World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, the new expansion pack for Blizzard’s World of Warcraft (), the venerable massively multiplayer online juggernaut, has brought the most sweeping changes and updates that the game has ever seen. Hundreds of hours of new content for all levels, cinematics, expanded lore, thousands of quests, a dozen instances, and three additional player-versus-player areas have breathed new life into the six-year-old online world.
But let’s take a step back for a second: World of Warcraft is one of the most successful, popular, and expansive games of all time. Yet for new players, such a gargantuan game can be intimidating to break into. With so many characters, quests, levels, and classes, simply starting out can seem like an intimidating prospect. On the surface, the new Catacylsm expansion seems like more red meat for the hardcore players (more levels, and of course, more dungeons). But the introduction of Catacylsm may prove to be the best time to be a new player in this fantastical world.
Around the globe, more than 12 million people are WoW players—about the same number of viewers who found themselves drawn into the television saga “Lost” last season. WoW’s participation just continues to grow, and with good reason. New players will find storylines that are more mature than the originals, along with gameplay mechanics that make playing much more accessible to the uninitiated. This extra bit of handholding comes in the form of additional hints to help finish quests, more straightforward player expectations, better storytelling, and, frankly, more fun.
The cost of entry has also gone down; there’s a generous free trial, and no need for players to buy the original game and all the expansions at once (unless they’re compelled to play as one of the races that was introduced in a later expansion pack). Players are still able to have as many as ten characters per realm (Blizzard’s term for a game server) to try out as many races and classes as they choose, and in recent years, Blizzard has allowed players to move characters from one realm to another, for a fee.
The game software itself has also seen some spectacular improvements, especially for players with beefier video hardware. Rendering of complex textures such as water and lava is far more realistic in the latest upgrades, and additional visual effects such as dynamic sun shafts, as well as greatly increased detail in spell and damage effects, serve to further improve the visual experience of the game.
One of the longest-running complaints of WoW players has also been addressed: patch day. Previously, when Blizzard would add new content via a patch, players would have to wait for files to be downloaded before they could play. Some of the larger patches could take hours to download. The revised launcher released this fall changes the experience entirely, allowing players to dive in to the world while additional content downloads in the background. So while Tuesdays still see realms shutting down for a few hours of regular maintenance, the download-and-patch dance has been all but eliminated.
I’ve been everywhere, man
Experienced players will find that WoW: Cataclysm raises the player level cap from 80 to 85. The two previous expansions have brought with them ten new player levels each (61 to 70 in Burning Crusade (), and 71 to 80 in Wrath of the Lich King), but Cataclysm has only half as many. That doesn’t mean there’s less content than other expansions, though—in fact, Blizzard has concentrated this go-round on more end-game content, including several new level 85-only dungeons, and new heroic versions of two classic dungeons, The Deadmines and Shadowfang Keep.
In addition to new high-level content, Blizzard has also reworked the lands throughout all of Azeroth, with new storylines and physical changes in virtually every area, and new achievements for even high-level players doing these low-level quests.
The new stories ease the experience of creating new level-one characters, and having to walk through those same quests over (and over, and over) again—who hasn’t already taken down Stitches in Duskwood at least a half dozen times? When you decide to roll a new Worgen or Goblin (or any other race), the mid-level running around is less painful, sometimes even interesting (at least the first time around), with new in-game characters and quests. But while it’s less painful, the mid-level grinding is still just that, a grind.
Speaking of the new races, the first five levels of the green-tinged, pointy-eared Goblin race are worth the entire price of admission for the Cataclysm expansion. Blinking neon lights, a car to drive within the first five minutes of gameplay, Champagne pool parties, soccer games, all before you reach level five. (My teenage son peeked over my shoulder and wondered if I was playing Disney’s Toontown or Banjo Kazooie, rather than World of Warcraft. I think he’s on to something there.)
The Worgen starting experience is closer to what we’re used to for a beginner area, but the storyline is more polished, the lore somewhat more interesting, and the jokes your character tells are a lot funnier. Your new Worgen (they’re like werewolves) begin level 1 as a human, but the changes won’t come as much of a surprise. Added cinematics enhance the storytelling, but you’ll have to pay attention.
There’s also the opportunity to take advantage of one of the new race/class combinations that weren’t available before, including Gnome priests, Tauren paladins, Human hunters, and several more.
The old world and new areas
It seems that no area in Azeroth has been left untouched. Profound changes were made to Stormwind (the Park has been destroyed, but a new cemetery and northern area were added) and Orgrimmar (you’ll find a completely new area called Goblin Slums, and a second bank, auction house, and inn). Azshara and Hillsbrad are low-level Horde encampments now, while the Alliance has taken over half of The Barrens. Stranglethorn Vale was split in two. New roads, islands, walkways, and flight points are everywhere. (And be sure to visit the Brazie Farmstead in Hillsbrad near the Sludgeguard Tower, where successfully completing a minigame of World of Warcraft’s version of Plants Versus Zombies earns you a Singing Sunflower companion pet. But it’s not easy.)
You’ll find completely new starting areas for Goblins (Kezan, an island in the Maelstrom between Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms) and Worgen (Gilneas, on the central western coast of the Eastern Kingdoms), but a game feature called “phasing” (introduced in the Lich King expansion) means that your high-level characters won’t be eligible for many of the low-level introductory experiences, which is a shame. Even in newer areas, players of the same level may be in a different phase than others, experiencing different events and seeing the world differently.
The new content for level 80 characters begins with either a flight to Mount Hyjal or a boat ride to the underwater continent of Vashj’ir, where you’ll start the standard fare of leveling quests. Collect items, kill bad guys, talk to people, level. A nice surprise is that the uncommon (green) items you’ll be earning as early quest rewards are significantly higher quality than many of the epic (purple) items you’ll have brought with you from the Lich King days.
Once you hit level 82, you’ll be able to visit Deepholm, home of the earth elementals. It’s a dark, jagged area full of bright, colorful gems and glowing spires, but questing is essentially the same as you’re used to in earlier versions of WoW. Collect, read, kill, repeat. The storylines make your work feel important to saving the world, but heroism can be tiring. If only there were a resort where you could earn achievements for relaxing and sitting on the beach, or maybe meeting new people. Sort of an anti-dungeon.
Two new rated battlegrounds, Battle for Gilneas and Twin Peaks, have been added to the world. In addition, Tol Barad, a new player-versus-player area, is available to players who have reached level 85. Tol Barad is similar to Northrend’s Wintergrasp, but adjacent to it is the Tol Barad peninsula, which is home to daily quests available only to those who’ve already reached the highest level of the game. PvP hasn’t changed much, though, even with these nice-looking new spaces.
The dungeons and raid instances are, as expected, really challenging at level, but, again, there’s nothing revolutionary about the way they work. Each new dungeon has a heroic mode for greater challenge once you hit level 85 (most servers saw their first level-85 players by the end of the first day that Cataclysm was released). The mechanics of gameplay have changed significantly for many classes, though, especially during dungeon play.
Don’t blame the tank
Blizzard has tweaked gameplay again with Cataclysm, rewarding players for making better choices in combat, and penalizing sloppy play. High-level players will see some significant changes to the way they have to play their characters.
For example, group leaders (tanks) will find it noticeably more difficult to hold the attention of their attackers (threat), with damage-dealing players able to easily steal that threat away if they aren’t careful. And casters, especially healers, have also seen a marked difference in how they use mana—they’re much more likely to run out unless they choose the right spell for the job every time. If you’ve gotten used to running through the high-level Lich King dungeons with one eye on your monitor and one eye on “Big Bang Theory,” prepare to die.
Every class now has a choice of three different paths to take when choosing talents. For example, a priest can choose the holy path for healing, the shadow path for damage, or the discipline path which lies somewhere between the two. After choosing a path, a player cannot add talent points for any other path until 31 points have been spent (around level 70). Fewer talent points are allocated to each player now (one every other level, rather than every level), and talents have been revamped, so lower level players will see some big differences, but this change has not had a major impact on high-level play.
In previous versions of WoW, Talent Mastery was reached by using talent points at the bottom of the talent tree. Now, Mastery is a skill that your class trainer will teach you, and high-level items may also add Mastery stats to your bonuses, giving you additional skills. (Your mastery skill is now listed in your spellbook.)
A little help from your friends
Working with other players in a guild has always made getting ahead easier, but Blizzard has decided to start rewarding players for collaborating. New guild achievements (received when a guild quests together or runs dungeons, raids, or arena play) are sold by guild vendors in capital cities. The rewards are exceptional, too, and include pets, mounts, gear, and recipes.
This makes it tougher, though, for folks who prefer to play solo. While guild perks are not crucial for success in the game, they can offer significant advantages, while individual achievements gained in solo play rarely come with such rewards.
Skill trainers have a great deal more to offer high-level players, including a higher terminal skill level (525) and a title of Illustrious Grand Master. While the essentials of using your professions remain the same, the updated interface makes it easier to track and understand your progress.
A new secondary skill, Archaeology, has also been added for all players. After training in Archaeology, new shovel icons appear on your map. Visiting these marked sites will allow you to dig up artifacts that will offer clues to the lore of Azeroth. Surveying for archaeology may become a bit tedious after a while, as it can take several tries to find the items you want to dig up, but it’s easy to get the hang of, and folks who love Warcraft lore will surely enjoy this new profession.
Players with a few hundred gold will be able to purchase a license to fly in the old world, seeing Azeroth from an incredible new vantage point. Experienced fliers with a few thousand gold will be able to fly that much more quickly—the fastest mounts can now travel 310 percent faster than walking speed. There are also dozens of new flight points throughout the world (making biobreaks much more convenient).
Dalaran, the central city for the Wrath of the Lich King expansion, no longer has portals to the rest of the world (be prepared for plenty of “WTB portal to [someplace]” spammed all over the chat channels), but they’ve been replaced by class trainers, which is a nice addition. Previously, Dalaran had only Mage trainers — all other classes had to travel to other cities to receive additional training as they leveled up. Shattrath’s portals are gone, as well. New portals are available in major cities to new Cataclysm areas, such as Vashj’ir and Tol Barad, but even with the fastest flying and quick boat rides, it took more than ten minutes to get from Dalaran to Shattrath. Players who get tired of the constant quest grinding have grown accustomed to being able to hop around the world pretty readily for a change of venue, and the removal of these portals will be an annoyance for them.
There are items in the world that can help you get around, for example, a cloak that will transport you directly to a central city (a reward for working together as a guild), or a very expensive ring that takes you directly to Dalaran (which you can buy from the Kirin Tor). But you will feel the difficulty of traveling between capital cities, especially if you’re the kind of player who likes to poke around, rather than power leveling.
Macworld’s buying advice
Cataclysm has put a fresh face on World of Warcraft, bringing not only new content and storylines, but a more refined sense of humor, new races, and changes that make the game simply more fun to play. The added high-level content is challenging, and is likely to add more hours of gameplay, especially after reaching the level cap, than either of the two expansions that came before. While long-distance travel has become a nuisance, and questing can still drag you into a grind, Blizzard has really outdone itself with the quality and quantity of this upgrade.
[Kerri A. Hicks is a freelance writer, gamer, and web developer living in Rhode Island. Her server of choice is Draenor. Additional reporting provided by Rich Siegel.]