Developers and fans of hardcore, sandbox online games like EVE or Ultima Online – emergent, changing worlds born from dog-eat-dog player interaction – like to dismiss the more populist virtual worlds, like World of Warcraft's, as "theme parks".
The implication is that they're kiddy activity centres where every event has been designed by committee and carefully stripped of personal risk, and where nothing ever really changes. After you've killed the biggest dragon in the world, you can get off the ride, rejoin the queue and do it all again. Hell, the polygons probably have padding. That's not real life!
Well, no. It's a game. Horses for courses, but it's always struck me as a curious insult; theme parks are, after all, supposed to be magical and exciting escapist wonderlands where the fun never stops. If I can have that without paying 10 dollars for a Coke and wading through thousands of human bodies to get to the entertainment, sign me up.
I guess Blizzard feels the same way. Almost everything it's done with Cataclysm – the third WOW expansion, which goes hand-in-hand with a sweeping reinvention of the six-year-old game – is about maximising the easy-access fun and minimising the unpredictability and pain. In fact, the developer's now so comfortable with the theme park motif that, in the old-world zone of Azshara, it has actually constructed a rollercoaster.
The Goblin-built Rocketway sits players on a cartoon missile and shoots them around the crescent bay of this rocky zone, eradicating tiresome travel times with its big-dipper bumps and swoops. And, yes, there's an achievement for riding it from end to end: a digital souvenir.
Indeed, Azshara is a demonstrative case-study for Cataclysm. It's one of the most extensively remodelled areas from the original game. Feeling that the six-year-old experience of levelling to 60 was confusing, bitty and dry when compared to the much slicker, more eventful questing offered in the expansions, Blizzard has used the catastrophic emergence of the dragon Deathwing into the world as an excuse to re-engineer the whole thing.
Floods and eruptions have physically changed the world, and events have moved on, rewriting the scenarios and quests of the two continents of Kalmidor and the Easter Kingdoms. Some zones have changed more than others, but the overall experience is overwhelmingly different, right down to the evocative music. This reboot is, in fact, free, and was pushed out to all WOW players in a mega-patch a few weeks before Cataclysm launched.
Azshara was known as one of the worst zones of classic WOW, with its awkward geography and thin, context-free questing. Now, boasting over 100 new quests and revised from level 40ish down to levels 10-20, it introduces the newly playable Goblins, a comedy race of rapacious capitalists, to the old world.
Old Azshara was a rugged mountain wilderness where life was hard, travel was long and experience had to be won with grit and determination. New Azshara is an explosion of gratuitous entertainment, where quests flow smoothly in jolly yarns with satirical punchlines. Sentient dinosaurs plot to colonise space, vain mages tout mini-games, ancient dragons do rom-com, elemental giants do toilet jokes and you're showered in so much experience and loot you can barely keep up with your own levelling.
There can be no doubt about it; it's a revolutionary improvement. The revamp answers a decade of justified criticism of MMO content, junking grind altogether and remoulding old tropes into new (and, incidentally, wonderfully-written) adventures. It is indescribably more fun.
It's also quite silly. WOW's Cataclysm is the apocalypse as romp. As destroyers of worlds go, Deathwing is a pretty benevolent one, leaving a trail of entertainment in his wake.
There's just one problem. Old Azshara was annoying, but it was also melancholic and mysterious, and wringing progress from it made you feel like hardy fantasy frontiersman and explorer, not a kid at a fun-fair. And due to the ephemeral nature of online gaming, it has gone forever now, and a small part of WOW's soul has been lost with it.
This is true right across the old world: the game is better and more eventful, but also easier, less serious, and more ruthlessly efficient. That makes me sad – a sentiment echoed by Blizzard itself in a few poignant quest lines – even if I would be mad to actually want things back the way they were. Classic WOW, the game which launched 12 million grand adventures, has died, taking with it most of its flaws and a little of its epic mystery. There's no need to mourn its passing, but it deserves a moment's recognition at least.
So what else is new? Everything. The free patch also offered some new combinations of race and class, a major interface update and radically re-sculpted each class's levelling progression, including a total overhaul of the talent-tree specialisations.
There's absolutely nothing to regret here. Combat is tighter and more interesting across the game, with most classes enjoying some fun new mechanic. The talents are fewer, more varied and more useful, while locking you into one path for much of the levelling really helps define each specialisation as a mini-class in its own right. There are too many welcome changes and useful systems to list, but it's worth celebrating the death of weapon skill and the birth of item reforging (a wonderful boon for endgame min-maxing).
Everything is also prettier, more helpful and easier to use, right down to tooltips that suggest which situations you might want to use a particular skill in. Nearly all MMOs are poor at explaining themselves, and mechanically dull for the first dozen hours, but WOW is no longer one of them.
A staggering amount of work has gone into what must be the biggest, deepest and best free update to any online game, ever. It does beg the question: what's left to put in the expansion itself?
More than enough, but there's no disguising the fact that Cataclysm has less to offer the high-level player. For many, the most enticing attraction will be starting a new character in one of the two new races – Goblins for the Horde, and werewolf-like Worgen for the Alliance – and enjoying their action-packed starter zones. Goblins are blasted through hilarious pastiches of Grand Theft Auto and The Land That Time Forgot; the Worgen introduction is even better, a stirring Gothic fairytale about the fall of the kingdom of Gilneas.
Only five zones take you from 80 to 85. They're spectacular, packed with riotous adventure and emphatically varied, from Vash'jir's love-it-or-hate-it undersea exploration to the Indiana Jones-quoting, Egyptian-themed matinee antics of Uldum. Mount Hyjal represents the Warcraft series' vivid take on epic high fantasy at its absolute height.
Whether the five zones gel as well as the unforgettable unfolding of Northrend in Wrath of the Lich King is up for debate. What's not is that it's much, much shorter - you'll sprint through four of those five levels fairly quickly, before slowing down on the long climb to 85.
The emphasis, this time, is on delivering a more substantial endgame from the off. It's naturally not that easy to tell, at this early stage, how successful it is. In terms of dungeons, there are fewer options for five-man levelling and Heroics, although they're packed with novel mechanics and some of them – including the Vortex Pinnacle and Halls of Origination – are up there with Blizzard's peerless best.
There are more raids than Lich King had at launch, though, and a relaxation of raid locks makes raiding easier to get into. Don't think it's easier overall, though. The difficulty on even Heroic five-man dungeons, combined with the rebalancing of healing, has been a brutal slap in the face for many players.
Item level requirements help sort the wheat from the chaff, but it will be a while before you can get your equipment, and skills rusted by Lich King's quick-fire dungeoneering, up to speed. Opinions are very strongly divided on this, but if you were worried about the amount of actual high-level content in Cataclysm, you cannot complain about the deadly, long-haul seriousness of the dungeon and raid endgame.
WOW has never had the same stature as a player-versus-player game, but its wild popularity requires it to take PVP seriously. So Cataclysm offers some new Battlegrounds on old models – did we really need, in Twin Peaks, another Warsong Gulch? – and Tol Barad, a better attempt at an open-world war-zone than Lich King's Wintergrasp.
The big news, though, is rated Battlegrounds. This system brings the ranked competition and desirable rewards of the deathmatch Arenas to WOW's best PVP content, the Battleground maps, for the first time. Although these have only just been implemented, being able to participate in cutting-edge PVP without subscribing to the acquired twitch-gaming taste of Arenas can only be a good thing for WOW's PVP endgame.
Finally, Cataclysm offers two of the most-requested features for the game – the ability to use flying mounts in the old world, and a guild levelling system – and one no-one would ever have thought to ask for: the Archaeology profession.
They're somewhat mixed blessings. It's both thrilling and useful to be able to see old Azeroth from the air for the first time, but I'd question the decision to allow it at level 80 rather than 85; the exploration of Northrend was so much more challenging and exciting for being required to do most of it on foot.
The new guild system comes with a supremely useful interface, and progression is fun (if rather strictly controlled) with perks for all and tasty rewards for building reputation with your own guild. The extra incentive for social play is very welcome in what – thanks to Dungeon Finder, improved solo content and general ease of use – risked becoming a rather lonely MMO. Some will balk at the whole new world of grind opened up by the guild achievement list, however.
Finally, and least excitingly, Archaeology is a bizarre time-sink that encourages you to survey locations around the world to unearth fragments and combine them into artefacts. You can find a few useful and rare items this way, and uncover some interesting snippets of lore, but the process itself is devoid of interest while also being much more long-winded and fiddly than fishing, say.
But millions will grind away at it quite happily regardless, because MMO audiences only really crave one thing: endless and varied opportunities for progress. That means time-wasting fluff like Archaeology is, in its way, just as important as the endgame number-crunching or the narrative sweep of 85 levels of adventure. Blizzard is the only mainstream MMO developer to fully understand this and commit to it, and it has never demonstrated that so forcefully.
It's difficult to score Cataclysm, because, as Rob pointed out, there has simply never been a gaming product like this before. Judged purely as an expansion pack and leaving the free patch content to one side, it's excellent but ever so slightly underwhelming; as enjoyable and unbelievably polished as Cataclysm is, I suspect that Wrath of the Lich King will, in future, be looked back on as the game's creative pinnacle.
However, if we approach this as a re-review of the whole game – which we should, because it's exactly what Blizzard did – then the only sane response is one of awe. World of Warcraft was already one of the best, and by far one of the most successful, games ever made. To turn such a harsh gaze on it and commit to improving its quality on (literally) every level, pleasing every kind of of player in the process, shows vision, immense guts, and a total lack of complacency. I doubt any other developer, finding itself in Blizzard's position, would do the same.
Cataclysm doesn't just make WOW better. It does something even more valuable than that; it renews it. It fires your excitement at starting on that long road one more time, and invites you to relish the journey just as much as you'll lose yourself in its ending. If the price we have to pay for that is that it's a little less magical and a little more Magic Kingdom, then that is a price we will all willingly, happily pay.
10 / 10
Special thanks to John Bedford for his assistance with this review. World of Warcraft: Cataclysm is out now for PC and Mac.