Well, it’s over. World of Warcraft as we know it is over.
“But who could have taken down such a behemoth?!?” I hear you ask. Lord of the Rings Online? Nope. Hellgate: London? Uhh, hell no. Final Fantasy XIV? Not yet, and probably not ever.
Instead, it was an enormous dragon named Deathwing bursting through the earth, destroying all we held dear about Azeroth. Zones, quests (RIP Mankrik’s Wife), and game mechanics have all been changed.
Essentially, what Deathwing (and Blizzard) has done is give us WoW 2 without having a character wipe and forcing us all to start from scratch.
That is, unless you want to. And in this case, you just might.
Traditional expansions add on to a game, such that in buying them you gain access to new content and gameplay. To use World of Warcraft as a model, with the first expansion, The Burning Crusade, buyers received a new otherworldly continent to explore, two new races to play, a new profession to learn, an increase of the level cap to 70, and a few other odds and ends. But all of it was only accessible if you owned the expansion.
It was the same idea with the second expansion, Wrath of the Lich King; new zones, a new class, new profession, and level cap to 80.
Cataclysm breaks that mold. Yes, there are new zones to accommodate leveling to 85 and a new profession, but there are also changes that affect those who didn’t purchase the expansion.
A lot of these changes happened over the span of two months. In October, Blizzard released patch 4.0.1 that changed some user interface elements as well as a bunch of gameplay mechanics. Each class’ talent trees and glyphs were completely revamped. The confusing emblem currency system was converted to a points system for buying upper-level gear. The way raids lockout was altered. "Reforging" was added to give players the ability to customize stats on their armor. In addition there were graphical enhancements (water and sunlight effects, DX11 support) for those with the processing power.
The talent revamp was substantial, and like nothing we’ve seen before. Blizzard's designers were faced with a challenge. With more 5 new levels being added, the talent trees would get deeper. Most felt that even with the previous expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, the trees were already getting a little bloated. There were many talents a player had to have, and others no one wanted.
Instead of adding on and making the trees even bigger, they were scrapped and rebuilt from the ground up (incidentally, this is how much of WoW was treated for Cataclysm). Blizzard also felt there were too many hybrid builds happening (which added problems with class balance) and made it so players choose their specialization at level 10 and must put their first 31 talent points in that tree.
For instance, the talent trees for the Paladin class are Holy (healer), Protection (tank), Retribution (damage). Before patch 4.0.1 a player could place points willy-nilly. Now you must choose one primary tree, and the corresponding role, to go with until you have spent your 31st point (level 69).
The change has taken some getting used to — and there were many who expressed outrage when it went live — but it ends up being a smoother and more immersive way to go about things. Characters now feel like they have an identity based upon the talent choices. Admittedly, that was possible before, but wasn’t guaranteed if you spread your points around. A priest used to feel like a generic priest class — healing with some damage thrown in. But choose to spec into Shadow, and you’ll be reveling in your face melting abilities (pew pew!).
The release of 4.0.1 also started an Azeroth-wide event that would lead up to the new expansion. Strange cultists started to appear around major cities, recruiting followers to help with their (seemingly) nefarious plans. Then elementals started spawning within the borders of these usual secure cities to attack the inhabitants, player and non-player alike. It wasn’t on the scope of some in-game events Blizzard has previously concocted, but it was an enjoyable distraction. And it paved the way for another pre-Cataclysm release patch, 4.0.3a.
While 4.0.1 changed the way WoW worked, there weren’t any visual changes to the environment. Then on November 23rd in North America, the way we saw Azeroth changed forever. Deathwing burst through from Deepholm, a part of the Elemental Plane. Many thought that he was dead, but instead he has been regaining his strength and putting plans in motion to overtake Azeroth.
The way that Blizzard has changed the entirety of Azeroth (other than the landmasses from the first two expansions) is truly epic. Towns have been razed, zones have been split in two, deserts have been flooded. Each zone bears a resemblance to what it used to be, but has been turned in to a new experience (except for Arathi Highlands. You can skip that one). Again, this affects absolutely everyone that will play World of Warcraft from this point forward. Darkshore can only be seen as ruins. Barrens chat is forever split in to North and South. The desert of Thousand Needles has become Thousand Islands.
Cataclysm itself was finally released and activated on servers December 7th at 12:01AM, and the launch itself was relatively smooth. There were troubles logging in for the first few hours, but that can only be expected with the sheer volume of people all attempting to access it at once. There were a few things not activated right away as well, most notably the new ability to use flying mounts on the original Azerothian continents. Those were fixed within an hour.
So what do you actually get for purchasing Cataclysm? The same types of things as the first two expansions, as well as two new (awesome) races, new leveling zones, a new profession. And they’re all totally worth it, except maybe the profession of Archaeology. It’s an interesting way to learn about the lore of Azeroth, but truthfully it's not required if you don’t want to take part. The majority of rewards are lackluster at best.
While incredibly epic, the changes are a little bittersweet. To those that have played since the beginning (myself included) it feels a little sacrilegious. This virtual world is somewhere many have spent a good portion of their lives spending time, being entertained and forging friendships.
But what has Blizzard done? They’ve given us all the more reason to stay in this world, continue to explore it and fight for it against Deathwing. World of Warcraft has never been a game that breaks boundaries. What Blizzard has excelled at is taking ideas from other places, refining and improving them, and making them their own. With Cataclysm they’ve done something that has never been done before on this scale: they took one of the most popular and successful games in history, and utterly changed it. I, for one, love them for it. If you already love WoW, chances are you own Cataclysm already and have reached 85.
If you’ve been thinking about coming back or playing for the first time, there’s no time like the present. I hope to see you in Azeroth, so together we can take down Deathwing.