I was excited when I got a key to beta test Cataclysm, the third and most recent expansion to World of Warcraft. It was my opportunity for a sneak peak at the game. More importantly, it was a chance to give my input and make the game better. Unfortunately, it also meant my disappointment would come earlier as the game turned out a complete disaster.
The premise: Deathwing the Destroyer, leader of the Black Dragonflight, is on a rampage, hell-bent on destroying all of Azeroth except Northrend for some reason. Maybe he doesn’t like the cold. The guy is mostly absent from the game anyway, showing up only once as players get from level eighty to eighty-five. He’s supposed to appear in random zones and kill everyone, but you’ll likely never encounter him. To make matters worse, I’ve already killed Deathwing in Warcraft II. How am I supposed to feel threatened by a villain I already defeated using a handful of archers and paladins? The novels explain he was merely chased off. Whatever.
Regarding the lore, pop culture references have been present since the beginning of World of Warcraft, but I reached my saturation point in this expansion. Shark robots with the “freakin’ laser beams” from Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)? Really? A reference once in a while is funny. When everything is a reference, it loses its impact, and the feeling of being in a fantasy universe is lost. I’m playing World of Warcraft, not watching an episode of Family Guy.
Questing, one of the strengths of World of Warcraft, is completely overhauled or, as the game designers call it, streamlined. I call linear. A good MMORPG follows the sandbox model: get to a town, pick up bunch of quests, do the ones you want, cancel the ones you don’t, and move on. Cataclysm changes this. Now you get two or three quests at a time and must complete them all to acquire the next batch. Rinse and repeat until all the quests in the zone are done. Skip a single quest, and you can’t move on. The lack of freedom is infuriating.
The quests are also redundant. Vashj’ir is advertised as the first underwater zone in World of Warcraft. In it, every quest giver seems to have it in for the wildlife, wanting to either kill it because it’s dangerous or eat it because it’s tasty. Sometimes, they settle for body parts because there’s no general store underwater. By the ninth time I was asked to kill crabs, remoras, or eels, I actually screamed at my computer. Don’t want to do it? Then you can’t move on to the next quests.
The dungeons in Cataclysm are harder than in the previous expansion. The bosses can kill you in one shot you if you aren’t paying attention, which is a welcome improvement, as you need to actually think to succeed. Unfortunately, dungeon lengths have been inflated by adding an insane amount of trash mobs between each boss. Blizzard has also made the trash harder to kill to make it “interesting”, but players aren’t interested in trash. That’s why they call it trash.
The raids dungeons are average if a bit monotonous. You get no sense of progression as you venture deeper into them, and their lore leaves to be desired. None of the bosses available are properly developed: Cho’Gall was already killed in Warcraft II (I guess he got “chased off” too); Nefarian was decapitated and left to rot in the original World of Warcraft (he got better); and we’re told absolutely nothing about Al’Akir, whom we decide to kill for… Kicks?
Cataclysm also introduces archaeology, the most boring trade skill I have ever encountered in any MMO. The concept is simple: fly for two to ten minutes to get to a dig site; find fragments hidden in three spots; repeat until you have enough fragments to make an artefact, usually a piece of junk you can sell for a few pieces of gold. I guess I shouldn’t complain. According to Blizzard, “archaeology is not meant to be fun,” which, of course, makes it a great addition to any game.
On the subject of not having fun, the new world battleground Tol Barad is a complete disaster. The objective, depending on your team, is to invade or defend three small forts: Ironclad Garrison, Slagworks, and Warden’s Vigil. This leads to a continuous zerg (attack based on numbers, not strategy) as the invaders take Ironclad, then Slagworks, then Warden, then Ironclad again, then Slagworks, and so on because the defenders are racing through the same loop. This is even more boring than archaeology, though, this time, it wasn’t Blizzard’s intent.
I don’t think the developer intended for the community to become unrecognisable either. It really feels like you’re in there with a few friends and everyone else might as well be an AI character. The main reason for this is the dungeon finder, which matches you with people you’ll never see again. This gives players the anonymity and freedom to act like jerks. Add to this the fact that dungeons are harder, increasing the chance of failure, and you end up coming out of most dungeons feeling like everyone in the game is a complete ass.
Even when you meet people you like, they’re usually not on your server, so you’ll never get to play together again. In fairness, Cataclysm does give you the option to queue up with players from another server, but they can’t join your guild and become friends with your other acquaintances. Mark my words: the dungeon finder will be the death of World of Warcraft.
Raids were a great way of meeting new people in the previous expansion, Wrath of the Lich King. Gamers grouped with their friends to run the smaller ten-player raids and then joined other random gamers to run twenty-five-player raids. In Cataclysm, you can only run one type of raid: ten-player or twenty-five-player. Most run ten-player raids because they’re simpler to organise. As a result, they ignore the bigger raids that previously “forced” them to make new friends, thus building the community.
Many mistakes were made in the design of World of Warcraft: Cataclysm. Nothing is irreversible though, or, I should say, nothing would be irreversible if Blizzard hadn’t decided that the game is better than ever and that it’s the players who are wrong for not liking it. That attitude is probably the worst thing to come out of the expansion. With the release of free-to-play games like League of Legends and long awaited MMOs like Star Wars: The Old Republic, it’ll be interesting to see if Blizzard changes tact and lets the franchise recuperate from this Cataclysm.