‘World of Warcraft: Cataclysm’ – new landscapes, leaders, and gaps in logic

by University of Michigan Press on July 20, 2010

More book details This is the latest in a series of blog posts regarding the upcoming “Cataclysm” update/expansion pack for the online game World of Warcraft. It is based on the beta tests under way now and brought to you by the new book My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropologist’s Account of World of Warcraft, by Bonnie Nardi, available now from The University of Michigan Press.

Previous blog entries dealt with the new worgen starting area, the new goblin starting area, and Blizzard Entertainment’s aborted attempt to require real life first and last names from the millions of posters on their official forums. Future updates will deal with the level 80-plus areas in the new expansion, the new areas for level 10-60 characters, and professions.

The “Cataclysm” expansion pack for World of Warcraft, expected at the earliest sometime this fall and in testing now, has to offer the game’s 11 million subscribers something new, and it does: two new races to play, a whole new storyline to follow, new zones to experience and new dungeons to conquer. But more importantly, it also gives the game’s developers a chance to both literally and figuratively reinvent history.

It’s a safe bet that the majority of heavy Warcraft players have successfully taken a character from level 1 to the maximum level by now. They’ve seen the lower level areas, know the history of the world’s factions, and have become so familiar with low-level quests that some are the butt of longstanding jokes.

So it’s something of a shock when you see, first-hand, how much the upcoming expansion pack will change everything those players take for granted as a normal, natural part of the world before them. A future blog entry in this series will deal specifically with the new quests and leveling experience for new characters. But to put that in perspective, it’s important to understand just how different the landscape has become.

Click for full-sized image. Take this screen shot at left. Beautiful, isn’t it? It looks like it belongs in one of the new zones, overgrown with riotous plant life, which will literally attack your character if you get too close. But take a closer look at those huts there: look familiar? Ignore the fact that Naralex is standing in front of one. Picture them in a desert, near an empty road crossing, with a crumpled figure in front of one door…

Yes. That’s the final resting place of Mankrik’s wife you’re looking at. For those who have never played the game, the search for Mankrik’s wife was a mildly difficult quest in a desert zone called The Barrens. It prompted enough in-game chatter – “Anyone know where to find Mankirk’s [sic] wife?” – that it eventually spawned a life of its own, leading (as all things on the Internet do) to endless Chuck Norris jokes and an entry in the Urban Dictionary.

That the location of one of the most famous quests in the game is now… gone, wiped away so dramatically that you can’t even recognize it once existed, is a testament to the changes Blizzard is willing to make for “Cataclysm.” Just north of this area is the rift created by a huge dragon (Deathwing) as he escaped his underground prison, and the plant life here is a result of magical energies running wild in the zone.

Click for full-sized image. That’s the official reason for all the changes to the landscape in The Barrens and across the world of Azeroth, but the reality is that developers wanted (and got) a chance to redo history and polish up some of their old work.

Gone are the restrictions that made it impossible to fly across the vast areas of the old continents (designed before flying mounts were in the game). Gone are the long runs made by characters to nowhere, replaced by multitudes of flight points (I’m looking at YOU, Razor Hill and Sen’jin Village) and swift travel on the backs of flying steeds and Ettin-drawn carriages.

The zones originally mocked for their repetitive or featureless terrain – The Barrens was the worst, but Eastern Kingdoms weren’t far behind, with Badlands in particular in need of a little love – are now detailed and beautiful, in some cases dramatically different from their former selves.

Click for full-sized image. And some other visual inequities are fixed. Races that had afterthoughts of starting areas (hello, gnomes and trolls) now have intricate, thoughtfully-designed landscapes to roam. Orgrimmar, the main capital city for Horde players, always had a whiff of “desert outpost afterthought” to it in comparison with the beautifully designed cities of the Alliance. No longer: Say what you will about the approach of the new leader of the Orcs in the expansion, but Garrosh really knows how to build.

Click for full-sized image. And that’s another major change coming for “Cataclysm” players, especially those who play Horde races: your leadership is changing. Apologies for some mild spoilers (although if you’re a Warcraft player, you’ve probably already seen plenty of those), but you don’t have too many of the same leaders left.

Cairne Bloodhoof, leader of the Tauren, is gone, replaced by his son; Thrall is off taking care of business elsewhere; Garrosh, a much meaner, more warlike Warchief, has taken over the Orcs; Troll leader Vol’jin is around, but playing his usual marginal role; and Forsaken queen Sylvanas has gone from sulking about being made undead to… creating more undead? Whaa?

It’s enough to lead more than one Horde player to plaintively post in a thread on the MMO-Champion Web site this morning that “This isn’t our horde any more.”

No, it’s not. It’s not your Horde, it’s not your landscape, and in some ways, it’s not exactly the same game you’ve played for the last six years. It’s a new invention, taken from the minds of the developers who’ve led you through one of the world’s most popular massively multiplayer games. It’s a reimagined beginning, and in some ways, it feels like the beginning of the end.

It’s no secret that Blizzard is working on an “unnamed MMO project” – they’ve been hiring for that division for years. “Cataclysm” may be one of the last expansion packs for Warcraft, and it’s clear that developers and writers are taking this opportunity to set right so many things they couldn’t do perfectly the first time around, starting with the landscapes.

The one weird result of all these changes – to the zones, to the quests, to the leadership – is that Outland, the area players quest in for character levels roughly 60-70, is now truly an orphan. Not only is it disconnected from any of the main land masses (as it always has been), it’s also disconnected in time.

So far, it’s seen no additional polish, which means that players are carried through a beautiful new experience until character level 58 or so… and then dumped into an area that feels and looks antiquated by comparison, with storylines that make no sense given what comes before (in the newly revamped zones) or afterwards (in the Northrend areas players inhabit for roughly levels 70-80).

Ah well. There’s got to be something for that last expansion to cover, right?

This update is by Heather Newman, who has written professionally on video games for 15 years for publications and outlets including the Detroit Free Press, Family PC, Gannett News Service, and Knight Ridder Tribune News Service.

It was brought to you by the new book My Life as a Night Elf Priest, by Bonnie Nardi, available now from the University of Michigan Press.

Professors, click here to request exam or desk copies of this title for the classroom: My Life as a Night Elf Priest, Paperback ISBN: 978-0-472-05098-7.

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