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We were nearly out, damn it. We were so close. We had friends. We had a decent job. We hadn't (recently) left any children to die during one of our 22-hour marathon binges. We were finally free. And then Cataclysm happened. Now the mere act of writing this review is causing us to break out into a cold, nervous sweat. We're hooked worse than ever, and we blame it entirely on the fact that World of Warcraft is now the best it's ever been.
With Cataclysm, Blizzard's mostly outdone itself. Minus the implied parental negligence (Spoiler: We don't have kids. Court order), our above anecdote was more or less true. We were finished with WoW. Done. Tired of the grind. Sick of raiding. Cataclysm, though, is a huge change. It's not simply quiet whispers of “just another expansion pack” being distorted by the PR megaphone. Sure, it's still fundamentally an MMO - for better or worse - but this is an expansion that literally breaks new ground, making it well worth a look for newcomers and burnt-out veterans alike.
Above: SE-PHI-ROTH! DUN DUN DUN DUN
So, first things first: for the purposes of this review, we'll be focusing on the bits that you're actually paying for. The version of Azeroth that looks like it's been forced through a giant dragon-shaped wood chipper is actually free, assuming you've already purchased vanilla WoW. Just fire up the game, download the latest patch, and - holy cow - Stranglethorn Vale doesn't suck anymore. It's a miracle! So we're evaluating the two new races (Goblins and Worgen), a fantastic smattering of high-level content, and a few other odds-and-ends.
Now, if you're a long-time player, you might be thinking “two new races and no new classes - what's the point?” And yeah, speaking purely in terms of nitty-gritty nuts and bolts, differences between WoW's races - new ones included - are mostly cosmetic. Even so, it's a fresh face/backside to stare at for 300 hours and, more importantly, both races' starting areas do a fantastic job of providing actual character for avatars that previously served as lifeless vehicles for your adventures. Whether you go green with a Goblin or Team-Jacob-but-not-awful with a Worgen, your first 13 or so levels encompass a fast-paced overarching storyline that imbues your race with an actual identity.
Above: “That's right, everyone! Shoot the evil monster horse! I have a hat, so I'm just like you!”
Worgen, interestingly, don't spring from Blizzard's collective womb as mangy messes of fur and fangs. Instead, you're just an average Joe human whose homeland gets invaded by foaming-at-the-mouth feral werewolves. Naturally, you get bitten and find yourself seeking a way to tame your inner beast while helping your comrades fight a losing battle against other wolves, the Forsaken, and - oh yeah - Deathwing. It's one of Warcraft's darker plotlines, and it's extremely well-executed. You'll participate in hundred-man battles, clash blades with a number of familiar faces from Warcraft lore, and watch entire landmasses get torn in two. Put simply, you'll actually want to read the quest text this time around.
For all the Worgen's gothic intrigue, however, the explosion-loving Goblins will give you far more bang for your buck. Frequently hilarious and chock-full of pop culture references, the Goblins' early goings are pretty much the Worgen's polar opposite. The adventure's no less epic, however. Don't believe us? Try saying that after you've killed Cthulhu at level nine. Granted, it gets a bit bogged down in basic kill/collect quests toward the middle, but moments like flying a fighter plane and rounding up your posse (Blizzard's words, not ours) for a ritzy party make up for it in a big way.
The new high-level zones are similarly story focused, resulting in quests that are less tedious level-treadmills and more self-contained story arcs with the occasional earth-shattering cameo from good ol' Deathwing. Among the five new zones, Vash’jir and Uldum are the biggest standouts - though it'd be a stretch to call any of them (save maybe Mount Hyjal) mediocre. See, Vash’jir's almost entirely underwater, making for an utterly gorgeous change of pace, and Uldum's a generally hilarious take on Egyptian legends. In all cases, though, questing is a much more focused experience. Instead of spending the better part of your time in transit from point A to point B, you'll generally have two-to-three interlocking quests in a given area. For instance, you might need to kill a certain type of enemy - who might drop a required item for a different quest - while also freeing prisoners or destroying enemy weapons caches. Other times, you might hop on top of a starving shark and rodeo-ride it until your annoying, stab-happy enemies are just particularly happy memories in some shark's “best day ever” collage. That's fun too.
Above: Unfortunately, you don't get to keep this adorable little killing machine
Quest variety's not the only major improvement here, though. Cataclysm also makes extensive use of “phasing” technology, which allows quests to radically alter and permanently change in-game areas. At one point, we completed a long quest chain only to cheerily skip away from our quest-giver and find that comfortable, familiar landmass (we'd even made plans to have brunch with it early the next week) completely torn from the face of the earth. Similarly, giant, semi-instanced battles frequently erupt mid-quest. Without a doubt, Cataclysm puts the war back in Warcraft, and the end result is that you don't feel like just another ant skittering around on Blizzard's boot. Your actions actually have tangible consequences, and even if it is all smoke and mirrors, the effect is pretty darn cool. You feel like a big damn hero. In a game where there are millions of other people - some of them 12-years old and somehow 12 times more proficient than you'll ever be - that's a huge accomplishment.
Even then, however, many quests still boil down to killing dudes and collecting stuff. Thing is, Cataclysm puts the emphasis on “how” instead of “what.” And that, of course, makes it all the more glaring when you occasionally encounter an area totally devoid of bells and whistles. The bottom line? Cataclysm isn't necessarily a solution to the “problem” of traditional MMO structure. It's just a new (and generally excellent) spin on the same old thing. Point is, it's not a revolution, so odds are, Mr. Consummate WoW-Hater, Cataclysm won't have you donning a “For the Horde” T-shirt and singing Blizzard's praises to the heavens.
Above: Have we mentioned how impossibly beautiful this game continues to be?
Cataclysm's new high-level dungeons share questing's mantra of speed and focus, but also toss in a new tenant: difficulty. Compared to previous WoW dungeons, they're practically bite-sized, but they make up for it by requiring smartly organized teamwork and real knowledge of how your class operates. If you've got some friends or a few guild buddies in your corner, it's utterly satisfying. However, you might hit a few roadblocks with a band of random strangers. That, however, is much less of an issue once you step up to the big leagues and start running heroic dungeons. See, heroics now require a certain cumulative gear level, and the best way to reach it is by running the regular versions of said dungeons. As a result, the wheat's separated from the chaff, so inexperienced players aren't able to pull a Leeroy Jenkins on your heroic runs.
Cataclysm also packs two new PvP arenas, and while they're not new game types, Battle for Gilneas and Twin Peaks are both nice changes of pace for the classic Arathi Basin and Warsong Gultch setups, respectively. Blizzard hasn't left PvPers clamoring for new ideas entirely high-and-dry, however. Problem is, the new PvP zone, Tol Barad, isn't quite a level playing field. Attackers, unfortunately, have to dominate all three capture points while defenders only need to maintain control of one. The end result is a sometimes frustratingly lopsided experience even though attackers can bring out the big guns in the form of siege weaponry. Even so, taking Tol Barad grants you access to an exclusive dungeon and some other goodies, so it's not exactly something you can ignore.
The only area where Cataclysm really manages a YouTube-worthy belly flop is in the implementation of its new profession, archaeology. On the upside, it's a secondary profession, so you don't have to give up your life's work in the fields of, say, herbalism and alchemy (or whatever combination you prefer) to pursue it. Unfortunately, it almost hearkens back to old-school WoW by being generally repetitive, clunky, and time-consuming. In a nutshell, archaeology sees you collect artifacts that can eventually unlock rare (or completely useless) items, but uncovering and piecing together artifacts - perhaps fittingly - feels like it takes ages. First you have to find a dig site on your map, and then you've got to fly/ride/etc. your way to said dig site. Once you're in the right place, you have to locate and extract three artifact fragments, the act of which tends to be time-consuming and - more importantly - boring. On the whole, it's simply not an enjoyable profession. As a result, we doubt Azeroth's legions will be quitting their day jobs any time soon.
That, however, is a single drop in Cataclysm's massive bucket, and the amount of good here far outweighs the bad. Cataclysm's certainly not perfect, but it's the best World of Warcraft expansion so far and a damn near miraculous dip in the videogame fountain of youth for Blizzard's six-year-old MMO. Unless you absolutely, militantly despise World of Warcraft and all that it stands for, this one's a no-brainer.
Dec 23, 2010