Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Cataclysm

  I know I sort of mentioned it in my introductory column... but it bears repetition. So here goes, confession time: "I am a World of Warcraft player." Go ahead, get it out of your system: call me names, point and laugh, giggle like a schoolgirl, pull my proverbial underwear, etc. The matter of fact is... I was a huge RPG player back in my console days (fighting games too) and I remember dreaming of an RPG that would never end and could play with my friends. RPGs back in their heyday were solo affairs and I hated that my friends had to sit and watch me for hours and take turns instead of being my party members. So while I missed the boat on Everquest (and I'm glad I did) and Ultima Online (DAMMIT!) I joined the MMORPG bandwagon with Final Fantasy XI Online sometime in 2003. After MANY many party grinding sessions I found that MMOs maybe weren't for me... since I wanted to be able to play by myself and then, when my friends were online, get together and slay some dragons and what not. Enter December 2004...

Say goodbye to your life.

  It started innocently enough: "Oh cool a 10 day trial for a Warcraft MMO? Sweet, I love their RTS games."  I installed it and proceeded to chose my faction and being 22 at the time, and a fan of Lord of the Rings and the Legend of Zelda, I figured I'd choose to play for the Alliance (the good guys) as a night elf warrior... (whom is no longer close to being my main character, nor is he a night elf anymore); more on that later. So why exactly has this behemoth of a game that currently has (I kid you not) 13 million subscribers can possibly hold the attention of so many gamers and still remains relevant for almost a decade? Well, for starters... they patch in a lot of content (making that 14 bucks a month actually worth it) AND then there's the expansions, the glorious expansions; which usually change the dynamics of the game and you as a player in it.

  Since 2004 the world of Azeroth (Middle Earth Lite) has been as is. Two continents (with a second one and a second "realm" added via the The Burning Crusade and The Wrath of the Lich King expansions), 9 classes (and the Death Knight class added in Wrath of the Lich King) and 8 races (4 per faction, with 4 new races added ever since), and all was well. But one day Blizzard decided that the World (of Warcraft) had been stagnant. You see, since it started we, as players, had done so much in the World; yet it never changed. Armies of Undead had been vanquished, Burning Legions had been exorcised, Kings had returned (yes... as in a King was missing for like 4 years IN REAL TIME and suddenly came back and took the Throne, which actually affected players of that faction) and died --again, affecting another faction-- but the World itself remained relatively unchanged. Enter the Sundering.

  So you're probably wondering... "cool video bro." Now imagine that all of what happened in that video (the destruction, the world getting owned by a dragon,etc) happened overnight during a maintenance day where you couldn't play for 12 or so hours. Then you log back in and see the world... shattered. The reason for this is Blizzard's latest and most ambitious expansion to date; this is World of Warcraft: Cataclysm.

Right when you thought it was safe to get back to your life too...

  So imagine playing your Legend of Zelda game (pick one) or Grand Theft Auto (you'll understand in a second) and then you play the next day and the world you grew accustomed to for 6 years just suddenly wasn't the same: deserts flooded, cities razed to the ground, highways constructed and places you used to avoid were now filled with new quests and events. This is essentially what Cataclysm did, reboot the long running MMO so to speak. But why fix it if it ain't "really" broken? Well, as it turns out it was somewhat broken and boy am I glad they fixed it. You see, MMOs have an usual cycle of gameplay: you make a character, build him up to the max level (85 as of Cataclysm) and then either participate in Person Versus Player endgame (think Capture the Flag,Resource Camping, Wargames, Skirmishes,etc) or Person Versus Environment endgame (5 person dungeons or 10/25 man raids which are essentially BIGGER and HARDER dungeons) or straight up Role Playing -which is a bit shunned upon on regular servers- but Blizzard DOES have RP servers for those who enjoy that sort of thing.

  Should you decide to max a character out and not partake in ANY of these activities that leaves you one option... to level a new character. And let me tell you from experience, the old level 1-60 grind was NOT fun. They band-aid fixed it with the introduction of the Looking For Group interface --which allotted people and teleported them to dungeons for quick kills and thrills-- but the actual questing experience was still 2004 World of Warcraft; which was made more evident when you would cross the portal to Outland for levels 60-70 (The Burning Crusade 2007 expansion) and then shipped to Northrend for the level 70-80 experience (the third continent and main area for the Wrath of the Lich King 2008 expansion). But after the Shattering event --which was patched and is playable by ANYONE with a regular World of Warcraft account-- it changed the ENTIRE level 1-60 experience. 

Thousand Needles Circa 2004 (ignore Bloo)

Thousand Needles... Cataclysm'd.

  I'm sure I don't need to link you more before and after pictures... as the last two speak volumes. That is literally the best example as to how a place has changed. There's more of course but that would distract me from actually reviewing this piece of digital crack. So let's get on to the nitty gritty; what DOES Cataclysm bring that's new to the table and it's not just a World of Change?

There is no caption witty enough to distract the awesomeness of this picture.

A Tale of Two Races

  The first thing that automatically catches the eye when playing a new expansion is the new races. The last time a new race was added to both the Alliance (who got the alien Draenei) and the Horde (who gained the Blood Elves) was in 2007 via the Burning Crusade. After 3 years Blizzard has decided to give the Alliance a race that gives them a savage edge -- since Gnomes,Dwarves, Night Elves, Humans and the extremely holy Draenei don't exactly instill fear in the hearts of the Horde-- via the Worgen of Gilneas (werewolves). By contrast the Horde has finally gained a race that is the equivalent to the Alliance's tiny and ingenious gnomes, the Goblins of Kezan. To say that both starting zones should be played by EVERY single player (I don't care how many level 85s you got on launch date... you NEED to play the Goblin and Worgen starting zones) is an understatement. Both zones easily showcase Blizzards quest design/art style/humor/cinematography best in a starter area.

  The Goblin starter area is a bit of Grand Theft Auto and a bit Guilliver's Travels: a tale of confusion, despair and acceptance and yet humorous all throughout. The Isle of Kezan evokes Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, with it's dubious characters, bright lights and outlandish driving sections. It all calms down once you settle in Echo Isles and their starter experience begins resembling an episode of Lost. By contrast the Gilneas starter area is a tale of a nation swallowed by its prideful leader, and their slow humbling by the curse that has changed them. A lot of Victorian influence can be seen in the Worgen starter area (you start as the WoW equivalent of an Englishman or woman and throughout the course of the first 10 levels you begin your descent into a more feral creature). What both experiences do share in common is a HIGH level of polish in the questing structure that flows more naturally, and it tells an actual story that you get involved in, and change the world around you with your actions. A far cry from the 2004 starter quests where you had to bring ten wolf pelts to a Druid master (can't he just... Moonfire them to oblivion?) for no real reason... and the world certainly didn't miss those ten wolves you slayed. If I had to pick a favorite starter experience I'd say the Worgen one hands down... and I'm a Horde player, so that's saying QUITE a bit.


  Climbing the Mountain

  As fun as the starter zones may be, they cannot hold a candle to some of the new areas that you will explore as a level 80 character. With the level cap being raised to 85 (instead of the usual 10 level cap, Blizz decided to spare us and only make the grind half as forgiving), there's plenty of content to keep you busy until you see that final glow --and accompanying achievement--  that marks the end of the leveling climb. As you return from your Northrend campaign to your faction's capital city ("New" Orgrimmar for the Horde and Stormwind for the Alliance), which NPCs actually commend you for... making the storyline actually flow with your questing, you are given a pop-up quest automatically (via the new and thankfully improved questing log) to head to the dock of your capital and investigate the new area of Vash'ir. OR you could go to the new King's (Warchief) Board and pick up the Call of Arms to head over to Mount Hyjal (a zone that had been in the game since before 2004 but had been inaccessible until now) and deal with the returning threat of Ragnaros the Firelord  (via Deathwing...the dragon from that "When Dragon's get Pissed Off" video from earlier) and his desire to burn the World Tree.

As with the starter zones... questing in Cataclysm have a more linear feel, but at the same time they seem to affect the world around you. Your actions are heroic and indeed feel so since the stakes are incredibly high. Once again... a far cry from killing Demon Lords in the scorching lands of Outlands, only to see them come back and raise more hell. This is all thanks to Blizzard's polished phasing system, which permits player A to have his own version of the world happening while player B is doing the same heroic things but unbeknowst to the first player. While this DOES create some problems with grouping while leveling, it's not game breaking or anything -since most quests are easily soloable and usually just require one or two more people to kill bigger baddies- but it's enough to create bugs here and there (of which I still have in one of my characters...).


   Other leveling areas include the literal pillar of the world, Deepholm, which has layers and LAYERS of land and questing along with some impressive particle effects. Uldum, which is essentially the Egypt of WoW -complete with an Indiana Jones-esque character that has you help him uncover ruins and what not- and the Twilight Highlands: a setting for more Alliance/Horde warfare that quickly becomes Us Vs Them, "them" being the "Twilight Hammer" a cult that worships the "Old Gods" (think of Chtulhu and you got the right idea) and their current representative, Deathwing.

Amazing how one race (this used to be an elf) can make an entire faction feel badass...

By the time you're done with each zone (since they all have their respective storylines to wrap up) you should also have tamed the dungeons for each zone (more on those later) and have reached that fabled level cap of 85. The question then becomes "What now?" Well, my young Straw Hat Grasshopper, that's where Endgame comes in.

The End is Near 

  So you've hit 85, now comes the choice that most people have made the second they create a character (or maybe you like to try things as they come...which is fine too): do I get involved in PvE or PvP? Well, let's look at what Cataclysm brings for both those activities and let's make the choice, shall we? On one side we have Dungeons (which have gear that allow you to walk into a raid and not get stomped on).Think of it in old RPG terms... you couldn't just walk to Sephiroth at the end of Final Fantasy 7 and expect victory if you didn't have some really awesome weapons and maybe a Limit or Summon or two; same applies here. While questing provides some impressive gear, dungeons provide THE best gear anyone can own. And having better gear...produces even better gear as a result. Cataclysm dungeons and Heroic dungeons -which are tailored for level 85 players- are a step up in difficulty from all the dungeons in the game's storied 6 year+ run. While Vanilla WoW had somewhat challenging dungeons, it wasn't until the Burning Crusade that WoW players really felt a sting when doing heroics. Multiple groups that required strategic precision and timing to vanquish became sort of the norm then. That all changed when Wrath of the Lich King came out, you see the playerbase had become entirely too strong and was ripping through heroics as if they were nothing. Gear became farmable entirely too quickly and the challenge of said heroics kind of dwindled down.

Deck the Halls.

  With Cataclysm Blizzard has reverted to the TBC dungeon model, every player in a 5 man group is important: mages turn monsters into sheep, warlocks banish elementals, priests mind control soldiers; etc. The tank (person who defends the group and takes ALL the damage in theory) and the healer now have harder jobs due to this. Healing had become a "who can spam a heal the fastest" and tanking had become a "roll your face on the keyboard for success;" fortunately it requires more finesse now, the difficulty raised by the changes in mechanics might be a bit harder to grasp for old players who refuse to re-learn their roles but for new players it's actually easy thanks to Blizzards new Talent Trees system. The old trees were vague and not newbie friendly, the new trees actually explain the role you will take and makes each point in that talent tree twice as valuable than before. Which creates more confident players IN their role, no matter how long you've played. Honorable mentions to Vortex Pinnacle and Halls of Origination as most breathtaking and fun instances in the expansion so far.

I bet you Heaven won't look this awesome...

  Raids, on the other hand, have similar mechanics to their past brethren, the difficulty only as hard as you make it to be. Learn the mechanics, practice, win.

Oh Magmaw... how do I hate Thee~

Then there's PvP...

Player Vs. Player; How does it work?

  In the heyday of World of Warcraft, most skirmishes between the Horde and the Alliance were player directed. One faction would try to invade a city or town and get as many kills as possible with no real rhyme or reason. The game was called World of WARcraft after all. All of that changed with the introduction of Battleground: controlled environments with clear goals; and the Honor System. The latter rewards player with a separate currency (besides gold along with Justice and Valor points; which net you gear of the highest quality) "Honor", which allows you to but PvP gear in order to make you that much stronger against your player controlled foes. There IS something scary about seeing a Tauren(Minotaur) --or Worgen for that matter-- Death Knight decked in what can only be described as Berserk gear charging towards you with a sword that is twice the size as you.

I'm going to change my pants now...
Cataclysm brings two new Battlegrounds into the mix: the Battle for Gilneas (a resource battle) and Twin Peaks (a "capture the flag" skirmish in the Twilight Highlands). Both of which are exciting, provided you have a solid team on your side. The reason for this is due to a new type of mechanic: the Rated Battlegrounds. Introduced as an alternative to Arena PvP (think Gladiator/Deathmatch type combat of 2v2 3v3 and 5v5 teams), the reason for the addition of a new type of endgame for PvP due to the difficulty of balancing teams in Arena without breaking them... and as someone who got curb stomped against Death Knight/Paladin teams, let me tell you: "Thank You Blizzard!" Rated BGs work exactly as normal ones would except pre formed teams are going to be more prominent. The rewards for participating in said Rated BGs is the highest PvP gear which again... makes you a monster against your allies and just makes the game more fun (for you at least).

  Along with Rated BGs where also another source of PvP at level 85, namely the Island/Prison of Tol Barad:

There's something unsettling about a fox that size...

  Essentially a questing hub for brand new 85s, Tol Barad is divided into two sections: the Peninsula and the Island proper. The peninsula provides quests that rise your standing with your Respective Faction in the area with in turn nets gold and rewards (some very interesting pets and mounts included). The Island proper is where every two hours the Horde and Alliance of your server get to duke it out for control of the magical prison of Tol Barad.
"Why would you want to control a prison SHR?"

  Glad you asked, you see, whoever controls the prison has access to extra quests for two hours (more reputation gains and gold) and the chance to go inside and fight Algaloth the Pit Lord. The pit lord drops the highest quality loot for both PvP AND PvE. So there's a lot of incentive there for your faction to get involved in the skirmishes. However, as of this writing, Tol Barad is incredibly unbalanced so I personally don't care much to get involved in the skirmishes. But sometimes a healer is needed and I'm too nice I guess...

No Time for Love Dr. Jones

  Along with the plethora of changes to game mechanics/endgame/world there is one last bit of fun left. I say fun... but some of my peers bemoan this addition. A secondary profession named Archeology made it's way to WoW with the Cataclysm. Essentially you go and have your own Indiana Jones adventure as you search for fragments to complete relics of the different cultures in WoW. The problem is that the path to being Indiana Jones is incredibly slow and grindy. But the results are either interesting (items with flavor text about the many tribes/races and factions) or straight amazing -a skeletal raptor mount and an ancient scarab mount- among a diverse array of Bind on Account gear that you can give to your other characters. The system essentially marks your map to your newest dig-site, you go there and start surveying the land until you get closer to your fragments (by use of the Hot and Cold mechanics). The result is random, which is the reason most people don't care for it... but I like a game of chance. Keep in mind this activity is ENTIRELY optional and has no real effect on the overall game.

  Another thing that deserves praise is the soundtrack to this expansion. Blizzard actually went back and redid ALL the music from the Old World and added a few new tracks for the newer areas and what not. I know plenty of people who play PC games with their own Trance/Disco/Metal soundtrack, but let me tell you guys something: "You're missing out something fierce!" The track remixes for Orgrimmar and Stormwind alone are worth the price of admission. Whoever is in charge of the Music at Blizzard needs a raise like... yesterday.

  With all said and done, and as a WoW player since it's early days: Cataclysm gives a breath of new life to an otherwise old game. The game's engine is showing its age, but Blizzard's design and art team has upped their game to produce the best expansion I've ever played in any MMO. Their designer's attention to the community in the past years and their willingness to start with a clean slate with a new world is a refreshing idea in the realm of stagnant MMOs that refuse to change their world... no matter how hard we try to break it. Here's to another six years Blizzard. You've earned it.

      Graphics                                                                                                                        Sound  

     Gameplay                                                                                                              Lasting Appeal      

1 comment:

  1. Well, my young Straw Hat Grasshopper, that's where Endgame comes in. The End is Near. So you've hit 85, now comes the choice that most ... abeachhat.blogspot.com