Azeroth Is Burning

Quintin Smith | 17 Aug 2010 13:11
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In Cataclysm, the canyons of Thunder Ridge are flooded. I returned with a quest to swim down and attach ropes to the waterlogged corpses of the once-majestic thunder lizards, timing my dives with the pulsing of their still-electrified bodies. It was bizarre. Swimming through these canyons which had once been an imposing maze was odd enough, and then this was mixed with the sadness and humor of having this once-worthy adversary floating belly-up on such a large scale.


Cataclysm doesn't simply create an emotional impact by altering familiar areas. There's some of that, but it manages to be so much more. With total control over this simulated world, the designers have changed some areas in ways so absurd or inventive that you have to explore them all over again, with the added fun of having history there.

Finally, down there with the ropes and the thunder lizards, I began to understand. Cataclysm is as much about bringing old areas in line with new areas as it is about rewarding old players. The more time you've spent in this world, the more of a kick you'll get out of seeing it changed.

After Thunder Ridge, I became addicted. I wanted to see my old haunts through this murky lens of nostalgia and disaster. I'd heard that The Barrens had been split in two and was desperate to see it, so I steered Jilan onto a road and hit the autorun key, sending her hurtling on her way. I smiled at the old zhevras and plainstriders, familiar yet misplaced in this new, more curvaceous savannah. Similarly, I was starting to fall for Jilan and her low centre of gravity. With her totems and protective spells, she felt like she had power. Who needs elegance?

I brought up my map to check my location. Yeah, I should be almost there. I closed the map and let out a terrified, animal yelp, and stopped Jilan two feet before she went jogging off the lip of the biggest chasm I can remember seeing in a game.

The ground was torn open like a piece of fruit. Down a sheer drop of jagged rock, a broad river of lava flowed slowly. It ran all the way to the edge of the graphics engine's draw distance in either direction, where it faded. There was no way to cross it. The South of the Barrens would have to wait.

Standing on the edge of that awe-inspiring gorge, I found myself thinking about Catalysm from Blizzard's perspective for the first time. The truth is, they're making the bigger sacrifice here.

When Cataclysm is released, whole chunks of Azeroth will be destroyed, forever - the Shimmering Flats and its mad racetrack will be lost below a hundred meters of water, and the foundering city of Auberdine will finally undergo total destruction. What does that mean to the individual player? It's nothing more than a blow to your nostalgia. But what does it mean for Blizzard? They're putting their own work to the torch. They were the architects of World of Warcraft's original Azeroth, and soon nobody will ever be able to see their creation as it once was. That is huge.

It's true that you can never go home again. But then, who says the world in your head was going to match up with what you found when you returned? Time isn't kind to games, after all. Maybe in doing this Blizzard is not destroying, but actually preserving the memories we have of their world. They are removing the option for us to return and discover that the places we remembered are disappointing; that they've lost their magic.

The happy memories that I have of Durotar and the Barrens are, with Cataclysm, set in stone. That is beautiful. For all the lava and drama that Cataclysm brings, I'm not sure there's any catastrophe here at all.

After debilitating stints as a shoe salesman, builder and chef's assistant, Quintin Smith is now a proud and nervous editor of He lives in mortal fear that one day actual work will find him again.

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