Blizzard has finally lifted on the veil on the upcoming World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, and the official information generally confirms and fleshes out the sneak preview from last week. The new expansion will feature the corrupted black dragon Deathwing as its principle villain. Once thought buried in the depths below the fortress of Grim Batol, Deathwing has actually spent years within the earthen Elemental Plane, Deepholm. The Cataclysm itself is caused by Deathwing's ascent and erruption into Azeroth; an event that will create what Blizzard describes as a "festering wound across the continents. The fallen Highborne Queen, Azshara, will also play a role in the new expansion, but Blizzard hasn't revealed if she's an ally of Deathwing, a foe, or an opportunist making her own play for power in the wake of the chaos that engulfs Azeroth.
Worgen from the Grizzly Hills as they currently appear in-game.
A Worgen character standing in a Gilnean town. Note the improved detailing around the head, ears, hair, and muzzle.
The new races—Goblins for the Horde and Worgen for the Alliance—have been confirmed, and Blizzard has released in-game footage of both Gilneas and Kezan. Goblins can be any class save for Paladin or Druid, while Worgen may be any class except for Paladin or Shaman.
Both races have a powerful set of racial abilities; Blizzard intends to buff existing racial benefits to equal the new races. Players will also finally be able to use flying mounts in Azeroth; a fact which will undoubtedly require certain changes to "classic" WoW's zone sizes.
Goblins. Now available in Priest, Mage, and Warlock flavor...
as well as warriors, shaman, and a bevy of other classes not shown here.
In the original game, early and mid-level zones were designed to be traversed on foot and were therefore sized appropriately. Mounts weren't available until a character reached level 40, and while a number of classes have skills that can slightly improve movement speed, earning enough cash and experience to buy a mount made a huge difference in how long it took to get from Point A to Point B in a zone like Stranglethorn Vale. The cost of various mounts has been dramatically reduced as well; and epic riding mounts (+100% movement speed) are now available at level 40 for a total cost of 50g, where they once became available at level 60 for 1,000 gold. Once Cataclysm launches, players will arrive in Azeroth with flying mounts that move at 150% to 280% of base running speed. The only way to prevent Azeroth from feeling like a continent in miniature is to increase the size of existing zones, and the massive changes wrought by the cataclysm gives the game developers the opportunity to do so.
Phased content will play a greater role in Cataclysm than in Wrath of the Lich King, though my supposition that Blizzard might use phased content to allow new players to experience the "original" Azeroth is incorrect. It is now possible for Blizzard to phase terrain as well as in-game models and effects, however, which should greatly enhance the degree of change as player's complete quests and finish content. Because Blizzard intends to significantly alter the geography and content of a number of zones, new characters rolled post-Cataclysm should feel new even to players who've done the leveling game a time or ten. According to the Cataclysm FAQ, this is a deliberate decision on Blizzard's part meant to keep the leveling aspect of the game fresh. "Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms are central to World of Warcraft lore, and we want those areas to remain an important part of the game, not just a place to train or auction. Our goal is to make questing, leveling, and the overall story more fun for new, returning, and existing players. By redesigning areas of the original continents and introducing new content that matches or exceeds the quality of Wrath of the Lich King, we can revitalize the nostalgia and coolness of Azeroth."
Rain pooling on the street.
This is a magnification of the area below the right-hand lamp. The bricks remain visible under varying amounts of water.
The game engine will also be "incrementally" improved; the changes can already be seen in some of the posted screenshots. In the image above the rain falling on the Gilnean town has puddled in the street, but the bricks are still visible below the rain puddles. Water in WoW is already translucent to some effect, but if you check the Goblin screenshots (or Blizzard's video), the water is much clearer and ripples more realistically.
The Implications of the Overhaul
Cataclysm is shaping up as a fundamentally different expansion than either The Burning Crusade or Wrath of the Lich King. Building entirely new content for high-level players is one thing, but revamping the entire leveling experience and designing new quests, lore, and backstory is another. The ability to completely phase content, including terrain changes, gives Blizzard the further option of rebuilding old quests the way they might've liked to have done them the first time. Hopefully, WoW's developers will use this opportunity to improve and extend WoW's storyline from level one to level 80. Frankly, it'd be nice to have a dragon-focused storyline that wasn't a complete murk—the plotline in Wrath of the Lich King that dealt with the blue dragon Malygos's insanity felt distinctly tacked-on, particularly compared to the well-executed, Arthas-centric plotline. One of the major differences between Cataclysm and its predecessors is that players who don't purchase the expansion will still have access to a significant percentage of the new quests, storylines, and changes. Even players who have never purchased a WoW expansion (and they do exist), will be transitioned to the "new" Azeroth as opposed to being locked away in a deprecated version of the game.
Information on specific changes to classes, game mechanics, and PvP/PvE content can be found at MMO-Champion. If you'd like to read through the information Blizzard provided at the various dev panels this year, the topics are: Dungeons & Raids, Game Mechanics, Classes, Items, and Professions, and Cataclysm itself. The official Blizzard Cataclysm trailer is available on YouTube. Bon appetit!