19 Apr

World of Warcraft has been going strong since winter of 2004.  That’s nearly six and a half years of a meticulously evolving formula that has yet to cede any substantial market share to the competition that has cropped up over that time.  Have the past few months revealed a major flaw in Blizzard’s latest expansion pack that will open the lane for a new MMO or two to conquer the time of millions?

The first thing you may be wondering is, why on Earth (or Azeroth) is a Cataclysm ‘review’ coming out in April?!  This game did release on December 7th after all; it’s been over four full months.  To this I’d retort…EXACTLY!  One of the biggest issues with MMO reviews to date has to do with staying competitive from a releasing perspective.  To do that one must pump the review out as fast as possible while still having put in the bare minimum of time in to say you’ve covered all the basics.

The problem with this is that it’s very easy to get a skewed perspective of how good the MMO actually is with initial impressions.  Age of Conan and even more so Warhammer: Age of Reckoning were touted quite highly by reviewers.  Heck, even I enjoyed them initially.  Reviewers in large never really experienced the “end-game” content that MMO’s live or die by.  There just isn’t the time to do it.  In some scenarios it’s easy to make a fairly quick determination of an MMO (see Star Trek Online & APB).  However, when there is an MMO that shows promise, more time is needed to come to proper judgment.  It’s important to play through initial patches and fixes to see if things change for the better or worse, not to mention experience as much content as possible.  That’s where this four month overview comes in.

Since there was no official review for Cataclysm back in December this is going to be a mix of personal impressions with review type details. So…let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of Cataclysm!

Like a few others I know, I quit after killing Kil’Jaeden in The Burning Crusade and ended up being dragged back into Cataclysm by friends.  One aspect that made it so much more appealing to come back and at least try this new expansion was Blizzard’s decision to force everyone back to the main continents of Azeroth and away from Outlands and Northrend.  As someone who played ‘Classic’ WoW, the idea that I’d be reliving so many old memories was very appetizing. Even more so was the decision to change so many of the zones and quests.  Nothing would be completely as I remembered it, yet everything remained ‘the same,’ so to speak.

However, that was hardly the determining factor as to my return. These days, I don’t have the time to raid four, five, or six nights a week.  Heck, four or five was pretty standard two years back.  The logistics of having twenty-five people, plus reserves for every raid night was always a pain in the rear, especially as a guild leader. Even worse was forty, if you want to go that far back.  Let’s not forget having the perfect raid composition either.  You HAD to have a shaman in your raid, etc.  None of these burdens are an issue anymore.  Some would say WoW has bean streamlined.  That it’s been made easier… more “casual” oriented. You’d be right for the most part, but is it a bad thing?

I’m now able to raid two nights a week with a group of nine others and still experience enough to be content without the feeling that I’m sinking too much time into the game.  Heck, my group didn’t even start raiding until January and we’ve already experienced all the raid encounters available to us outside of heroic-mode and even a few of those.  I’ll add as well that the fights in large part have been quite enjoyable.  Al’Akir has been my favorite encounter by far due to three phases that are all unique, fast paced, and have a lot going on that you need to pay attention to.  It’s also nice (if you’re super competitive like me) that there’s a site like worldoflogs that lets you compare your personal damage/healing to others of your same class.  Speaking for myself, it’s given me that slight ‘hardcore’ fix that I no longer receive from being at the cutting edge of content and makes redoing old bosses for the nth time actually fun because you always want to rank higher and/or beat your old parse.

For those of you who are unaware, you no longer need to be in a twenty-five man raiding guild in order to achieve the top available loot.  The best change in Cataclysm has been making ten man raiding a viable option.  You get slightly less valor points (used to purchase select gear from a vendor) and overall loot, but it’s not so severe that you’d be forced to avoid a ten man raiding guild.

Now let’s say raiding has never been your reason for the season in relation to WoW.  PvP has also had much needed addition in the form of rated battlegrounds.  For the longest time, it was compulsory to do arena games in order to get the gear you needed to… well, arena.  There has never been that incentive to do battlegrounds outside of getting the few pieces of loot honor points provided, or leveling up alts during call to arms weekends.  I honestly have no idea why it took so many years for battlegrounds to become competitive, but I’m glad it’s finally here.  The single ‘negative,’ if it can be called that, in relation to these rated battlegrounds is the fact that you don’t actually have teams.  One simply forms your ten to fifteen man raid group and queues up.  Thus, there is no real sense of group identity as all rating earned is individually focused.  That said, the alternative likely would have caused more problems for people who don’t have excess time to dump into the game.

As alluded to earlier, I said many have stated Cataclysm made WoW even more casual oriented.  This is true until a certain point.  The line in the sand is drawn once you reach heroic-mode content in PvE.  While people like me who spend a mere two nights a week (sometimes even one) beating dragons up, the hardcore raiding guilds out there have more than enough to keep them smashing their keyboards in frustration over a night of constant wipes.  Simply put, the heroic content in Cataclysm is the most difficult tier of raiding in the history of this game.  I have a good friend in a top ten ranked world guild who has constantly reminded me in playful jest that my group and I will be in agony once we get deep into heroic-mode content.  I actually killed M’uru pre-nerf, for any of you old school WoW players out there; so to hear him talk about how hard this was really gave me pause.  It’s not just him either.  Paragon — the number one ranked guild in the world — has echoed a similar sentiment.

Since the game was released in December there have been some fixes and a rather large balancing patch along the way as well.  Balance has been shifted (I was nerfed /cry!) and improvements have been made to the dungeon queuing system that has been around since Wrath of the Lich King.  Tanks can no longer queue up over and over again until they get into a dungeon in progress, nor can they instant queue with a DPS and leave after they get in for gold or as a favor.  In fact, the upcoming major content patch (which is bringing back Zul’Gurub and Zul’Aman for level 85 raiding) is going to reward tanks and healers for queuing up in order to help lower queue times for DPS.  Five-man heroic dungeons have also been nerfed in the form of a very hefty group buff for random queuing.  Since most mains are expected to have been 85 and at least heroic geared, this was a smart move to help everyone leveling up alts.  There’s been some boss tuning as well.  These five-man heroics are nowhere close to as hard as they were right after the launch of the game.

If you’ve been teetering on the edge about going back into WoW or trying it for the first time this is the advice I’d give you.  If you quit it in the past because you were sick of the same gameplay and atmosphere, it’s not really changed.  WoW is WoW and it’s only been refined more, not radically altered.  If however you’re looking for a co-operative dungeon smashing experience to partake in a few nights a week?  You’d be hard-pressed to find a better game than this.