Until recently it might have been considered hyperbole to say that World of Warcraft bears little resemblance to the game that it launched as six years ago. But now, following the recent releases of both a major free update and the eagerly anticipated Cataclysm expansion, there's no denying that the fantasy world of Azeroth has changed forever. Entire regions have been brilliantly redesigned following the dragon Deathwing's destructive flyover, and you don't need Cataclysm or even either of the earlier expansions to enjoy exploring them (though you do need Cataclysm to fly around them). Cataclysm brings plenty of great content to the table in addition to old-world flying, but like Wrath of the Lich King before it, it's an expansion aimed primarily at players with high-level characters.
The most noteworthy content that Cataclysm offers for newcomers to World of Warcraft comes in the form of playable goblin and worgen (werewolf) races. Like all races, they have unique traits that make them particularly well suited to certain classes or professions, but the most compelling reason to play as them is to experience the all-new zones where their adventures begin. The two could hardly be more different; the worgen starter area is reminiscent of a perpetually dark Victorian England during a werewolf epidemic, while the goblins' is almost futuristic by World of Warcraft standards, with flashing signs and marketing personnel that you can cruise past in a garishly painted hot rod. What these zones have in common is that they both feature a decent variety of quests, and like many of the other, redesigned starter zones, they do a good job of making you feel like a character of some importance from the outset, as opposed to one who starts out performing menial tasks and killing unsuspecting wildlife.
Regardless of which of the 12 available races you choose to play as, there has never been a better time to come to World of Warcraft as a new player. Not only are the redesigned starter zones significantly more fun than they used to be, but the game now does a much better job of explaining class abilities as you unlock them. For example, when you unlock the frostbolt ability as a mage, the tooltip associated with it tells you not only that it hurts and slows down enemies, but also that it's a good spell to open a fight with. And as a hunter, you're told that your damage-over-time serpent sting attack is especially useful against enemies that take a long time to kill. If you're a newcomer, these tips are invaluable, and if you're an experienced player who has previously found one or more of the 10 character classes too confusing to play, now would be a great time to give them another try. Don't bother attempting the archaeology profession with your new characters for a while, though.
Available to characters as soon as they hit level 20, archaeology is a new profession introduced in Cataclysm. It's a secondary profession like first aid, cooking, and fishing, which means that you can learn it without having to give up either of your gathering or crafting professions. On paper, archaeology seems like it would be one of the most compelling professions in the game, but in practice it's a time-consuming grind that rewards luck rather than your considerable efforts. After spotting a dig site on the map of your current continent (there are always four sites to choose from on each), you first have to make your way to the correct zone, which, even if you have a flying mount, can take a pretty long time. Then, once you're inside the area marked on the map, you start surveying it; you break the ground with a pickax and then, assuming you haven't found artifact fragments on your first attempt, you find yourself looking at a tripod-mounted telescope with a colored light next to it.
This telescope points roughly in the direction of the nearest fragments, while different colored lights let you know how far you are from them. It can take several minutes to find the three fragment deposits at any given dig site, and much longer if your character isn't a high enough level for nearby enemies to ignore you. Fragments must be collected in significant quantities before you can hit a "solve" button to piece them together and make objects that have already been randomly assigned to you as projects, and that you probably have no interest in making. The problem isn't just that the vast majority of archaeology items serve no purpose other than to be sold to vendors for insignificant amounts of money, but also that you know exactly which pointless item you're going to get as you work your way around multiple dig sites to assemble it. It's like knowing that you're holding a losing lottery scratch card, but having to get a coin out of your pocket and scratch it anyway, several times, before you're allowed to try another. There are some very desirable rare and epic artifacts up for grabs via archaeology, including mounts, pets, weapons, and crafting recipes, but it's unfortunate that there's little fun to be had trying to obtain them.
Fortunately, there's plenty of fun to be had with Cataclysm content elsewhere, starting with five new high-level zones that boast more than enough varied quests (more than 100 in each) to get you from level 80 to the new cap of 85. Like those from the original game that have been revamped, each of Cataclysm's zones has its own story to tell and is almost entirely self-contained. This portion of the game feels less organic since you more or less just move from zone to zone rather than rely on quests to gently nudge you toward other areas, but this is ultimately a better system because you're more likely to see quest chains and their respective stories through to their satisfying and occasionally spectacular conclusions. These stories all relate to the overarching Deathwing narrative, but you certainly don't need to complete every quest in every zone to understand what's going on. In fact, depending on how you play, you're likely to reach level 85 before you reach the end of your fourth or even third Cataclysm zone. You'll still want to play through all of them though, not only because they're a lot of fun, but also because completing quests is the only way to unlock many of the faction vendors, repeatable daily quests, and portals to and from your faction's capital city.
All five of the high-level Cataclysm zones (as well as many of the low-level zones that were revamped prior to Cataclysm's release) make extensive use of the phasing technology that was introduced and used sparingly in Wrath of the Lich King. As you progress through each zone's quests, your actions have an impact on the world around you that, though dramatic in your instance of the zone, are visible only to other players who have completed the same quests that you have. For example, while you're taking part in a large battle against elemental forces in the visually striking underground realm of Deepholm, another player who hasn't spent as much time questing down there (or who is further along than you are) might fly overhead and not see a battle at all. Key characters appear in different places, significant enemies don't respawn after you've killed them, and even the scenery changes on occasion. By the time you finish in a zone, you really feel like time has passed and that you've made a difference, which definitely beats wiping out an enemy force only to see it causing chaos again a few minutes later after it respawns for the next player.
In addition to Deepholm, highlights of Cataclysm include the turbulent underwater zone of Vashj'ir and the windswept desert zone of Uldum. The former is a beautiful environment with coral reefs and ancient ruins that you can admire from the comfort of a seahorse mount, while the latter is a fantastical take on ancient Egypt that incorporates large underground chambers, huge statues and pyramids, and towers that float on clouds high above the sand. Those towers, incidentally, are where you can find the entrances to one of seven new dungeons and one of three new raids. You have to find these entrances before you can use the game's superb dungeon finder option to automatically get a group together and run them, which--if nothing else--negates the problem of players dying in dungeons and then having no idea how to get back to them from the graveyard.
Five-man instances can typically be completed in around 30 to 45 minutes if you're in a group with players who know what they're doing. Runs through these diminutive dungeons are certain to get easier over time as players gain access to better armor and weapons, but a week or two after Cataclysm's launch they still demand good teamwork and--in some cases--crowd control. You should find this challenge refreshing if you've spent the last year cruising through Wrath of the Lich King's dungeons in heroic mode, and you certainly shouldn't expect to be running Cataclysm's dungeons in heroic mode right away. That's because where previously you could skip the normal difficulty dungeons completely and just go straight to the more challenging ones where better gear is up for grabs, you now have to equip a certain quality of gear before you're allowed into the heroics. Specifically, you need to wear a lot of gear of the caliber that you get from regular difficulty dungeon bosses and by completing lengthy quest lines. It's a good system, because it greatly reduces the odds of getting grouped with players who are hopelessly undergeared and/or are attempting to defeat heroic bosses that they've never even encountered at the regular difficulty level. In addition to heroic versions of the seven new dungeons, Cataclysm features level 85 heroic reworkings of the low-level Deadmines and Shadowfang Keep dungeons that have been in World of Warcraft since day one, making for some enjoyably challenging trips down memory lane.
When you've reached level 85 and you're not questing, crafting, or running dungeons, you can take part in player-versus-player contests on two new battlegrounds and in a dedicated zone that works in much the same way that Wrath of the Lich King's Wintergrasp does. Battle for Gilneas is a domination battleground that's reminiscent of the old Arathi Basin; two teams of 10 players compete for control of a mine, a lighthouse, and a waterworks, and the first to gather a predetermined number of resources from them is the winner. Twin Peaks, on the other hand, is a two-flag capture-the-flag battleground that works the same way as Warsong Gulch, in which teams score points by holding both flags in their base simultaneously. These battlegrounds are every bit as enjoyable as those that have come before them, and because only level 85 players are permitted to participate, there's little danger of teams being horribly imbalanced.
Tol Barad is a new island zone on which large-scale battles play out every two hours as the two factions vie for control of three capture points. The defending faction (that is, whichever faction won it last time) has an easier time of things, because while the attackers must control all three locations simultaneously to win, the defenders need retain control of only one until time runs out. Because of this, it's not uncommon to see defenders simply swarming on one capture point after another, while the attackers (who get limited access to siege engines) leave defenders at any points they control and then move on to the other locations with a smaller force. It can be frustrating to play as an attacker at times, but it's still fun to pit your skills against other players, and the victors get exclusive access not only to a dungeon but also to a number of repeatable quests that can be completed to earn Tol Barad commendations used to purchase PVP gear and the like.
Whether you're taking part in large-scale PVP battles, running dungeons in a group, or just questing on your own, you can now earn both experience points for your guild and reputation points for yourself within your guild by doing so. Guild levels, achievements, perks, and rewards are all new features introduced in Cataclysm, and while they got off to a rocky start (guild achievements earned guild experience points at launch, but this was changed a day or two later), they're all good incentives for guilds to work together and stay together. As guilds level up, members automatically gain perks that run the gamut from small experience and mount-speed bonuses to instant mail between guild members and the ability to summon an entire raid group to the same spot simultaneously. In addition, guilds that level up and complete achievements together gain the ability to purchase items that can't be obtained in any other way, including pets, mounts, and heirloom items that can be worn by (and are automatically appropriate for) characters of level 1 and level 85 alike.
Like those heirloom items, World of Warcraft has something for everyone right now. After six years of iterations on what was already a superb formula, this phenomenally popular massively multiplayer online game is in the best shape of its life. Areas of the world that were starting to show their age have been updated, new players are being made to feel more welcome than ever, and Cataclysm has added enough great new content to keep most players entertained for many months to come. It's unfortunate that the new archaeology profession is mind-numbing and that there aren't enough new zones that you can level multiple characters from 80 to 85 without repeating large chunks of content, but most of Cataclysm's content is so great that playing through it a second time isn't a hardship. You don't need Cataclysm yet if you're thinking of getting into World of Warcraft for the first time, but if you've got a level 70-80 character already you certainly won't regret continuing their adventures in this great expansion.