With Mists of Pandaria inbound (and, of course, 4.3 prior to that), much of the focus with WoW will be shifting from the "past" of Cataclysm to the future of the next expansion. New tanking models, new talent revamps, new forms of content... It's likely most of this will dominate discussion for the next six months while we wait on 5.0.
Therefore, earlier than expected, it's time to go over Cataclysm with a critical eye and try to pick the bones out of how it went. I know 4.3 is on the horizon, bringing with it the raid finder and Darkmoon Faire, but most of what Cataclysm wrought is done and dusted so we're okay to have a look at it.
As you can guess, this could be a MASSIVE post. My penchant for using 2,000 words when one is enough would extend an entire post long beyond a 30 minute sitting. As such, I'm going to split these entries up into individual topics so that they're easier to digest. Let's start with the flagship feature of Cataclysm; the revamped zones on Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms.
Essentially, the game was starting to look aged. People were having a blast questing in Northrend, but the old world was looking... Old. Quest mechanics that saw you spanning continents for very little benefit were slowing people up more than the developers would like, and the ever-increasing level cap would start to get very daunting if this wasn't changed. Many things could alleviate this such as heirlooms, recruit-a-friend or the dungeon finder, but the world really needed a facelift to make it more in tune with the graphical and gameplay quality of later expansions, particularly Wrath of the Lich King.
It's also worth nothing that, from a lore perspective, the world literally did change; Deathwing shattered parts of it when he smashed through from Deepholm, and this was the perfect opportunity to show exactly how that happened by (in some cases, particularly Kalimdor) drastically changing how a zone looked and played.
There is no doubt that the new questing experience sped up those levels dramatically. The flow was significantly better, and the introduction of command boards meant it was never hard to figure out where you were headed next, while the need to cross continents was also removed. The quality of the quests also dramatically improved - where you were previously stuck with a collection of kill/collect quests, many more options made their way into the low level zones. Quest rewards also got some love, both by being more varied and with hugely improved itemization. The fact that they were aesthetically designed to complement one another throughout was also a nice touch.
Put simply; questing became far. Too. Easy. Character power was inflated hugely at level 10 (another topic) thanks to the new choices regarding talent specialization, and the content itself was designed to be done quickly without any real challenge. Another problem was that the questing was much too linear, with no real choice given in how you went about doing your quests - you simply picked up the breadcrumb and did everything as you went. This also caused immersion problems, as you'd invariably out level an entire zone within two to three easily obtained dings, thus you'd be looking at moving on without having completed the zone you were questing in. And just to be clear, this was not the fault of heirlooms, guild perks and the dungeon finder. While interspersing those three with your questing certainly compounded the problem, it existed independent of them. The entire removal of group quests also meant that players were simply not encouraged to group up and help one another for strong rewards.
It's understood entirely that many people view my negatives as good points, and that's okay. But for me, the reason they're a problem is because they work against the immersion that should be a hallmark of any MMO. The world should be a breathing and living place, something that encourages players to get involved in the story and be part of it. The heavy phasing in some zones actually work to the detriment of "massive multiplayer" by secluding players from one another and that can't help that immersion.
Another fundamental problem is that the questing is hurting player skill development by being so easy. You have to actively TRY and die before anything becomes even remotely dangerous, meaning there are effectively no mistakes to learn from as you go through. This clearly becomes a problem at the level cap when, suddenly, heroic dungeons start wiping the floor with new, unskilled or inexperienced players.
There can be no doubt that the aesthetic facelift was a huge success. The problems lie purely in the mechanical make-up of these zones and how they play. First of all, I'd break some of the breadcrumbs (not from the notice boards) and make level appropriate hubs throughout each zone. One overarching theme for the zone is a good idea, but having an entire zone dependent on that theme isn't. It gives players no choice. I'd also buff the power of mobs throughout, and lower the amount of experience gained via both quest completion and the dungeon finder. With regard to the dungeon finder, I'd also look to remove the ability to queue for dungeons you haven't found because being able to do so is both bad for immersion and synthetically inflates experience gained.
Lastly, the loss of group quests can be addressed by making zone-specific PvE scenarios, similar to the ones we're going to see in Pandaria. A scenario unlocked at the conclusion of each hub provides more content, encourages grouping up and skill development, while still remaining optional for those not interested in them.
That concludes my first Cataclysm review, and I hope to get each new one typed up at roughly a few days interval each. Topics I've still to cover include:
- Level-cap and heroic dungeons.
- Raids and heroic raids.
- Added features.
- The talent system revamp.
- Performance and class balance.
Stay tuned. :)