By now, World of Warcraft needs no introduction. As one of the most popular massive multiplayer online roleplaying games of all time, literally millions of gamers have at one point or another called Azeroth their home. And with WoW's latest expansion pack, Cataclysm, that home is being changed forever.
At first glance, Cataclysm is similar to WoW's other two expansions it offers players new zones to explore, new quests to be completed, and new gear to be acquired. However, there are a few major differences as well. For starters, the level cap has only been raised by five levels, as opposed to ten. And the new zones in Cataclysm aren't located in some far away land, like Outland in Burning Crusade or Northrend in Wrath of the Lich King. Instead, most of your adventures in Cataclysm take place in Azeroth. Thanks to the emergence of Deathwing, an absolutely enormous dragon, Azeroth has been shattered, meaning that existing areas have been reshaped, and new zones have been uncovered.
The new zones in Cataclysm, for levels 80 to 85, are easily the best zones in WoW to date. They are varied, compelling, and beautiful. From the mystical realm of Deepholm, to the serene, underwater zone of Vashj'ir, each new area has been crafted with the care that has become expectant of Blizzard. Yet, it's still jaw-dropping to see the sheer amount of detail put into each zone. Small things, like cinders floating calmly through the air, or the combination of colors in an underwater reef, really help make these zones stand out from anywhere else in the World of Warcraft.
A new cinematic approach to storytelling really helps give these new zones their own unique identities as well. There are now actual in-game cinematics which involve your very own character. At first, these interludes seem shocking, as you lose full control of the camera, and are left a spectator something more akin to a single player RPG than an MMO. But they are integrated seamlessly into your adventures, and really give you proper motivation for going out and completing a couple hundred quests. And voice acting is much more prevalent in this expansion no doubt a preemptive response to Bioware's upcoming MMO, The Old Republic. Nevertheless, it's a welcome addition that is quickly becoming the standard in MMOs.
Each zone has its own separate storyline, which is tied in with the emergence of Deathwing. To help make sure players don't miss any crucial plotlines, questing has been made much more linear in Cataclysm. Instead of arriving at a quest hub, gathering ten or so quests, and going off to complete them, in Cataclysm you are only ever given a couple quests to complete at a time. This makes the game unfold much more like a single-player RPG, which you'll either love or hate. It does take away some of the freedom that is often associated with MMOs, but it also allows for a cohesive narrative to be told. And when combined with the extensive use of phasing that was introduced in Wrath, it really makes your adventures feel impactful on the world.
While questing in the new zones is a blast, there are far too many bugged quests in the new zones. One time, there was an NPC I had to turn a quest into, but they kept disappearing whenever I got close, making the quest impossible to complete. And there were a number of quests that I had to abandon and retake numerous times in order to complete. These issues will definitely be fixed in an upcoming patch, but there are so many of them that they should have been spotted during beta testing.
And it's not just the zones for level 80 to 85 that offer epic storylines and streamlined questing. Thanks to the Shattering, all of Azeroth has been changed, including the old zones used for leveling from 1 to 60. Azshara, for example, was one of the least populated zones pre-cataclysm. It was designed for players around level 50, but hardly anyone ever quested there since it was such a pain to get around, and the quests were part of long chains that started in other zones. Now, Azshara is a low-level questing zone complete with a storyline involving the invading black dragonflight and a brand new Horde city.
Azshara isn't the only "old" zone that has been redone. Thousand Needles, which used to be a barren desert, has now been flooded, completely changing the feel of the zone. Ashenvale, which was one of the serene forests of the Night Elves pre-Cataclysm, now has a volcano that has erupted in the middle of it. And there are a lot less trees, thanks to the logging efforts of the Horde that began back in 2004. Thanks to all of the changes, leveling from 1 to 60 is much more fun now, and a lot less of a grind. And for those nostalgic players that haven't played WoW in a few years, it's a lot of fun just to go through all of the old zones and see the subtle, and not-so-subtle, changes that have been made.
And for non-veterans, there has never been a better time to jump into the World of Warcraft. Cataclysm features two new races, the goblins for the Horde, and the worgen for the Alliance. Both new races are fun and unique, and couldn't be any more different from each other. The goblin starting zone resembles a futuristic city, with hotrods, streets, and flashy signs and advertisements. The worgen starting zone, on the other hand, has you start out as a human during a werewolf outbreak in Gilneas City. Eventually, you're turned into a worgen, giving you some pretty awesome abilities. These two zones are easily the best starter zones in the game and should be completed by everyone, even if you have no intention of leveling a member of your opposing faction to level 85. Trolls and gnomes, who had shared starter zones with orcs and dwarves pre-Cataclysm, now also have their own beginning areas.
But if leveling new characters and questing isn't your cup of tea, there are plenty of new player versus player additions to be found in Cataclysm. Tol Barad is the new outdoor PvP raid zone, like Wintergrasp was in Northrend, where the Horde and the Alliance are fighting for control over the prison known as Baradin Hold. Tol Barad also serves as a hub for daily quests, and whichever faction controls the prison not only gets access to even more dailies, but a raid dungeon as well. Two new battlegrounds have been introduced as well: the Battle for Gilneas (which is similar to Arathi Basin) and the Twin Peaks (which is similar to Warsong Gulch). Battlegrounds are also rated now, which is a great addition for people who aren't fans of the Arena, but still want to play competitively.
Another new addition to Cataclysm is the secondary profession Archaeology, which is all about finding and unearthing artifacts that have been uncovered by the Shattering. At first, Archaeology seems like it would be a great profession, what with all the lore that Azeroth has to offer. However, in practice, it's not very fun. When you get trained in Archaeology, four dig sites per continent show up on your world map. After travelling to one of these areas, you survey the digsite, which plops down a telescope and a blinking light. The telescope tells you which direction you need to go to find a fragment of an artifact, and the light tells you how close you are (red for far away, yellow for close, and green for very close). You have to keep surveying until you find a fragment...and then repeat the process a few dozen times before you can actually complete the artifact. The entire process is lengthy and boring, and would be exponentially worse without a flying mount to get around quickly. You can unlock some cool items like rare mounts through Archaeology, but those with short attention spans probably won't bother.
Another complaint I have about Cataclysm is how it only takes five levels to reach the new cap. By the time I completely finished Mount Hyjal and Vashj'ir, I was already close to level 84 and I still had three zones to go! And getting to the level cap in Cataclysm takes a lot less time than it did to get from 60 to 70, or from 70 to 80. Sure, since levels 1 to 60 were redone, it kind of makes up for the extra five levels. But if they had made just one more high-level zone, there certainly would have been enough content to get players from 80 to 90, instead of 85. Maybe this is just Blizzard's way of letting us know they plan to release smaller expansions more quickly in the future.
Graphically, Cataclysm looks great. The new water effects are stellar, and the art design is superb as always. Both new races look awesome, with the new playable goblins putting the old NPC goblin models to utter shame. In fact, the two new races look so good that they make the old playable races look rather outdated by comparison. Cataclysm's soundtrack is also worthy of Blizzard's high standards, and is worth listening to when not even playing the game.
In the end, Cataclysm is a great expansion to World of Warcraft. The new zones are incredibly fun and memorable, both new races are tons of fun, and leveling from 1 to 60 feels like a completely new experience. Sure, there are only five new levels to gain before reaching the new cap, but there is still plenty of content to explore. Whether you're a longtime WoW veteran, someone who hasn't played in years, or a complete newcomer, there's plenty of fun to be had in Cataclysm.