World of Warcraft is one of the most successful gaming franchises of all time. Six years after its release, the game has increased its player base to an all-time high of 12,000,000 subscribers this year. World of Warcraft is a mind-bogglingly huge fantasy theme park that offers players an incredible number of things to do, and keeps things fresh by adding regular new content updates every few months and an expansion pack every year or two. World of Warcraft: Cataclysm is the third.

Like the two expansion packs before it, World of Warcraft: Cataclysm brings plenty of new stuff to the table. First up are a couple of new races: Goblins and the werewolf-like Worgen. Each of these races has their own starting zone, which are very nicely designed and put together.

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm: Fun with Goblins

Indeed, I'd say that leveling up a Goblin is one of the most fun things I've done in WoW as a newbie character. The experience combines a beautifully crafted series of quests and objectives that articulate a meaningful story in a very fun way. Once you're through that initial new zone, you go out into the World of Warcraft: Cataclysm world, and the game becomes the Warcraft experience we know and love. But it's clear the early levels were very lovingly designed and created, and you can really feel the sheer effort the developers put into making the experience a truly memorable one.

Even if you have no intention of levelling up a new character in World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, I'd still recommending making a Goblin and going through the starting zones just to appreciate them. The Worgen starting area is also excellent, but it has a hard time matching the Goblin experience, simply because that Goblin zone is so good.

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm: New features

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm also adds a new profession, Archeology, new race/class combinations, a guild achievement system, a bunch of new areas for high-level players to explore (and level up from the previous level cap of 80 to the new cap of 85), and new dungeons and raids where they can test their mettle. There's also quite a bit of love for those who love to kill their fellow player. Not one, but two battlegrounds have been added, and there's also a Wintergrasp-type open PvP area called Tol Barad. Plus, for the first time, players get the chance to battle one another in rated battlegrounds where the best players will get spiffy, top-of-the-line PvP gear, and where the losers will get slightly worse, but still decent gear.

One of the biggest highlights of the World of Warcraft: Cataclysm expansion, however, is that as well as adding new zones for old players, Cataclysm also completely changes the original World of Warcraft game and makes its old content great for new players.

So much so, indeed, that I've written a new review of the old World of Warcraft game. While old players are likely to enjoy this content, this move is much more about attracting new players to WoW - or indeed helping bring back players who might have played the game a while ago, but stopped. It has all been done in a very ingenious manner - essentially driven by a clever storyline that packages these changes in a very natural and convincing way. A very clever move for sure, and one that shows that Blizzard is certainly not resting on its laurels, despite its huge success, and wants to continue to grow the World of Warcraft game even more.

So those are the top-line, marketing-bullet-point changes. But World of Warcraft: Cataclysm has also ushered in less obvious, but much deeper changes to the game's underlying design mechanics.

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm: Changes to gaming mechanics

After two expansions of design evolution and feature creep, where we've seen lots of new spells, new statistics, and new items being added to the game, in many ways the developers essentially designed themselves into a corner, making a game that was, by the end of the Lich King expansion, very difficult to continue to build on in its then-current guise. So to that end, while the world of Azeroth has been wracked by massive upheaval caused by the eponymous Cataclysm, the absolute fundamentals of WoW's gameplay have also been massively and irrevocably altered in World of Warcraft: Cataclysm. Not necessarily in a bad way - but certainly in a radical way.

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm

But before I start getting into the real nuts and bolts of that, let me quickly let you know that I'm a hardcore WoW player. I've been playing for a full six years, with virtually no break. I have fully decked-out, top-level characters for each of the class roles: healing, tanking, and damage, and each of them is fully equipped for PvE content (player vs environment, or computer-controlled enemies) and PvP content (competitive player vs player). I raid twice a week, and if I'm not tooling around in game helping my fellow guildies, I'm killing Horde in battlegrounds or Arenas. The point of me telling you this is so that you can understand my perspective - and to warn you that this is where this review might start getting a bit incomprehensible if you don't play WoW, because I want to really get into the changes of the game mechanics in the language of those who do.

And where those changes are most evident are in the dungeons and raids, the real bread and butter of the World of Warcraft experience, and where most people spend their time. The dungeons contain new challenges and different settings, but their fundamentals will be largely familiar to regular WoW players. What won't be familiar to some people, but will be familiar to others, is how the way you now need to play them has shifted and changed from Lich King to Cataclysm. After playing a ton in beta, I'm really getting to grips with some very subtle, but important shifts in the way the game works that will probably surprise some people, delight some, annoy others, and catch some people out completely.

Lich King was an expansion where we saw the rise of DPS characters (damage) and their overpowered AOE (area of effect) spells. Tanks (the people who keep monsters' attention - "agro" - and stop them from attacking other people) had a fairly easy job keeping the enemy - often several of them at the same time - focused on them, enabling players who do damage to let loose every spell they could to destroy those enemy monsters as quickly as possible. While this was fun, it taught players very bad habits that will now unfortunately kill them in the new expansion.

You see, in the original WoW release, tanks had a much tougher time keeping the enemy focused on them, and because of that, if you weren't careful about what monster you were hitting, and how hard you hit it, it would stop hitting the tank and instead come after you and kill you. In Lich King, you didn't need to worry about that, because tanks' ability to keep the enemy attention on them was so over-powered. No matter what you did, you could pretty much blast the crap out of everything until it was dead. Fun, but not particularly skilful or demanding.

Not any more. World of Warcraft: Cataclysm is going back to the way it used to be: Tanks are not the aggro-magnets they used to be. Blizzard's developers want players to actually think a bit more, rather than just mash buttons. For people who've played the game since the beginning, this is going to be fairly easy to adjust to: it's a case of relearning old habits. For those who didn't... oh boy. You'll need to change your habits and learn the new way of doing things quickly, or you're going to be a liability to your team-mates, and at worst get everyone killed.

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm

And that's not the only change. There's an additional layer of challenge -- and this is something that old players will recognise. Many "pulls" in the new dungeons (groups of monsters that you need to overcome) cannot be bested by simply blasting them with AOE effects, as they could in Lich King dungeons. Indeed, if you try to do that, the monsters will run riot and kill everyone. Instead, you have to be strategic and use crowd control effects - spells and effects that temporarily disable a monster - and kill the monsters selectively in the right order. Which means your team has to be organised, on point, and thinking clearly.

I personally love these changes. They make dungeons fun and challenging in a good way, requiring skill and coordination, and a modicum of strategy. However, there is a down side, which will clearly be apparent to those who use the dungeon finder to PUG (that means tackle a dungeon with a pick-up group - a random group people using the in-game matching system).

Because the game does require more co-ordination and thought, you'll probably see a lot of initial problems with people who haven't adjusted to the new system of doing things. Or people not listening and doing the wrong thing. The days of simply button-mashing through dungeons are now over, and anyone using those old tactics will cause nothing but problems.

And where there are problems there will be arguments, nerd-raging, kicking and people quitting in frustration. I think things will settle down as players get to grips with the new system, but initially I will advise caution, and suggest that if you're going to try to PUG, to be patient and prepare to work with people to help them.

Of course, your mileage may vary, but I've definitely already seen a few explosive situations occur due to people continually breaking CC, healers running out of mana because they're healing DPS characters who can't throttle their damage, DPS going AOE crazy and wiping the group, and so on. Put it this way: I'm dungeon-crawling with trusted friends only for a few months...

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