World of Warcraft has been out for a long time. A month or two ago the game hit its sixth birthday. Nothing is more telling of this than the newest expansion, Cataclysm. More than anything, Cataclysm feels like a move by Blizzard to keep WoW modernized in an age where the pay-to-play MMO is becoming less and less popular. Does it work? Eh…yes and no. I’m nearly 99.9% sure that everyone who is an avid player of WoW has already bought Cataclysm but if you haven’t played in years or are wondering if now’s the time to start, I’m going to try my best to give you the rundown.
Figuring out where to begin when talking about Cataclysm is tough, so I’ll start where I began when I first launched the game. The first thing I did (along with everyone else, I’m sure) was head off to one of the new zones and start leveling. Whether you decide to start fresh with a new character or to start from where you stopped at the end of the last expansion, the first thing you’ll notice while questing is just how relevant most of the quests are. Nearly every single quest you do feels like it has some importance in what’s happening in the world at large. For example, I started questing at Mount Hyjal (of WarCraft III fame), and rather than spending the first couple quests killing boars (which I was totally expecting) I was stopping malicious cultists from burning down the ever-threatened World Tree.
The revamp of the quests throughout the zones is probably the smartest and best working thing Blizzard has changed in Cataclysm. It’s so much easier to feel motivated to get out there and complete quests when they instruct you to do things that actually seem important. The problem of mundane questing isn’t entirely solved, though. Each zone in the game (both new and old) typically starts and ends with exciting and interesting quest chains to experience. Sadly, the quests in the middle of the zone typically revert back to the boring selection of: 1. Collect x number of animal parts. 2. Kill x number of things. 3. Any combination of the previous two things. These three options are good for gaining experience for your character, but they are just as boring as they ever were.
I feel like this ABA layout of “good quest, bad quests, one more good quest” is really telling of the overall changes in Cataclysm. The seemingly huge changes to the world feel largely like a shell of shiny new features wrapped around core ideas and shortcomings that WoW has had since it was released. The quest structure is a great example of this, but there are several others.
Earlier in this post, I mentioned that Cataclysm is very much an attempt by Blizzard to keep WoW modern and relevant. One concept that was added in the previous expansion but has become much more prevalent this time around is vehicles. Each zone in the game has at least a couple of quests that involve driving some sort of vehicle around. Sadly, the engine that WoW runs on combined with the way that the game controls just don’t complement the new gameplay. Sure, it’s fresh and unique to break up the pace of questing by driving a siege engine or whatever around but the vehicles all feel really clunky and unresponsive. In a game ruled by dice rolls and random number generators, more action-oriented elements just feel odd and out of place. If WoW had been designed from the ground up as some sort of hybrid MMO and vehicles had been in mind when the engine was developed, I could see these aspects feeling much more responsive and fun.
The five new zones in the game are like the quests: largely hit-and-miss. The first two of the new zones, Mount Hyjal and Vashj’ir, definitely stand out as interesting areas. Mount Hyjal has the perk of having a lot of history in the WarCraft universe behind it, and so if you’re interested in lore it’s a great place to check out. Vashj’ir is interesting in that it’s completely underwater. Every quest you do, all your exploration, is underwater. The zone itself is pretty much just the middle of the ocean. It’s definitely cool to see and explore, but I feel like the swimming controls in WoW (like the vehicles) leave a lot to be desired. The game just does not feel like it was meant to be played in a completely 3D-moving environment.
After the first two new zones, you’re likely to head to Deepholm. Deepholm is interesting in that it’s visually very exciting and crazy but the quests themselves are an absolute drag. The overabundance of “kill x things” and “collect x things” in Deepholm made me actually want to stop playing the game for good for a while. Thankfully, after Deepholm comes Uldum. Uldum is a new desert zone and it’s where Cataclysm really shines. The quests may not be quite as story-focused as places like Mount Hyjal, but everything just feels really goofy and fun. The entire zone is pretty much a tribute to Indiana Jones movies (when they were still good). Lastly, there’s the Twilight Highlands. There’s a lot of cool story-focused stuff there as well, but visually and quest-wise it’s largely unremarkable.
What the Twilight Highlands really has going for it is the introduction event you get to experience the first time you enter the zone (I’m speaking strictly from a Horde perspective, as I don’t play Alliance). I’d hate to give it away but it’s a great experience and almost feels like it’s some WarCraft-themed amusement park ride. While I was going through it, I got a very distinct feeling that this was the greatest thing WoW had to offer and I wouldn’t be as impressed with the game ever again.
I actually got the amusement park feeling several times while I was exploring Cataclysm. Sadly, they weren’t all as impressive as the intro to the Twilight Highlands. The fantastic new feature that lets you queue to enter dungeons with other players is still around, but unless you’re playing as a healer or a tank then get ready for some serious wait times. I had to sit in queue for anywhere from thirty minutes to more than an hour to see dungeons. Also, depending on what server you play on, be prepared to wait in heavy queues just to get into the game during peak hours (generally evenings). I equate these things to standing in line at an amusement park; the wait times are often long enough to discourage you from wanting to play at all.
One complaint I’ve had about WoW in recent years is that the game is really starting to look dated. It’s nice to see that Blizzard made an attempt in Cataclysm to address a bit of this, but their efforts had a strange and unintended effect. A lot of the new art assets in the game look terrific. There are high-res textures with great detail for some of the new structures, armors, weapons, and the like. These things all look great, even up close. There’s a new water engine in effect that adds some really cool ripples when objects move through the water as well as some nifty surface reflections. Sadly, these changes don’t seem to affect everything in the game (admittedly it would be very difficult to do so). You’re still going to see a lot of 2D objects leftover from the old world, blurry and gross textures up close, straight-up ugly stretched textures on wide or tall surfaces and dated-looking models. When combined with all the fancy looking new stuff, the game has this really broken and inconsistent look to it. If Blizzard wants to keep WoW alive for much longer, I really think a complete visual overhaul is needed.
So now we come down to it. Is Cataclysm worth your time and money? Eh…maybe. If you haven’t played WoW in a long time but enjoyed it when you did, I highly recommend at least checking out all the changes to the old world (then again, you don’t even need to own Cataclysm…or any expansion to do that). If you tried WoW before and just couldn’t get into it, you probably won’t be able to get into it now either. It may have a fresh coat of paint and a lot of nifty things to make it seem varied and robust, but at the end of the day it’s still an MMO, through and through. If you don’t like the grind and repetition of MMOs, nothing Cataclysm adds will be able to keep you from becoming bored with the same mechanics that have bored you in the past.