Rumour has it that Blizzard's massive new expansion for World of Warcraft entered alpha around the same time as the final raid instance was patched into Northrend. That means we're already counting down towards launch – and that Cataclysm should be ready this year. Here's why we can't wait. And why lapsed subscribers should probably return to Azeroth.
The Cataclysm name comes from the violent eruptions that will precede its launch. Nothing less than a outright destruction can satisfy Blizzard's requirements. They want to blow up the original world. Volcanoes will erupt across Azeroth, tsunamis will break against the shores, mountains will crumble and the entire geography will change forever. The reason? To bring old boring old vanilla WoW up to the standards of new WoW.
“The cataclysm event provides a great hook for us to make all these changes that would ordinarily seem very strange,” says Tom Chilton, one of World of Warcraft's lead designers. “It's hard to go back to old content and change it without creating questions about 'Why was that here one day and not today?' Something that we always hear from players is that they would like the world to be more dynamic. Even though players want the world to be more dynamic, it's very important that you do it in a way that makes sense.”
Who's behind the events of the Cataclysm? Step forward Deathwing the Destroyer. Formerly known as Neltharion and Lord Daval Prestor, the father of Onyxia and leader of the Black Dragonflight has been missing presumed dead since the events of Warcraft II. Actually, according to the Warcraft lore, he's been recuperating on the Elemental Plane and it's his re-emergence into Azeroth, directly through the world's crust, that's torn the everything asunder. He's a bit of a bad dude.
One thing that Blizzard's designers are proud of in their last expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, is that you're aware of arch-villain Arthas from the moment you step into the new continent of Northrend. His repeated appearances help to give purpose to the expansion, and have built up anticipation for the final fight to be patched in. Deathwing will have a similarly slow but pervasive introduction.
New content means new characters to level up. The good news is that the Horde are getting even more green: goblins are joining the fun. They're going to make their home in Azshara, just north of the Orc city of Orgrimmar, and their engineering prowess ha to be seen to be believed. Their greatest triumph? A giant, skyscraper-sized rocket launcher that should protect Orgrimmar from aerial attack.
Goblin players begin their life at their home in Kezan – a factory city that's churning out sludge and trinkets. When the Cataclysm hits, an earthquake destroys Kezan and the fleeing gobbos ar sold into slavery by a treacherous leader. They're saved when a battle between Horde and Alliance breaks out around their boat. Epic drama: the battle is over a caged Thrall.
The Goblin racial abilities are already hilarious. They have their own personal banker – a hulking Troll slave that can be summoned at will. They have a jetpack that launches them into the air. Because they're such great hagglers, they'll receive the best faction discounts in the game. And, they get a one percent increase to their attack and casting speed. The result? They're completely overpowered.
If you want to start a Goblin character, you'll have a range of classes to choose from. You can be a Goblin Death Knight, Hunter, Mage, Priest, Rogue, Shaman, Warlock or Warrior. We're torn between a Hunter (the goblins are smaller than their pets) or Rogue – their sneak animation is hilarious.
You know what the Alliance needs? Furry roleplaying Twilight fans. The new Alliance race are the Worgen – cursed humans that, when they start fighting, turn into wolves. If you want to find out where they come from, try visiting the Greymane Wall. Just head directly south from the Undercity, at the base of Silverpine Forest. Worgen will be leaving from here come Cataclysm.
Worgen are originally from Gilneas, a kingdom that has spent the past five years sheltering behind the Greymane Wall. The look of the native Gilneans is pure Victorian punk: they favour waistcoats, top hats, and expensive tailoring.
Worgen's innate racial abilities mean they're perfect for WoW players who want to hit the top of the damage meters – they're granted an automatic one percent bonus to their damage output. They're great at skinning, and they get a free sprint bonus every three minutes. Not quite OP. But pretty powerful.
Worgens have eight class options. You can create a Death Knight, Druid, Warrior, Hunter, Mage, Priest, Rogue or Warlock. A werewolf death knight? Yes please.
The talent trees for all character classes are being completely overhauled, and the main goal is to prune out boring but valuable talents that passively increase damage or healing. That should mean more toys to play with, extra buttons to click and more variety in playing styles. “I'd expect to see a further pruning of critical class buffs and debuffs,” explains Chilton, “because it's still a little more restrictive than what we'd like to see. A lot of what Mastery (see 13) and the talent changes are about is making sure that the choices players make about their character are interesting. Hopefully that will add character depth without making the game more complex.” Is this the end for two button raiding?
Instead of spending points on passive skills when it comes to deciding your talents, you'll earn 'Mastery' bonuses. A rogue might pick up bonus poison damage for each point in Assassination, for example, and hit rating for every Combat skill. It's a way for Blizzard to prune technical talents and exchange them for fun clickable abilities.
The previous level cap for World of Warcraft characters, 80, is being raised to 85. Previous expansions have shifted it in increments of 10 – 60-70 f Burning Crusade and 70-80 for Wrath of the Lich King. The disparity may come from the sheer amount of quests and zones players currently have to play through. Levelling a new character is an huge amount of work.
At level 85, players will have access to an outrageous 76 talent points. Blizzard's Greg Street points out that this means you can have a signature 21 point talent from one tree and a 51 point ability from another, hopefully removing the reliance on 'cookie cutter' builds for raiders.
Recurring NPC Harrison Jones may have some of the best lines in WoW, but he's going to be joined by friends in Cataclysm. Everyone. That's thanks to the new Archaeology skill. With it, you can find hidden artefacts, uncover tidbits of lore and enter phased events. Perhaps you'll even see secret messages written on the eyelids of a cute girl in the third row.
Linked to the Archaeology skill is a brand new way of levelling called Path of the Titans. There are six Paths to choose from, linked to each of the mythical Titans (the creators of Azeroth) and you earn new abilities in them by cashing in your archaeological finds. Joining the 'Cult of Golganneth the Thunderer', for instance, hardens you against physical damage – perfect for Player vs Player orientated players. Significantly, you'll pick your path independently of your class and talent spec.
Path of the Titan talent trees will feature several choices at every tier, and the new abilities are added in the form of ancient glyphs, which sit on the same panel as your current glyphs. If you're an inscriptor, it may be worth stocking up on materials right now.
Currently, all players can customise their gear with gems and enchants – an essential step for top-tier raiders. In Cataclysm, most of the professions will be able to tweak the stats on items. Tailors, blacksmiths, leatherworkers, jewellers and engineers will be able to alter weapons and armour by 'reforging' it. That means taking 50% of the bonus for one stat and replacing it with a brand new one.
Blizzard's phasing tech, which can show players in the same zone different terrain and NPCs depending on their progress through a quest chain, is going to be everywhere in Cataclysm. The new starting zones for Goblins and Worgen, for example, will change as you level towards the cataclysm event itself. “Phasing is a powerful tool,” says Chilton, “but it can be disruptive to the player's perception of the integrity of the world if we use it too much or in the wrong ways.” The narrative of Cataclysm is going to be even more heavily embedded in the quest chains than it was in Wrath of the Lich King. “We don't really approach any quest line or story with the idea that we need to use phasing here,” Chilton explains, “We approach it based off the needs of what it is that we're trying to achieve. So if we're talking about the Barrens, we'll try to identify the most core thing to do with what's going on with the story of the Barrens and we'll try to focus more on those than we ever did before. And if in the process of doing that we have an idea that's awesome and will be supported really well by phasing, then we decide whether or not to use it.”
Blizzard have made it clear there will be a large scale world event, like the pre-Lich King zombie invasion, that heralds the launch of the expansion. It could be happening already. Players have reported random earth tremors shaking their screens from all over Azeroth. It's almost like there's something ready to explode out of the ground.
Deathwing's emergence from the ground is the start of a new chapter in World of Warcraft's development. It's given the developers a chance to go back and assess what worked, and didn't, in the original continents of Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms. All of those zones will be touched by the cataclysm – and all players will see the effects. The effects will be permanent. Once the expansion launches, there's no going back to classic WoW. New, or returning players won't have to buy the expansion to see the changes, either. They'll be open to all, even if they just own the base game.
The most common complaint for WoW veterans? That the flying mounts available in Outland and Northrend aren't available within the original world. That's changing. The new Azeroth geography means it's now suitable for flying mounts.
Desolace is WoW's most boring zone. That's changing. Desolace is getting a greenwash, its ancient bone-dry sands replaced with verdant jungle. Speculation abounds that the botanical miracle is something to do with executed leader of the Tauren, Cairn Bloodhoof, not being as dead as he seems.
The most impressive change comes in the Barrens, the Horde starter zone. The new design gets rid of the large, sprawling areas and replaces it with two new, tightly packed zones. They're split horizontally via a river of red lava.
Long, thin and eminently skippable, Darkshore will be pretty much eviscerated by the events of Cataclysm. It's becoming a new front for Horde troops.
Orc Warchief Thrall is leaving Orgrimmar to take up a meta-position as Guardian of Tirisfal. Unfortunately he's left Overseer Garrosh Hellscream, leader of the Horde expedition in Northrend, in charge. Garrosh has never quite got the hang of the Alliance/Horde ceasefire. Lok'tar Ogar! and all that.
One of Hellscream's first acts is to declare open war on the Alliance. “We're setting up a change in the attitude of the Horde,” says Chilton, “They'll become more reminiscent of the Horde of the past in terms of aggressiveness and attitude towards the world. This is the World of War... craft after all.”
Sadly there's no convoluted storylines for the Alliance (yet): all we know for sure is that Stormwind is getting a werewolf quarter for the Worgen to live in. “There are a lot of changes going into the Eastern Kingdoms and the traditional Alliance zones and storylines,” says Chilton. “There are definitely changes that happen to the Alliance structure too, but I wouldn't say they're as dramatic as those on the Horde side.”
As well as setting his sights the Alliance Humans, Dwarves, Night Elves, et al, Hellscream is also stirring up trouble for his own side. He'll execute Tauren leader Cairn Bloodhoof for treason, throw most of the Undead and Blood Elves out from Orgrimmar and then redecorate the city in tasteful black iron. Smell that? That's an epic shitstorm approaching.
There's a reason the new level cap is only five levels, rather than the usual expansion 10. It's so that the designers could concentrate on getting more endgame content ready for the launch. There'll be four new raid dungeons and eight heroics open from the start. Raiders: start gathering your consumables now.
New versions of Deadmines and Shadowfang Keep are being planned that will be playable by top level characters as heroics. These ancient dungeons are long forgotten classics – the Deadmines ends with players fighting atop an underground Galleon. It's the Goonies!
There's a stronghold in the East of the Wetlands behind the Dragonmaw gates that's currently protected by level 60 elites. You can fight your way to the doors, but they won't open. It's in here, in Grim Batol, that Deathwing will set up his home in Cataclysm. The area will be transformed into a new zone, Twilight Highlands, with the keep locked off as the final raid encounter open at launch.
The first levelling area for level 80 characters will be the underwater area of the Sunken City of Vashj'ir. This naga city is the gateway to the Abyssal Maw dungeon as well as one other five man. It wouldn't be overly surprising if a later raid featuring Deathwing's ally, naga Queen Azshara, is patched into Vashj'ir later.
Mount Hyjal often crops up in the mythos of Warcraft, and in Cataclysm it'll be under attack by old foe Ragnaros. Like the City of Vashj'ir, Hyjal will be an early 80s zone for levelling. The early quests see you putting out the fires burning throughout the zone. Later, you'll be reclaiming the top of the mountain.
One levelling zone is entirely underwater – with players adventuring on the surface of the seabed. Another dungeon, the Abyssal Maw, features astonishing views of Azeroth's sea life, showing off Cataclysm's new water and lighting effects. Somewhere within lies the ancient sea-god Neptulon, who holds a weapon that can control the entire seas. That might be useful when fighting a giant angry dragon.
There's a theme to the new zones and raids in Cataclysm: the elements. Each is a level on the Elemental Planes that Deathwing has shattered on his journey. Representing Earth is Deepholm; vile caverns filled with worms and stone giants. There'll be at least one five man instance in Deepholm.
Ragnaros, a vicious and much loved fire elemental, is back. He used to live inside Blackrock Mountain, until a steady stream of level 60 adventurers banished him/spanked him all the way home. To add insult to injury, we'll now fight him in his resting place on the Fireplane - a level 85 raid. Pwned. Again.
A zone called Deepholm will serve as a central hub for the level 80+ zones. “The new areas we're creating are scattered around the world,” says Tom Chilton, “so it would be very inconvenient for players to have to fly backwards and forwards across the continents all the time. Deepholm, because it's the Elemental Plane of Earth and is not necessarily directly attached to Azeroth in a physical sense, acts as a gateway. You might want to invest in a gnomish/goblin mining hat.
There's talk of Alliance and Horde airships inside Deepholm. We think you should expect air and gunships similar to Icecrown's mobile HQs, but given the geography of Deepholm – all narrow rock pathways and long drops, it could mean an entirely new form of transport.
Earth, Fire, Water... the Air plane is represented by Skywall, home to a mid-80s levelling area, one five man dungeon and a single boss raid. Since Warcraft lore says Skywall is home to Al'Akir the Windlord, it's safe to assume that he's the big boss.
Situated far South of Un'goro Crater, Uldum is a desert zone with two instances themed around ancient Egypt. It's home to a lost Titan city and a race of giant stone cats, the Tol'vir. We think the final Uldum dungeon, currently just a giant facade at the very south of the zone, will be patched in as a raid later on.
In vanilla WoW, play culminated in Blackrock Spire and Blackwing Lair They were epic instances, taking hours to play through. Now, they're back. In Cataclysm, Deathwing's return as head of the Black Dragonflight stirs up more trouble under the mountain. A raid dungeon, Blackwing Descent, will see you face off against Deathwing's son Nefarian, alongside a five-man, Blackrock Caverns.
Arena fights are widely regarded as the pinnacle of World of Warcraft's PvP. That's going to change. Do well in battlegrounds, now, and you'll have the same access to rated arena gear as gladiators. Hot loots for all!
Ever thought that the cruel pigeonholing of Dwarves into axe- wielding warriors and paladins was a bit prejudiced? Then rejoice in the new class combos Cataclysm allows, like Tauren priests, Human hunters and Blood Elf warriors.
The new world PvP zone in Cataclysm is the Isle of Tol'Barad. It's an off-shore prison policed by mages from Dalaran and Stormwind, but it's main purpose is to host faction level battles between Alliance and Horde. Don't fear for lag, though: these battles aren't going to be concentrated around the prison fortress. “In Wintergrasp, explains Chilton, “players are so concentrated that it becomes difficult for the server to handle. We'll be trying to spread players out among different objectives more effectively.” Chilton didn't confirm it, but spread out objectives and vehicle combat suggest that boat-to-boat fighting might well be a mainstay of Tol'Barad battles. When the battle for control of Tol'Barad is over, it will become a daily quest hub, which the designers are hoping will encourage yet more fighting.
“We thought that when the battle wasn't going on in Wintergrasp, it would be a good environment for spontaneous world PvP,” explains Tom. “But the way the Lich King economy developed players didn't stay after the battles to farm for primals. What we're trying to do is meld the idea of Wintergrasp with the Isle of Quel'Danas (the daily quest hub from the Burning Crusade ). That felt like that players were naturally there and had activities they wanted to do, and PvP spontaneously happened without us needing to force it.”
Guilds in World of Warcraft are about to be overhauled, with the intention of making it much harder to bounce from group to group. Guilds will be able to gain levels and achievements and invest points in meta-talent trees. These abilities will range from reducing costs for new gear, to increasing gold drops, removing reagents for buffs and mass resurrection. It's just another reason to play with friends. Or with your friends in the official, absolutely awesome, PC Gamer WoW guild.
Guild leaders largely find new members by either spamming advertisements into the trade channels, or via word of mouth. A new Looking for Guild interface should make recruitment less of a trial. Group calenders should also make guild alliances and informal pugs easier to arrange.
World of Warcraft's statistical mechanics are largely incomprehensible to the average player. That's changing – with arcane numbers like armour penetration, and mana-per-five being removed from the game entirely. Say goodbye to your spreadsheet.
In Wrath, Blizzard finally nailed how to keep players interested in the very best loot in the game: upgradable tier items. Bought over a period of months, each armour set can be upgraded twice, by combining it with tokens earned in raids. That's how top-end loot is likely to function in Cataclysm, too. “We really like the idea of having each tier set broken into three stages like that which players can progress through,” says Chilton, “A lot of players have access to the tier set, but the upgrades still give players a way to express their awesomeness.” Your tier 11 set is going to rock.