It’s hard to believe, but Cataclysm has already been out for a year. While Mists of Pandaria is still likely a few months away, it’s pretty safe to say that we’ve experienced all Cataclysm has to offer.
In this week’s MMO Update, we’ll be looking at World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, breaking it down to see what Blizzard got right and what they got wrong. Considering Cataclysm has been arguably their most controversial expansion, I’m sure some interesting discussion will be drummed up this week!
Cataclysm was very much advertised as the “back to hardcore” expansion. It had at its heart everything that the more hardcore WoW player wanted. The five man dungeons were a challenge, the raids were more difficult, there was a renewed focus on the battlegrounds, and the old cities of Stormwind and Orgrimmar took focus once again.
It was, essentially, a return to vanilla – just with all of the added mechanics and bonuses that Blizzard has mixed in the game over the years.
If you’ve played WoW at any point in its eight year history, then you likely have a handful of emotions swirling around in your head due to that last statement. Positive or negative, they’re probably strong, and they probably heavily influence how you personally view Cataclysm.
Unfortunately for Blizzard, most of you clearly sit on the negative side, as Cataclysm has been the worst expansion in terms of subscriber numbers for the company. While many (including myself) pointed to Wrath of the Lich King as the culprit early on in Cataclysm’s lifecycle, it’s clear now that Cataclysm hasn’t exactly won back any old Warcraft fans.
I’ll get this out of the way first: Tier 11 – the first raiding tier in Cataclysm – was fantastic. For me, it was up there with Black Temple, Blackwing Lair, and Ulduar. The gear was interesting, the boss fights were unique, and the difficulty curve made sense.
That last one – the difficulty curve – is perhaps the biggest reason I loved the tier so much. One of my number one complaints from Wrath was simply how wonky the level of difficulty seemed. Normal modes provided no challenge at all while heroic modes seemed… well… heroic. Often there were no fights that served as a midway point between the two extremes. There was no scaling up of difficulty. It was like you had to choose between riding a tricycle around the block or taking part in the Tour de France.
Of course, according to Blizzard, that was the plan all along. They wanted everyone to see the content, and they wanted to give a challenge to the top guilds with the same bosses. That’s fair, and I understand that.
The problem is that assumes that more casual players just want to see the content – that they don’t care about a sense of accomplishment, and that they only really want to just farm it as quick as possible for gear. In my experiences though, that’s far from the truth. Instead of designing content that could be enjoyed by a wide audience, they designed content that targeted two limited extremes.
If you were in the middle, you got screwed. In Wrath, the “casualcore” style raiding guilds – the large majority of guilds that existed during TBC and vanilla – were pushed out. There was no space or content for them. It felt as if Blizzard was thinking in binary.
And that is exactly why tier 11 was so incredibly awesome.
For the first time since The Burning Crusade, challenging content was pushed at everyone. Not only that, but the heroic modes didn’t seem to be stationed that far away from the most difficult fights in the normal raids. If you were able to defeat every boss on normal, then you could be expected to take the next step into the heroic fights without farming gear for six weeks in an attempt to out-muscle the content.
Unfortunately, that steady difficulty curve only lasted so long as Tier 13 reverted back to the system found in WotLK.
Once again, there is a chasm between hardcore and normal mode fights. While seemingly everyone managed to defeat the normal mode content in its very first week, few have managed to successfully crunch forward in the heroic modes. In an effort to produce content for everyone, Blizzard has pumped out Bugatti Veyrons and Toyota Camrys. One is out of reach to most of us, and one is so beige and boring that I can’t even think of a witty way to end this metaphor.
This criticism hardly ends at just the level of difficulty, however. All of the fights take place in re-used zones with most of the action taking place in WotLK set pieces. And the crown jewel – Deathwing – isn’t even about Deathwing. You fight everyone but him. And then Thrall saves the day.
And Firelands? I’ll put it this way – I almost forgot about mentioning it. It isn’t bad, but it is utterly forgettable. It’s the Malygos or AQ20 of Cataclysm. You won’t even remember it in a year unless you’re a cat druid with that one awesome staff.
As time has gone on, Blizzard’s stepped up their PvP game. While there have been a few hiccups here and there, the balance team has generally done a fantastic job this expansion. While a few notable compositions have dominated in the arena (a trend that will hopefully end with the new talent system), PvP in general has become more balanced than it ever has been.
In Cataclysm Blizzard announced that they would be shifting their balancing focus away from arena combat, making smaller, tighter changes instead of huge ones that completely upset the meta-game. This method seems to have worked – and hilariously enough, it’s also done a pretty good job at balancing the supposedly forgotten arena. While things aren’t perfect, they certainly feel better than they have in the past.
Likewise, the two battlegrounds that they added with Cataclysm were actually pretty good. Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel for the third time, they focused on creating battlegrounds based on pre-existing mechanics – and it worked.
The only negative? Rated Battlegrounds just aren’t that interesting. Perhaps it is because it is difficult to find ten other players interested in playing at the same time, but the whole system seemed to be more hassle than it was worth.
First, a caveat: I’ve never really been into the “Horde vs. Alliance” thing outside of the game. I play Alliance, but I don’t bleed blue, nor do I hate people that play the other side. I find in-game faction pride to be sort of silly, and you’ll never catch me arguing over which faction would win in an internet fantasy battle.
With that out of the way, Alliance got totally screwed this expansion.
Perhaps the best example of this is the addition of the new Alliance race, the worgen.
If you roll a worgen, your story experience essentially ends at level 12. You never find out what happens to your old city, and you never revisit it (or any other Gilnean settlement) if you follow on the quest path that the developers put out in front of you. In fact, there’s only one other Gilnean town anywhere else in the entire game.
But here’s the real kicker: In Silverpine, the Forsaken see the end of the worgen story. That’s right – if you play Alliance, you don’t even get to see the conclusion to your own story. The 7th Legion, the elite Alliance military force, ends up taking back the city – but most Alliance players are likely unaware of this, as you never actually take part in any of these quests. Disappointing, to say the least.
Then there’s the Horde.
One of the most attractive things about the Warcraft lore has been how it loves to dwell in the gray. During Warcraft III, neither the Horde nor the Alliance were evil – but they weren’t exactly good, either. They sat somewhere in-between, and that was awesome.
In Cataclysm, however, two Horde leaders – Garrosh and Sylvannas – act so aggressive (and in the case of Sylvannas, downright evil) that at this point I wouldn’t be surprised to see them pop up later as raid bosses who have gone insane.
In fact, I’m willing to call it. If Garrosh doesn’t die in MoP, I’ll buy the first person who mentions this in the comments a game of their choice.
While many of Cataclysm’s problems have been tossed about in this article, the main one has only been hinted at: there simply isn’t much to do.
It’s no accident that this article focus primarily on raiding and pvp – because let’s face it – that’s all there was to do during the extent of Cataclysm. Sure, raiding is at the core of any MMO, but the damn game is eight years old at this point. While every expansion has brought some new fun thing with it, Cataclysm essentially brought more of the same. At its heart, Cataclsm was more DLC than expansion pack – five extra levels, a few raids, and not much else.
Compare that to TBC – an expansion that gave us all of that plus the arena system, which completely revolutionized PvP in WoW and created a brand new way to enjoy the game. Or WotLK, which added in the achievement system.
But don’t think that this is all hate and no love – far from it.
The 1 – 58 leveling experience was fantastic, the talent tree revamp was a great segue to the changes coming in Mists of Pandaria, and the overall atmosphere was bang-on. Let’s not forget about the new zones that were added in as well, which were all unique in their design and execution. If nothing else, Blizzard pushed an almost decade old engine, keeping up artistically with many of the newer MMOs on the market.
Sure, parts of this “review” might seem a bit harsh, but it’s really just tough love. While Cataclysm wasn’t everything I hoped it to be, it did keep me entertained, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel like my money was well spent.
Of course, I’m sure in a year when Mists of Pandaria is out, we’ll all look back at Cataclysm and act like it was the greatest thing ever.