Several days ago I stayed up until midnight so that I could be among the first players on my server to start playing the new content in World of Warcraft's Cataclysm expansion. We'll be posting our full review sometime next week, but in the meantime I wanted to give you all a heads-up on where I'm at with the game.
After experimenting with my three level-80 characters in order to see how they had changed following recent updates, I initially decided that the night elf death knight was going to be the one I'd play through the Cataclysm content with first. Predictably, moments after midnight the server was struggling to cope (and eventually failed for a time) as thousands of players all gathered in the same spots to get their Cataclysm adventures under way. Personally, I had opted to hang out near a flight trainer in Stormwind so that I could learn to fly in the original Azeroth continents before heading out to one of the all-new zones. That was my first mistake, because as you can see in the screenshot below, plenty of other players had the same idea.
With my flying lesson bought, and after struggling to interact with a couple more non-player characters that were being similarly obscured by crowds of players, I made it to the new Mount Hyjal zone. There, I spent maybe 45 minutes or so trying to complete the same quests that hundreds of players from both factions were also trying to get done, replaced my favorite epic sword with a green quest reward, and then called it a night because competing for quest items and enemies was becoming increasingly frustrating as more and more players flooded into the area. Fortunately, players are much more spread out now, and so the time I've spent playing since that first night has been much more productive.
I've mostly been playing with my dwarf hunter this week, and as of this writing he's level 83 after playing through most of Mount Hyjal and everything that the underwater zone of Vashj'ir has to offer. While I found the former to be a little disappointing because of how similar it is to other zones in Azeroth, the latter really impressed me. World of Warcraft's first underwater zone is everything that I hoped it would be and much, much more. Without giving too much away, some of the highlights include taming your own seahorse mount, a series of flashback-style quests in which you get to play as a naga, and rides on both a shark and a submarine. The ending of the Vashj'ir storyline that you're treated to after playing through all (or at least most) of its 160 quests is also well worth the effort.
Like the original zones that were significantly changed prior to Cataclysm's arrival, the new areas introduced in the expansion are almost entirely self-contained. Previously, quests in any given zone would encourage you to dip in and out of other zones and ultimately move you into them, but that doesn't appear to be the case any longer. Instead, every zone (with the exceptions of those in Outland and Northrend, which haven't changed since they were introduced in the Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King expansions, respectively) has a largely linear line of quests that tells a story from beginning to end. I wasn't sure what to think of this new approach initially, but it has really grown on me. Not only am I getting to see all of these stories through to their conclusions, but my quest log is no longer filling up with unfinished quests that I didn't complete before moving on to another zone.
Another reason for the unusually uncluttered state of my quest log is that dungeon quests are now dealt with in a much smarter way. I've played through only two of the expansion's seven new dungeons to date, so this might not be true of all of them, but it seems that rather than going into a dungeon with several quests to complete inside, you now go in with only one or two. Then, as you progress, you have opportunities to turn them in and take on new quests. In Blackrock Caverns, for example, there's a quest associated with each boss, and so after downing one you claim your reward and can accept the quest for the next one. It really is a great system, and I can't wait to see how it's implemented in dungeons like The Stonecore (which I've now found the entrance to--a requisite for being able to run dungeons now, even via the group finder option) and The Vortex Pinnacle.
In addition to playing with my hunter, I've checked out both the worgen and goblin starter zones, formed a guild with some GameSpot colleagues to get a good look at the new guild leveling and rewards systems, and spent some time playing around with the new archaeology profession. I had already played through the worgen starter zone in the beta the one time that I logged into it, which might be why I found it a little underwhelming, but entering the goblin area for the first time was a real "wow" moment. The zone is unlike anything that has previously appeared in World of Warcraft, and before I'd even reached level 3 I was using a hot rod to navigate it. Archaeology is also good fun as far as professions go, though despite retrieving numerous fragments from several different dig sites, I have yet to finish an artifact. That will change this weekend, I'm sure.
Obviously I'm not ready to deliver my final verdict on World of Warcraft: Cataclysm just yet, and let's be honest, there are probably very few of you reading this who are waiting for a review before deciding on whether or not to buy it. The review will be up next week for sure though, and in the meantime I'll just say that after six years of playing and canceling/renewing my account on more than a couple of occasions, Cataclysm and all of the changes that preceded it have me more excited about playing World of Warcraft than I've been in a very long time.