Blizzard has learned a lot since it released World Of Warcraft in 2004. Through regular patches and the Burning Crusade and Wrath Of The Lich King expansions, the company has carefully built on a successful formula, keeping WOW the undisputed king of MMORPGs. But the improvements were almost exclusively endgame content that served dedicated fans. New players had to slog through zones that hadn’t changed in years, and were riddled with poor design. Meanwhile, areas that were the pinnacle of the original game were all but abandoned.
Then the Cataclysm hit, as an ancient dragon wrought havoc on Azeroth. Old areas of the game were transformed geographically, scarred by earthquakes and flooding. But the changes were far from cosmetic. The game’s low-level experience has been vastly improved. New characters will still have to kill plenty of monsters, but the numbers on many of the kill- and gather-quests have been reduced. Other dull quests have been removed altogether, replaced with ones that feature cutscenes or show off newer mechanics, like vehicles and instanced zones. The amount of trekking players have to do before they get mounts has been cut down through the addition of more flight paths and quests that let players travel in entertaining ways: catching a lift on a tracking turtle, rocketing into a volcanic caldera, escorting a caravan while shooting attackers, etc.
While previous expansions expanded the character-level cap by 10, Cataclysm only adds five extra levels, since the focus is on the low-level experience. But high-level players still have plenty to love in the new zones. The water was once a dreaded arena for only the most annoying quests. Now, there’s an entire gorgeous aquatic zone, filled with bright reefs and mysterious glowing depths. Across all levels, quests have become more tightly linked with plot. Zones can play out as one long chain of events, where completing one set of missions unlocks others that unfurl the story. Most quests still come from NPCs with exclamation points over their heads, but new quests can be acquired and completed during exploration, triggered by killing a new type of monster or discovering a new area. New dungeons are quickly accessible as players level up to 85. While they aren’t revolutionary, they do offer solid challenges with a high level of interactivity.
Cataclysm is World Of Warcraft’s best expansion so far, but not all the new content is created equal. The weakest part of Cataclysm is its new secondary profession, archaeology, which lets players search the world for artifact fragments that can be combined to create items. While it introduces a clever idea of gathering sites keyed to specific characters rather than available to all, pinpointing artifact locations amounts to a tedious game of hotter/colder. The new Alliance race, the werewolf-like worgen, has an angsty and especially brutal starting zone, but it can’t stand up to the goblin starting area. Even for those with no intention of playing the new Horde race regularly, it’s worth spending a few hours going through the hilarious quest chain that will have you riding around with your posse, robbing a bank, committing insurance fraud, and generally indulging the race’s love for explosions.
The most important lesson Blizzard learned in the last six years is not to fix things that aren’t broken. Cataclysm polishes the game experience, but keeps all the basics that made it so successful. For those who have never played World Of Warcraft before, or are taking a break, there’s never been a better time to get into the game.