This review of World of Warcraft: Cataclysm is based on the beta, which Mikael spent countless hours playing through. We will return at a later date with more impressions after the expansion has had some time to mature on the live servers.
World of Warcraft was fantastic when it was released, doing away with the old conventions of the MMO-genre and creating something new. Since then, Blizzard have built upon and refined that design, and these days I enjoy it as much as any high qualitative singleplayer roleplaying game. No longer are the quests a simple routine that you have to suffer through to get to play with the cool kids at max level. The story is interesting, the characters well-written and there's a lot of variety to be found throughout the game.
The problem has been that the first sixty levels have been more or less unchanged from the original design from 2002-2003. Blizzard have now released the giant dragon Deathwing upon their old world, demolishing everything in his path to give Azeroth a fresh and sorely needed reboot. With the cracked mountains, flooded zones and exploding volcanoes comes an opportunity to start anew, to restructure quests and bring the old world up to speed with the more recent additions in The Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King.
But it's not all destruction. While we were away in Outland and Northrend, a lot has happened in Azeroth. Old outposts like Sentinel Hill, Tarren Mill and Light's Hope Chapel have all grown into minor settlements, new forts have been built in The Barrens and Blasted Lands, new cities have sprung up and - thank goodness - the bridge in Lakeshire has finally been built. And both Stormwind and Orgrimmar have received huge updates. There's a lot of new stuff to explore, and the quest chains and the storylines flow much better now. Also the dungeons have seen a change, with their lore more intimately connected with the area around them and their level requirements changed to make them more relevant to the game in general.
But with all the old stuff that's been made new, it's easy to forget two of the big news in the expansion: the new races and the new zones. The people of Gilneas return from behind the Greymane Wall as the werewolves Worgen to join the Alliance while the Goblins escape their ruined capital to ally themselves with the Horde. Both of them are superior to the old races when it comes to graphics and their starting zones, but of the two it seems like the Goblins have drawn the longer straw with their ability to summon a banker and lower prices when shopping. At the same time we get no new classes, instead new class and race combinations such as Undead Hunter, Tauren Paladin and Dwarf Shaman.
If you don't want to start over from the beginning, the first new zone for level 80-players is Mount Hyjal. We've seen it before in the Caverns of Time, but this time new threats await. Ragnaros has returned and we'll have to fight our way down the mountain. It's a fun zone, but Vashj'ir - the other starting zone for the expansion - is one of the mightiest I've ever seen in World of Warcraft, with its underwater adventures. When that is done, I head to the Maelstrom in the middle of the ocean, and the adventure really begins. After that we finally get to enter Uldum, which has been teasing us for the last five years, and from there on to Twilight Highlands. Deathwing himself will have to wait for a future patch, though.
So right from the starts there's a lot of material to play through, and a lot more coming. But most importantly, the stuff that's in there now is very fun to play. I would estimate than more of half of the quests in the game, the ones between 1-60 that is, are brand new or remade, and most of the old ones have been fixed to fit the flow of the zones better. Many of the new quests are varied and offers a good story, fun cut-scenes, new vehicles and other types of mini-games. There are also a lot of quests that can pop up when you beat up an enemy or run into a new zone, and sometimes you can finish quests at a distance and don't have to run all the way back to the guy who gave it to you.
One thing that could be pointed to as a bad thing is that phasing is used a bit too much at times. If a friend is halfway through a zone which has changed a lot for him, it can get tricky for you to meet up until you've reached the same point. We had similar problems in Icecrown, and it's simply a side effect of the tighter storytelling. For me, that primarily play solo, it's not much of a problem, but it's still worth noting.
When it comes to changes in game mechanics, it's always hard to gauge and judge. The balance between classes is changed almost all the time, and most of the new stuff has already been released into the game. In general it should be said that fights in groups have changed quite a lot from how it was in Wrath of the Lich King, and these days you'll have to plan and talk through your battles before you rush in - similar to the way it was back in the old days. In other words, crowd control is back. You can no longer simply have your tank rush in, grab everything and then nuke the monsters down as fast as possible. There's also more focus on movement and actually paying attention to what's going on.
Since Cataclysm in large part takes place in the old world, the graphical updates are spread out more this time around. The stuff that looks good looks better than Wrath of the Lich King. The new races, mobs, armor and weapons all look really good. The new zones, especially Vashj'ir and Uldum, look amazing. It almost feels like a brand new game compared to old zones like Elwynn or Eastern Plaguelands. To not only rebuild the whole world, but also update the whole thing with new textures, might have been a bit too much even for Blizzard, but the contrast is still annoying.
It's especially true when it comes to the old races. I'm fully aware of the fact that a lot of people would be quite upset if they suddenly had to change the face of the character they've been playing for six years, and I got the feeling that Blizzard might be a little too aware of that too. It needs to happen, sooner or later. It's almost embarrassing to see your own Night Elf stand straight as a nail, with a simple face and a simple shawl of polygons on her head, while dressed in all those detailed clothes. Especially when you find yourself next to a lively, well-animated Worgen filled with personality. Or if you compare yourself to any of the new and updated racial leaders like Thrall, Varian or Malfurion. Draenei and Blood Elves are still up to par, but can still feel a bit too simple compared to the new ones.
The new and updated music is great, and so are the new guild functions which allows your guild to gain levels on its own - which in turn unlocks various perks for its members. You also gain reputation with your own guild, which means that guild-hopping isn't as easy as it used to be.
When the first rumours about Cataclysm leaked out, I wrote that I thought it was the best thing that could ever happen to the game. And to a large degree, that's exactly right. Don't underestimate the sense of nostalgia that can set in when you see your old haunts in brand new clothes. Cataclysm is a remake of a game we've played for a long time and most of the changes are for the better. In a way, it feels like a sequel. It's already given me some of my best World of Warcraft-memories, and I haven't even scratched the surface...