It's the end of the world but a new beginning for Azeroth
In the beginning Blizzard created Azeroth and it was good, pretty fine actually, but then along came time and progress and it started looking a bit haggard, but that’s what expansions are for. First we got to visit a fractured chunk of land floating precariously in space and filled with demons wanting to conquer our way of life. It was fresh and sprinkled in much needed new blood like all new zones, quests and characters to help or slay. Then time went and got us all jaded again but Blizzard had the answer and it was Northrend, a snowy land crawling with undead and the odd dragon.
Stormwind is now worlds apart from the original design
We’re naturally a greedy bunch and so eventually we’d be wanting more and so came about the Cataclysm. Not only do we get some new lands to explore in and around the original two continents of Azeroth but the team at Blizzard has reinvented the general tone and flow of this massive world, which is home to over 12 million subscribers. The problem with all those new quests, items and other enhancements with the two expansions was that the beginning areas got left far behind.
Fortunately for us the lore masters decided to use a wave of destruction to excuse a tonnage of updates to what World of Warcraft has come to evolve into over the years. Aside from the huge array of overhauls to the very land itself which finally means we can take to the skies with our long-owned flying mounts, each character class has been stripped of their abilities and talents – the very fundamentals of World of Warcraft – and had all their aspects closely reviewed. When picking our talents we now have to be more careful as at first we get locked into only one of three branches as we can no longer just take a bite from all of them until much higher levels. This specialisation also ties in with the new item stats the studio has introduced which augment our skills even further.
Long standing considerations like soul shards for Warlocks are gone, so no more do we need to go farm a bunch or two to fill our bags. Instead we just get three shards which you need to replenish and it’s done simply through a quick channelling spell which also happens to heal. It’s all part of Blizzard’s new strategy to help players keep on the move and not suffer long down times between battles – arguably the game’s weakest point up until now. Naturally this has upset the status quo somewhat as new tactics have to be worked out by players and their designed builds for avatars, and this is especially true for running instances now. All those tried and true methods of keeping the mobs and adds in check for major fights have all been affected – the old ways aren’t enough.
The new races are justified and fleshed out quite well
Before it was mostly down to a well oiled machine of rotating spells or attacks to bludgeon your way through a dungeon and its bosses but over the years the expansions have been shifting away from just raw player skill and knowhow with their characters. Cataclysm embraces unique moments even more with boss fights where defeating a colossal menace can’t be completed just be bombing it with everything your groups got, instead vehicles and other special items or interactions are being included as part of the mayhem. While it’s certainly a refreshing spin and helps to make instances more fun it’s quite the double edged blade. One the one hand it lets more people of varying skill join in but it can also slow down groups with players completely new to the instance. World of Warcraft sadly is not known for its patience with dungeon newbies, which often puts off end-game exploration.
I covered the two new races that were introduced with Cataclysm in my beta impressions – the Goblins and the Worgen – and much hasn’t changed from those times except tightening of code and some amazing in-game movies from Blizzard. The Goblins start on their techno-autocratic island and are more light hearted and gimmicky of the two new additions, which suits theirs personality rather well given their love for machinery and other gizmos. The Worgen are another picture altogether as their origin is much darker and even feels more personal as your character comes to be afflicted by the curse that changes you from man to beast. It’s a small and simple thing to change between the two but it’s oddly satisfying and helps keep WoW’s class roster colourful and dust-free. Each race has their own racial abilities too but the Goblins edge out the winner thanks to their more economical advantages like being able to call up a summonable banker anytime you feel like it.
The five new major zones for characters on that new final sprint from 80 to 85 have had a lot of love and creativity poured into them with some fantastic set pieces you find yourself questing in and around. Essentially you’ve two choices to make when you reach this end of the level scale, to go visit a big old tree or hold your nose for a swim. I decided to give the latter a try and found immediately just how much Blizzard has upped the stakes in both storytelling and just what they can still surprise us with. Funnily enough I was a little irritated at first as you have to wait for some mercenary ship to dock at Stormwind’s harbour and it was taking its sweet time to get there (any veteran WoW player knows this pain). Once I was aboard and sailing over the horizon though things take a decidedly different turn...
Believing that I was actually going to end up on some Alliance and Horde riddled island I was genuinely shocked to see our mighty ship get beaten the planks out of by a massive squid. At first I thought maybe we’ll be battling this thing a little and then be on our way – no – your character is picked up and hurled into the sea where you sink down to the fathoms below. The next thing you’re waking up aboard a sunken ship that’s over turned with a small pocket of air. Your new friends are the Earthen Ring and they want you to help them find out what’s wrong with the elements. It’s also here you discover you’ve entered one of the new zones, Vashj'ir, which happens to be infested with our old time pals the Naga. Everything is underwater so first you end up questing for a fancy little way to breathe under water permanently when in this zone, which also lets your ‘leap’ along the ocean floor pretty quickly as well.
The usual kill and fetch quests are now more in synch with the story going on around you and are less transparent as excuses to just keep us busy grinding for experience. Vashj'ir is entirely underwater and Blizzard managed to keep it bright and colourful with plenty of little wonders to discover, or even avoid like the huge wild Whale Shark. Eventually you discover some seahorses that can take you quickly from point to point much like the Gryphons do everywhere else in World of Warcraft. You also end up taming your very own seahorse for a mount which is earned through a mini game where you have to match the on-screen directions to keep yourself saddled to it – it’s a great little diversion. All the while I noticed a lot more NPCs now have dialogue they speak and while it doesn’t include everyone it’s nice to feel the world is more alive and less static. Overall World of Warcraft is becoming more personal and involves us as a player more in its lore. Our alleged exploits are mentioned now and then from big name NPCs helping us feel the game is actually moving forward.
A bit of comic relief never hurt anyone
Blizzard have added two new battlegrounds with Cataclysm with one being PvP and the other a daily quest-athon for us to keep revisiting to stock up on rewards. Of course then there’s the collection of new dungeon instances which include two that are classics having been remade. If your an Alliance lover then chances are you’ve visited the Dead Mines; a ‘cult classic’ in its own right. Now this old timer dungeon is packing a Heroic mode that is teeming with surprises for anyone who’s run the gauntlet before, though if you’re squeamish around spiders then prepare for a right nightmare experience – that’s all I’ll say to avoid spoiling a great surprise or two from the Blizzard team. Guilds have been upgraded too as now you and your fellow guildies can level up collectively, earning yourselves passive bonuses after you’ve put in the hard work. Frankly it’s amazing this was never thought of and executed until now – it seems so natural for World of Warcraft. Grinding experience however is capped at daily amounts to help prevent players being pressured into slaving away non-stop to level their guild. Get three members of the same guild in a run for a dungeon and you’ll net some experience on your way through.
There are a total of 25 levels for guild to climb and the earlier accomplishments benefit all members, like faster experience gains and boosted reputation, while the later milestones reward raid parties – being able to summon the whole group is no mere trinket and neither is a mass resurrection, especially when there’s so many more heroic dungeons to go spelunking. Chances are those early guild levels will be earned through members levelling. Once through the Vashj'ir or Hyjal zones you’ll be left with three more designed to get you from 82 to 85 and these are Deepholm, Uldum and the Twilight Highlands. Deepholm felt more satisfying of the final three areas to explore as its story was better connected and flowed well as the stakes got bumped up a notch as you make your way through, and in fact the very fate of Azeroth lies in you putting a World Pillar back together. Uldum on the other hand has its narrative more divided as quests and their chains are more bite size with less of an ‘impending doom’ vibe to it. It does come with excellent set piece quests like ‘bowling’ yourself as a molten ball of fire through gnomes.
Actually Uldum takes a pinch from a few genres like the first-person shooter and even the real-time strategy as it goes on – these moments are genuinely entertaining and really showcase Blizzard’s own creative evolution and talent with World of Warcraft’s inner workings. Of course there’s a new secondary profession as well called Archaeology and it’s going to require some real patience if you plan to see it through, especially if you’re after something specific. You explore zones for a fragment that can be researched and fortunately it’s not some ‘gold rush’ to find these pieces of the past as Blizzard cleverly gave players their very own locations to go investigate. Much like real-life Archaeology you will need to spend a great deal of time to complete your assignments which are randomly given to you making specific rewards painfully slow to reap.
The new zones have some striking set-pieces accompanying their quests
Cataclysm injects new life into World of Warcraft’s very core, literally, as all the areas of the game finally start sharing features like phasing and flying mounts which Outland and Northrend explorers take for granted. The only downside in fact is that the great new pacing and upgrade to Azeroth doesn’t link up to the first two expansion islands, which arguably seem bigger because of their all-new content, compared to Cataclysm’s revamp. Blizzard has been bold and their gamble seems to have paid off - while this latest add-on doesn’t achieve a flawless encore it feels pretty darn Zen. Cataclysm fixes up an already deep game with more flair and substance than ever before – who knew the end of all things could be so rewarding?
TOP GAME MOMENT
Worgen shapeshifting, flying mounts in Azeroth and the action adventures of Harrison Jones!