World of Warcraft has almost completely taken over the su 22c3 bscription MMO market over the past six years with almost all competition fading into obscurity or turning to at least partially free-to-play. This proves that Blizzard is definitely doing something right, even if Wrath of the Lich King got panned for being far too easy. The third expansion, Cataclysm, has now been out for a while and it is time to judge how the world (of Warcraft) has changed.
The Lich King is dead - long live the new Lich King - and life is good. Or it was, until Deathwing the Destroyer broke free from Deepholm in the Elemental Plane of Earth and went on a little rampage, redecorating large parts of Azeroth in the progress. Turns out a doomsday cult of mortals, Twilight's Hammer, has been secretly assisting Deathwing as he recuperated from his earlier defeat and built a new Elementium armor to hold together his tormented body. Ah well, World of Warcraft was due for an upheaval anyway.
So, we have a new main bad guy - Deathwing - bent on destroying Azeroth, working in concert with Twilight's Hammer cultists, Twilight Dragonflight and a gang lesser bad guys. Two of the elemental lords, Ragnaros and Al'Akir show up as raid bosses to be slain while the other two, Neptulon and Therazane make appearances on the side of the players. Questing content also features Cho'gall as the leader of the Twilight's Hammer (and the main boss of Bastion of Twilight raid) while the dragon duo of Onyxia and Nefarian return in undead form as the final encounter of the Blackwing Descent raid. It appears that Blackwing Lair was merely a setback.
World of Warcraft lore is getting complex and convoluted with characters already slain by the players making flashy comebacks at such a rate that many have already given up on following the official storyline but for purposes of the new expansion, all you really need to know is that Deathwing the Destroyer, a massive black dragon corrupted by the Old Gods has awakened, Azeroth has been forever changed and new areas have opened up, complete with with new and old foes to slay for shiny loot.
As before, the story and game content of Cataclysm is only partially present at launch - major events are reserved for future content patches that will roll out additional 5-man dungeons and raids every few months, with the ultimate showdown against Deathwing expected to cap the expansion in late 2011.
Previous two expansions established a formula for a WoW expansion - ten additional levels, a new set of leveling zones to match that, some new spells and abilities, a rework of talent trees, additional set of craftable items, a reason to roll another alt or two, a new set of five-man dungeons and a fresh serving of endgame raid content. Cataclysm is slightly different; the level cap is increased by just five levels and while previous expansions have concentrated on adding new content on top of the existing content, in Cataclysm the vast majority of low level content has been reworked or replaced.
These low level changes also apply to everyone, no expansion purchase needed. In fact, I'd say that the majority of work in Cataclysm has gone towards renovating the old lands and making the early game experience smoother and more enjoyable. High level characters also get something out of the renovations - Orgrimmar and Stormwind have received major updates and almost all outdoor areas are now cleared for flying mounts. The only exceptions are the Draenei and Blood Elf starting areas that are part of Azeroth, yet separated by a loading screen. For reasons unknown, they received no updates with Cataclysm.
In addition to the new and reworked quest lines, the character progression path around the game world is new. As the experience required to reach level 60 has been adjusted several times over the years, it used to be so that you constantly out-leveled the areas you were playing in, having to move to new zones and leaving quest chains unfinished. The shattered Azeroth fixes this - level flow of the old world takes you through a clear progression path around the world with zone level ranges adjusted where appropriate. You also need to visit only a small fraction of zones to get a character to 60 and both factions offer a completely unique path from 1 to 60 for each continent with several alternate zones for mixing things up - you can can now easily level up three or four characters without re-doing any content before level 60.
Old world dungeons are also being streamlined. Dungeon quests have been moved inside the dungeons - no need to scour the countryside for the quests before seeking group for a specific dungeon. Dungeon layouts themselves are mostly untouched but they are scheduled to receive a modernization makeover in the next major content patch.
With the leveling reworked and major class mechanic changes that always come with a new expansion mixing things, classes also receive their abilities according to new schedule with important class-defining abilities arriving much earlier. No more leveling up a priest with a wand until level 40, thank you!
Past level 60, Outland and Northrend are unchanged, save for the usual tweak to the experience requirements to keep the time it takes to reach the maximum level constant - there may be now 85 levels but the time it takes to hit the level cap is actually shorter than it used to be in the old days when the maximum was 60.
Some of the content is still old but overall the experience is a tasty mix of tweaked old quests and completely new material with each zone set up with a linear trail. A 2078 vailable alternate questing areas are also advertised on a bulletin board at the capital - if you feel like the current zone is not fun, you can always get directions to another zone or two that might be of interest. Phasing and in-engine cutscenes are used throughout with quests in each area usually culminating into a major event of some sort. Progress flows smoothly from zone to zone and with ground mounts becoming available already at level 20, travel is never an issue.
Games: World of Warcraft: Cataclysm
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