Many blockbuster, high-budget games would like to be earthshattering. World of Warcraft: Cataclysm happens to take the phrase literally.

In case you’ve been in a coma: After spending a few games asleep within the earth, Big bad dragon Deathwing wakes up and disrupts the forces binding the earth together, breaking the world. It’s tricky reviewing a game like Cataclysm because it’s intended to be a different thing to many different audiences. If you’ve never played WoW before, if you used to play WoW but left the game years ago, or if you’re a current player you’ll likely feel very differently about the third expansion pack to Blizzard’s mega-MMO. So let’s start off with the commonality: Cataclysm tears apart ten years of WoW development and puts it back together better than it’s ever been.

The bulk of Cataclysm coverage has been (rightly) focused on what the WoW team has done to the old world of Azeroth. Recognizing that classic WoW‘s “go kill 10 kobolds, now go kill 10 more kobolds” quest content was actually pretty terrible, at least in comparison to the leveling content and quests introduced in Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King, Blizzard has taken a heavy hatchet to its previous work.

While some quests and storylines remain mostly unchanged, the majority of content is new and implemented with a graceful technique that simply wasn’t there when the game launched six years ago. What had been a simple fetch quest now involves the player watching an angry debate between three rival clans and the hunting down of a traitor within one of them. It’s much more engaging than old WoW had been, with a larger emphasis on progressing through a story instead of a static, unchanging world, and is a sorely needed change to painfully archaic content.

Less has been written about changes to the game’s systems, and with good reason; that discussion is one that matters most to current WoW players. If you’re the type of person who doesn’t know your hit from your crit, then the specifics don’t matter: What does matter is that Blizzard has taken a game wobbling under the weight of an ever-growing Gordian knot of stats, skills and class bonuses and cut that knot in two.

If you’re new to WoW or returning after a long absence, you’ll find the newbie experience significantly improved. Not only are the quests more engaging, but the mechanics and systems have been almost wholly reworked, and the game provides players with far more useful information than it ever did before. Every time you level up, the game informs you what new skills (if any) you have unlocked for training, and the tooltips explain how an ability is used instead of dispassionately informing a player of the exact numerical properties of the attack.

In old WoW, a player would hit level 10 and unlock their various talent trees that determined their character’s strengths. For someone new to the game, the only information they were given was what was listed on the tooltip, making it difficult to know good builds without outside aid. In Cataclysm, hitting level 10 still unlocks your talent trees, but the way in which it’s presented makes it much easier to understand. The strengths and weaknesses of each skill tree are laid out from the beginning, and choosing one will grant you a powerful and iconic special ability right away. It feels more like choosing a subclass in a game like KotOR than simply putting points into a tree.

This change in focus accompanies a clear attempt to make every class play in a more interesting and engaging fashion than “hit, wait for random-chance ability to activate” or “spam your damage spell over and over.” While the core combat is still very much WoW, there’s an increased focus on reactive abilities that feed off of one another, encouraging players to react and change things up instead of going through a standard by-the-numbers rotation.

Other than the general remaking of the world, it’s hard to quantify any single thing that makes for an improved questing experience whether you’re level 8 or level 80. Instead, it’s a bunch of little things that all add up. Quest hubs lead neatly to other quest hubs with breadcrumb trails, important NPCs are highlighted in a quest sidebar that tells you things you need to know (e.g., “this guy is on fire, drag him into water to weaken him”), and if you ever get lost, the hero’s message board in each major city will point you in the right direction.

In Cataclysm, Blizzard has liberally applied its phasing technology – changing the zone as player completes quest to reflect their deeds. It was introduced in Wrath and is used to great effect here, making for a much more significant feeling of progression and time than we’ve seen in an MMO yet. This improvement makes it more jarring when you encounter a hiccup in the system, like an unclear objective or a breadcrumb trail that abruptly ends. They feel far more flawed than they would have otherwise.

Even if the star of the show might be the destroyed old Azeroth, long-time and current WoW players will find the high-level content is just as engaging as the new low-level stuff, if not more so. From the Egyptian-themed Uldum and crystalline Deepholm to the underwater ruins of Vashj’ir and the lofty midair temple of Skywall, Blizzard has once again demonstrated why its art team is widely considered one of the best in the business. A game should not look so good on a decade-old engine.

Everything I’ve said about the strength of the low-level quests applies to the brand-new areas, and you can really tell that the developers had a lot of fun coming up with new scenarios and quests that aren’t just “kill this” or “bring me that.” You’ll still find quite a few of those – they really are the bread and butter filler of an MMO – but the increased emphasis on storyline and in-game cutscenes that change the world around you means it feels like progressing a tale rather than rote grinding. If gathering explosives means I’m rewarded with a cutscene where my handiwork dramatically explodes an enemy base leaving it in flames whenever I walk by, I’m okay with it.

Players who love grouping with others and running dungeons may initially find themselves out in the cold. You won’t be able to join a dungeon group until you’ve found the physical entrance to the zone out in the world, which feels a bit jarring after growing used to the convenience of the Dungeon Finder automatically slapping a party together. That said, it’s no different from how things were before the Dungeon Finder existed, but it does feel like a step backward for people who enjoy group play.

If you found Wrath‘s dungeon-running too easy, Cataclysm should hopefully offer more of a challenge, though Blizzard has been open that it would rather not return to the brutally difficult days of some of the Burning Crusade heroic-level dungeons. Early on, it looks as though it’s delivered on that promise, though the true test of an MMO comes with time.

There lies the true difficulty of reviewing an MMO: It’s impossible to know how it will age. You could never have predicted how Arena-focused Crusade would become just as you could never have guessed how easy Wrath would have ended up. All we can do is judge what is there in front of us, which is the best-designed content – rather, the best-designed version – that has ever existed in WoW. The rating you see below is a moment frozen in time as the game exists now, and there’s no question that it will evolve.

It’s certainly not perfect. Some players may be let down that all the new zones are in old-world Azeroth instead of a completely new area, and others may not appreciate some of the design decisions. Despite all the changes, the game remains World of Warcraft at its core for better and for worse. If you’ve been adamantly opposed to the game for six years, it won’t change your mind or win you over. If you’ve ever been on the fence, though, or if you once loved the game but left to move on, then it may be what you’re looking for. This is why this game has twelve million subscribers.

Bottom Line: Blizzard tears WoW to the ground and builds it up more skillfully than ever before. The new content is creative, has a tangible sense of story and progression that you wouldn’t expect from an MMO, and is implemented so skillfully and smoothly that the bumps in the road are actually a bit jarring. Excellent art design goes a long way at concealing the cracks and wrinkles in a ten-year-old engine, but it is at its core still World of Warcraft and a fresh coat of paint and a significant tune-up can’t change that. And yet, maybe it doesn’t have to be anything else.

Recommendation: If you’ve ever been curious, or if you used to play but have stopped, there is no better time to get on the train. Just be warned that you might not want to hop off again.

[rating=5]

What our review scores mean.

Game: World of Warcraft: Cataclysm
Genre: RPG
Developer: Blizzard
Publisher: Blizzard
Release Date: December 7, 2010
Platform: PC
Available from: Amazon, Battle.net

John Funk drops epics when killed. Please don’t try to test this.

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