Almost anyone who is familiar with gaming knows what World of Warcraft is, either through personal experience or otherwise. It's impossible not to have, the game is everywhere and in just about everything; but for gamers familiar with WoW (and Blizzard's) history, Cataclysm represents something a little different from most expansions. Cataclysm has promised to change everything in Warcraft, from the world design, to the game mechanics that many fans have criticized for a few years now as easy and 'watered down' from the game's original 'vanilla' release. Raids used to be too easy, healing was dry and without challenge, DPS and tanking was just barely a concern in most instances, and that's just the Player vs Environment (PVE) side of things. With all the things that players used to complain about non-stop, it's a wonder that anyone even stuck around.
So now that Cataclysm is out, is it fair to say that things have changed for the better? That's a rough conclusion to jump to, particularly since MMOs generally receive a hefty amount of support post-release these days. It's worth noting that this review is written at the time of patch 4.0.3a.
The first thing veteran players will notice upon logging in is the immediate change to Azeroth. The entire world has been updated to reflect the changes happening across the world in-game. Old starting zones have some new quests added in to reflect some of the in-game storylines that have developed since. Respectively the new races, Worgen and Goblins, are given their own instanced zones that serve as both a means of levelling players from 1-10 and catching them up to the current events. These may seem like minor titbits in the long run, but for veteran players these minor changes wind up being an enjoyable treat.
From the inclusion of Hogger, to the Stockades, to the updating of Shadowfang Keep, older WoW players will find much of the changes made to the world refreshing and enjoyable; all of the memorable instances and quests have mostly stayed in the game intact while the absolutely insufferable ones have been erased and replaced with something more reasonable. This also includes itemization, as anyone looking to roll a brand new character should find that equipping them is a lot less of a task than it used to be.
While on the subject of itemization, it should be worthwhile to also address two points of the game that have both changed for the better:
talent trees and professions. Talent trees have been significantly cut down from their older builds, which would, at times, often find players digging for talents that didn't quite belong or were simply a stepping stone to get into the more unique abilities. Now each tree is more clearly defined, which cuts back a few of the more original specs but on the same page makes ones task a lot more clear. Blizzard was kind enough to leave some space open for PvP and PvE builds though, and dual specs (the ability to swap between two different builds without visiting a city) are available at low level making it a lot easier to experiment and figure out what style of play best suits the individual player.
The overhaul for professions is a lot more subtle, as all professions now offer tools, items, and trade goods that are a lot more worthwhile than they used to be. They're also (in general) easier to level, meaning that players who truly wish to invest in something like Engineering will not only benefit from all the neat little tricks (often associated with PvP), but will also gain some raid functionality from their new gear/attachments as well. Granted, searching for materials is still a time investment that players must accept as part of the job (particularly in the case of Archaeology), but anyone willing to go around and pick flowers/mine ore for some extra bonuses should find the rewards are well worth the time spent.
The new zones in WoW are available to players at level 80, and are broken down by level. Mount Hyjal and Vashj'ir are available for players immediately, while Deepholm and Uldum don't become truly viable to visit until around 83. Most will find themselves ready to enter Twilight Highlands close to 84, but that completely depends on how much a perfectionist one is when it comes to completing a zone.
Blizzard has seen fit to carry on the tradition of each new zone having an overarching storyline (started in Northrend) and as players progress the zones gradually phase according to the story. Not all of the new zones follow this rule, but most of them have at least one section that does, and the result is a single-player questing experience that's really unrivalled in any other MMO out there. Grouping up to do such quests just makes things go faster, but it was clear that all of these quest lines were created for individual players to experience rather than take things in as a group. With the exception of one or two quest finales, players should find that they can solo their way to 85 within a few short days.
Endgame for WoW players has always been split three ways: those interested in doing dungeons and raids, those interested in battlegrounds and arena, and those who're looking for a little of both. Thankfully, this expansion has quite a bit to offer for those interested in any of these things, broken down for the more competitive player to the more casual one. In dungeons players will find the typical equipment upgrades that have been standard to the game, while heroics will offer further upgrades for those attempting to prepare for raids. In addition, bosses killed in heroic mode will provide tokens that can be accumulated to trade in for additional gear sold by vendors, so even a generally loot-less run will have some yield.
The same sort of mechanic applies to Player vs Player combat as well, as where once battlegrounds were simply the place to go to get offset arena pieces, players will once again find themselves entering to get full sets of gear. This doesn't look like a temporary thing either, as the new PvP gear is broken down into two types of points: Conquest and Honor. Honor can be earned by doing just about any battleground scenario or world PvP events. Anyone familiar with the old system should be pretty familiar with this. Conquest points on the other hand, provide a different spin on things, giving arena teams and premade battleground groups the chance to get superior sets of armor by playing other premade teams. The losing team earns nothing, possibly even taking a hit to their rating; the winning team on the other hand will gain rating and valuable points which can then go into higher level gear. It provides PvPers with the chance to actually work into something, rather than just have a few limited options at the end of a long grind.
Ultimately these choices as a whole open up the game quite more than just what WoW really used to be, which could often at times feel like a series of pigeon-hole grinds. Anyone looking for raiding will still have to go through the same hoops, such as running instances for gear or crafting epic items, but more intuitive and intelligently design boss fights (in all instances) provide a lot more entertainment (and challenge) than the game previously had. Class balance is somewhat in the eye of the beholder, but at this point in time it's clear that Blizzard has no intention of making the game any easier, in fact they've gone out of their way to say that the game simply did not provide enough challenge before.
This new mentality to the game is certainly refreshing, and though those playing healers and tanks will notice first and foremost the increase in challenge, DPS will also find that they have to try harder to actually be decent at the game.
So how does this all boil down? Quite frankly, anyone who was a fan of the old, original WoW will find Cataclysm to be a far more impressive experience than any of the other expansions released so far. Little experiments that Blizzard has been testing on their community over the years, such as phased zones and mounted combat, are finally coming to fruition in a positive way; and the class re-balances that have been taking place over the years have a little more focus than they used to. If anything, anyone who hated the way things were in Wrath should find themselves having quite a bit of fun with Cataclysm. Likewise, anyone who was disappointed at the lack of PvP options in the prior two expansions certainly have very little to complain about now. As it stands Cataclysm can be considered the most 'complete' version of WoW yet, more open than Burning Crusade or Wrath of the Lich King ever were to different play styles, while also being far more challenging. It's hard to predict (naturally) how the future of WoW will go, but for the time being Blizzard's latest expansion fails to disappoint.