Every time I start to write about World of Warcraft, I know that some percentage of our readership will sigh an exasperated breath, let slump their frustrated shoulders and forcefully think to themselves, “are we really still talking about this game?” I understand and even sympathize with the crippling ennui that Blizzard’s epic, if slightly long in the tooth, MMO inspires in some. Truth be told, for a long and restful few months, even as I had tantalizing beta access to the upcoming expansion Cataclysm waiting for my hungry eyes, I too grew despondent to my long-term digital paramour.
But, like the mafia, a sanitarium or daycare, they inevitably pulled me back in.
Truth is, I actually don’t like MMO betas very much. I cling desperately to the assumption that the endless timesink of these games at least results in some durable digital asset, like a level 80 spell-wielding cow or an ill-tempered dwarf wearing fancy armor. In betas not only do you have to deal with a world only half realized, but the fruits of your labor are summarily dismissed at the end of the ordeal. It’s not just watching sausage being made, it’s having to periodically take big bites of the partially processed meat.
So, when I tell you, not surprisingly, that the World of Warcraft: Cataclysm beta is becoming pretty damn fun, at least understand that for a while I had been inclined to say something very different.
Even if you have long pushed back, overstuffed, from the WoW smorgasbord, know that unlike previous expansions Cataclysm is ready to welcome back its lost flock with open and accommodating arms. This is the rare expansion to an MMO that actually is driven to serve players of all levels, not just the hardcore.
Historically, my least favorite thing about MMO expansions, is that it often seems like unless you have high level characters, there’s little content that is aimed at you. Sure, occasionally there will be a new race or class, but aside from a brief stint in an updated starting area, it’s ultimately back into the long grind that had so worn you down in the first place. I struggle to recall any MMO expansion that successfully addressed that deep well of dragging commitment that describes the upside down bell curve of MMO fun.
If you have ever played WoW and thought to yourself, “That’s it, I just can’t possibly spend another second in Stranglethorn Vale with my level 35 character,” then this is the expansion built for you.
This Azeroth is a new world rebuilt from the fiery embers of the old. It rewards both those who have spent half a decade traversing familiar landscapes, as well as those who are open to the concept of ending their long diaspora away. Five years is an eternity in the massively multiplayer business, and the lessons learned both in world construction and character development progression are immediately and consistent evident.
This world is a more interesting place where once small waystations between distant points of interest have been given their own depth, personality and fleshed backstory. There is a persistent sense of movement and progress at all levels, and with the benefit of five years worth of tools and improvements there is always the opportunity to shift your focus on the fly and do something different when you get bored.
I have a friend who has for months been trying to get me to see the light on Cataclysm. It’s basically a full-on relaunch of one of the world’s biggest games. Everything is basically rebuilt from the ground up: mechanics, levelling, questing, the world, skill development, roles, story, everything. Only in the past few weeks, as Blizzard has really begun putting that fifth level of polish on the game -- still more than a month out -- have the dots begun to connect firmly in my mind.
Be prepared, because if you are a former WoW player who simply thought you would be able to finally ignore this expansion, the temptation will be far stronger than you might have imagined. It’s not just an expansion for people who want to play a goblin or werewolf. The reality is that the changes made to the world and the game itself are equally impactful to long-standing classes and races. The promise of a world totally torn down and rebuilt from its own ashes is being realized, and it is even more tantalizing than I had originally imagined it would be.
The laundry list of changes and improvements is grand in scope. I would be loathe to try and point to any one thing (old world flying, simplifying talent trees, improved visuals, increased world diversity, story development, normalized questing paths, dungeon queues, smoother transition between areas, redevelopment of outdated or underused content) that makes the experience take the next leap forward. It's an expansion not built on gimmicks or hooks, but from the experience of a cash-rich company that is investing in the future of a game that should by all accounts already be in decline.
And, if I was placing my bets, I would say with supreme confidence that the investment will pay off for both company and players.