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World of Warcraft: Cataclysm

"Cataclysm delivers exactly the high quality gameplay experience we've all come to expect from World of Warcraft."

If you're reading this review, then there is a good chance you already know something about World of Warcraft. It is by far the most successful massively-multiplayer game of all time, and it currently boasts more than 12 million subscribers. That's pretty impressive, given that it's been around since late 2004. Cataclysm is the latest expansion for this MMO giant, and it brings players back to the two major continents of Azeroth for more adventure and loot. After many complaints from the player base about the previous expansion being too easy, the new content is definitely a step up. But is it better? Let's find out.

The defeat of Arthas the Lich King at the end of the last expansion left us wondering where things were heading next. All of Warcraft III's major villains had been defeated, and a few shaky moments of peace had been established between the Horde and the Alliance. Things are starting to look up for Azeroth. But in Cataclysm, the world erupts. No, that is not a metaphor. Deathwing the Destroyer, last seen in Warcraft II, emerges from the elemental plane of Deepholm. He returns to Azeroth to seek revenge, ripping the world apart as he does! Thrall, Warchief of the Horde, heads out with his Shaman buddies to try to deal with this new threat by containing the Maelstrom from which the dragon emerged. He temporarily hands over his power to Garrosh Hellscream, an extremely aggressive Orc with a hatred for humans. On the Alliance side, King Varian Wyrnn rallies his forces to fight back against the Horde. The momentary truce that existed between the two factions as they fought the Lich King has collapsed.

Comparing all of Warcraft's expansions, Cataclysm has far and away the greatest story telling techniques. Though the return of Deathwing may not sound quite as monumental as taking down the Lich King, Blizzard has stepped up and created fantastic stories based around the new quests to tie everything together. As you might expect, the return of Deathwing and the aggressive battles between the Horde and the Alliance have massively changed the world. In addition to five brand new zones, nearly all of the existing zones have undergone major visual changes. Thousand Needles is now under water, The Barrens has been split in two, Stranglethorn Vale has a gaping hole in it, Ashenvale has been burnt to the ground, Darkshore has been annihilated, the Plaguelands are finally starting to grow new life, and that's just to name a handful. Nearly every zone has had a change; some major, some minor, but they are all absolutely brilliant. It's dynamic storytelling in a mutliplayer game and it's fantastic. Combined with the new 'phasing' mechanic, where various quests actually affect the landscape around you, you really feel like you're making a difference in the world.

So what else is new? Plenty! Let's go over the basics. The new level cap is 85, you can level all professions up a step further, you can fly almost anywhere in Azeroth, there are thousands of redesigned locations and quests, seven new dungeons, three new raids (so far), new battlegrounds, new secondary profession (archaeology), rated battleground system, new race/class combinations (Tauren Paladin anybody?), two new races (Goblin and Worgen), new stats, massive changes to the mechanics of some classes, major visual changes to Orgrimmar and Stormwind, new starting zones for Gnomes and Trolls, new talent tree system, and improved graphics! Is that enough for you!? This expansion is certainly not short on new content.

The new zones are where most current players will start, and they're a solid start. At level 80, you will be able to head out to either Vashj'ir or Mount Hyjal. Both of these locations are pretty significant to Warcraft lore and they're designed beautifully. Hyjal has similar design philosophy to other zones, but a wide environmental variety – forest, wasteland, lava – and a huge variation on quests that make it a joy to play through. Anyone keen on the Warcraft story will be happy to know that you also meet some pretty major characters in Hyjal, including Cenarion and Ysera. Vashj'ir is completely different. For starters, the whole zone is underwater! After some initial quests and some awkward swimming, you'll receive a few new ways to navigate the ocean. The most exciting of these are the new underwater mounts. These can only be used in Vashj'ir, but are pretty awesome. Blizzard has proven that it is possible to have a water-themed environment in a video game and not have it hated by everyone who plays it.

Once you're done with ether of these zones you head to Deepholm, a beautifully designed elemental plane that is amazing to fly around, or to Uldum, a zone in the style of ancient Egypt, complete with tombs, mummies, camels, and Indiana Jones jokes! Lastly, you'll venture into the Twilight Highlands and meet up with Alexstrasza and the rest of the red dragonflight. This is where your solo questing will end and the story is set up for raiding. Each unique zone is linked together beautifully through quests and has some really fun and exciting features. These are by far the best-designed quests and zones Warcraft has seen yet. Daily quests are still around, and there are now more than ever. While these provide a practical way of making money and grabbing gear-related tokens, they become mind-numbingly boring very quickly.

Sadly, compared to seven new areas in Burning Crusade and ten in Wrath of the Lich King, Cataclysm's five new locations are a minor disappointment. Luckily, this is somewhat remedied by the complete redesign of all the old zones. Nearly every area has updated quests, characters and lore. If you decide you want to start a new (or your first!) character with this expansion, you certainly won't be experiencing recycled content. If you're not big on quests, you can check out the old dungeons too. Though there are only a handful of changes to most of them, all dungeon-related quests now start in the dungeon itself. Assuming you use the "looking for group" tool, you can grab the quests as soon as you're done loading. No more needing to ask "Can u share quests plz?" There are still quests that involve killing a certain number of enemies or collecting items, but most of these have been removed and replaced with far more interesting, or at least cleverly disguised, objectives. There are plenty of truly memorable experiences too. Rescuing a group of commandos in the Redridge Mountains before leading them in Metal Gear Solid-style tactical espionage, and piloting my own personal river boat both stand out as personal highlights.

If you do decide to create a fresh character, chances are you'll be contemplating going Goblin or Worgen – the two new races. Joining the Alliance are the old English-styled Worgens. Their starting zone of Gilneas tells quite an interesting story of how their race came to be. Only a few quests stand out as exciting, but the story and lore is quite interesting. The most interesting gimmick mechanic of the Worgens is being able to transform between human and wolf at will. You can only fight while in Worgen form, but the ability to morph with a button press provides a surprising amount of entertainment. They are even their own mounts! They literally drop to all fours and run. It's awesome. On the other side, the technology-crazy Goblins join the Horde. Their lore is humorous, but hardly as deep and meaningful as the Worgen story. Making up for that are some hilarious quests and zone design featuring monorails, shredders, and lots of explosives.

Once you reach the level 80-85 bracket, you'll want to take a look at the new dungeons. Gone are the days of loot-fest Lich King dungeons where fifteen minutes was a slow run and having a decent group drop below half-health constituted a failure. The Cataclysm dungeons and the heroics, are a true challenge, and demonstrate a greater variety in design than their predecessors. You explore the fiery depths of Blackrock Core, the underwater sanctuary of the Throne of Tides, the sky above the Vortex Pinnacle, the ruins of the Lost City of the Tol'vir among others, including new heroic versions of the classic Deadmines and Shadowfang Keep. The Vortex Pinnacle is particularly beautiful and when you're not smashing – or being smashed by – enemies, you definitely enjoy the view. There are some great boss fights, with interesting mechanics unlike anything Warcraft has previously shown players. You dodge falling stalactites, deal with hordes of cultists, battle a dragon amongst tornados, and even fight while riding a camel! Apart from being extremely difficult on heroic mode, there's little to complain about, but the difficulty is a very real issue. More casual players who generally join random groups could be looking at over an hour per dungeon and spending a lot of time dying. The encounters require raid-style awareness that a large percentage of the player base simply doesn't have. It can take just one person messing up to ruin it for everyone. Random groups are difficult, stressful and rarely fun. Going with your friends, of course, is a different matter. If you can join a guild or find some buddies with whom you can play consistently, the challenges become more enjoyable. Either way, if you played Wrath of the Lich King, be ready for a major difficulty spike. This will likely ease over time as more powerful gear becomes available.

Unfortunately, I have only had a small chance to sample the new raids at the time of writing this review. There are three raids to enjoy so far (though more will be added later in content patches), but they are pretty difficult – in fact, in terms of difficulty, they're another step up from heroics. Some guilds have already cleared them, but most are just starting to progress through them at this point. The gear requirements are high, and player skill is more important than ever. I have taken a shot at the extra raid beneath the new world battleground of Tol Barad – a single-boss encounter on the easier end of the raids. It's a fun fight that involves a bit of running around like crazy, but mostly just whacking away at the huge Pit Lord. Splitting into two groups is a necessity, and regardless of your role as a healer, damage dealer, or tank, you'll feel like an important part of the victory.

Tol Barad is rather a mixed bag. Those who played the previous expansion can think of it as the new Wintergrasp. Tol Barard is a player-versus-player zone where the Horde and Alliance fight for control. The attacking team has to capture all three bases at once to win, and the defending team (obviously) tries to stop them. Flanking the bases are three towers that, when destroyed, provide the attacking team with more time to complete their objective. It sounds great on paper, but there is currently a virtually game-breaking issue that makes it nearly impossible to win as the attacking team. Having to control all three bases at once is difficult enough, but when the defending team also spawns in a central location, it makes it nearly impossible. You capture a base by having more people there than the opposing team does. The more people, the faster you capture it, so all the defending team needs to do is pile their entire team into a single base and watch the clock run down to take victory. Winning Tol Barad gives you access to the aforementioned raid and a handful of daily quests, so it's a pretty big deal. Blizzard is currently working on ways to resolve this problem, but has yet to implement a fix.

If you want to try some more balanced PvP content, there are two new battlegrounds to dominate. The Battle for Gilneas is a stormy, seaside area where each team attempts to control as many of the three bases as they can. The more bases you control, the more points you get, and the first team to the target score wins. It's very similar to the already existing Arathi Basin. It's a great battleground that is a refinement of the Basin, but it fails to do anything new. Likewise, Twin Peaks is the new Warsong Gulch. It's a simple game of capture the flag. It's in a mountainous environment and it's fun, but it's nothing that hasn't been seen before. Both of these new battlegrounds are solid, but they feel like a missed opportunity for new and exciting ideas.

Two new major mechanics that go hand in hand are flying in Azeroth and archaeology. Up until now, you could only fly while in the Outlands or the northern continent of Northrend. Cataclysm allows you to fly almost anywhere in the old world, and the zones have been adjusted to accommodate this new freedom. Being able to fly over areas previously only accessible on foot is wonderful, and there are some breathtaking views to find. Without flying, the new profession of archaeology would be a near impossible task. As you might guess, archaeology involves flying from dig site to dig site and shoveling old stuff out of the ground. Each time you dig, you find fragments that can be put together to complete a project. Completed projects can be junk, non-combat pets, mounts, weapons, armour and more. In theory, this could have been amazing, but it falls short – flying from site to site and digging over and over again is extremely uninteresting. The game randomly selects locations for you, and there aren't a huge range of locations, so you constantly revisit the same places. Most of the time, you merely put together pieces of junk, sell them off for an insignificant amount of money, and never think about them again. You occasionally find something more useful or exciting, but the reward-to-effort ratio is exceedingly low. "Missed potential" is the best way to sum it up.

The largest overhaul is the way individual classes work. The modifications are being widely enjoyed by the player community, but some rather drastic changes to a few of the classes have really turned things on their heads. A few classes, such as Warriors and Rogues, feature only minor changes and some modified abilities. On the other hand, Druids, Hunters, and Paladins almost feel like playing an entirely different game. If you're a returning player, it's definitely worth checking out the official patch notes on class changes, as it would be impractical to list them all here. To name a few examples, Hunters no longer have mana. Instead, they have a new focus bar. It feels more like playing a ranged warrior. Paladins now require 'holy power' to use some of their spells, which is built up by using specific abilities. Druids no longer heal in tree form, and a couple of their other forms have been removed altogether, but a new eclipse function has been implemented to increase the variation of DPS spells used. The classes have had seriously major overhauls, but mostly in positive ways that make them more unique.

As mentioned earlier, the game has had some graphical changes too. The character models remain mostly untouched, but the addition of improved water and textures make a huge difference. The new Stormwind and Orgrimmar stand out as the best examples. Both have been completely overhauled and are stunning to walk around. The graphics don't scream cutting-edge, but they're pleasant and they work. The only real downside, as usual, is the amount of recycled weapons and armour. You'll see the same swords, the same staffs, the same armour, and the same shields all the way through the new quests. Dungeon equipment has more visual variation, but sometimes it's a simple palette swap. High-end tier gear is far more unique for each class, but there is still no real variation between the set you would use for healing and the set used for damage dealing. It was just as much of an issue in Wrath of the Lich King, and it's disappointing that Blizzard hasn't made more of an effort this time around.

Musically, Warcraft has always been exceptional when compared to other MMOs. In that respect, Cataclysm doesn't disappoint. It presents a number of grand musical scores in the new zones and dungeons. It's hard to call out any as huge standouts, but they're all solid work and do a decent job of setting up the atmosphere. There is more voice acting this time around as well, and Blizzard has hired many new actors to take on this task. Most of them do a great job of playing their roles, and even the NPC voices no longer sound the same! There are a couple of wooden performances, but they don't ruin the overall positive experience. Environmental sound effects are still a little bland, but abilities and spells being fired are usually quite pleasant to hear.

Now let's face it. Talking about value and length in a massively-multiplayer game is like talking about spicy chili and how often you'll need to use the bathroom after eating it. It just goes on and on and on. With that awful image in your mind, you can be assured that there is plenty of post-leveling content to be found. Apart from running dungeons for gear, experiencing raids, completing daily quests, and engaging in PvP, you also have plenty of new achievements. Cataclysm will be a new best friend to those who are into piling up as many achievement points as possible. There is a borderline ludicrous amount to achieve, and you'd need to spend many thousands of hours to even have a chance at doing it all. Some achievements are rather poorly implemented, but most will provide significant challenges. You may have to pay each month to play Warcraft, but there is more than enough content to justify it. Blizzard is also notoriously good at releasing new content every six months or so, and you'll just want to keep playing and playing. This, of course, is exactly what they want you to do! If you're a recovering addict, you may want to stay away!

The last thing I'd like to mention is the community. As fantastic as it is that World of Warcraft has become more popular over the years it has also meant more trolls and griefers on the trade channel. If you ask a question in public, expect to be told you're stupid or get an answer that involves being made fun of. Likewise, if you mess up inside a dungeon, expect everyone to yell at you. This isn't always the case, but it happens often enough that you're sure to see it from time to time, even if you're a great player. Don't let people bother you, don't give other players a hard time, and don't feed the trolls. Remember those three things and you'll be fine.

Cataclysm delivers exactly the high-quality gameplay experience we've all come to expect from World of Warcraft. Complaints about class changes and extreme difficulty aside, this is a truly enjoyable expansion and an absolute must-have for any current player. Brilliant quest, dungeon and raid design along with completely renewed old-school zones is really all you could ask for. It's a pity there weren't more new zones added, because if you have multiple characters, they are each forced to do most of the same quests. It's clearly a case of quality over quantity. If you're considering stepping into the world of Azeroth for the first time, you may want to give the free trial a shot first, but it's a fairly safe bet to say that you'll enjoy it. If you're looking forward to the new high-end content, be prepared for a considerable time commitment, but both you and I know you're going to enjoy every minute of it. Well, unless someone ninjas a sword that finally drops after you've being trying to get it for weeks.


© 2010-2011 Blizzard Entertainment. All rights reserved.




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