WoW Archivist: In defense of Cataclysm
Seven years ago this fall Cataclysm struck WoW. With a patch called simply “The Shattering,” the Azeroth that we had leveled and reveled in since 2004 disappeared forever. WoW will soon be 13 years old, so Cataclysm‘s launch was essentially the midpoint for the game to date. It was the expansion that changed WoW more than any other, and it remains the most controversial.
It was also a turning point for the game that allowed WoW to succeed against modern competitors. Cataclysm was pivotal for more than just its reshaping of Azeroth. Let’s look back at what Cataclysm delivered and how it transitioned the game from the first era of WoW to its current version.
Deathwing has earned his nickname. Blizzard pinned it all on him, but the developers are the ones who really wanted to blow up the world and re-imagine WoW‘s leveling experience. D-Dub’s Shattering was just an excuse. Looking back, this was utterly necessary.
Can you imagine new WoW players today leveling through the original classic zones? Quests were hidden around the map. Most were standalone, with no follow-up. Some quest stories had no actual conclusion. Many sent you to different zones or even different continents to complete them. Quest rewards didn’t care about your class or your spec. Grinding mobs was at times the best way to level because of the lack of quests in certain areas, unless you wanted to travel to a different zone across the world. Adjacent zones were not always “level adjacent.”
The classic game encouraged exploration, and that’s certainly an aspect of MMOs that most players enjoy. But if anything, the old zones’ designs should apply to high-level zones for advanced players, not brand-new players just jumping into WoW for the first time. The linear, bread-crumb nature of the Cataclysm leveling zones is far easier to navigate — and makes it possible for Blizzard to develop compelling long-form stories.
Old zones, new stories
Veteran players lament some of the lost quests and experiences that classic offered. Heck, as the writer of WoW Archivist, I do too! But I also really enjoyed how this revamp of the old zones allowed Blizzard to advance the story of Azeroth across the entire game world, all at once. Based on all those old quests that we’d done so many times, Blizzard said, “OK, you did this quest back in 2004. Now see how accomplishing this feat changed the lives of the people in this part of the world.”
Few MMOs have ever dared something so bold. It was destined to create controversy for the lifetime of the game. Looking back, I’m glad Blizzard had the courage to pull the trigger on this. Some of the Cataclysm storylines from leveling zones are my favorites from the entire game, like the Sylvanas storyline from Horde-side Silverpine.
The stories within zones are so much more cohesive now. Unfortunately, experience nerfs mean that players often move on from a zone before finishing the story. Adding Legion‘s scaling to old world zones, at least to a limited extent, would solve this issue.
On the downside, most of Azeroth is now permanently stuck in the Cataclysm era. Many of those old zones’ stories feel incredibly outdated now. WoW needs a “The Unshattering” expansion where we reverse Deathwing’s damage and fix everything that was broken. We could build a better version of Azeroth together.
It doesn’t sound very dramatic, though, does it? That’s probably why Blizzard hasn’t opted for this yet.
Yep, Cataclysm‘s Heroic dungeons were hard. Orders of magnitude more difficult than Wrath‘s Heroics. But Cataclysm didn’t invent this. In pre-raid gear, classic WoW‘s five-player dungeons were just as difficult (after you couldn’t zerg them with 15 people anyway). Burning Crusade‘s Heroic dungeons could be punishingly difficult at times. Smart pulls and crowd control were essential. Then Wrath spoiled us with easy Heroic clears, and players didn’t want to go back.
A lot of players quit during Cataclysm because Dungeon Finder PUGs struggled so much in Heroic dungeons. Combining dungeon-queued groups with challenging content wasn’t ideal. Grim Batol was the worst offender. A bad bombing run meant everyone just quit, usually after someone cursed out the rest of the group.
Dungeons weren’t just for gear, either. They awarded reputation, which was very helpful in gearing up. So everyone wanted to run dungeons, a lot. It led to the most toxic era ever for WoW‘s dungeon queue.
On the bright side, Blizzard eventually realized that they had to offer the same difficulty tiers for dungeons as they did for raids. Cataclysm‘s dungeons were a precursor to Legion‘s Mythic+. The design wasn’t a bad idea — just ahead of its time, and at the wrong difficulty tier.
Save the trees
If there’s one thing Artifacts have done, it’s remind me how much I miss the old talent tree design. Putting your points in, working toward the specific bonuses and abilities that you wanted felt so incredibly satisfying while leveling up in classic WoW. I really enjoyed that feel while unlocking Artifacts.
Cataclysm gave us the final version of these original trees, pulled back from Wrath‘s monster 11-level trees to resemble classic’s 31-point layout. Cataclysm‘s version was a bit more limiting than classic’s, since you had to put 31 points into your primary spec’s tree before you could start putting points into the other trees. You couldn’t do the free-wheeling split-specs of previous expansions.
When Blizzard ditched the old trees in favor of the current talent design, they said that the old trees didn’t provide enough customization. Everyone just took the optimal talents. That’s true, but Blizzard could have retained WoW‘s original talent design while providing actual choices.
(Digression warning! Imagine a hybrid of the old design and the current, where instead of having just three or four spec-defining abilities you can access in a single tree, you have 15 to 20 — like the current talent panels. Instead of one 31-point ability in a tree, you have three to choose from. The trees would have to work a little differently than they did before, yes. But if Blizzard had built on Cataclysm‘s design for one more iteration, we might have had the satisfying progression of the old with the improved customization of the new.)
Another huge change for classes was the ability to choose your spec. It sounds weird to say that now, right? But before this expansion, your spec identity was based entirely around which of your talent trees had more points. There was no formal choice. Cataclysm gave us the spec-defining class system that we use today.
By the end of Wrath, Blizzard had introduced so many different stats that did so many different things that even spreadsheets and simulations had trouble figuring out how to optimize a character. Beyond the basics, you had things like Armor Penetration that led to degenerate itemization choices. You had the attack power/agility split on leather gear that made it more desirable for plate DPS specs than actual plate gear. Spirit showed up on gear that wasn’t meant for healers. Some stats, like Haste, did almost nothing for some specs. WoW‘s stat situation was a complete mess.
Cataclysm ruthlessly overhauled the entire system. Blizzard streamlined, simplified, and improved stats and itemization across the board. This was basically the single biggest evolution point from early WoW‘s stat and gearing system to that of the current game.
One of the most overlooked contributions of Cataclysm is the Mastery stat. Blizzard introduced Mastery as a way to help them tune each spec’s performance. In doing so, they gave each spec a way to feel a little different from other specs. Mastery has become my favorite stat in the game. It feeds into each spec’s fantasy. The speed increase of Havoc’s Mastery, for example, makes the spec feel completely different than other DPS specs. Even the boring ones like Frost DK’s increase to Frost damage at least make you feel like you’re committed to something that the other specs of your class aren’t.
Along with this massive overhaul, Cataclysm also gave us the short-lived Reforging feature. Eventually Blizzard decided that it was just one more chore to make your gear ready to wear and ditched it. Many players have been asking for it back ever since. Is the game better off without it? Probably, I would argue. But it did feel good to have a greater degree of control over the stats you were wearing into battle.
The endgame disappoints
One of players’ most common complaints about Cataclysm was the lack of endgame content compared to the two prior expansions and the base game. It’s true that Cataclysm had fewer dungeons, raids, and raid bosses than any previous endgame experience. But it still had more dungeons than Mists of Pandaria or Warlords. (Little did we know at that time just how bleak things would get in 2016.)
After Wrath gave us more than 50 raid bosses, Cataclysm‘s 30-some was definitely a letdown. Firelands and Dragon Soul with their seven and eight bosses, respectively, felt abbreviated. I remember clearing Firelands in about 90 minutes when it was on farm. It felt inadequate for an entire tier. Mists and Legion have outpaced Cataclysm in raid bosses, though Warlords is (and hopefully always will be) the expansion with the least amount of endgame content.
As one of the expansion’s bright spots, Cataclysm did provide fantastic variety in its first tier. Its raid bosses were split over three zones with entirely different aesthetics: fiery Blackrock Descent, Old Gods-y Bastion of Twilight, and the gorgeous floating Throne of the Four Winds. Raid tiers of more modern expansions have tended to have a single zone per tier. I miss having this variety.
Races and other stuff
Cataclysm was also the last expansion to give us faction-specific races. Although Goblins and Worgen aren’t generally popular, many of us have played through their incredible starting zones — arguably the best starting zones that WoW has to offer.
Even if you don’t play those races, your own race might have benefited from this expansion too. Blizzard opened up the restrictions on race/class combinations in a huge way. Not only did every race (except Draenei) get new available classes, but also the Druid , Shaman , and Paladin classes gained much-needed additional races. Blizzard gave us virtually every requested race/class combo except Gnome Hunter , which would follow in Legion.
Cataclysm also brought many quality of life changes. The systems patch purged the game of some old nuisances, such as ammo for ranged weapons, the weapon skill system, and spell ranks.
It’s easy to rip on Cataclysm for a whole host of reasons, and I’m not saying we shouldn’t look at it with a critical eye. But let’s also appreciate how Blizzard modernized the game from top to bottom in this expansion. Cataclysm made modern WoW possible.
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