A Cataclysmic Preview

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm
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Warning: This preview might contain spoilers.

Unofficially due out later this year, Cataclysm is the finale of five years of events on Azeroth. Illustratively, if Burning Crusade was a road trip and Wrath of the Lich King was a reunion, then it could be said that Cataclysm is a home-coming. Only the home you knew and loved isn’t the same. It’s broken and changed. Your friends from the neighborhood changed too. Cataclysm is probably one of Blizzard’s most ambitious expansions yet. Zones from Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King withstanding, most classic zones are getting a face-lift.

Some changes are small while others are drastic. The changes to the old world will be overwhelming for veterans. Having played the beta for a month I’ve only scratched the surface. There remain many zones in the Eastern Kingdoms that are under construction; and many I’ve not had the pleasure of trying. The new high-level zones of Twilight Highlands, Uldum and Tol Barad are under development and are missing from the beta. But for the sake of time, let’s assume what Blizzard has offered is a sample of what’s to come.

So where to start? Well for starters let’s do a quick recap of what led us to this expansion.

A long time ago the black dragon aspect of earth called Neltharion, under mental suggestion by an evil influence, fashioned a super weapon. Dubbed the Demon Soul by those familiar with its origins, Neltharion unleashed it on his unsuspecting kin, and friend and foe alike during a great war. He decimated all other dragon aspects, even bringing one aspect to near extinction. This act of wanton destruction prompted others to dub him Deathwing. Later, Deathwing gets involved in a second great war. Taking on a human form he sought to destroy the forces of good from within and then later joined forces with evil. But he was later defeated by surviving dragon aspects, and driven off into the elemental plane of Deepholm.

While recuperating, much had happened in the world. A third Great War ignited between an Alliance of good and legions of demons. To defeat an ancient enemy, groups traveled through a device called the Dark Portal into a world now called Outland. Finally the world’s attention looked north to the continent of Northrend and the growing threat from a malevolent entity called the Lich King. Meanwhile a cult called the Twilight’s Hammer had systematically sided with all forces that could help bring the apocalyptic downfall of Azeroth. They threw their lot in with the Naga and their wishes to overthrow Neptulon, in the new underwater zones of Vashj’ir. They have given aid to Ragnaros as he tries to destroy the world tree called Nordrassil, in the new zone of Mount Hyjal. And more important they were devoted to seeing Deathwing’s return. As a fully recovered Deathwing bursts from Deepholm, his massive stature not only rends Azeroth but it also weakens the four elemental planes and forever changes Azeroth. This is where Cataclysm picks up.

Even though Cataclysm is about Deathwing, and the damage he has caused, there seems to be a decentralized focus on him as the primary villain. There are many villains in Cataclysm to deal with. Nafarian, Deathwing’s son, for example is back plotting and scheming in Blackrock Mountains. Ragnaros is literally hell bent on destroying the now-grown world tree Nordrassil. All over Azeroth the ogre-mage Cho’gall is directing his Twilight’s Hammer toward reaching their ultimate goal of total annihilation. And for the first time Queen Azshara makes a small but important appearance in Darkshore.

But along with these villains there are equally as powerful heroes who make appearances. Malfurion Stormrage, the first druid, has returned from the Emerald Dream to help Ysera and Azeroth beat back Ragnaros’s army, and it would seem Queen Azshara’s naga as well. Genn Greymane, King of Gilneas, helps his race control the Worgen curse. The Earthen Ring steps up their efforts to deal with the growing problems around the world. A group, for which, Thrall is now a keystone member after resigning his position from the Horde.

Even in the established factions, tensions continue to escalate between the Alliance lead by Varian Wrynn and the Horde now lead by Garrosh Hellscream. Friction is at a boiling point as Garrosh ignites warfare all over northern Kalimdor. Meanwhile Sylvanas Windrunner, leader of the Forsaken, has waged a campaign to retake Gilneas and most of the northern Eastern Kingdoms by any means necessary on behalf of the Horde. She even goes against Garrosh’s decree that the plague their race developed on Northrend not be used. Sylvanas Windrunner disregards that order and several favorite northern Alliance towns are razed to the ground, like Southshore. There are many proxy battles happening all over the newly redesigned Azeroth. Cataclysm can be summed up with one word: variety!

If you’re wondering about Deathwing, he appears in Mount Hyjal and Twilight Highlands, although this later appearance can only be confirmed through screenshots I saw. Deathwing also appears in humanoid form in Badlands. But the star of the show for this expansion is the destruction he left in his wake. Unlike the Lich King, who would often pop up to yell, "Boo! Remember me?! I will be your demise! Rawr!" Deathwing doesn’t seem to play that game. He already has power. He hates all mortal races. He neither wants nor cares for their obedience. He just wants to see them all dead. He only tolerates mortals who help reach his goals, which is probably one of the reasons he partnered with such a nihilistic group like Twilight’s Hammer. Like earlier expansions it is pretty much a given Deathwing won’t make his grand appearance at launch, but several months after Cataclysm’s release.

So having played World of Warcraft since classic beta, seeing these changes to classic zones is great! Most of the old world is new and different again. As I move around them I saw that these were the same zones I am vividly familiar with. Even the classic login screen is back; a wonderful move I hope Blizzard decides to keep.

Logging into Cataclysm for the first time I traveled from Dalaran to Orgrimmar. The portal was moved from Valley of Spirits to Cleft of Shadow. As I ran out of the cleft I immediately saw a beefier, more robust Orgrimmar. Most buildings now share the orcish architecture from Northrend. Grommash Hold has moved to the center of the Valley of Strength; a fitting place for the new Warchief, Garrosh. The Valley of Spirits is divided between the Trolls — their watery area is now closer to the western gate — and the Goblins, whose new district is called Goblin Slums. Where Grommash Hold used to be a Tauren enclave now sits with racial motifs depicting it. There is also a new eastern gate that leads out into Azshara.

But these changes to Orgrimmar pail in comparison with one of the coolest things you can now do in Cataclysm: flying in old world Azeroth! Yes, you heard right. You can now fly around in Azeroth on your mounts! I vaguely remember there was an interview given by one of the developers who said that if they wanted to add flight to vanilla WOW, it would take the game offline for two years. Well they did better than that. Blizzard rebuilt all the classic zones from scratch presumably using the Wrath of the Lich King code base, and it is amazing how accurate they got it. If you’re familiar with a certain tree or rock in a certain spot in a zone, you’ll be happy to know that it’s still there, presuming the cataclysm hasn’t destroyed the area. And then after all that they systematically destroyed these zones!

As you quickly fly around Azeroth, you’ll notice that all classic maps are redesigned to match the style of maps in the current expansion. All dungeons within a zone have been added to the map. Sadly maps are still missing from places like Dire Maul’s outdoor environment, though this could merely be a beta thing. Regardless Blizzard has added more information and locations to the map so that it’s easier to find things.

The user interface has also received a sizeable change. Character information now resembles your Armory profile. Stats moved to the right in a panel that can be shown or hidden. Stats can also be categorically collapsed and expanded to only show the stats you want to see. The professions panel has significantly been redesigned into hierarchical views. The largest two are your primary professions while the smallest four are your secondary professions including the new Archaeology. Your profession buttons moved here as well.

The spellbook has also been redesigned. Blizzard did away with spell ranks, period, meaning there is no longer a toggle to view ranks at all. Each spell is evenly spaced from other spells to comfortably find what you need. A glowing halo around new spells shows those available for training. A welcomed addition to the spellbook is the list of all spells, in each of the three specializations, and at what level you can get them. In other words you no longer need to visit the trainer to see what spells you can learn and when. Aside from that, the mini-map now allows you to select many things to track; Herbalist/Miners can now rejoice. Also when you gain a level a new overlay appears on the screen showing the level, what new abilities you can learn, and if you received a talent point.

The changes to talents in Cataclysm ARE HUGE! This is the first time Blizzard is lowering the maximum number of talents per spec to classic levels. There is now a total of 41 talent points to spend at level 85 with one talent point gained every two levels. Each talent specialization now has a maximum of 31-points. There is a requirement that 31 points must be spent in your primary spec. This change means many useless talents are gone, but it also means less utility and more focus on what seems to me to be streamlined talents. Also rather than showing the talent trees there is now a summary screen that offers a quick synopsis of what each spec does.

The new talent mastery works with these changes but class mastery stats on gear and weapons won’t become available until level 80. The changes to classes and talents are such that it will be hard to tell what the ramifications will be. Will players like it or hate it? Will some classes change from the powerhouses they once were? Will less powerful classes become more powerful? The beta community is giving Blizzard the opportunity to win them over while they work on this, though a lot more work is needed. It’s also worth noting that mastery stats weren’t available while playing beta so I don’t know how they will interact with these talent changes.

All these changes will impact PVP. Players will still have most of their primary abilities, but less of them. For now it seems this means less reliance on rotation and more focus on doing what you need to do to survive and win. This doesn’t mean easy victories because you’ll still need to learn how to play with the new talents. For example Warlocks will no longer have soulshards. Instead they get a runic-style system of gems that fill up with "soul energies" for limited burst abilities. Hunters no longer use mana, instead they get a new resource called focus. According to my experience, Feral Druids (the class I’m playing extensively in beta) and Assassin Rogues seem to do more damage with the new talent system, as do Mages. And then there are Retribution Paladins, but ANYWAY, moving right along…

The most noticeable thing about Cataclysm is that Alliance and Horde towns, camps, and even questing areas, are now in close proximity of one another in every zone. This is a stark difference from classic WOW. So for every Alliance camp there’s a neighboring Horde camp. For every Horde Stronghold there’s an Alliance Keep, and so on and so forth. Many new zones share questing hubs. For example Hyjal, Vashj’ir and Deepholm are Sunwell Isle all over again. For those of you on PVP servers you’ll remember those days for better or for worse. Another factor to consider: swimming in Vashj’ir and flying mounts will transform PVP across Azeroth into a three-dimensional battlefield. Players who think two-dimensionally are going to be in a world of hurt. Simply put PVP is going to get much more intensive throughout Azeroth after Cataclysm’s launch. No doubt this is part of Blizzard’s wish of ramping up PVP combat to match the growing conflict between the Alliance and the Horde. It is also a return to the classic world PVP that used to be common in Hillsbrad, Booty Bay, Ashenvale and Crossroads. If you play on a PVP server, and prefer PVE gameplay, consider transferring over to a PVE server because it’s going to get crazy!

There are two new playable races to Cataclysm. A fierce werewolf race called the Worgen join the Alliance. The greedy Goblins join the Horde. These groups are saved by the factions they join.

During a sporting event, on the Goblin’s island-home of Kazan, a ball is kicked into the island’s volcano. The eruption is caused by the cataclysm but the Goblins don’t know this. After losing their home they leave the island and wash ashore on the Lost Isles. Their personality shares much in common with the established Goblins throughout the game. As a race all they care about is having fun and making money. The voice dialog has a strong New York accent and I assume is homage to classic "Mafia" films. There are many references to "organized crime," but this is World of Warcraft so it’s mostly innocent. The humor throughout the starting zone is tongue-n-cheek. Of all the starting zones the Goblin’s is likely the most creative. It starts off as a mafia theme then transitions into an island survival theme, so imagine "The Sopranos" meets "Lost." The Kazan part of the starting zone only lasts five levels, and once you reach level six you’ll be on Lost Isles. Phasing happens all over the isle. My favorite happens shortly after the island’s volcano erupts and a quest hub called Town-In-A-Box is destroyed by lava flow. I did not see that coming and was pleasantly surprised. When the volcano erupts the map reflects this.

Worgen’s birth into Cataclysm comes from the Worgen curse and a full blown assault by Sylvanas Windrunner and her Forsaken. You start the first five levels in human form and during a climatic battle at a cathedral your character becomes infected with the Worgen curse. Later, you are summoned to the outskirts of Duskhaven where an antidote is administered, but the cure only works provisionally. So you’re off to try and keep the curse at bay while you fight back Forsaken invaders. The style of Worgen share much in common with classic Werewolf in London motifs. Even the voice dialog is delivered in ‘ye old English’ accents with lines like "get dapper or get going." What I love about the zone is that there is a fluid progression from quest to quest between areas. The plight of the Worgen is told with story driven content that in many ways reminds me of the Wrathgate from Wrath of the Lich King. Like the Goblin starting zone on Lost Isles there is a phasing system that is better. Shortly after arriving in Duskhaven, phased content destroys large chunks of land and the map is updated to show this new phased land!

Questing throughout the new and redesigned zones is much more fun! Nearly all quests are connected to the cataclysm, or the immediate threats in the area. This means trivial side quests are no longer present. Many grinding-style quests are removed, replaced, or redesigned. Creatures are now more dynamic when they attack, for example bears and tigers pounce. Furbolgs and wolves charge, and so forth. There are many creatures that use knock backs. Every zone now has many subtle phasing quests with each zone having some sort of epic level finale quest (and many of them happen phased and, in many cases, multiple phases)! Even the quest tracker from the current expansion is put to full use throughout Cataclysm that can be turned off if you prefer more challenging gameplay. Based on cursory review it looks like there are fewer quests in each zone, but you get more experience points so you spend less time in the zone. Many elite level quests are redone so that they can be finished alone. And for the first time most classes can now kill elite level mobs in Deepholm alone. This is a huge change from classic WOW and the past two expansions. I guess Blizzard figures your character should be "elite" by level 82.

The 1-60 level flow was significantly revamped. Blizzard wants to give players many routes to reach level 60. You won’t need to spend time in all 52 zones to reach level 60 like was the case in classic WOW. For each race, and faction, there is a predefined level flow. At certain levels you are given branching quests that route you off to other zones. You may choose not to follow up on these quests and stay on the current path; the choice is yours. You can also choose to go anywhere you wish you’ll just inherit whatever level flow is available in that area.

Besides the visual changes, there is a lot of lore being told in Hyjal, Darkshore, Azhshara and Vashj’ir (especially in the Ruins of Vashj’ir), and Deepholm to name a few.

As one of two level 80 starting zones Vashj’ir feels entirely alien both in theme and design, with lots of phasing content. Unlike other zones Vashj’ir has no official night cycle. During nighttime Kelp Forest and Shimmering Expanse appears fully lit by some sort of light source. Abyssal Depths appears lit but there are areas where, given its depth, becomes darker.

Kelp Forest has a nice blend between swimming and land combat. This is as close to what it would be like to be a flying mount. There’s a lot of activity in this zone, and while there was no epic ending, except perhaps the new epic aquatic mount, this zone is fun.

Of the three new Vashj’ir zones Shimmering Expanse is perhaps the most beautiful. The Shimmering Grotto is amazing to look at with its variety of life, plants and colors (who knew purple, underwater plants could look cool?). Nespirah is likely one of the most interesting and creative areas in WOW so far. For players into Warcraft lore the hallmark of the zone goes to the Ruins of Vashj’ir. They’re saturated with it! And hats off to Blizzard for adding more immersion by creating a series of flashback quests in the Ruins of Vashj’ir, where you play a Naga Battlemistress moving up the ranks. The final quest, "Visions of the Past: Rise from the Deep," is amazing and worth the wait! The first time I saw the leviathan Ozumat rising from the deep I literally stopped and watched the beast, forgetting there was a battle I was supposed to partake in!

Abyssal Depths is not as breathtaking as Shimmering Expense but it has its charm. Coldlight Chasm for example is breathtakingly alien. You just want to idle and look at all the scenery in this area. By the time I got to this zone, and specifically Coldlight Chasm, I kind of forget I was playing a game called World of Warcraft. The ending of this zone, and a culmination of the entire Vashj’ir area, is likely one of the most epic things I’ve seen. Wrathgate pales in comparison with how cool this was. I don’t want to give away the details but playing through Vashj’ir just to see this finale is worth it. Vashj’ir is a wonderful new underwater zone and I think players will enjoy it tremendously.

On the opposite side of the world is the other level 80 starting zone of Mount Hyjal, a location by its mere existence that is steeped in lore. Nordrassil, the world tree has survived and is fully grown. Throughout the zone there’s much lore about the Ancients. For fans of them you’ll be happy to know that Goldrinn, Aviana, Aessina and many others make their formal appearances in Cataclysm. One can’t go too far without mentioning Malfurion’s formal appearance. There’s also another lore favorite who’ll make his formal appearance: Jarod Shadowsong. The most memorable part of this zone is an area in the elemental plane called Firelands Hatchery, which is only accessible through devices called Flamegates. This entire sub-zone is one big nod to the classic Atari game Joust! You even get to play a version of Joust with quests simply called "Wave One," "Wave Two" and so forth. It was awesome and humorous!

After Mount Hyjal or Vashj’ir, there’s the elemental plane of earth known as Deepholm. The closest zone that comes to mind when trying to describe this place is Netherstorm, but Netherstorm doesn’t do Deepholm justice. This is the ancient realm of Therazane the Stonemother and Deathwing. It is abstract where the laws of gravity are concerned. Large pillars of jagged rocks and vibrantly colored minerals dart the surface; many shattering then reforming asymmetrically. In the center is the towering Temple of Earth made entirely of Deepholm’s native stone and minerals. The zone is divided into three main shelves. The lower shelf is where the temple is found. The middle shelf is where most of Twilight’s Hammer is found, and the upper shelf is a combination of Stone Trogg, Earthen and various other Deepholm natives including Therazane’s throne.

Since most of Deepholm’s indigenous life is based on stone and minerals you encounter many new life forms such as Stone Drakes and Gryeworms. Gryeworms are strange, worm-like creatures made out of concentric, metallic rings capped with gems that burrow throughout Deepholm. As said before this zone is home to the original stone troggs before they were cursed by flesh. Deepholm is also home to a large consignment of Twilight cultists, and at least most of those responsible for Deathwing’s full recovery. With Therazane and Twilight’s Hammer you can guess there’s going to be an epic battle between them, and of course there is but you’ll have experience it for yourself.

Other revamped zones are just as memorable:

Much of the plague’s taint from Western Plaguelands has dissipated. Most of the farms like Felstone Field and Dalton’s Farm are rebuilt. The Scarlet Crusaders in Hearthglen are removed and the area is now an Argent Crusade stronghold lead by Tirion Fordring. Parts of Andorhal are rebuilt by the Horde and Alliance.

Brill and the Bulwark in Tirisfal Glades are upgraded to match the look of Forsaken architecture in Northrend. Probably one of the biggest features to the glades is a fully developed Ruins of Lordaeron that you fly into! There is even evidence from the time when Arthas and the scourge razed the city to the ground. Lore buffs rejoice!

Ashenvale has gone through many changes. Most noticeably is that Horde is kicking their butt and basically owning the zone. From the Alliance point-of-view the most memorable thing about the zone has to be a quest that starts off as a rescue, transforms into a bomb chase throughout Stonetalon Mountains, and reaches an epic climax over Thal’darah Grove! I won’t say what it is less I spoil the fun.

Not every zone is awesome. Feralas, for example, is my least favorite in Cataclysm, probably because quests were not finished, but mainly because I never did like the zone. It also looks like it did not get much a revamp other than Isle of Dread sinking from tidal waves. I did enjoy the epic quest inside the ruins of Dire Maul featuring Cho’gall’s formal appearance. Silithus is still my least favorite. There’s nothing happening in that zone that I saw; the entire zone is boring. And then there’s Ungoro Crater, which is one of those zones you either love or hate. I happen to be of the hate-it variety. Except for a couple new quest hubs, and the loss of Marshal’s Refuge, the zone hasn’t much changed.

What I did like is the closure to sub-plots throughout the various zones. For example Zenn Foulhoof, a satyr familiar to many night elf players for his appearance near the starting area, has finally been kicked out of Teldrassil for performing perverse magic. He takes up residents inside the cave near Cliffspring Falls in northern Darkshore; a cave that used to populated with naga. You are finally given the opportunity to end his life. The origins for the popular skeletal remains with the sword in Master’s Glaive become much clearer. And then there’s Mankrik! You’ll find out what happened with this stalwart warrior and his wife!

There’s so much more I know I missing with this preview, but there are so many resources available online to give you all the nitty-gritty details if you wish to search them out. But for better or for worst Cataclysm is going to change Azeroth forever. From what I’ve seen in beta the changes and additions are pretty amazing. Fans of the series will no doubt marvel when they play Cataclysm. Let’s just hope Blizzard gets all the kinks out before launch happens later this year.

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