The first thing you do when you spawn outside the gates of Orgrimmar is run in and see what they've done to your home. The scooped plaza of the once-ramshackle desert town is changed forever. The low-slung bank is now a menacing, fortified tower studded with black iron from which the zeppelins fly around the world; the surrounding architecture has gone from tumbledown to terrifying.
This is the new old World of Warcraft that will arrive with the MMO's third expansion pack, Cataclysm. Areas careworn to a comforting familiarity over five years of play have been ruptured by the apocalyptic arrival of the black dragon Deathwing on the mortal plane. Adventuring and society across the original 60 levels have been reshaped by political upheaval in the wake of the successful but costly war against Arthas in last expansion Wrath of the Lich King. Nothing will ever be the same again.
Blizzard unveiled its plan to overhaul the "old world" of Azeroth, as well as add new areas taking players up to a raised level cap of 85, in immense detail at BlizzCon last year. Today, we're at the company's Orange County compound south of LA for a fairly nuts-and-bolts update: the headlines are the scrapping of the Paths of the Titans customisation system, more detail on the new guild levelling and Achaeology profession, structural changes to player-versus-player and raiding, and a streamlining and reorganisation of character progression across every class.
But we'll deal with all that later, because the next thing you do is summon your flying mount and take to the skies for a view of Orgrimmar - ultimately, of the whole of Azeroth - you've never had before outside of the set flight paths. You can now fly everywhere, and although some of the geometry's a bit crude up here, it's still liberating. It's also a great way to survey the damage.
Over in western Durotar, the network of canyons that were once home to a bunch of thunder lizards and a particularly annoying goblin are flooded. Crossing into the Barrens, the Crossroads are as they ever were, but then there's an ugly scar across the land and in the new Southern Barrens - now a level 30 up zone for both Horde and Alliance - Camp Taurajo is in flames, Mulgore's locked away behind an imposing gate, there's a brooding new Orc camp and the land is riven and scarred and tangled with vegetation. There's just so much more stuff everywhere.
Further south, Thousand Needles is flooded too, the original canyon zone now deep underwater, save the bluff-top villages clinging to their pillars of rock. Sinister Twilight's Hammer architecture has sprung up on the clifftops (the cult, instrumental to the main Cataclysm storyline, will crop up throughout the 1-60 levelling experience as well as 80-85). The salt flats have become a lake where a giant Goblin barge, besieged by pirates, dredges and prepares to resume (boat) racing with the Gnomes.
It goes on. Tanaris is half gone under the sea. Desolace's grey wasteland harbours a riot of green regeneration and a Cenarion moonwell at its middle. The Stonetalon Mountains are almost unrecognisable. A volcano has erupted in the middle of Ashenvale forest, and Horde siege machines surround and intimidate the Night Elf encampments; new Horde Warchief Garrosh, war hero of Northrend and less peaceable than Thrall, wants to end Orgrimmar's poverty and is happy to rape the sacred forest of its resources to that end. Azshara, dumped from beautiful but barely functional mid-level zone to a starter area for the Goblins, has been rudely scrawled over with elevated roadways for rocket-cars, and is dominated by a comically large cannon.
The change is exciting. To keep this now-ageing game fresh, it's necessary. But for a long-time player, seeing zones which have been scored in the memory changed for good and never to return is also a bit of a wrench. "We're trying to tap into that to some extent," says leads systems designer Greg Street. "The Cataclysm is supposed to be a little bit scary. You know, it's a big time of change, and so we want to make players curious, maybe even shock their system a little bit that in some cases things are so dramatic."
The new 80-85 zones are no less dramatic. In the demo in Blizzard's cinema, we're flown around Uldum's monolithic, fantasy ancient Egypt where the Blood Elf Reliquary, Dwarven Explorers' League and other less reputable looters are hoovering up the secret history of the Titans. Deepholm is a giant enclosed sphere in the centre of the world where Deathwing lived in exile, its vast central spire and ceiling raw and torn from his explosion back into the world. Orc airship Orgrim's Hammer lies wrecked on the ground. It's midnight blue in here, and studded with bright crystals, as otherworldly as anything in Outland.
Later we get to try two of the other new zones ourselves. Mount Hyjal, entered from Winterspring, is an immense, tortured spiral of rock with the World Tree Nordrassil at its summit and Sulfuron Spire, a robust flame-elemental fortress with a giant Sauron-style eye, at its base. But it's Vash'jir that is the biggest departure of the lot.
Taking a boat from Stormwind, we fall victim to a sea monster and drown, whereupon a Draenei saves us and grants us the power of water-breathing and increased swim speed - because this is WOW's first wholly underwater zone. You can walk on the sea floor here, and eventually acquire an underwater mount. It's all done in bright, creamy Caribbean colours, with forests of giant kelp and luminescent coral reefs surrounding the mysterious lost cities of the Naga. It's breathtaking.
Finally, there's just enough time to start characters Cataclysm's new races - Goblins for the Horde, and werewolfish Worgen for the Alliance - and punch through the first five levels of each. Starting where the Death Knight class introduction from Lich King left off, these are no ordinary WOW questing zones, but riotous, event-packed mini-adventures that almost mock the traditional rat-punching humble beginning of MMOs.
In fact, in the case of the Goblins, there's no "almost" about it. In Blizzard's cartoonish take on GTA, you star as a would-be trade prince in the dirty, congested Goblin city of Kezan, running over citizens in your hot rod, torturing workers, beating up debtors, playing sports in a robot suit, buying bling and entertaining guests at a poolside party. The humour's coarse but irresistible. The Worgen starter goes for straight high adventure, casting you as a (soon-to-be-un) human fighting off a Worgen invasion in the streets, lobbing bombs from horseback, manning cannons and battling through alleyways in a John Carpenter-ish last stand.
Both feature stunning use of Blizzard's phasing tech that allows the world to change and events to pass naturally around you as you move through quests. The transitions are much smoother and more frequent than anything in Lich King, and mark a final end to the illusion-breaking, static Groundhog World of the MMO, locked in one moment of time. It's too much to hope that they'll be applied across the entire game, but still, their frequent use would make all the difference.
In fact, while they're not going to be "Worgen and Goblin awesome" in lead world designer Alex Afrasiabi's words, the starting experience for every race in the game has been revamped - as he explains in our interview, Blizzard soon realised that it was the earliest levels that would need the most attention in Cataclysm's content clinic. But it's not just the quests you do as you level, but the levelling itself which will be radically changed.
While WOW's quest designers loaded the game with content (some 3000 new quests, according to Afrasiabi, three times what was in Lich King) Street's systems team had a different task: stripping away dead wood. Weapon skills - gone. Minor stats like spell power or mana regen - gone. And now he reveals that spells and abilities no longer have ranks - they're bought once and then level automatically with you.
This has allowed the team to completely re-engineer the progression of each class, re-ordering the delivery of new abilities and spreading them out across the game so you get a new toy more regularly on level-up. A new spellbook, one of many beautiful revisions to the user interface, shows you clearly what's next and when you need to visit the trainer. You can also now view all three talent trees at once - and these have been completely reworked from scratch too, with balance-fixing talents - "kitchen-sinked", in Street's term - simplified or replaced with more fun utilities for escape and survival, for instance.
Streamlining the game by getting rid of legacies that have outlived their usefulness is one thing. Junking a brand-new feature of the expansion after it's already been announced is quite another, but that's been done too with Paths of the Titans. That's how important Blizzard feels it is to fight the flabby over-complication that inevitably begins to weigh down a six-year-old game. "It felt like we were going to have to explain it a lot, players were going to be confused about how it worked, and it was going to have some unintended effects," explains Street. To fill its character-cusomtisation boots, Lich King's Glyph system will be expanded and made more manageable, and tweaked tooffer more choice.
Paths of the Titans had been going to tie into the new secondary profession of Archaeology, but Blizzard doesn't seem worried that this has now been cut almost completely free of relevance to the economy, raiding and character development. Even more so than cooking and fishing, it's now a pure downtime diversion that now almost has more in common with WOW's achievements list than any other part of the game.
WOW's landscape is studded with ruins, and you'll be able to search these for artefacts - narrowing down your search within marked regions, rather than using nodes like mining. You'll uncover fragments which can be assembled into artefacts for the pure pleasure of collection and completion, as well as - for lore-junkies - filling in gaps in Azeorth's history. You'll get some loot too (blue items, novelty toys, even assembling a skeletal raptor mount) and the ability to grant raid buffs by reading runes. But the main point is to add texture to the world and a new avenue for box-ticking comfort gaming - as well as, quite appropriately, to document the past of a virtual world that has begun to change before our eyes.
Finally, we get to the business end of the changes in Cataclysm, the shifts in philosophy and stabs at social engineering by which Blizzard is trying to steer its unwieldy community closer towards the MMO ideal. These apply in guilds, raiding, and player-verus-player.
We already know about the rated Battlegrounds that will attempt to reclaim WOW's larger scenarios as a venue for cutting-edge PVP. All Battlegrounds will now be match-made across an entire region rather than just a Battlegroup of servers. We're shown two new ones: Twin Peaks (yes, it is called that) is a small capture-the-flag map very similar to Warsong Gulch, with the notable twist of centrally-located graveyards. The Battle for Gilneas is a standard domination map enlivened by a novel urban setting for PVP - foggy, Victorian Gothic city streets.
Rated Battlegrounds will share Conquest points and rewards with the current Arena deathmatches. You'll need to enter the queue as a full group to qualify - thus ensuring some kind of responsible chain of command - but teams don't need to be set as they do in Arenas. There'll be a cap to the number of Conquest points you can earn in a week (it goes up with your rating), so there's no pressure to do both Battlegrounds and Arenas to maximise your income - as Street says, it should be a genuine choice of preferred playstyle.
There's a correlation there with the changes to raiding, where Blizzard wants to encourage - or rather, force - players to choose between 10 and 25-player raids rather than wear themselves out trying to do both. Shared lockouts and item rewards at the same level across both should take care of that, although some raid fanatics are sure to wince at these new rules. However, there's more flexibility to balance them: a 25-player raid in progress can be broken down into up to three 10-player raids, should attendance cause problems, while players can actually move between different raids on the same lockout, as long as they're not joining a raid where they've killed bosses the rest of the group hasn't.
It sounds a bit of a tangle on paper, but the aim is to make raiding a friendlier and less demanding experience overall, and easier to do in less organised pick-up groups. "We want a raid to be a raid," Afrasiabi says simply. "We don't want you to feel obligated." We certainly won't feel obligated to check out Skywall, a drop-dead gorgeous raid and dungeon zone sitting on soft clouds in the Elemental Plane of Air, where you'll need to use your own flying mount to skip between floating chunks of architecture. Its pastel, painterly backdrop must be the most beautiful skybox ever.
Last, but most definitely not least, is Cataclysm's new guild levelling. Again, this has been pared down slightly from the BlizzCon vision, but only very slightly, with the idea of guild talent trees - which would really only have been fun for the leader - replaced with a linear trail of convenience Perks that unlock every guild level. They might be experience or mount speed boosts, reduced repair costs, or mass resurrection or raid teleport skills, and everyone in the guild can use them.
That makes being in a guild sound attractive, but the really important part of the equation is to tie the player to the guild, to mitigate against fickleness or even the sale of advanced guild profiles. This is achieved by every player having a reputation level, just like faction rep, with their own guild, which is advanced by killing bosses, earning guild achievements, winning in PVP with guildmates by your side, or questing. Advancing in reputation unlocks special guild rewards from a vendor (bank slots, flying mounts, standards with a guild emblem). All this is supported by a quasi-Facebook guild pane complete with news feed and browsable roster with links to guildmates' profession panels.
Can you really turn gameplay systems into social glue? Blizzard hopes so, for the simple and inarguable reason that WOW is more fun in a guild, and guilds are more fun if they stick together. People who already enjoy guild play certainly won't complain either way about such a transparently well-thought-out way to level together rather than alone.
Taking a guild to the level cap is yet another journey in Cataclysm - alongside the new races' sparkling introductions, the epic level 80 to 85 zones and of course the new road through old lands that is the route to 60. Unlike the others, though, it's one you have to do with friends, and that might make it the most important of them all.