World of Warcraft: Cataclysm

More is less is more.

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.

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Thousand Needles: flooded.

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.

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Stormwind's park district has been obliterated by Deathwing. It's just a smouldering black scar.

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.

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