World of Warcraft: Cataclysm launched to considerable praise a year and a half ago. Many critics showered it with acclaim over the new mechanics, content, improved graphics and revamped leveling content. By now, however, the majority of the player base has had time to get acclimated with everything the expansion had to offer, yet I feel like many are probably missing one of the most gripping aspects of the game:
Ever since I started playing the game at launch, I’ve grown to love World of Warcraft’s soundtrack. Some of my first memories playing the game are enhanced by various tunes. I’ll always remember traveling with my human mage through Elwynn forest for the first time, the light, colorful music keeping me going after I continuously was forced to run back and forth between Goldshire and Eastvale Logging Camp, a trek that I grew to despise, mainly due to blood-thirsty murlocs.
One of the coolest things I noticed about WoW’s music early on was that it didn’t play all of the time. While ambient zone noises of weather and wildlife are always going in the background, the music itself only occasionally peaks out. As it isn’t constantly beating you over the head, this tends to make it feel special, a sort of treat that pops up to flavor the mood here and there.
Sometimes, however, the music’s cue is more obvious, like when you step foot into a major city. I think the one moment that truly sold me on WoW was stepping through the gates of Stormwind and hearing the trumpets blaze as a choir rumbled in the background. I felt pulled in by the music, perhaps more than any other aspect of the game could have. For me, the music was part of an atmospheric package.
Another memory that springs to mind is the first time I stepped into Warsong Gulch, a player versus player battleground, and heard the pounding war drums as I charged in after an Orc carrying my flag.
The music always seemed to accent my actions in just the right way.
I remember trying, in vain, to get my friends to turn on the music as they played. They refused, many of them even playing without ambient noises on. It just wasn’t an important aspect to them. Soon even I fell – choosing to mute the in-game music, listening to my own playlist most of the time I played.
Then Burning Crusade came out.
I flicked the music on as I walked through the Dark Portal.
Once again, my jaw dropped.
The Hellfire music wasn’t like that of anything before it. It was subtle, ambient and foreboding. I remember eagerly awaiting leveling up to the next zone just to hear the next score. Yet, after I hit 70 I once again turned the music off. Still, one of my favorite memories of The Burning Crusade is downing Illidan and once again turning on the music – just long enough to hear Illidan’s theme music place once. I remember muting Ventrilo, taking a moment to just lean back and take everything in. I truly felt, thanks to this brief musical interlude, that my character had taken part in the slaying of the expansion’s prime villain.
While Wrath of the Lich King had a great soundtrack as well, I once again quickly muted it after a few weeks.
When Cataclysm came out, I fully expected the same thing to happen. Sure, I thought, I’d enjoy the music for a while, but eventually it would just get turned off in favor of something from my playlist.
A year later, and the volume slider is still cranked to 100%. I can’t turn it off. I’ll admit, I’ve briefly turned it down here and there, but completely turn it off? In my mind, it would be like turning off the textures, or the spell effects, or even the dialogue. It would be the equivalent of turning off the game’s soul.
I have a very real, visceral, emotional response to the music. While leveling a Night Elf through the post-Cataclysm lands I felt incredibly pulled in to the whole experience. A track called “Nightsong” began to play while I was running through a moon-lit part of the forest. The track gently fades in from the ambiance, the voice of a woman singing in Darnassian – the language of the Night Elves – suddenly breaking off into a pulling, charging set of drums that slowly grow in volume until once again, the singing starts. While I’ve always been a fan of Night Elves, I don’t think I’ve ever quite connected with the race much in the same way before. Suddenly, I wasn’t just playing a character in a video game. I was part of a layered experience, taking in the sights and sounds of a people at war with a savage enemy determined to take their ancestral lands.
I felt connected to the quests I was doing, honestly considering the devastation to Darkshore instead of simply rushing through in a race to the level cap. I felt a strange sense of duty, completely inspired by the music.
But not all of the music in Cataclysm is as welcoming and inspiring.
Leveling up on my main character I remember stepping foot in the final new zone in the expansion, Twilight Highlands. The zone itself is a contrast of bright green vegetation and cold obsidian rock, lit only by purple flames and twisted shadow magic. Home to a cult devoted to the Old Gods, giant malevolent, Lovecraftian creatures that lurk below Azeroth’s crust, the zone’s music isn’t exactly friendly.
With eerie strings and whispers, the track fades in, occasionally fading back out before returning back to haunt you. In World of Warcraft, sinister whispers are a calling card of the Old God, something that tickles at the back of your neck as you level. When the music fully builds, you can’t help but wonder who is watching you – or worse, controlling you.
Nostalgia is certainly a big component in the music of Cataclysm. While much of the music is brand new, many of Cataclysm’s tracks reference (or completely rehash) old World of Warcraft standards. As part of the expansion’s draw was a redefining of Azeroth, much of the music emphasizes this. While WoW’s music has never been lacking, these new tracks show just how far Blizzard has come when it comes to the complexity of their compositions.
Perhaps this is most evident on Cataclysm’s main theme — the menu music. As was the case in previous expansions, the menu theme is essentially a medley of various bits of Warcraft lore, touching on everything the expansions contains. At the same time, it also references many of the same sounds that could’ve been heard in prior expansions. The difference is this time everything now has a harsher, apocalyptic tone that echoes Azeroth being ripped apart.
Surprisingly one of the greatest qualities of World of Warcraft’s soundtrack is its restraint. Gaming today is often dominated by big, “epic” sounds, and while there certainly are plenty of orchestrations here, there is also a hint of subtlety. Mellow sounds follow loud, boisterous drums. Flutes are present. Soft choruses are everywhere. In some parts, there’s two to three minute breaks of nothing but calm atmosphere. Just like in the game itself, the music isn’t afraid to sit in the background. That calm confidence allows it to explode just that much more when it really matters.
Really though, what makes Cataclysm’s — and to a larger extent, Blizzard’s — music great is just how memorable it is. Many modern titles have moved away from catchy melodies and sonic storytelling in favor of simply trying to sound big and loud. Cataclysm’s soundtrack, however, tends to tell a story, like a narrator in the background. Because of this, if you have your music on it’s almost impossible to forget such incredibly sounds as they etch their way into your memories, much like the adventures that accompany them.