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Blizzard secures dominance of online games with World of Warcraft: Cataclysm (review)

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm is Blizzard Entertainment‘s most ambitious expansion pack for its wildly popular online role-playing game yet. Instead of focusing on adding additional content for high-level players, like it did in its previous expansion, Blizzard went back to its original release and remade the entire world from scratch. Both new players and veterans are going to see the fruits of Blizzard’s labor in this one.

Blizzard, a division of Activision Blizzard, is issuing a very clear directive by revamping the world of Azeroth: 12 million players (and a billion dollars in annual revenue) is not enough for this company. Blizzard has always been extremely ambitious and regularly crushes expectations for its game sales. Its first expansion pack sold 2.4 million units in 24 hours, and its most recent one sold 2.8 million units in the first day. But a majority of its players are already veterans, and won’t see much of the new content unless. The biggest goal is attracting new players to the game.

And pretty much each player counts, because World of Warcraft is a subscription-based game. Each player pays around $15 a month — meaning there’s more than a billion dollars in revenue for Activision Blizzard from this game alone.

A shift in design philosophy

While I was offline, the world came to an end. Deathwing, an evil dragon god, came and destroyed huge swaths of the world of Azeroth. And, my, it is a beautiful Armageddon.

This is certainly different from the World of Warcraft that regular players like me know. The moment I make my way to the newest continent of Vashj’ir, I am attacked by a giant kraken and thrust into a scripted event — a part of the game that plays out like an interactive movie. I am thrown off the ship and nearly drown, only to be saved by comrades.

The cinematic sequence is an intentional change in direction for Blizzard, and one they explored a little in their last expansion pack, Wrath of the Lich King. Instead of simply dropping players into the world, Blizzard has begun creating more guided scripted content to make the game more appealing to a less-hardcore crowd.

The new scripted events allow Blizzard to hold players’ hands and introduce them to their characters at a better pace. There are now alerts that flash on the screen telling players when it is best to use certain abilities. Scripted events pop up heavily in the introductory areas for Blizzard’s two new races as well. With the latest expansion, Blizzard introduced the scrappy, tech-savvy Goblins and half-man, half-beast Worgen as new races players can select. The first levels for those races range anywhere from cruising around in a pretty sweet car to throwing kegs of gunpowder onto the heads of hulking abominations attacking a city.

The writing in Cataclysm is as sharp as Blizzard’s writing has ever been. The World of Warcraft makers have never been ones to shy away from including a pop culture reference from time to time. But it almost feels as if the whole writing team has a lot more freedom this time around. How often would a writing team for a game with 12 million players get away with saying something along the lines of, “Thrall’s Balls! They’re everywhere!”

A World Reborn

Blizzard has gone back to the drawing board for pretty much all of its original world of Azeroth. Dubbed the “vanilla” portion of World of Warcraft, the regions of Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms were certainly starting to show their age. That’s to be expected, though. World of Warcraft launched a full six years ago — and the content has still more or less stood the test of time.

That’s not quite good enough for the developers behind one of the most popular online games of all time. As part of the story of the newest expansion, Deathwing has ripped apart the old world of Azeroth and remade it. Some portions — originally desolate wastelands — are now lush forests and oases. Some parts of the world have been completely destroyed. But all in all, the new regions are more beautiful than they have ever been and much more fitting of a game that brings in about $180 million each month.

I’ve played through both versions of the world of Azeroth, now — the original, classic version and the newest version torn asunder by Deathwing. There’s certainly a bit of a nostalgia component to the classic world, but I would trade it for the newest incarnation of Azeroth in a heartbeat. It’s much more intuitive and easier to progress in, and the remade regions are beautiful and highly original. Each zone has its own particular flair, and players will have an easy time remembering places like Stonetalon Mountains — rather than “that place they leveled up in when they were 20.”

It fits snugly into the rest of Blizzard’s recent changes to the game, as well. Players no longer have to seek out dungeons and search tediously for other players to adventure with. With a few clicks, players are dropped into dungeons with anywhere from five to 20 other players. Blizzard’s also made it much easier to travel in the game and has increased the presence of hub cities like the orc city of Orgrimmar to increase the chance players will interact as much as possible.

Even with all the chaos in the new world, there’s a lot of new life as well. Some zones that were once wastelands were flooded by Deathwing’s arrival, turning them into lush tropical paradises. The end of the world also hasn’t destroyed most of the traditional amenities available to players — like places where they can trade and sell items and fix their broken equipment.

Something new for everyone

But it wouldn’t be an expansion pack without providing some new content for top-tier players that have been around for a while. Blizzard has introduced new places to explore like the sunken continent of Vashj’ir and lush spans of Mount Hyjal for players looking to advance even further.

In a move to appeal to an even greater common denominator, Blizzard has completely axed the divide between the “hardcore” and “casual” adventuring parties called raids. There is no longer an advantage for players that can assemble 25 people — the rewards for smaller groups are identical to those for larger groups. On paper, it’s a somewhat confusing move. Blizzard has traditionally left some appealing powerful reward system for hardcore players.

To circumvent the naysayers, Blizzard is adding a “heroic” version of dungeons. This is basically a hard mode for difficult enemies, known as bosses, that will provide better and more powerful armor and weapons upon defeat. I had a chance to try both the traditional and heroic versions of several bosses, and the difference is staggering. Even when wearing some of the best equipment available in the game, I found myself and my group regularly getting our faces smashed by these difficult bosses. So there’s certainly something here for the hardcore players looking for a challenge.

But that isn’t to say it’s like fighting against a brick wall. The newest boss encounters are intelligently designed and defeating them often requires a very simple yet elegant strategy. For example, one boss pulls all players close to it and chains them to the ground. Players have to quickly destroy the chains and run away before the boss spins around and hits them — usually killing them instantly. It’s a simple idea in concept. I can tell you that it’s much more chaotic and difficult when you actually find yourself chained to the ground and panicking a bit. Intelligent enemy design has always been a hallmark of Blizzard games, but it really shines in Cataclysm.

And players can still kill each other

One of the newest additions to the World of Warcraft is a system for competitive player-versus-player games that involve tons of people. They’re called rated battlegrounds. Basically they consist of games of capture the flag, king of the hill and siege battles that involve anywhere from 10 to 40 players.  Battlegrounds were available before Cataclysm, but they weren’t necessarily competitive. That was left to arenas, which were basically two-on-two to five-on-five melees.

Blizzard has brought that competitive element to large-scale PVP groups with rated battlegrounds in another move to appeal to an even larger player base. Traditionally there were no “true” guilds dedicated to player-versus-player content, because all the best equipment was available through competing with small teams.  Guilds were usually used for organizing large groups of adventurers that wanted to kill monsters in raids for the best equipment. That’s changing now that Blizzard has provided an option for large-scale PVP combat.

So what does it all boil down to?

Blizzard’s making a very bold statement with its newest expansion pack. They are not satisfied with their current player base and have invested a tremendous amount of time into the newest expansion to make sure there is something for pretty much everyone. They want more than 12 million players shelling out $15 every month to adventure in the world of Azeroth.

World of Warcraft is still the last vestige of the subscription model, where players pay a monthly fee to access a persistent world. Nowadays, online games have to employ a free-to-play world where players can purchase premium content like more powerful weapons to be competitive. It’s been successful — Lord of the Rings Online’s revenue doubled after it went free to play, and Dungeons and Dragons Online saw its revenue shoot up by 500 percent.

Cataclysm solidifies World of Warcraft as the game to beat. It also pretty much secures its position on top of the online role-playing game market. I don’t see any game coming out in the near future with the potential to unseat it. What that means is that we will probably continue to see waves of online role-playing games relying on a freemium revenue model. The Cataclysm expansion launches December 7, and will be available for preliminary download in the next couple of months. Gamers won’t be able to actually play the expansion yet, but will be able to as soon as Blizzard flips the switch to turn the servers on.

World of Warcraft will eventually come to an end. Odds are, it will be another online role-playing game by Blizzard that will unseat it as the dominant force in the market. Blizzard’s already said it is working on another online massively multiplayer online (MMO) game — though it has been mum on the details for the most part.

It’s the end of the world, and we really are feeling just fine. Better than fine, even. World of Warcraft: Cataclysm is an incredible testament to the ability of Blizzard’s developers and the kind of experience an online role-playing game can deliver. It isn’t without its flaws — often times, the game assumes players know nothing and holds their hands a little too much. The new zones, while beautiful, can also be a little unwieldy to navigate — particularly the newest renditions of hub cities that all players traditionally spend a lot of time in. But it still does set a standard for all other online games to follow — you can make a game that has something for just about everyone and make a ton of money off it as a result. It’s well deserving of a score of 95 out of 100.


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