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Review: World of Warcraft: Cataclysm
by Greg Mengel

Demons. Jocks. Pirates.

Jacob. Zombies. Lunch.

Metrosexuals. Terrans. Youth group. Fixed-interest mortgage payments. The old orc and the sea.

Indy. Alcoholics. Parties. Christmas. Chocobo. Lovecraft. Hippie minotaurs. Pandas. Smaug. Royalty. Rasta. Religion. Psychotropic mushrooms. Overdose.

Gandalf. Sea World. Luigi's Mansion. Hobbits. Science. Vikings. Goth chicks. Sweet rides.

A whole new world. Egyptian riots. All-crustacean bands. Neptune. Quartz. Aliens. Eight-legged freaks.

Pure, unadulterated ROCK.

Blizzard's vice president of Creative Development, Chris Metzen - self portrait.

Love it or hate it, World of Warcraft is a cash cow that has produced Activision Blizzard an ocean of milk for their CEOs to skinny dip in, after indulging in women, fancy drinks, and large money bags filled to the brim with diamonds and cocaine. For over five years, it has successfully sold millions of players an alternative to the real world and its problems.

But after half a decade, is the series still any good?

A few months ago, Blizzard released Cataclysm, an expansion that they hoped would answer that question with a resounding "yes". But did it?

No. At least, not completely.

Though it does many things right, Cataclysm's brief endgame solo content - a mere five zones - never gives its antagonist the character development he needs. This drought of character tarnishes an otherwise rich experience, making it less fulfilling than its predecessor, Wrath of the Lich King.


The most welcome improvement has to be Cataclysm's makeover of ancient vanilla zones, which hit Azeroth in a pre-release patch dubbed The Shattering. By updating level 1-60 areas with an arsenal of new quests, cinematic cutscenes, visual aesthetics, and sounds, The Shattering has, in effect, created a brand new World of Warcraft to explore.

Southshore, what have they done to you?!?!

If you've played through Warcraft at any point in the last five years, you'll love The Shattering. Everything you remember is different, but in a good way. Instead of mindlessly killing orcs to turn in a basic quest, your Alliance hero smears fox droppings on his or her face and sneaks into the Dragonmaw Clan's Lakeshire headquarters alongside the grizzled Bravo Company, led by third war veteran John J. Keeshan.

Do you remember the PVP battles the Horde and Alliance used to have in Hillsbrad Foothills? No longer. The Forsaken have overrun Southshore and claimed Hillsbrad completely for the Horde.

How many times did you avoid levelling through Stonetalon Mountains because it annoyingly boasted only one or maybe two flight paths? Now each faction has over five, dotting a large-scale battle stretching from border to border.

So Tanaris is flooding, and you're the goblin in charge. What's your obvious course of action? Moses up an ark.

The Shattering has made huge, noticeable improvements on every facet of level 1-60 play.

Playing The Shattering is like going back to your high school reunion. You know your old friends by name, but they're... different to how you remember. More mature somehow, or just more interesting. You suddenly feel like talking to the guy who chugged a gallon of mayonnaise for a five dollar bet when you were sophomores, because times have passed and he's contracted to build wells in Mongolia now. There are myriad hours to be spent rediscovering each zone that you came to know, love, or despise back when your first character apprehensively wandered the hills, valleys, and deserts of Azeroth.

Another area in which Cataclysm excels is music. It boasts quite possibly the most beautiful video game score I have ever heard.

Play it again, Russ.

Themes for the immortal, stalwart Night Elves, the proud, traditional Ironforge Dwarves, or the sombre but selflessly noble Tauren expertly convey the history and culture of each group, helping the player understand why they should care about every faction in the game.

Exotic. Dangerous. Ferocious. Piratey. Cataclysm's musical score tells the story of Azeroth. It will take you on many adventures without ever loading up a screen.

Another positive is Cataclysm's new secondary profession, archaeology, if for no reason other than the fact that it gives us yet another chance to fulfil our fantasy of becoming Indiana Jones. Though it can get ridiculously tedious near the end of the game, archaeology provides yet another terrific way for players to wrap themselves up in the warm tapestry of Warcraftian lore.

Archaeology. It turns you into a Naga and builds you tiny gnomes.

Every item you dig up, from a lavish ancient drinking stein to a tattered voodoo doll, tells you something interesting about Azeroth and its denizens. Even the most worthless items uncovered are priceless. Rare items, however, are especially awesome. Some of my favourites include a wolf mask, velociraptor-skeleton mounts, a whispering box that will keep you up at night, soothing wind chimes, and an enchanted, disembodied hand.

Great as archaeology is, it suffers from the pervasive illness infecting every aspect of MMORPGs: the grind. Unless you're a glutton for pain and suffering, never, ever go hunting for this.

Terrific as The Shattering, archaeology, and Cataclysm's musical score are, all is not sexy new zones and fossil mounts in Azeroth.


Blizzard did a lot right with Cataclysm, but before you go rushing out to Wal-Mart's electronics section with the last fifty dollars you had been saving for Grandma's back surgery clenched between eager fists, let's look at its problems. Here are two:

a) Endgame zones feel small, insignificant and disconnected.

b) I hate Deathwing, but not in the same way that I hated Arthas.

Allow me to elaborate.

Thirty-six hours on repeat and it still hasn't gotten old.

Don't let Nazi references and riding seahorses fool you: there's something rotten in Cataclysm's endgame zones.

Each boasts a strikingly unique, graphically gorgeous setting, numerous quirky cinematics, and myriad celebrity cameos from Azeroth's rich and famous. Taken on their own, these stages are some of the best ever designed for an MMORPG (Twilight Highlands especially). What weakens them is the feeling that the actions you take up in one area don't particularly effect what happens in another.

Discovering the Naga are plotting to usurp Neptulon is seven plot degrees away from freeing ancient forest spirits on Mount Hyjal, which is only minorly related to Deathwing's alliance with the Neferset Tol'vir in Uldum. There's no consistency. It's like watching five completely unrelated (but excellent) movies made in different countries, under different genres, with different directors, and then selling them in a set.

You'd think the Tol'vir (cat-people) would be warier of the Worgen (dog-men).

Zone plots seem much more distantly connected than in, say, Wrath of the Lich King, where the entire continent of Northrend felt intimately involved with the march on Icecrown Citadel, to challenge one of gaming's all time greatest villains: Arthas.

...which brings us to the inevitable comparison between Arthas and Deathwing.

There's an easy verdict here. Arthas is much easier to hate than Deathwing. He's just a better villain.

Why? Character development.

In Warcraft III and its expansion, players follow the pubescent prince's journey from young, idealistic paladin into unholy Lich King of the Scourge. It isn't a pretty sight. Only after slaying his father and mentor, mercilessly slaughtering and resurrecting his citizens as horde of ravenous undead, and finally leaving a barren trail of putrid blight in his wake is Arthas transformed into a full-fledged Death Knight.

This man will kill you, then resurrect you as a zombie, then make you eat your loved ones, then kill you again. And then have lunch.

Everything action you lead Arthas through is a sin committed in cold blood. By the time you finish his campaigns, you know and respect him as a powerful, believable villain.

Deathwing's story invokes similar themes of betrayal, murder, and a fall from grace into darkness, but it gives them a great deal less attention. Besides burning Stormwind to the ground and fleeing into Outland, Deathwing is a side character in a Shakespearean saga. He's obviously strong-willed and incredibly powerful, but so are all the other cast members around him. Deathwing receives half as much attention as, say, Ner'zul, the orcish warlock who eventually becomes the Lich King and fuses his soul with Arthas.

Deathwing has nothing but good potential as a legendary villain. He deserves the non-stop character development given to Arthas in Wrath of the Lich King, but receives next to no attention in any of his games. If the World-Ender's Cataclysm coming-out party was meant to make me hate him, then it failed miserably: I don't want to kill Deathwing for giving Azeroth a brand-new makeover of quests, aesthetics, and storylines to play through repeatedly... I want to hunt him down. And thank him. With chocolates.

If you find it hard to believe that Arthas gets more focus than Deathwing in their specific games, just go to WoWWiki's entry for Warcraft II, then do a word search for 'Deathwing'. Not one mention. Now check Warcraft III and do the same for 'Arthas'. The man gets nine.

Deathwing had nowhere near the character development necessary to make him the central villain of an expansion with only five endgame levels to introduce players to him. He's a rookie quarterback, thrown into the big game. He's neutral Belgium, tossed in front of Germany, circa 1914. He is not prepared.

Go ahead and TRY to find better graphics.

Both the disconnection between level 80-85 zones and the drought of character development given to Deathwing could have been fixed had Cataclysm featured ten endgame levels. By cramming a supposedly epic tale into a space half its usual size, Blizzard gave itself no opportunity to introduce gamers to Deathwing, their central antagonist. Without a clear villain to aspire towards slaying, an MMORPG like Warcraft seems shallow and purposeless. Why raid if I don't believe in the cause for which my character is fighting?

Cataclysm brought a lot of good to the table, and Blizzard should be applauded for everything it did right. Fantastic level 1-60 zones, a truly outstanding soundtrack, and a reliably fun secondary profession in archaeology are all feathers that Blizzard should wear proudly in its cap. That said, the limited endgame of Cataclysm is a large and unsightly blemish on what could have been yet another masterpiece.

I entreat you Blizzard, gentleman to gentlemen.

With twelve million active subscribers still roaming Azeroth, Blizzard is bound to make another expansion in the near future. Here's hoping that it learns from Cataclysm's mistakes by delivering a full ten endgame zones, which would give players a stronger, more complete picture of its antagonist than was painted for Deathwing.

I'll end this article with a plea to Blizzard directly:

You don't need to make Wrath of the Lich King again. Just offer enough character development and story to make players care about why they're grinding through digital dungeons night after night, perpetually gearing up in a heroic effort to reach an intangible goal in an imagined world. Just use a full ten levels to sculpt a villain we actually care to defeat.

That, or toss playable pandaren out there. Either works.

8/10 [?]

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- Greg Mengel

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