World of Warcraft: Cataclysm review
July. It's July and I've only just finished this review. It's not because I haven't been given a review copy - I've had it since release. Why am I mentioning this you ask? You know it's late, and yet I seem to be making a big deal of it. The reason will become clear in this review, but I'll give you a hint now - my motivation for this game is rock bottom.
I'm a big MMO fan - if it's a big MMO title, I've played it. World Of Warcraft (WoW) was my third MMO - behind Star Wars Galaxies (may it Rest In Peace) and EVE Online. When it was released it was a little buggy, it had server crashes and it wasn't breathtaking like some MMOs are at the start; there was nothing new (not in my eyes anyway). I didn't revisit WoW until just before the Burning Crusade expansion came out, and by this time Blizzard had fixed the main bugs and the game had a great deal of polish. Blizzard had a winning formula too, they managed to get a great balance of playtime-to-reward; levelling characters or skills made players feel good about their gaming as they were constantly getting better, be it with crafting, gathering, weapon or character attack skills. The game was addictive, and I was an addict. I played the game solidly until four months after Wrath of the Lich King was released, at which point I quit because there wasn't much I enjoyed doing, and because of the massive elitism in raids; if I didn't have a character with the exact cookie cutter spec then they wouldn't want me to play. I couldn't play how I wanted, so there was little point in playing at all. I could have re-rolled another character and solo'd my way to level 80, but the low levels before hitting level 60 where you'd hit content introduced in the Burning Crusade was dire and I'd rather bang my head against a wall. The problem was it hadn't got worse, it just hadn't gotten any better and my tolerance for mindless grinds was lower thanks to some high quality RPGs that had introduced me to the marvels of storytelling.
From the first announcements on what Cataclysm was going to bring I knew that Blizzard were doing something unexpected. The new expansion was going to completely change the game forever; we were going to see the oldest content designed for levels 1-60 completely re-done to remove a lot of the mindless grinding. You were to be able to level up just doing quests, and although these aren't the storyline masterpieces I'd grown to love in single player RPGs, they were much better than standing in a field killing everything that spawned for two hours straight. This was also introducing drastic change as the whole world was being re-designed in the aftermath of a cataclysmic event (pun very much intended). Areas which I had grown accustomed to while leveling my first character were going to be changed forever - villages wiped out, characters I did quests for killed. This was great news, not only does it make the game more fun for beginners, but it gives me an incentive to level an alternative character (or 'alt'), as the game is different enough for me to play it as a new MMO with content I hadn't done before.
Of course, the lower levels aren't the only places where changes were made. Blizzard introduced a new area to play in, new underwater mounts, two new playable races and raised the level cap by 5. This did disappoint me a little, only 5 more levels to play through for people who didn't want to start another alt. It is understandable, though, as previous expansions have only introduced 10 levels of new content (maybe 20 if you include starting areas for blood elves and Draeni); this expansion re-did the first 60 levels plus the final 5 in the 80-85 region. Whether this brings comfort to players who don't want alts who may be aggrieved by paying ~£4 per level I don't know, it depends on how much you enjoy levelling characters in WoW.
So that's what the new expansion is bringing, basically a new, better version of the original WoW, plus five end game levels and two new races. Before we look at the new content I should go over what else has changed in the game.
Yes, that is a seahorse.
Although the new graphics aren't tied specifically to the expansion - you can get the improvements without the expansion pack - I will cover them as their release was tied to Cataclysm's release schedule.
Some people would say that the graphics for WoW are dated and haven't changed since release. These people are falling into the fatal trap of thinking graphics and art style are the same thing. WoW has a very chunky feel to it; everything is exaggerated and a little "cartoony" in the texture department. This is the art style Blizzard have chosen for the game, and it will not change. What has changed, however, is the way in which the art style is seen on screen.
Blizzard have been constantly updating the graphics side of the game engine since release, adding subtle features and changes which aren't drastically obvious, but do make the game look better as a whole. The big thing introduced with Cataclysm was a DirectX 11 render path. That sounds very technical and you'll be asking me "Tom, DirectX 11 sounds great and all, but what does it actually do for me?" The answer is lots of things. Performance should go up for people with multicore CPUs and newer graphics cards (of the DirectX 10 or 11 variety). Things like shadows look a little better; it isn't going to make your head explode with how awesome they look, but they will look better. The biggest visual change will be the water which looks a lot better than before and since a lot of content is based in and around the water you will be getting a good look at these new effects.
That's it for changes in this area, though; the game still has the same art style, it still fundamentally looks the same and at a glance you wouldn't spot the difference. But it does look better, and it will run faster for some people, so all in all it is a nice improvement.
Beware the whirlwind
The first thing I did when I logged in was start a new character. I wanted to play as a Worgen (an alliance werewolf) because it seemed interesting to me, so I picked my class and got going. Again I was hooked; Blizzard had removed conscious grinding (the kind where there is no quest involved) and made sure there were enough quests to keep me focused on my next objective; kill 15 pirates, collect that map, blow up those barrels. It was fun, and I was levelling at a good pace and I didn't realise how fast it was going. I played through many areas which had been re-designed and it felt like new, with a little nostalgia and familiarity thrown in. So far I was very impressed. Some familiar types of quests such as the ones where you need to kill creatures to collect items that didn't always drop had been made much better. Instead of telling me to collect 5 samples of crab meat which needed me to commit crab genocide, I only needed to kill 7 or 8 crabs, which removed a lot of frustration and meant I didn't notice I was grinding as much. The new storylines did interest me more than the old ones, but I still didn't get drawn into them; I merely knew why I needed to go wipe out 10 panthers in the forest, but I still didn't care.
After a while I decided that I had seen enough of the low levels. I was pleasantly surprised and was really enjoying myself in the fresh, new content. So I decided to go play on my main character.
Back in my familiar class, with my faithful demons at my side, I ventured forth into the new level 80+ content. Almost immediately I was introduced to the new underwater areas of the game. There have always been underwater levels, but before they were the occasional side quest, and I had to worry about running out of breath. This is different, this is a whole underwater zone, with underwater mounts for everyone and the same quest-based levelling I had grown accustomed to in the expansion packs and new level 0-60 content Cataclysm had introduced. I continued levelling my main character until I came upon a realisation, and this is where the problem starts for me with WoW.
Some interesting characters we have here
Post level 85
Yes, the problem was what should I do when I hit level 85? I could PvP (player-versus-player matches), but I've always been bored of WoW's PvP as it always felt more about gear and who had more numbers than individual skill. I could do raids, but they were worse than the PvP - elitism and people telling others how to play their character. They must have this skill. They must be this kind of player. It was all still there; no expansion pack could remove that unless they made a lot more specs viable for each class in raids. Suddenly I realised I was going to hit this problem soon with my character - there would be nothing to do. I could do daily quests to save tokens to get new gear - but for what? I do like grouping up and questing but I am the kind of MMO player who also likes his alone time in the game - solo play is how I enjoy the MMOs I stick with for most of the time as I like the cinematic experience and not having to wait five minutes for the tank to go to the loo, or wait for the healer who's Internet connection keeps dropping. I can go grab a snack, watch some TV while playing and not be pressured into someone else's schedule. WoW doesn't provide that for me in the end-game - I can solo my way to level 85 but once there it's group content or nothing.
At this point I stopped levelling my main character. I was unhappy with the fact that I was bored of the options I would have in a few levels, and so lost my motivation to level up. Why do I need to level up my character if he'd just get to a point where I wouldn't want to play him again?
I went back to my new character but knew that I would hit the same problem if I levelled them to 85. I thought of creating a new character to level a different kind of class than my existing ones; after all, the content is all new isn't it? Well no. I'd played the majority of the new 0-60 levels for alliance and 0-30 for hoard. As before I didn't want to make a new character to do quests I'd done before. I just can't do it.
This is where I stopped playing again. I cancelled my subscription and moved onto other games, ones with better storylines, MMOs with more varied end-game content that I wanted to play. That is why this review is so late. I'd told myself not to write it until I'd at least hit 85, but when I got close I saw it was the same as before, and there was a reason I'd quit which wasn't going to go away.
So I've touched on the fact I dislike PvP in WoW already. It seems to be a very polar subject - people either love it or hate it. Some people may say "I don't love or hate it, it is what it is" and the answer to those people is they simply haven't played enough of it yet. Eventually they will love it or hate it. Victory in PvP is tied to which class you are, how good your gear is and how many friends you bring with you. You'll notice I missed out a key element there - you. As long as you're not a complete idiot behind the keyboard then player skill has no impact on PvP; the winners are the ones with the biggest numbers, or the biggest number of classes who are currently more powerful than they should be. Now I'm not saying that I want twitch-based PvP in an MMO, á la FPS games, but I have played MMOs where a small number of good players have been able to defeat a larger force of overpowered players who weren't quite as good, and that is the kind of PvP I enjoy. I like to have my own destiny in my hands (as long as the numbers aren't too imbalanced with say 6 to 1), I do not like having little to no control on whether my team can win a fight. I am not there fighting for my team to win, I am there fighting, and my team will win if we have better numbers. If we lack superior numbers, or have too few overpowered classes with us, we will lose or end up with an unsatisfying draw. Some would say that is the sign of good balance - where everyone is equal (they aren't, there are always some classes much more powerful than others), but I say that it is the sign of poor design where what a player does makes no difference to how a battle ends. Anyone could replace that one player with a character of equal level and class and the outcome would be the same.
Classy werewolf is classy
In conclusion, I was really excited about what Blizzard were doing with WoW; they were bringing the level of gameplay to be good through levels 0-85. No more mindless grinds, no more being able to easily spot if a quest was an original quest or one introduced in an expansion pack based on how fun it was. The other common requisites for an expansion pack where there as well - new character races, a higher level cap, new super hard to attain gear. The problem is that even though the old content was bad, and did need replacing, it did not address the problems I had with the game which made me leave before; the lack of things for me to do once I hit level 85. Grinding more alts meant playing the same content over and over again. The new 0-60 content is only new once. Elitism in players is still there, that will never go away. When I quit WoW after Wrath of the Lich King I kept wanting to play it for a while. I didn't because I'd remind myself that if I did go back I'd be bored fast, and so I managed to stay away. This time when I stopped I had no desire to go back; there was a lot of new content but nothing had changed, and for me that makes this expansion a dud.
So now you'll be thinking that either I'm a mad man and don't know what I'm talking about. Or maybe I'm some sort of anti-WoW fanboy and my words cannot be believed. Maybe you'll be thinking that you would do well to avoid WoW; after all, I got bored and there's nothing worse than spending months levelling a character to prepare them for end game content that is, well, boring. It's like saving money in the bank only to give it all away after a few years. All that work and nothing at the end as a reward. I do recommend this game to people, which is why I have the following two summaries.
Who would enjoy this expansion?
So, first, who out there would enjoy playing WoW and getting this expansion? Anyone who hasn't tried an MMO and would like one to try. WoW is very polished, and everything other than the end-game content is done very well. You may like the PvP as there's little pressure to do well, you may like raiding or amassing a fortune of in-game money by crafting, trading and playing the merchant.
Also, anyone who has tried WoW before and quit because they didn't like the grinding pre-level 60. Anyone who is really into the storyline behind WoW will also find a lot to enjoy here as they storyline for the whole game has moved on. As a returning player I enjoyed seeing how the world had changed, flying in the 0-60 areas was fun, although since they've been blown to bits they looked different anyway.
If you're one of these people then I'd say the game will be an 8/10 (or maybe even 9/10) for you. World of Warcraft is great, but the end game is not guaranteed to be enjoyable for you.
Who would not enjoy this expansion?
Anyone who quit WoW because of the end-game or the community. Anyone who didn't like WoW PvP before - nothing has changed, so don't waste your time. If you weren't happy with the content for the end game before, you won't be happy with it now. Blizzard didn't set-out to change it in this expansion, only the characters and locations has changed and the gameplay is essentially the same.
If you fall into this camp then I'd say the game will be a 6/10 for you; there is good content here, and just levelling from 80-85 takes longer than the single player campaign in a modern FPS. In terms of value for money you get a lot of hours of playtime for your cash, but then again the quality of the playtime isn't great if you have the same issues with the game as me.
This has brought me right back around to the start of the article - why was it so late? The answer is simple; this expansion wasn't aimed at me. It didn't fix the things that made me leave in the first place, and so it was very difficult to sum up my thoughts on the game. It seems that Blizzard are concerned about this too; since Catacylsm was released they have made the game free to play until level 20. These levels are good fun and go very quickly, so it is a good business decision. However, I can't help but feel that World of Warcraft is starting to shrink in subscriber numbers. Nothing drastic - the game won't run out of players for a long while - but with veteran players finishing the end game content in Cataclysm in a couple of months, they will be looking elsewhere for their fix sooner than with the previous expansions. Who knows? Maybe the next expansion will address the end game properly and give us more varied things to do.