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Previewing Blizzard's Coming Cataclysm
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Date: Nov 22, 2010
Section:Misc
Author: Joel Hruska
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Introduction
On December 7, Blizzard will launch the next expansion pack for World of Warcraft, dubbed World of Warcraft: Cataclysm. We've already discussed some of the expansion's new features; this article will focus on the game's larger goals and focus. Whereas both The Burning Crusade and  Wrath of the Lich King were more traditional expansions that focused on new adventures and quests for upper-level players, Cataclysm's ambitions are much higher.

You Can Go Home Again, Provided Home Isn't Suddenly Underwater, Subterranean, And/Or Part of An Active Volcano

Instead of inventing a new land mass with its own set of quests, objectives, and Big Bads, Blizzard opted to send its playerbase back to the original continents of Azeroth and Kalimdor immediately after the dragon Deathwing beats the snot out of them. The changes are significant enough to give long-established players a reason to re-roll while offering potential new players a chance to jump into the game at a time when even the first launch servers are going to feel relatively new.

Players who don't like leveling alts (and I'm one of them) may find reason to do so in Cataclysm. The twin pulls of nostalgia and curiosity are powerful, particularly when the expansion opens areas of the game that we've literally been closed off since WoW's launch in 2004. Even in zones that weren't particularly damaged, there's a sense that time has passed. Projects have been finished, old conflicts resolved (often thanks to pyroclastic lava flows) and new battles have erupted.


Stormwind has seen better days

Now that we've addressed the lore, let's clear the usual topics off the table. Cataclysm includes: new quests, storylines, zones, spells, two additional races, artwork, achievements, recipes, items, mounts, jokes, bosses, and events. If we neglected to mention something that falls under the category of "Things One Normally Finds In An MMO Expansion," you can assume it's also present.


After six years of fighting between Southshore and Taure...err, Tarren Mill, the Horde won this one. On the plus side, the real estate deals here are even better than you'd find in Florida.

The problem with this list of goodies is that its inherent value diminishes with every expansion pack. This is partly caused by item reward fatigue and partly by continuing improvements to the game's fundamentals. Before The Burning Crusade launched, virtually every class had one sub-standard talent tree and was unable to practically perform what class descriptions declared was an in-game role. Four years and two expansion packs later, such glaring problems have vanished. That's great for players, but it makes further expansions tougher to sell. Secret marketing documents obtained by Hot Hardware indicate that this caused a crisis at Blizzard HQ after the tentative title: World of Warcraft: More of The Same With New Pixels And Stuff proved unpopular with fans. 
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Reshaping World of Warcraft
Cataclysm completely overhauls WoW's fundamental game mechanics. A number of once-vital statistics such as Defense, MP5, Spellpower, and Attack Power, are gone. Other stats, like Armor Penetration, have been wrapped into the game's new concept of "Mastery." These changes make it much easier for a player to understand which stats he should focus on acquiring. The game's UI has been restructured and simplified, as have many of the helpful tool tips.


The new sunshafts are gorgeous, even if the game's polygon count and ground textures remain unfortunately low-res in areas.

These changes haven't gone over well with everyone. Certain current players have claimed that the new mechanics are meant to "dumb down" WoW and reduce the amount of skill/coordination needed to clear high-end content. This was initially a concern of ours as well, but it vanished within a few hours of actual gameplay. Cataclysm doesn't dumb down World of Warcraft, it removes layers of obfuscating game design that prevented more casual (or simply less mathematical) players from enjoying the game. Gamers who enjoy complex theory-crafting may not like how the game is evolving, but those who stick around and try it will find there's still plenty of depth to explore.


WoW's spellbook now lists which abilities are acquired at each level.
The spellbook itself has been condensed from 3-4 pages down to 1-2.


Another new feature that deserves special mention is the introduction of guild achievements. To date, all of the achievements in WoW have been either individual (i.e., personally loot 10,000 gold) or raid oriented (kill X boss on hard difficulty). In Cata, guilds will be able to earn their own titles, perks, and other various goodies. These achievements give players good reason to group and work together while simultaneously providing a form of alternative advancement. If they work as planned, they'll give small guilds objectives to focus on as a team if neither raiding nor PvP appeal to them.

Conclusion:

In my review of Wrath of the Lich King two years ago, I wrote:
If Blizzard wants to keep WoW from becoming stale, it needs to push the envelope...Wrath is a solid buy, but if Blizzard doesn't do something different, it risks being trapped in the mold it once defined.
Cataclysm is something different; it's the first expansion to make such fundamental changes to World of Warcraft. This type of change is always a gamble; Sony's decision to revamp Star Wars Galaxies with its infamous New Game Enhancement is a perfect example of what not to do. The potential reward, however, is equally enticing. If Cata's changes work, it could entice new players that were previously put off by the game's complexity.


Treebeard's ugly cousin over there is planted smack in the middle of the Tainted Scar. Once a burned and blasted ruin, it's now a twisted, unholy morass of unnatural life. Why can't Druids ever take on the challenge of beautifying, say, the French Riviera?

Even if the new mechanics prove unpopular, we're glad Blizzard took the risk. Azeroth and Kalimdor feel new again and that's an achievement in and of itself. 


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