worgen are a much darker entry into the Alliance, sporting gothic, victorian-styled architecture and wearing late 18thcentury clothes, while they communicate with one another in cockney accents. They don’t immediately begin as the Worgen though, and through the starting area of Gilneas you witness how these isolated humans eventually succumb to the curse that sees them adopting their new bestial form.
The Goblins couldn’t be any more different. Inventors and traders by nature, their questing area sees you rise through the ranks as you attempt to become the new trade prince, throwing lavish parties for the Goblin elite and racing around the steam-punk city of Kezan in a pimped out hotrod. Theirs is a tale told for laughs, bringing a nice bit of levity to the more serious Horde. Both the new races follow a progressive storyline, and each even throw in a cut scene or two explaining how they eventually join their new factions of choice. It’s a nice touch that gives some sort of purpose to progression, where each quest ends up feeling like an important part to the overall goal rather than some forgettable filler.
The triumph of how questing now works in the game is let down only by the rather passive nature of it’s main antagonist. Deathwing just doesn’t have the presence he really should have considering he’s responsible for so much chaos. Aside from the spectacular opening CGI Movie, all you ever really get told is ‘big angry dragon bursts from up under the world and causes a bit of a mayhem,’ if you’ve no knowledge of the history of Warcraft, the game doesn’t help you out by filling in the gaps of where this new monster comes from or why he’s so intent on obliterating everything.
But whether you follow the lore of the game or not, certain changes to the story have had an adverse effect on the world as a whole. None have perhaps been as severe as the power shift within the Horde. The Orcleader Thrall has abandoned his throne while he deals with the full effects of the Cataclysm, leaving in his place Grom Hellscream, an orc who adopts a less passive stance with his rivals the Alliance. Both factions have since been thrust right into full on open war. The effects of which can be seen throughout Azeroth.
Everywhere you venture some sign of increased hostilities remind you of why the Horde and Alliance never invite each other over for Christmas dinner. Battles wage everywhere. Settlements that where once Alliance or Horde controlled can now be found under the possession of the other faction, battles featuring dozens of troops and siege weaponry firing off volleys at one another are an all too common occurrence, that sense of tensions boiling over into violence is felt everywhere. It finally gives some point to having two rival factions who have, for too long now, been a bit too accommodating of one another. There doesn’t seem to be much incentive offered for you to personally get involved though, and maybe even take that fight one step further by attacking players on the other faction. Outdoor Player versus Player is still sparse.
For dedicated PvP encounters, Cataclysm does offer up two new Battlegrounds and a massive PvP island. Twin Peaks, a new 10-a-side battleground, takes it’s inspiration from the capture the flag antics of Warsong Gulch, though has been specifically designed so it doesn’t follow the same flawed layout of that popular battleground. The are no repeating layouts of either factions base, whilst a succession of strategic points throughout the map should allow the use of more tactically involved battles. The Battle for Gilneas on the other hand, takes it’s cue from ArathiBasin, abandoning flag pilfering and focusing on a war of attrition. The first side to gather 2000 resources through the capture of buildings through the map wins. Again the emphasis is on strategy, with many map features either reducing visibility or increasing the risk of ambush, this shouldn’t lead to the same kind of run and gun battlers often favoured in Arathi.
But the real meat of Cataclysm’s PvP comes from the island of Tol Barad. If you’ve already familiar with Lich King’s Wintergraspzone, then you’ll fit in with the familiarity offered here. Up to 100 players per faction must fight for control of the entire island, either destroying or protecting the numerous towers and keeps that can either help or hinder a faction’s progress. But things have changed since Wintergrasp. Whereas it was easy to overwhelm a defence or attacker through sheer weight in numbers in that battle-zone, Tol Barad won’t be so easy to fell. The entire fight hinges on how many players are left standing, so a defender who looses too many from a viscous yet effective enemy offensive may find their control of Tol Barad waning, while the attackers grow stronger.
There’s also been an attempt to fix the auto balancing issues Wintergrasp had. The Horde have always had a hard time with massing numbers thanks to having fewer players than the alliance. Here though the game will auto balance each side in an attempt to make things a little even. In essence, battles in Tol Barad should be far more challenging. But they won’t come often. As was the case with Wintergrasp, there’s a two and half hour wait before the island becomes attackable again, but in order to keep the area at least a little more active in downtime periods, new factions and ton of daily quests should provide plenty of interesting things to do during those phases of waiting.
The chief problem players may face with the new PvP content does, however, have very little to do with the possible difficulty of it’s new battlegrounds and everything to do withthat new level 85 hike. Though only a five level increase as opposed to ten, such is the huge difference with players health and mana points that already people who have attained level 85 sport impressive health stats that go up to, and sometimes far exceed, 100,000 points. Add new powerful spells for each class and armour sets that wrap their users up in a comfortable shiny metal shell and you could find that PvP isn’t quite as clear cut as it has been previously. In actuality, fighting other players should provide a more tactful challenge now, forcing the correct use of each classes strengths, rather than throwing their weight around and relying on numbers.
This has far reaching consequences on the main Player versus Environment content too. Enemies are tougher, and the dungeons, while not as numerous as they where in Lich King, do address the main criticisms that was aimed at them, being a lot more difficult, forcing team play to overcome the new dungeon bosses rather than the speed hit and run play trough’s that had become so popular prior to Cataclysms arrival.
Standard content can be trickier, but generally is as easy to get through as anywhere else. In a twist to the current trend of what previous WoW expansion packs offered, it’s the high level players that get the least amount of attention, though that’s not saying they are in anyway neglected. There’s still plenty to do on that short road from level 80 to 85, though nothing quite so spectacular as a brand new continent to explore. Instead high level players get a small selection of huge new areas to quest through, new armour pieces and weapons to collect and new factions to gain reputation with. Sticking to their strengths, Blizzard have created each of these areas with the professionalism and variety so lovingly lavished on the rest of the game world.
There’s the underwater area of Vashj’ir, a collection of zones that see you swimming through the ruins of sunken elven cities and using seahorse mounts to navigate it’s huge watery wastes, Deephom sees you venturing beneath the Maelstrom at the centre of Azeroth into a huge cavernous expanse of partially destroyed floating pillars and lit by a succession of glowing rocks poking out of the ground, while Uldum takes inspiration from ancient Egypt to create a vast desert landscape housing ancient pyramids and obelisks. Say what you will about the ageing graphics of the game, Blizzard’s keen eye for detail and the sheer breadth of their artistry are what makes this game look gorgeous. Rather than settle for the same tired and tested fantasy lands, they’ve actually gone all out to make progression through the later stages of Cataclysm’s content as varied and as unique as possible.
But it’s all burdened with one very troublesome problem: The questing. It’s no secret that it was the early content that was the focus of this expansion, and it’s not until you hit the level 80+ content that it becomes so apparent. Questing in these areas just isn’t that much fun. It’s disheartening having experiences in the reinvented old world just to come to an area like Vashj’ir, only to find yourself at the mercy of “go kill 10 sharks” quests. The same tired and dull task of killing large groups of wildlife or collecting animal body parts are all here, present and correct, as are some soul crushingly bad drop rates for quest-specific items.
It’s not without it’s share of hidden gems. Quest phasing still shows up from time to time and there are enough movie references that when you eventually encounter them they do manage to raise a smile. And as you progress, higher level zones do seem to present you with more worthwhile, memorable quest lines to adventure through. But the fact remains, compared with the rest of the game, compared with even the last expansion, the latter half of Cataclysm’s PvE content doesn’t quite match the earlier stuff. Just as well then that claims of reaching level 85 would be an epic struggle have proven to be false. Even casual players may hit the new level cap before the start of the new year.
Content-wise, Cataclysm is what you’d expect it to be, a collection of much more of the same stuff but with better rewards and a plentiful amount of tweaking to fix problems of past expansions. But look beneath the surface and you’ll discover much more. Blizzard have effectively used this expansion to fix the game in ways to overcome some of it’s shortcomings. Some have already been added, the inclusion of Quest Tracking to prevent fumbling around searching for objectives and quick loot to pick up dropped items with far more ease. More substantial changes come with what’s been added, or even taken away from the game itself.
Hunters for instance no longer use Mana, instead borrowing the Rogue’s focus meter which, in the grand scheme of things, makes much more sense. They also no longer require carrying around sack full’s of bullets or arrows for their main ranged weapon. Little changes such as this or the complete removal of obtaining weapons skills and grinding through them in an unending cycle of repetition until you can effectively use them, help alleviate the burden often inflicted by some of the more tedious aspects of the game. Things are much easier now than they where on WoW’s release, through years of tweaking and content upgrades, levelling up is an effortless, largely fruitful experience.
But it’s with Guilds that the more drastic of changes have been made. They can now level up. In an effort to reward the team play needed for successful Guilds, it’s now possible for members to contribute to expanding their Guild’s status on it’s server. The higher the level gained (up to 25) the more beneficial the rewards can be. Often these are a boon to the entire Guild, a mass resurrection scroll to use in raids or faster honour point gains in battlegrounds. Individually, Guild members can gain reputation within their own guild, gaining access to a unique store that dispenses all sorts of new items you’ll not be able to purchase anywhere else. Co-operative play has always been at the heart of WoW’s experience, now you finally get awarded for it.
It’s the tip of the iceberg for this massive expansion, I’ve no more time left to even make prolonged mention of the use of flying mounts in the rest of the world, a little change that allows you to explore the old zones in ways previously impossible, or the new archaeology profession that gradually allows you to unlock secrets of the past while filling you in on the races and places of Azeroth. This is such a huge expansion that it even dwarfs the content provided by the original game, quite how Blizzard will top this remains to be seen, but if they can the next expansion will be something special.
For now at least Cataclysm fulfils it’s aim. Not the end times for World of Warcraft, this expansion reinvigorates a game that’s so old now it was in danger of allowing others to catch up. Higher level content could have been better, but what Blizzard have done with the old stuff largely makes the shortcoming elsewhere seem insignificant. For the first time since it’s release World of Warcraft feels fresh, new and exciting again, and in no way the catastrophe it’s title may unwittingly refer it to be.
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