I'll admit I was skeptical. When my mage first breathed life in Elwynn Forest almost six years ago, horrors such as Hogger ensured that he died at least five times before Level 10. When he first blinked into Hellfire Peninsula in 2007, Fel Reavers squashed him at least twice before Level 61. Northrend was kinder, and his first death occurred after I foolishly attempted to solo Prince Valanar atop Naxxanar at Level 71. Playing in the World of Warcraft: Cataclysm beta, however, he was eight bars into Level 83 before he even fell under 60% health. By then, he had never grouped and never even bothered to train First Aid. I wanted to attribute this success to acquired skill or just plain dumb luck, but in the end I couldn't shake the feeling that World of Warcraft had simply become too easy.
It's a concern shared by many Vanilla-flavored veterans such as myself, and newer players no doubt get sick of hearing about the way things used to be. Back in our day, we like to say, epics were actually epic and exalted reputations were actually deserving of the name. I spent virtually all my time in Vanilla in Risen on Alleria, which achieved some substantial notoriety through such achievements as the U.S. first kill of Kel'Thuzad (back when he wasn't a pushover) and the world's first successful execution of Heigan's dance. And we fought hard for all of it. Being in a high-end raiding guild in those days meant sacrificing both evenings and relationships for the all-important server first, and this in an era without achievements. Raiding meant hours of testing strategies, possibly receiving one upgrade every two weeks, and working in sync with a group of raiders whose skills and personal quirks you knew as well as your own. I can't say I'm proud of all that time I gave to Blizzard, but I remember some runs through Blackrock Depths in 2005 much more than I remember whole months in later expansions.
By contrast, owing to the use of tokens, smaller raids, and plenty of epics in instances, Wrath of the Lich King allowed me to become extremely powerful even with only a fair amount of commitment to my guild. I can't say I frown on this too much: the casual focus allowed me to enjoy WoW while holding down a full time job and dating (and eventually marrying) my future wife. At times, however, it seemed a little extreme. Indeed, these days, most of us can fairly confidently enter Icecrown Citadel with a random group of people we've never met before, amass a stash of epic loot and tokens, and possibly even down the Lich King himself. The argument could be made that certain heroic encounters in the recent expansions are much more difficult than anything we faced in our beloved 40-mans, but the fact remains that it takes much less effort to get to that point.
At first glance, this nod to casuals seems taken to extremes in Cataclysm's UI, and players on live received their first glance at these changes yesterday. Gone are the days when you had to spend hours looking for a quest objective à la Mankrik's wife. Instead, taking a cue from several popular addons such as Questhelper, the names of enemies in your quest log are highlighted in bright red or yellow above their heads (as in PVP) and, a carry-over from WOTLK, their locations are conveniently marked on your maps. Formerly fairly complicated stats such as defense have been removed, and when certain spell procs are ready (such as my mage's Hot Streak), a handy graphical notice pops up around your avatar to let you know it's time to let loose. Flying mounts occasionally seem to remove the challenge of fighting your way to an objective, and health increases astronomically at each level, so at Level 85 I had just under 75,000 hit points as a mage. All in all, however, questing itself in Cataclysm is a thoroughly enjoyable affair (more on that later), particularly owing to the heavy use of phasing, and I'll be quick to say that I believe the upcoming expansion has some of the most interesting and memorable quest lines ever implemented in the game. I was having a great time, but I couldn't help but feel I'd be heading back to the same old grind once I reached Level 85 and that the dumbed down stats and interface would make gearing up and improving my stats feel more like Mafia Wars than World of Warcraft 1.0.
So you can imagine my surprise when I first entered a Cataclysm instance and found my perfectly capable group almost wiping on the first pull. I was floored, literally and figuratively. In my case, it was the Stonecore, a level 82-84 instance carved into the side of the Temple of Earth in Deepholm. Long accustomed to the Northrend drudgery of AOEing trash mobs on the way to a boss, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself needing to whip out my long-neglected Polymorph spell to keep things under control before each pull, which is closer to how it was in Vanilla (as opposed to the AOE Thunderclap fest. etc. in WOTLK). Even more surprisingly, I found myself staying in my frost spec to keep from dying. By the end, our Level 85 tank with an ICC title had been smacked around the map, we had wiped three times, I was having to think, and I was loving every second of it. And, mind you, this wasn't even heroic. That's a whole other exciting nightmare.
With some easier exceptions (hello, Vortex Pinnacle) on the way to Level 85, this scenario was repeated many times over, from Blackrock Caverns to the revamped heroic Deadmines. Friendships were forged in instances, much as they were in the old days, from having to rely on the skill of another player as well as your own for survival. And as for questing? By Level 84 I was somewhat struggling to complete quests, and I often had to strategize when approaching a group of quest-related enemies. While this is partially related to fewer implemented upgrades at this stage of the beta, there seemed little doubt that Blizzard was making you work for those last couple of levels regardless. In other words, Blizzard seemed to ease you into the new changes, making you prepared for the heavy hitters when you encountered them. This is WoW as it used to be and should be, and by the time I was traipsing across the Twilight Highlands, I couldn't care less that I knew where to find the mob from the map. If Blizzard can keep this up, then I'll be playing again for a long time.
At this point, then, Cataclysm appears to be neither too casual nor too hardcore, but more of the perfect medium that I believe Blizzard's been looking for this whole time. For former diehards such as myself who've reluctantly enjoyed the more casual side of WoW over the last couple of years, this seems like just the thing we need to fully enjoy the game again. Whether or not the game will remain as challenging come live release remains to be seen, but so far it looks like making everyone happy sometimes just takes destroying the world and remaking it. To old hardcore players, I say: come back, there's a lot of stuff here worth checking out. To casual players, I say: it's a little more challenging, but not enough to frighten you away. To my wife, I say: Don't worry, I'll never miss dinner for a raid.