The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Future Fragments: A Whole New World (well, kinda): WoW Cataclysm

Written by: Anastasia Salter, Pop-Culture Editor


WoW Cataclysm is a mixed cloth of many pockets.

ImageThis Tuesday, Cataclysm arrived, complete with some of the fanaticism we now expect with an event like this. There were midnight launches, with fans gathering at their local Best Buy to pick up a game they could just as easily have downloaded online; and, of course, news coverage reminding US players that before they could even begin playing, someone in Europe had reached the new level cap.

Yet despite this hype, much of the build up to Cataclysm has already revealed the new world: the expansion is only the final touches, with some new zones that only those who purchase the expansion set unlock. There’s another problem facing a launch like this one: the novelty is lost. I can write here about my first impressions of Cataclysm, but others have already had them. Dedicated players already reached 85 only 6 hours after the expansion went live–in large part thanks to the wealth of knowledge already available online about Cataclysm following the lengthy beta testing.

The most interesting times for Azeroth remain ahead, however, as hardcore and casual players alike decide if they like this newly broken (and revitalized) world. The story and challenge can never rise fast enough for the hardcore players, while casual players can be left behind. Casual players are perhaps at the greatest risk for exploration fatigue: if the enhanced quest guidance systems which clearly label target areas throughout aren’t enough, casual players can also use the web’s endless resources.

It is, I suppose, possible to avoid every site, every guide, and even to ignore other players and dive into the new expansion: but for a world event that’s brand-new, Cataclysm is remarkably well mapped. The thrill of exploring the world when the game first began, before collective knowledge sites like Wowhead were filled to the brim with every imaginable piece of Warcraft knowledge, is impossible to resurrect: for most players, the likelihood of finding something in the game that someone else hasn’t already written about it is nill.

Ironically, this leaves the virtual world as paralleling the feel of the real world, wherein it seems impossible to uncover new ground. In Garden State a young Natalie Portman challenged us to do something original, suggesting that taking a completely random action in an odd spot was the only way to have a truly original moment in history. In virtual spaces, nearly every action is algorithmically determined, and as players streamed into Cataclysm in mobs, crowding servers and overtaking the new starting zones with particular zeal so that even as you establish yourself as the hero of a town twenty-some others are right beside you. (Logging in Tuesday night I found myself in an hour plus long queue…not bad for a game that’s been around six years!)

If World of Warcraft wanted a sequel, this would have been the time–Cataclysm reinvents some of the basic familiar spaces of the game, if not nearly as dramatically as the images of Deathwing seemed to promise. But World of Warcraft will likely never have a sequel, not when the creative team has proven themselves willing to advance the narrative fundamentally, moving it forward now through something more dramatic than the unlocking of a new zone. The history of many fantasy MMO franchises tells us that sequels are a problem. Take EverQuest, for instance: EverQuest II was in many ways the same game, only graphically superior and with other major transformations to a familiar premise. But for those who’d invested so much in the original, moving to a new world didn’t sound like a step up.

At the same time, the expansion set is a reminder that the emperor has no clothes: the narrative seems to advance, but so much is static. Long have the gnomes lamented the loss of their capital city–previously overrun by level 28 monsters. Now, six years later, with so many level 80 gnomes in the world, we’ve finally taken the first steps in reclaiming that city. Of course, how long will be in this stage? Another six years? Hastening through some zones might even make sense–the continents from WoW’s two past expansions, Outlands and Northrend, remain strangely frozen in time, another reminder that this leap forward is far from seamless. The story is only advancing in fits and starts, in certain places.

Stepping out as Worgen for the first time does show how far the game has come. Short tutorials introduce the players to vehicles and their varied abilities, which are now well-integrated throughout the game to give different ways of expanding the player’s challenges. Cut scenes interspersed with the action in the Worgen’s introductory story line give a stronger sense of progression and investment in the character’s fate, while also widening the POV to look out beyond the character and on to the battleground the player emerges into. (Note: Twilight jokes abound with the addition of a werewolf class…I already encountered a Worgen player named simply “Notjacob.”)

WoW is setting a precedent for a reboot of a world midstream, and because they force no one to abandon their progress, they have immediate buy in from older players. The real question is whether this reboot can attract players who have remained outside of Blizzard’s player base, and if population growth will continue in a world that is, at least, aging gracefully. If they succeed, we may never again see a MMO franchise turn to the sequel model, as Blizzard’s strategy keeps their customer base happy right where they are. For a new player, this may be the right time to discover WoW: the greatest lure in the new content is not, for once, the challenges that wait at end game. Instead, the design encourages a reset even for those players most deeply invested, as much of the transformation is in the early game. A player picking up the game for the first time may even have some advantages…some class mechanics have transformed drastically enough that old, well-practiced tactics must be thrown out the window.

Yet because this is not quite a sequel, certain things cannot be reinvented. The graphic style still impresses, particularly in cut scenes like the opening imagery of Deathwing, but can the same engine cope with six more years of design evolution? Will even this world fall in a few years to make way for a next generation–like Blizzard’s own Next Generation MMO, a project shrouded in mystery but rumored to be a reinvention of the genre?