WoW: Cataclysm's One-Month Report Card
Now that we're all being thrust back into our real lives after putting the new Azeroth through its paces over the holiday break, how is the Cataclysm shaking out?
I'd give Blizzard an A on this if it weren't for the fact that the designers' ambitions have outstripped their abilities in several cases. There is so much to love in Cataclysm's storytelling, zone design, and quest design that the low points are all the more jarring. The long buildup to an awesome fight alongside your faction's champions against a Gronn on top of a mountain is fantastic...until the quest mob is evade-bugged and you have to wait for a server restart to complete the chain. Ditto the Vashj'ir questline that culminates in the battle for ultimate control over Azeroth's oceans at the Throne of Tides.
I'd like to see a little more variation in the structure of zones – not every grouping of quests has to follow the same basic pattern, then lead to the next quest hub, then rinse and repeat. I'd also like to see certain designers' overuse of phasing, where players see and interact with a different world than others depending on their questing state, reined in – heavily phased zones like Uldum are often buggy and shatter the MMO illusion by segregating the playerbase. Still, leveling through Cataclysm is great unless you take Andy's oft-stated position that leveling is buggy, boring, and a menial chore to be endured prior to endgame activities.
Class Mechanics: A
I'm going to get a lot of hate for this, but to hell with it. I love the new class design paradigm. I know that many healers are upset over the new mana consumption and regeneration model. Too bad – the folks I run with seem to have figured out how to make it work for them, and the gap between good and bad healers is enormous now. Instead of hating, figure it out and get better! Now more than ever, a good healer is in demand.
As far as the down-and-dirty crunchy bits of each class and spec's playstyle, I can only speak directly of my two main specs: death knight frost and blood spec. Without exaggeration, they are the two best, most engaging and rewarding specs of any class I've seriously played to date in any MMO. Most other players I know range from perfectly happy with their class (warlocks) to quite pleased (druids) to ecstatic (other death knights, mages).
I still think that Blizzard is the best in the business at creating moment-to-moment MMO gameplay, and Cataclysm is the company's best effort to date.
Next up: Dungeons and raids
I love the new heroics. They're challenging – too challenging for some, but that will change as players get more gear and experience in the content. They're rewarding – valor point rewards are best-in-slot or close, even once you have full 5-man heroic or better gear. They teach players to be better – nearly every dangerous boss ability has a tooltip that tells you what you need to know to figure out how to defeat it.
I understand that players who rely primarily on pick-up groups through the dungeon finder tool are frustrated at times by the difficulty. My personal experience is that around 80% of the pick-up groups I join complete the dungeon. That number is certainly helped by the fact that I play a competent, geared tank, but I don't think that Blizzard could make that any higher without utterly trivializing the content.
I'd say that all of the current level 85 heroic dungeons, with the exception of Deadmines (too long) and Grim Batol (too unforgiving), are at the level of the previous high-water mark of dungeons (Icecrown Citadel 5-mans). Well done, Blizzard.
Blame my guild for not getting a raid group off the ground yet, even though we have enough geared and interested players. I'm as geared as I can be out of 5-mans. To hear Andy tell it, he's liking the raids so far in both normal and heroic. I'll speak from experience just as soon as I can.
(No, I won't be joining a more progression-oriented group. I like my peoples!)
Next up: PvP, miscellany, and the final word
The rating bug that forced Blizzard to reset everyone's ratings after three weeks is unforgivable, as is the utter failure of Tol Barad. The "fix" for Tol Barad, where a victorious attacking team gets almost ten times the honor points of a successful defending faction, simply turned it into a ludicrous win-trading farce in which the defenders dance in the streets so that they can claim an offensive victory next time the battle commences. EDIT: Another change set the Tol Barad rewards to give only double points to the attackers if they win, which is a step in the right direction (thanks to commenter Josh for pointing this out!). I maintain that the batttleground itself is poorly designed to start with.
These problems aren't unfixable, and much will be forgiven if rated battlegrounds and arenas end up in a good place balance-wise. Still, the current state of PvP is sad.
Everyone knows someone – or, in my case, a lot of someones – who mostly play the game to hang out in guild chat, chase achievements, and collect pets. There's nothing wrong with that; I have a certain admiration for players who aren't in the game to conquer heroic challenges and beat their heads against overtuned progression bosses. Blizzard obviously cares to retain these folks' subscriptions, and develops content for them too.
This time around, the big draw is the new profession of archaeology. Fly around, dig up bits of lore, maybe get a piece of account-bound heirloom equipment if you're lucky. Good times, right? Yes and no. The sheer amount of travel time involved, even on a 310% speed epic flying mount, is staggering. You often have to travel across multiple zones to get to your next dig site, and that's a lot of flying. Leveling the skill itself takes a huge amount of time, since you only pick up between nine and 18 fragments in the two or three minutes you spend per dig site and it takes between 25 and 45 fragments to solve an artifact for five skill points. Factor in the multiple minutes of travel time between most dig sites, and racking up 525 skill points is a time-hungry endeavor.
I like the fun items you put together (I can summon four dancing dwarf maidens every ten minutes, which is amusing), and the hot-and-cold artifact hunting itself is better than fishing. The unbelievably slow travel part of archaeology, though, I could do without.
The other stuff that gets lumped under the "casual" heading – leveling alts, collecting mounts, etc. – is all as good as it's ever been. As much as I'm lukewarm on archaeology, life as a social/casual/whatever player has never been better.
Luckily for me, the two things I care about most in an MMO are Cataclysm's strong suit: fun PvE challenges and engaging moment-to-moment gameplay. If and when the PvP issues are addressed and archaeology gets interesting, I can see this grade improving. Until that time, Blizzard will have to amuse itself during the hours it can't sleep because I gave Cataclysm a B with buying islands and third-world countries with the gigantic stacks of money it continues to make off of World of Warcraft.