Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Review Time: Cataclysm Reboots the 500 Pound Gorilla of MMORPGs

A little something different today: a game review of Cataclysm.  Back to regularly scheduled entries later this week.


Since its launch in 2004, World of Warcraft has established the gold standard for the MMO market. However, with the first 60 levels of content becoming ancient by computer gaming and graphical standards, Blizzard decided to boldly revamp all of the old content in their third expansion: Cataclysm. But has World of Warcraft cemented continued dominance of the genre for another half decade, or has the magic been lost forever?

(As a brief editorial note, this review of Cataclysm is considering all aspects of the game live after Patch 4.0.6, the first major fix patch of the expansion. While the questing content is largely unchanged, the player-versus-player content and the dungeon content have significantly changed since launch.)

The backbone of every MMO is the questing and leveling experience, and the world of Azeroth has undergone radical changes. The visual quality of the old world has been brought up to a graphics level that is respectable for current computer games. The highlights of the graphical changes are the nearly-lifelike water effects and the cities of Stormwind and Orgrimmar, the hubs for the Alliance and Horde factions in this expansion. The old world leveling zones have also been brought up to date and made truly three-dimensional with the new ability to fly through these zones. On the whole, Cataclysm is graphically appealing enough to add more life to this old game.

The old world zones have also changed dramatically in many places with the changing storylines. For questing, every quest hub has 2-4 quests and then sends you immediately to the next hub, and then the process repeats ad nauseam. While this structure removes some of the frustration with running out of things to do and not knowing where to go next, the game feels a bit more like a moving walkway now than a place to explore. This will certainly help hasten the ridiculously long grind to endgame at level 85, but perhaps at the cost of the spirit of exploring and questing on your own. The good news is that the questing is completely different in these zones from the pre-Cataclysm versions of these zones, so even long time or returning players will find the leveling experience refreshed and new.

The truly new content for leveling from level 80 to level 85 resides in five new zones. Three of these zones stand out as dramatically different from what has been seen before in World of Warcraft. One of the first new zones is Vash’jir, a completely underwater zone that displays the improved underwater mechanics in the game. While the zone is a bit longer than it needs to be, Vash’jir is exciting because it forces players to be aware of everything in three dimensions rather than two. Although it does become easy to forget that everything is underwater at times, this zone stands out as the best Cataclysm has to offer.

The next leveling zone is Deepholm, which has an otherworldly and primal feel to it. The storyline of fixing a world pillar in another world to prevent Azeroth from falling through the maelstrom in the middle of the world map is compelling enough to follow all the way through.

The final new zone that stands out is Uldum, which includes a ton of cut scenes and Indiana Jones parody. In that regard, Uldum does feel a bit like a major motion picture, but the gaffe is on Blizzard by the end of the zone as the parody becomes overdone and tedious. In sum, the new leveling zones each tell great stories and are developed well, despite the feeling once again that characters are on a moving walkway with no real option to do things out of order.

Two new races join the mix in this expansion: Goblins for the Horde and Worgen for the Alliance. The two original races that did not have their own starting leveling zones (Trolls and Gnomes) now also have new starting zones. Although each of these starting zones was terribly overcrowded in the first three months of the expansion, Blizzard has redesigned the respawn rate to correspond to active players in these zones. Thus, a lot of the waiting for respawned enemies has been removed from the game.

Each of the new starter zones tells a compelling story, but the highlight is certainly Gilneas, the worgen starting zone. Gilneas features a Victorian style and is always shrouded in fog and mist, which fits the storyline of a spreading werewolf curse well. Although the kingdom of Gilneas has long isolated itself from the problems of the rest of the world, the quests do a superb job of telling how the worgen curse spreads and why Gilneas is now rejoined with the Alliance. The “moving walkway” phenomenon of Cataclysm questing is still ever present, but it becomes acceptable in Gilneas where the quests are primarily telling a story.

In player-versus-player (PvP) content, Cataclysm offers two new battlegrounds and one outdoor battleground area with battles every two hours called Tol Barad. Despite recent changes to the mechanics of Tol Barad, the battleground is a design disaster. To capture Tol Barad and open up a number of daily quests and a single-boss raid, an attacking faction must capture three buildings simultaneously by having more live players in the area than the defending faction. The more imbalance in number of players, the faster a building is captured. However, even with some design adjustments this cat-and-mouse game is unfulfilling because it rewards numbers instead of good PvP combat. To avoid imbalances, the battleground is instanced to only allow in the same number of players from each faction, but this makes late-night or low-population server battles boring with fewer than ten people on each side.

Furthermore, World of Warcraft is always balanced around the latest raid content, and PvP class balance is clearly on the backburner for Blizzard. Thus, radical imbalances in PvP class playability still exist in a game six years old. The other two battlegrounds Battle for Gilneas and Twin Peaks are nice looking alternatives to previous battlegrounds, but the design is nothing new to World of Warcraft or any first-person shooter since Halo. As such, the PvP content of Cataclysm is perhaps the worst that has been seen over the six year lifespan of the game.

Finally, Cataclysm offers seven new 5-man dungeons, two revised old world 5-man dungeons, and three raids having a total of 13 bosses. The best of the 5-man content appears to be an instance in UIdum called Halls of Origination. Again, the Indiana Jones theme is persistent throughout the instance, but the dungeon offers eight very different bosses and a fast pace throughout. Similar to previous “Halls of” instances in World of Warcraft, the visual scenery in Halls of Origination is stunning if time is taken to admire the surroundings.

On the other side of the spectrum, Stonecore is an instance in Deepholm that offers nothing substantial beyond what is discovered while questing in that zone. Furthermore, the boss mechanics are designed poorly and have a tendency to not work as intended. For a company that does not release many things in an unpolished state, Stonecore is a surprising departure from the norm.

The raid content in this expansion will be split into two or three raids per major content patch, as opposed to having a single epic raid instance with 12-15 bosses. This configuration allows Blizzard to tell more varied stories in the raid instances and offers players the chance to easily move onto another raid if they become stuck on a certain boss. None of the particular boss fights stand out as anything not seen before in six years of content, but the raids are well tuned and beautifully designed. For those players who live for “the endgame,” Cataclysm will not disappoint.

On the whole, Blizzard has done a nice job breathing life back into a six year old game, both graphically and in design terms. However, Blizzard missed a golden opportunity to re-invent the wheel for fantasy-based MMORPGs. World of Warcraft is still in the old fantasy mode of cast a spell and wait for that spell to come off of a cool down, rinse and repeat. As such, the core game play is no different than what was originally offered to players six years ago. For players that enjoy that design or have never experienced it, Cataclysm is probably worth a play through. But for those who have stepped out of Azeroth before, this expansion promises true change, yet delivers lipstick on a pig. Or a 500 pound gorilla, depending on your perspective.

Grade: B-