I’m the Chronology Nut, and WoW consumed my leisure time for three months. It’s a fun game, but I’ll be happy to have some new games to play!
Cataclysm is a bit harder for me to review than the previous three installments, as its content is not yet finalized. All of the story quests lead up to a confrontation with the ferocious dragon Deathwing, but at the time of writing, there is no Deathwing raid. Blizzard is still in the process of releasing content for this game. That’s fine. Blizzard releases content on a regular basis, and it’s high-quality stuff. At the same time, until the game has a “final boss” in place, it’s not, strictly speaking, “finished.” Still, here’s what I could glean from it.
Cataclysm presents a version of WoW that’s about as polished and varied as it’s ever been. Unlike Wrath, Cataclysm presents new content for players across the board. For new players, there are two new races; for veterans, there are a number of brand-new areas to take them from level 80 to 85. For everyone in-between, the core game has been totally revamped.
From level 1 to level 60, players will find a very different Azeroth from the one they may remember from WoW’s earlier days. The changes in content are both geographical and functional. Areas like the Barrens and Thousand Needles have been totally revamped, transforming plains into jungles and deserts into seas. Many of the quests and relevant NPCs have also changed, although most are still functionally identical. Make no mistake: you will see your fair share of “kill (x) number of (creature),” “find (x) number of (local flora/fauna),” and “talk to (NPC) at (next questing location).” At the same time, there’s more variety than ever before. Even before you leave the starting areas, you’ll take part in full-scale battles, hijack enemy vehicles, and perform high-stakes reconnaissance.
Many of the new missions basically ask your character to mount up and either fight enemies or deliver goods. My only criticism here is that they can be a bit too easy, but since they will only make up a small portion of what a player needs to level up, they provide a nice respite from the more repetitive assignments to eradicate all life on Azeroth.
The two new races help ease new players into the experience, and provide plenty of incentive for veterans to create a new avatar. The Alliance receive the Worgen, mystically-inclined lycanthropes, while the Horde gets Goblins, everyone’s favorite crafty tinkerer race. The Goblin starting quests contain a lot more humor and creativity than their Worgen counterparts, but the Worgen have a fairly substantial story arc, so they’re hardly hurting for content. Past that, the races go through the same content as any other race and generally play nicely with the existing ones.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are the new high-level areas. Instead of a single remote location (like Outland or Northrend), the new areas in Cataclysm are scattered throughout the existing lands of Azeroth. From the undersea kingdom of Vashj’ir to the raging fires of Hyjal, and from the underground catacombs of Deepholm to the rocky Twilight Highlands, these are some of the best areas of WoW, bar none. Each area has a strong story arc that is both self-contained and ties into the overall Deathwing plot. Furthermore, each area continues a story arc from a previous game. For example, the Twilight Highlands reintroduces Cho’gall, a villainous ogre mage from Warcraft II, while Hyjal picks up the story right where Warcraft III left off. With a wide variety of quests and lots of well-animated and voiced storyline cutscenes, the journey from 80 to 85 is a pleasure instead of a grind.
With a new level cap comes new endgame content, and Cataclysm has plenty of high-level dungeons and raids to keep players busy. The dungeons are both well-designed and plot-relevant, while the raids are as difficult and tactical as veterans would expect. My only real criticism here is that it takes way too long to get geared up for the really fun content; you can expect to run the same five heroic dungeons dozens of times while procuring gear for dungeons like Zul’Gurrub and raids like Bastion of Twilight.
Since Wrath of the Lich King completed the current main arc of the Warcraft story, players might wonder where it could go from here. It’s a legitimate question. While Cataclysm does not have the same strong start-to-finish arc as its predecessor, the story is strong nonetheless. Instead of continuing the main threads of Reign of Chaos and The Frozen Throne, Cataclysm picks up a few ancillary plot points: what happened to the ogre mages after Warcraft II? Can Malfurion Stormrage heal the tremendous damage to Mt. Hyjal? Where did the naga come from, and how did their empire fall?
All these questions and more can be answered in Cataclysm. After defeating the terrible Lich King of Northrend, adventurers return to Azeroth to find that the nefarious dragon Deathwing has attacked the Eastern Kingdoms and Kalimidor in an attempt to destroy all life. To defeat him, players will need to call upon Azeroth’s legends – Malfurion Stormrage and Thrall in particular. The demigods must reawaken, the dragons must assemble, and all of Azeroth’s heroes must unite to save the land.
The arcing story here is not as good as Wrath of the Lich King, namely because there’s one. In any given area, Deathwing arrives, causes mayhem, and then leaves the player to pick up the pieces. The one advantage that Cataclysm has over Wrath is that each area tells a self-contained story, so there are no dangling plot threads in-between areas. For example, in Vashj’ir, you are shipwrecked by a sea monster – if you follow the quest chains all the way through, fighting that monster will be your last task before returning to the mainland.
Climactic boss fights with NPC support (instead of having to assemble an entire raid) is also a nice touch, but the greatest asset to Cataclysm’s storytelling is its use of short, fully-voiced cutscenes during major plot quests. While cutscenes can often leave the player out, seeing your own avatar star in one is a real thrill, and makes you feel like your actions have real impact on the world of Azeroth – as does the extensive use of the “phasing” technology from Wrath.
Cataclysm has its pretty moments, but it’s well past time for a graphics engine update. It’s true that this would alienate a lot of lower-end computer and laptop users that constitute a large amount of WoW’s fanbase, but I believe that Blizzard could devise a multi-engine solution, not unlike Ultima Online when it first went 3D.
The score is exceptional, with some of the best music saved for the cutscenes and boss fights. Music even plays a pivotal role in a few quests along the way. An early Undead assignment ends with Sylvanas Windrunner singing a mournful song of her homeland, and an Alliance quest in the Twilight Highlands will see players assisting a Dwarven bard in composing a wedding tune.
The sound effects are the same as always, but the voice-acting is quite good this time around, especially for Cho’gall. This ogre mage from Warcraft II was a fairly standard character back in the day, but a few decades of isolation have upped his insanity meter. Cho’gall is simultaneously frightening, funny, and intriguing. Until Deathwing himself shows up, he makes for a compelling “final boss” placeholder.
If you can afford all the expansions, buy Cataclysm right off the bat. The Worgen and Goblin content is well worth the price of admission. If you’ve already finished everything in Wrath, then Cataclysm is a no-brainer. I didn’t enjoy this installment quite as much as Wrath, but it should be a solid investment for both WoW neophytes and veterans.