I was somewhere around the Temple of Earth, on the edge of the Quartzite Basin, when the addiction began to take hold. I remember saying something like: "Oh, crap."
I left World of Warcraft pretty much in disgust after changes to the raiding game during Wrath of the Lich King, but in Deepholm something clicked in my head. I realized that I was having fun again, that I loved what I was doing. Perhaps it was the combination of killing Rockflayers and that the colours of the environments reminded my subconscious of Netherstorm (from The Burning Crusade). Perhaps it was the overall changes to the game introduced by Cataclysm. I'm not sure. But something sure clicked.
My initial plan, when pitching this journal idea to the other editors, was to cover zone by zone as I slowly made my way to level 85 - culminating in an article about dungeons and perhaps another about raiding. That plan fell through when I suddenly found myself moving through Deepholm, Uldum and Twilight Highlands during the course of the weekend and the first two days of this week. I dinged level 85 in the Twilight Highlands, having saved a dwarf village from attacking Dragonmaw orcs.
One thing that became clear pretty fast, as I made my way through Deepholm, was that the linearity that had bugged me in Mount Hyjal wasn't present in the following zones. Tighter than before, absolutely, but questlines started to actually diverge which was a welcome change. I stopped feeling locked in. The zone might also look fairly small on the map, but the fact is that it's enormous - a giant cave, centered around the broken World Pillar that sticks up from Temple of Earth. I felt at home there, and Cataclysm finally became the expansion I had been hoping for.
It had not prepared me for Uldum, though. Blizzard really went all out in this zone, and it's one of the most beautiful in the whole game. The Egyptian theme, mixed with a bit of sci-fi and almost steam punk influences, works perfectly with the cartoonish style of World of Warcraft and the two storylines that play through the zone are both fun and engaging. Some might raise their eyebrows at the nazi-references when you're tasked to infiltrate German-sounding goblin Schnottz's operation in the south (like his poor lieutenant, Gobels, that has been transformed into a turkey), but since Harrison Jones (who we've previously met in Zul'Aman) is involved it's hard not to laugh at the Raiders of the Lost Ark-references.
It also contains a gnome-related quest that had me laughing like a madman in front of the screen. It offered a deep look into the psyche of the gnomes, and ended up in a nudge towards a particular awesome Japanese console game. And in true Gnomish fashion, it was hysterical.
The battle that has ensued after Deathwing's cataclysmic attack on Azeroth might have been a big part of Mount Hyjal, but Uldum also helps to set up the story more. There are certainly things going on behind the scenes, and the zone certainly helps to set up a feeling of danger. Azeroth is truly in danger - that's nothing new, but while Sillithids and the Burning Legion tended to just smash things that got in their way, Deathwing seems to have more up his sleeve than only pure strength. Dare I say that things are even getting exciting?
In Wrath of the Lich King, the tension between the Horde and the Alliance was at an all time high and even the looming threat of Arthas couldn't help stop the two factions from fighting each other. I missed that part during my way through the Cataclysm zones, since it made a nice backdrop and opened up for some interesting quest writing. The Twilight Highlands, which I'm still working my way through, bring back this conflict and throw you straight into the battle between Alliance and the Horde. While it's not as prevalent as in Icecrown, at least not yet, it's nice to see that it has not completely been forgotten.
In all, the new zones really are a natural development of the zones in Wrath of the Lich King. After accepting that, it all comes down to a matter of taste. World of Warcraft is, and has always been, a PvE game and the focus has always been with the quests, the dungeons and the raids. If you prefer to have a quest log that is almost always full, like during Vanilla and The Burning Crusade, this design might not be able to offer you exactly what you want. On the other hand you get much more involved storylines, and the phasing technology is used to maximum effect in both Uldum and Deepholm. I can see these changes dividing the player base, one of my friends has a really hard time taking it to heart, for example.
I think that we should be extremely thankful for the phasing technology though. Without it, things would get extremely odd really fast. Now Blizzard can change the environments as needed and push the story forward, and you get the sense of actually impacting the world. While bosses will always come back to life in the dungeons, I can at least get to experience what it's like to actually save a city from the enemy or see Schnottz's house go up in flames. It takes on the character of a single player RPG from time to time, which for some might be a big issue - for others, it's a change that couldn't come soon enough to MMOs.
I'm quite used to sandbox MMOs, having played EVE Online, Star Wars Galaxies and Ryzom quite a lot. And I've heard the comment "time to remove the word ‘World' from ‘World of Warcraft'" from many different people by now. It's understandable, and it's also true in many ways - the more it develops, the further and further away from any form of sandbox content World of Warcraft gets (if it really ever had any). If the game was a streamlined version of classic MMOs when it was released, it is now a streamlined version of itself - for good or for bad.
That said, Cataclysm does take inspiration from the original game. I ventured into Halls of Origination, my first attempt at a Cataclysm-dungeon, set in Uldum. If you're used to the AoE-fests that were Wrath-heroics, and if you've never raided, the new dungeons might come as a bit of a shock. Crowd control was actually useful again (as a rogue, being allowed to sap again was a ton of fun), and if you stand still you will die. The bosses were fun and varied, and took some strategy to take down. We even wiped once, which felt odd, and during one boss fight the only member of the group left standing was our shadow priest. I haven't had that much fun in a dungeon, or felt that kind of challenge, in a dungeon (on normal difficulty) since The Burning Crusade.
It should also be noted that while the cut-scenes in both Deepholm and Uldum are a lot better than the ones in Mount Hyjal, they can be extremely glitchy - the camera got a bad habit to turn away from the action and one cut-scene I got to watch a cliff for three minutes while the interesting stuff happened off screen. I am not sure why this happens from time to time, usually you can drop your quest and get to watch the scene again (hopefully without the camera going rogue again).
All in all, the content still bodes well for the future, as I dig myself deeper into Cataclysm. At level 85, the world is once again completely open. Until next time, I plan to run the rest of the dungeons, perhaps even get geared for heroics, and start to dig up Azeroth with the help of new Archeology profession. I also plan to finally get my revenge on those nasty goblin bouncers that keep beating me up whenever I get close to one of their cities. That Bloodsail Admiral-title will be mine, just you wait...