At midnight tonight, World of Warcraft: Cataclysm finally launches. Thanks to a staggered deployment of new features and content, about half of what Cataclysm offers to MMO players old and new is already in the game. That includes re-worked Azeroth, new combat mechanics, improved dungeons and some slightly improved graphics technology.
And it's good. Really, really good . The World of Warcraft of today is streets ahead of the World of Warcraft that launched six years ago. And the new levelling content that's been added finally brings the opening stages of the game to the same quality and entertainment levels that veteran players will have seen with the previous two expansion packs.
Right now, WoW is a phenomenally entertaining game; and I think you should take the free trial and have a play right now . You don't even need to buy the new expansion to have a poke about the new Azeroth.
Most of the revamp of WoW for Cataclysm has concentrated on the 1-60 levelling experience - the bit you may have played when WoW launched. The quests in that portion of the game were embarrasing, rarely a variation on “kill 10 of these”, or “collect five of their ears”. Rarely did the quests ever try any story telling or development beyond: “go to this dungeon and kill this epic boss inside”.
Things are very different in the WoW of today.
Take Westfall. Westfall is a low tier zone, a weird Children of the Corn parody where robo-scarecrows and gnolls are running rampant in gorgeous cornfields. Westfall at sunset is one of the most beautiful places in gaming. But it was always a tedious, monstrous grind. Collect boar tummies. Kill scarecrows. Collect parts. Kill gnolls. There was no storyline, only grind.
Now, in WoW, when you enter Westfall, you immediately stumble upon a murder scene. A family lie dead, alarm-bots are scurrying around an upturned horse and cart. Giving out the quests: Horatio Lane, of what appears to be CSI: Azeroth. Your first quest isn't to kill the hobos who're wandering about the fields next door. It's to get witness statements, to find out what happened, and to gather clues. They lead to a group of brigands. Brigands in a cave. There you're given a cardboard box, and asked to evesdrop on a meeting between the brigands and a shadowy figure who may, or may not have been implicated in the murder.
The story continues: to an Alliance village under attack. To an abandoned town where the homeless are finally starting to organise. To a watchtower, where a sniper takes out the elite guards while you sneak in. And finally, to an epic reveal of a new enemy.
It's breezy, funny, and swift. I burned through the zone in around three hours, gaining about five levels in the process. I loved every minute of it - from the writing of the quests (the new quests incorporate pop-culture references way beyond lip-service - some zones are full blown parodies). The writing and the storytelling is as good as any fantasy game I've played. And it's delivered in a context where you can share the story as you go along with mates.
There are some caveats. I'm a WoW fan, and I was entranced not just by the content, but how much better it was than the previous incarnation of WoW. It's also worth pointing out that the tech WoW is powered by is old, and the engine struggles with complex animations. Most of the scripted sequences involve character models attempting to emote, and speech bubbles.
But this new content is a riot. And it's all over the place. In the new Redridge Mountains, you'll discover WoW's answer to the A-Team, and put their team backtogether for one final mission. In the new Azshara, you'll ride Shredders, tiptoe through a vast minefield, and eventually take part in a bizarre recruitment ceremony for a deranged wizard. In the Ashenvale, you end up taking a series of increasingly demented Kodo journeys, before turning into a mobile artillery targeting imp.
Occasionally, you'll come across an old quest that the developers have left in, just because they can. Hogger, for instance. Or Nesingwary's hunter quests in Stranglethorn Vale. And yeah, they're nowhere near as good as the new stuff. But it's still fine. Old players will smile. New players probably won't even notice.
I've been playing WoW for a long, long time. But the last two weeks of creating and then playing with low-level characters is the most fun I've had in the game since launch. It has a sense of freshness of content, but with a layer of nostalgia.
Levelling new characters is incredibly easy now, and, thanks to the way new abilities are given out, it's more fun. At level 10, you'll earn a character defining ability - something you'd usually have had to wait until you reached top level for. And the dungeon bosses - even at low level, have had their abilities tweaked so that they actually test what your character can do from the off. In Deadmines, an underground cavern that's ripped straight from the Goonies, one simple fight now demands low level players dodge great pits of fire as they appear beneath their feet. It's like “my first raid boss”.
Not everything is perfect. I was baffled by the lack of changes to the early Orc starting area - Durotar is still too big, and still too empty. Queues for dungeons are long, and the groups you meet via the dungeon finder are of very variable quality. It may be that the game is just too scripted now: thanks to clear signposting and a re-worked levelling map, you'll rarely, if ever, have to make those epic journeys through places you shouldn't really be. You'll explore, but I doubt you'll go off the beaten track. And finally, it may be that the levelling is just too fast. There are bonkers numbers of ways to boost your levelling speed now, through rest XP (stay offline for a bit, and Blizzard will double your levelling speed), recruit a friend mechanics (if you can get a friend to join you, Blizzard will give you triple XP), heirloom items (items that can be posted between characters that can help you level alts) and the new guild mechanics (those in a guild can earn an extra 10% levelling speed). I found myself outlevelling content before I'd finished a zone. Which was a shame: I really wanted to finish the storylines.
I also wonder how it's going to feel when players leave Azeroth and enter the Burning Crusade area of Outland. The main reason for a WoW veteran to play the remade old areas is the thrill of the new. Unfortunately, that's going to end when you get to level 60 - at that point you'll be punted into Outland, the area added in the Burning Crusade. These are zones that any veteran will have quested through at least once. Probably many more. I do wonder if the Cataclysm shouldn't have altered Outland too, or built zones with content that could take you from 1-70, or even 1-80, skipping the expansions entirely.
Even so, this is a stunning rebirth for WoW. Earlier this year, Mike Morheime, Blizzard's president said that 70% of WoW players rarely make it past level 10 . I'm expecting that number to start rising dramatically.