World of Warcraft is one of the most successful gaming franchises of all time. Six years after its release, the game has increased its player base to an all-time high of 12,000,000 subscribers this year. World of Warcraft is a mind-bogglingly huge fantasy theme park that offers players an incredible number of things to do, and keeps things fresh by adding regular new content updates every few months and an expansion pack every year or two. World of Warcraft: Cataclysm is the third.

Like the two expansion packs before it, World of Warcraft: Cataclysm brings plenty of new stuff to the table. First up are a couple of new races: Goblins and the werewolf-like Worgen. Each of these races has their own starting zone, which are very nicely designed and put together.

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm: Fun with Goblins

Indeed, I'd say that leveling up a Goblin is one of the most fun things I've done in WoW as a newbie character. The experience combines a beautifully crafted series of quests and objectives that articulate a meaningful story in a very fun way. Once you're through that initial new zone, you go out into the World of Warcraft: Cataclysm world, and the game becomes the Warcraft experience we know and love. But it's clear the early levels were very lovingly designed and created, and you can really feel the sheer effort the developers put into making the experience a truly memorable one.

Even if you have no intention of levelling up a new character in World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, I'd still recommending making a Goblin and going through the starting zones just to appreciate them. The Worgen starting area is also excellent, but it has a hard time matching the Goblin experience, simply because that Goblin zone is so good.

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm: New features

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm also adds a new profession, Archeology, new race/class combinations, a guild achievement system, a bunch of new areas for high-level players to explore (and level up from the previous level cap of 80 to the new cap of 85), and new dungeons and raids where they can test their mettle. There's also quite a bit of love for those who love to kill their fellow player. Not one, but two battlegrounds have been added, and there's also a Wintergrasp-type open PvP area called Tol Barad. Plus, for the first time, players get the chance to battle one another in rated battlegrounds where the best players will get spiffy, top-of-the-line PvP gear, and where the losers will get slightly worse, but still decent gear.

One of the biggest highlights of the World of Warcraft: Cataclysm expansion, however, is that as well as adding new zones for old players, Cataclysm also completely changes the original World of Warcraft game and makes its old content great for new players.

So much so, indeed, that I've written a new review of the old World of Warcraft game. While old players are likely to enjoy this content, this move is much more about attracting new players to WoW - or indeed helping bring back players who might have played the game a while ago, but stopped. It has all been done in a very ingenious manner - essentially driven by a clever storyline that packages these changes in a very natural and convincing way. A very clever move for sure, and one that shows that Blizzard is certainly not resting on its laurels, despite its huge success, and wants to continue to grow the World of Warcraft game even more.

So those are the top-line, marketing-bullet-point changes. But World of Warcraft: Cataclysm has also ushered in less obvious, but much deeper changes to the game's underlying design mechanics.

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm: Changes to gaming mechanics

After two expansions of design evolution and feature creep, where we've seen lots of new spells, new statistics, and new items being added to the game, in many ways the developers essentially designed themselves into a corner, making a game that was, by the end of the Lich King expansion, very difficult to continue to build on in its then-current guise. So to that end, while the world of Azeroth has been wracked by massive upheaval caused by the eponymous Cataclysm, the absolute fundamentals of WoW's gameplay have also been massively and irrevocably altered in World of Warcraft: Cataclysm. Not necessarily in a bad way - but certainly in a radical way.

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm

But before I start getting into the real nuts and bolts of that, let me quickly let you know that I'm a hardcore WoW player. I've been playing for a full six years, with virtually no break. I have fully decked-out, top-level characters for each of the class roles: healing, tanking, and damage, and each of them is fully equipped for PvE content (player vs environment, or computer-controlled enemies) and PvP content (competitive player vs player). I raid twice a week, and if I'm not tooling around in game helping my fellow guildies, I'm killing Horde in battlegrounds or Arenas. The point of me telling you this is so that you can understand my perspective - and to warn you that this is where this review might start getting a bit incomprehensible if you don't play WoW, because I want to really get into the changes of the game mechanics in the language of those who do.

And where those changes are most evident are in the dungeons and raids, the real bread and butter of the World of Warcraft experience, and where most people spend their time. The dungeons contain new challenges and different settings, but their fundamentals will be largely familiar to regular WoW players. What won't be familiar to some people, but will be familiar to others, is how the way you now need to play them has shifted and changed from Lich King to Cataclysm. After playing a ton in beta, I'm really getting to grips with some very subtle, but important shifts in the way the game works that will probably surprise some people, delight some, annoy others, and catch some people out completely.

Lich King was an expansion where we saw the rise of DPS characters (damage) and their overpowered AOE (area of effect) spells. Tanks (the people who keep monsters' attention - "agro" - and stop them from attacking other people) had a fairly easy job keeping the enemy - often several of them at the same time - focused on them, enabling players who do damage to let loose every spell they could to destroy those enemy monsters as quickly as possible. While this was fun, it taught players very bad habits that will now unfortunately kill them in the new expansion.

You see, in the original WoW release, tanks had a much tougher time keeping the enemy focused on them, and because of that, if you weren't careful about what monster you were hitting, and how hard you hit it, it would stop hitting the tank and instead come after you and kill you. In Lich King, you didn't need to worry about that, because tanks' ability to keep the enemy attention on them was so over-powered. No matter what you did, you could pretty much blast the crap out of everything until it was dead. Fun, but not particularly skilful or demanding.

Not any more. World of Warcraft: Cataclysm is going back to the way it used to be: Tanks are not the aggro-magnets they used to be. Blizzard's developers want players to actually think a bit more, rather than just mash buttons. For people who've played the game since the beginning, this is going to be fairly easy to adjust to: it's a case of relearning old habits. For those who didn't... oh boy. You'll need to change your habits and learn the new way of doing things quickly, or you're going to be a liability to your team-mates, and at worst get everyone killed.

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm

And that's not the only change. There's an additional layer of challenge -- and this is something that old players will recognise. Many "pulls" in the new dungeons (groups of monsters that you need to overcome) cannot be bested by simply blasting them with AOE effects, as they could in Lich King dungeons. Indeed, if you try to do that, the monsters will run riot and kill everyone. Instead, you have to be strategic and use crowd control effects - spells and effects that temporarily disable a monster - and kill the monsters selectively in the right order. Which means your team has to be organised, on point, and thinking clearly.

I personally love these changes. They make dungeons fun and challenging in a good way, requiring skill and coordination, and a modicum of strategy. However, there is a down side, which will clearly be apparent to those who use the dungeon finder to PUG (that means tackle a dungeon with a pick-up group - a random group people using the in-game matching system).

Because the game does require more co-ordination and thought, you'll probably see a lot of initial problems with people who haven't adjusted to the new system of doing things. Or people not listening and doing the wrong thing. The days of simply button-mashing through dungeons are now over, and anyone using those old tactics will cause nothing but problems.

And where there are problems there will be arguments, nerd-raging, kicking and people quitting in frustration. I think things will settle down as players get to grips with the new system, but initially I will advise caution, and suggest that if you're going to try to PUG, to be patient and prepare to work with people to help them.

Of course, your mileage may vary, but I've definitely already seen a few explosive situations occur due to people continually breaking CC, healers running out of mana because they're healing DPS characters who can't throttle their damage, DPS going AOE crazy and wiping the group, and so on. Put it this way: I'm dungeon-crawling with trusted friends only for a few months...

Next page: Character talents, challenges of healing, and our expert verdict >>

See also:

World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm is the latest instalment of the world-beating WoW MMORPG gaming franchise, and it sees some significant changes.

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm: Trimming character talents

As well as this shift in the gameplay, something else that has seen a major change is the in-game character talents system. After two expansions' worth of bloat, they have been pared back and significantly simplified as part of the Cataclysm restructuring. The developers have told us that this is necessary to not just help with game balance - which I can understand - but to also help make talent choices more meaningful - which unfortunately I have difficulty seeing in the system's current form. Some character types have fared better with these changes than others in that respect, but even so, I don't feel the new talent trees offer much in the way of customisation: a choice or two here and there at best, but at worst, the feeling that I'm pretty much forced to take a bunch of talents whether I like them or not.

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm

Ultimately, I recognise that this aspect of the game is a work in progress, and that things will change and be refined over the ensuing months. But right now I'm not particularly enamoured. It's fine - characters are still playable and they do most of the things I want them to do - but I don't necessarily see this as much of a step forward, and indeed in some sense it's a step back. I'll probably feel better about it in a content update or two when the results of more player testing on live servers help the developers further refine the trees and perhaps tweak them for the better.

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm: Mana management

Another subtle, but major change in the game - which affects me a lot, because the character I play the most is my healer - is that mana management is now more of an issue. In Lich King, mana regeneration was extremely high, and unless you played like an idiot, you never ran out of mana. Instead, the focus of the healer was all about blasting spells like crazy to keep everyone alive in what was a very hostile, high-stress, high AOE, fast damage environment. I actually liked that -- as an old-school arcade player, the crazy speed that was required to keep people alive was highly demanding, but very rewarding when it worked. But a lot of people hated it, because it was so stressful.

So now the challenge of healing has been changed from ultra-fast reactive healing to one of managing mana. This has ultimately slowed the game down in that respect, and made healing far more strategic and thoughtful. Especially when you consider that something else that Cataclysm has changed is the size of players' health pools - which are now much, much bigger than they were. So now, relative damage is a little slower because it takes monsters longer to chip away at your health, which on the face of it makes the game easier. But it doesn't, because it now requires many more heals to fill up a player's health pool, and those heals cost more mana, which now runs out faster.

Again, if you're an old-school healer, this sort of thing won't be unfamiliar to you, and it definitely reminds me of my days in Molten Core where it was all about not overhealing (wasting healing spells), and being very strategic about which characters you're healing (and indeed coordinating with other healers to make sure you don't waste heals). Many will enjoy this, but some won't. I am one of those who enjoyed high-stress, fast reactive healing - healing seems more ponderous now, and frankly managing mana is nowhere near as exciting as the blast-healing of Lich King. But on the positive side, at least it's not quite as stressful.

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm

Overall, the gameplay seems to have taken a big step forward by taking an even bigger one back. World of Warcraft: Cataclysm definitely feels more like the original World of Warcraft, but one that's combined with the newer, more refined, better designed presentation layer and convenience features that were developed during the Lich King expansion. For the most part, it's the best of the old, combined with the best of the new. That's definitely a good thing, but one thing that does bug me about Cataclysm is that because so much of its focus is on redoing old content and taking the gameplay back to an earlier style is that, in some respects, it feels like it falls a little short of being a full-blown expansion compared to previous new additions to the World of Warcraft franchise. Let me explain.

In World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade, entering the portal to Outlands was a fantastic experience. It really felt like I was going somewhere new and exciting. Indeed, I'd rank walking into Zangarmarsh for the first time, where I was absolutely blown away by its mind-boggling scenery, as one of my top gaming moments ever. Similarly, jumping onto a boat moments after I installed Lich King and traveling to Northrend was another WoW memory I'll always treasure. Seeing this whole new continent, and running across its entirety that first night (and morning) was a gaming experience that I won't easily forget. It was so exciting: a whole new place I'd never seen before. So much to explore. So much to take in.

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, on the other hand, just doesn't feel quite as exciting or new as previous expansions. Sure, it features new areas - five of them, to be exact - and they are certainly cool-looking. But they're in amongst places I have known intimately for six years. And sure, those places might have been redesigned and cosmetically updated from their original appearance in vanilla WoW, but even so, they are still very familiar.

And this is where I do feel World of Warcraft: Cataclysm falls a little short. While I was initially extremely excited about the premise of the new expansion, the "shattering" of the old world felt rather underwhelming to me. Sure, it's cool to see old areas I know so well being changed, but the novelty wore off very quickly. Some areas are barely changed; others more so. But at the end of the day, for someone who is interested in new content, a large part of Cataclysm is a cosmetic change: a new face on largely old content. I get that it's cool. I get that it's great for new players wanting to level up through the brilliantly restructured and hugely refined old vanilla WoW. But it's just not as exciting as a new land with new things I've never seen before.

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm

The new zones themselves, like I said, are exciting and interesting. But because they're designed to fit into the old world, they do have a certain familiarity about them. In BC, the zones were packed with things I'd never seen before. Even WoLK, which wasn't quite as visually ambitious as BC, still provided some amazing moments thanks to its spectacular scenery, high mountain ranges, and vast new vistas. Cataclysm is great, sure, but it doesn't feel like it's providing the same evolutionary step forward that previous expansions delivered. Don't get me wrong - it's great, but it didn't knock me out like previous expansions did. Perhaps my expectations were too high? I don't know, but while my criticisms might sound harsh, it's not like I'm saying it's bad. It's just not as good as I'd hoped.

In some respects Cataclysm feels like the gaming equivalent of one of the best bands in the world who, after releasing three absolutely amazing original albums, release a fourth album that is a digitally remastered and remixed version of the first album, with bonus unreleased and rare tracks. You'll listen to it. You'll enjoy it. But deep down you know an all-new album of completely new material would be a more exciting prospect.

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm: Just the beginning?

But what World of Warcraft players do know is that the game is always changing. Cataclysm isn't a final version - it's just the beginning. It will improve over time, because that is the beauty of a game whose developers listen to the players and continually make tweaks and overhauls to the fundamental gameplay, while adding content that drives the entire expansion storyline forwards.

And that makes this review a bit difficult to write in the traditional sense. Usually a rating is applied to a game that doesn't change, because the vast majority of games are fire-and-forget. Buy them. Play them. Done.

Warcraft isn't like that. It's an always-moving target, and because of that, my rating here is a snapshot in time that represents where the game is right now at the beginning of the expansion. I will "patch" in an additional star (or indeed remove one) as the game changes and new content is updated. Indeed, I'll be reviewing each content update and talking about how it changes the game so that we always have a most current "review" of the game. WoW fans can look forward to regular updates and additions to this review as the game changes. 

Next page: Our expert verdict >>

See also:

World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade

OUR VERDICT

While I do have some criticisms of World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, there's more than enough to keep me happy, and I'm certainly already hard at it, blasting through levels and exploring the new areas of the game (perhaps a little faster than I expected to, only a few days after release). But then, to me, levelling up is always a means to an end anyway - I've always been far more interested in the end-game than levelling, and in that sense Cataclysm offers plenty of good stuff. Cool and interesting dungeons and raids are a-waiting, and I can't wait to get my teeth into the rated battlegrounds. So onwards we go. World of Warcraft: Cataclysm is another solid release, and one that will only get better. And while it might not be the best WoW expansion, what it has done is helped make World of Warcraft a much better experience for beginners, while providing more than enough to keep its hardcore fans happy. And I really can't complain too much about that.

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