What better time to visit Blizzard HQ to see the new World of Warcraft expansion than the week right before the Electronic Entertainment Expo? We hit the ground running toward the Irvine, California-based studio to try out Cataclysm, the new expansion for the massively addictive, massively multiplayer game World of Warcraft. We got a hands-off demonstration of some of the game's new features, and we also got a chance to sit down and play with some of the new content ourselves. Please be advised that this story contains minor spoilers.
Cataclysm will add an enormous amount of new playable content to World of Warcraft (the previous expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, launched with about 1,000 quests; the pre-beta version of Cataclysm already has more than 3,000), including lots of new places to explore, new high-end "raids" for ambitious adventuring parties, new high-end competitive player-versus-player, and greatly revised versions of existing in-game geography. This will reflect both the game's ongoing story and encourage new and returning players to try out the game's lower-level content again or for the first time.
In the wake of the previous expansion's events, which included a destructive rampage by the elder dragon Deathwing the Destroyer, the face of World of Warcraft's realm Azeroth has been forever changed. Key characters central to the game's lore have been defeated or gone missing, such as the orc chieftain Thrall, while several notable geographical locations have been altered dramatically to accommodate the ongoing story, as well as the ongoing needs of players. For instance, Deathwing's raid on the Alliance hometown of Stormwind has left the once-pristine park district a smoking ruin (fortunately, the druid trainer escaped and has relocated), while both Stormwind and the Horde hometown of Orgrimmar have been rezoned with additional trade districts, as well as secondary player banks to help manage overcrowding. Orgrimmar has also been rezoned to allow for separate districts for the tauren, troll, and new goblin races, while the undead starting area of Silverpine has been changed to indicate the faction's new designs on conquest. Once it was just the site of a few moldy, old graves, but now Silverpine's forest is full of war machines for churning out disease-ridden abominations to take over Azeroth, while the tauren starting areas of Thousand Needles and Shimmering Flats have been flooded and changed from desert mesas to rocky riverbeds.
Numerous other minor and major gameplay systems are also being revamped for the expansion. The user interface is getting tweaked to give better alerts (such as a reminder to train new skills your character has earned). Other gameplay additions that had been tossed around at last year's Blizzcon event have also undergone further consideration, and some won't make the cut. The previously announced "path of the titans" feature, for instance, is being scrapped in favor of enhancing the game's glyph system with a third, "medium" glyph to help players further customize their characters. Cataclysm will also offer a new trade profession, archeology, which will tap into the game's lore and backstory by letting players dig up and assemble common artifacts or occasionally find rare ones. These artifacts will primarily be cosmetic accoutrements or "toys," though the Blizzard team suggests that a few may be extremely powerful weapons, armor, or other stuff.
In addition, the "guild currency" system suggested at Blizzcon will not make the cut, though Cataclysm will offer new interface elements that are more supportive of guild members, such as the ability to directly find craftsmen who have the recipes and skill level needed to concoct whichever weapons, armor, or other items you're after. The expansion will also have a new guild advancement system that will let your guild gain "levels" that unlock new global abilities for the group, as well as special guild-only items that can be purchased if you've gained enough faction standing with your guild to unlock them with such activities as raiding and doing well in PVP competition. Guild advancement will come with a new guild interface that will let you more easily call out notable news and achievements, as well as an achievement list that will record who completed which raid or attained which battlegrounds rank and when.
We were then shown some of Cataclysm's new zones, which include "Uldum," a huge outdoor expanse that bears a striking resemblance to ancient Egypt, including pyramids, palm trees, and a Nile-like river. According to the game's lore, this zone houses "titan machines," ancient magical weapons of great power and was previously hidden by illusions, though the illusions were disrupted by Deathwing's attack. And now, exposed area's weapons and quests represent juicy targets of opportunity for both factions. Other zones include various elemental planes presided over by powerful beings known as elemental princes. The plane of air, for instance, appears in the clouds and has the dreamy, hazy look of a grand Arabic city in the clouds, not unlike the palaces in the Disney movie Aladdin. The plane of earth, however, is a gigantic crystalline cave suspended between time and space, in which Deathwing incubated for many years before emerging.
In addition to new player-versus-environment zones, Cataclysm will add plenty of PVP stuff, including new PVP playfields and a new mode of competition. This will come in the form of "rated battlegrounds," which Blizzard describes as "competitive battleground play" that will do a better job of rewarding skilled players. The current game's battlegrounds do offer an opportunity for skilled players to earn precious honor points to purchase valuable rewards, but they also let random players in pick-up groups act like compete jackasses. The new rated battlegrounds will more strongly encourage team-based play by offering a new reward type, "conquest points," while offering two new, tightened-up playfields on which to compete. This will include "Twin Peaks," a mountainous zone with extra graveyards smack dab in the middle of the map, so that defeated players can respawn in an area much closer to the action.
Other additions include a good chunk of high-end raid content, as well as new ease-of-use options for raids, such as the ability to "downshift" larger raids into smaller groups. For example, in the event of playing in a 25-person raiding party one night, you might find out the next night that not everyone can make it. Rather than simply giving up on the raid, you can "downshift" the raid to up to three 10-person raids, which will offer slightly easier content and rewards that aren't quite as good...but you'll at least be able to keep your progress. "Raid lock," the state of being committed to a single raid area after defeating one or more bosses, is also being modified. If you do happen to make some progress into a raid but lose your group, you can join another raiding party that has gotten at least as far. The expansion's new, marquee raiding content is the Bastion of Twilight, a huge subterranean citadel presided over by one of Deathwing's chief lieutenants, and on the hardest difficulty, it houses a dark and terrifying secret below ground that may or may not involve eggs of some sort.
After getting a demonstration of the new high-end features in the game, we changed gears and played through the starting areas for the expansion's two new races: the Alliance worgen (a race of werewolves that can switch back to their human forms) and the Horde goblins. They begin their lives as full-on humans that later become infected by a curse that changes them to wolf-people, though they also possess the racial ability to briefly switch back to their "true form," which gains them a temporary burst of running speed. The race starts off in a remote kingdom besieged by other worgen who attack the settlement relentlessly. Your earliest quests require you to coordinate with the settlement's royalty to evacuate merchants and rustle up livestock before they're butchered until you yourself get infected by the worgen curse. Fortunately, the town alchemist treats you with a potion that lets you keep your humanity, and your ensuing quests involve defending the town from an undead encroachment.
Goblins, on the other hand, are the Horde's "whimsical" race and intended to be a foil to the Alliance's gnomes. The goblins' starting area is a broken-down scrap yard converted into a functional, half-working gadget town, complete with rickety freeways on which to drive your equally rickety hot rod (a drivable vehicle that gets added to your inventory shortly after you arrive). As a goblin character, you're part of a massive corporation of other money-grubbers who are all trying to oust the town's administrator, the merchant prince, who thinks he's so big, riding around in a miniature steam-powered mech and all. Your initial quests require you to collect trade components, hop in your hot rod to rustle up some non-player character followers who help you fight temporarily, and to don a cool leisure suit, sunglasses, and a "bling" necklace to attend a corporate pool party at the filthy, broken-down (but still functional) communal swimming pool. At the pool, you must use new temporary hotkey abilities like "pour a drink," "serve hors d'oeuvres," and "dance" to entertain a certain number of other goblin guests to help your character climb the corporate ladder.
The quests for the new races clearly have a lot of variety and are a whole lot different from the original game's "go kill 10 of these" or "go escort this character or talk to that character" quests. They also have lots of variety and interactivity, both with other characters and with the environment. Cataclysm will clearly have a lot to offer, including the entirely new experience for both new races, plus a redone "old world" Azeroth with new environments and tons of new quests, along with lots of new high-end content. The expansion will launch…when it launches.