I feel like this will be my most controversial one of these, save for maybe some of what I will say about TBC.
As an expansion, it was a pretty interesting concept. WoW was hitting new subscriber peaks with each investor call during Wrath of the Lich King, and what came after had perhaps the most difficult task any product can find itself in – sustaining that momentum. Wrath of the Lich King had given it a fairly simple formula that was working well – new dungeons alongside new raids, easy access to the dungeon content through the mid-Wrath addition of the Dungeon Finder, and raid content that could be done in a more flexible manner (10 or 25, same bosses, just with differently-sized bars).
Cataclysm sought to bring these things fully into the game. The changes at endgame are often undercut by players, but they were pretty impactful. Unifying loot from 10 and 25 raiding to eliminate the disparity, and then making up for it by having 25 drop more of it was controversial, but arguably a worthwhile change that eliminated a lot of the unease in the community about 10 player guilds. Codifying the Heroic raid difficulty fully after its introduction halfway into Wrath allowed Blizzard to do some cool things, and paved the way for the raiding scene we’ve had ever since.
Then, there were the world changes. Players had been clamoring for flying everywhere as soon as they touched it in The Burning Crusade, and Cataclysm gave Blizzard a chance to do that – and to tie it into a story and overall idea of a world changing under duress. It was, admittedly, a risky gamble – one we’ll revisit a bit later in this piece. Alongside these world changes, the end-game content would take a new approach – there would not be a single Cataclysm continent (arguably, Pandaria was that, since the lore is that the cataclysm unshrouded it!) – but rather a series of zones that integrated into the revamped face of Azeroth. It’s hard to remember now, but Hyjal and Uldum were hugely interesting to players back when Uldum was this hidden titan complex behind a wooden door in Tanaris, and Hyjal had huge lore significance as the ending locale for Warcraft III – and the scene of a disappointing raid in TBC. These were hyped additions, alongside a new concept in Vashj’ir, a cool looking Deepholm, and the interesting Dwarf and Orc mashup of Twilight Highlands.
And lastly, because of the integration with Azeroth of these new zones, we had a first – right from the start of the expansion, we could fly in the new zones. There was no push to explore them from the ground, just hop on your mount and zip between quest markers.
So before discussing it more objectively, let me say, subjectively, I really rather liked Cataclysm. I became a raid leader during the first tier, and had some big successes at it – like doing the Firelands meta achievement for the purple firehawk while it was current content, pushing hard on heroic kills back when that was a prestigious thing to do. My guild wasn’t the best on the server, or even what could be called Heroic progression, but we were doing it, after a bit of a rocky start (during which I took over). Besides tooting my own horn on that front, though – I legitimiately enjoyed much of the content Cataclysm brought. It was the first expansion during which I level capped every class. I do think it gets a bad rap from much of the community, and I’ve said as much before, but I will talk at length about it here.
So now, let’s talk about the relative strengths of the expansion.
-Cohesive theme: Cataclysm was the beginning of the one theme dominating a whole expansion cycle. The Burning Crusade had the Legion, yes, but you also often got sent in weird directions like Zul’Aman. Wrath of the Lich King often visited the Nexus War concept – in fact, the whole reason Dalaran even took to the skies at all was to fight Malygos and the angry blue flight – it had very little to do with the Lich King at all. Of course, as the expansion evolved away from the blue dragonflight, the Lich King and undead became the core theme. But Cataclysm was about Deathwing and saving a sundered Azeroth. Every zone, you could feel his presence at least a little bit. Some less than others (Uldum) but even still, it was clear who the bad guy was and what we were aiming to stop, and there were no real diversions on our way there. We basically climbed the chain of command within the ragtag coalition of the Twilight’s Hammer, Elemental Lords, and Black Dragonflight foes, ending up banishing Deathwing himself.
-Old World Changes (Pros): The original World of Warcraft version of Azeroth was great, but it was also built in an intelligent way, cognizant of the things players would not and could not see (within the production environment). Segments of the world were undone, or simply consisted of flat textured plains – work that could be put elsewhere. The old world questing experience, while fun for its time, required a lot of simple fed-ex gameplay, shuffling you back and forth over the entire world. This was great, in that it immersed you in a sense of whole-world gameplay the game has not had since, but for new players, it could often get tedious, especially with quest chains that would have you make round-trips between a quest giver in one zone and a drop-off recipient in another. Focusing on zone stories made the individual areas more interesting, and added a dimension of life and intrigue to places that previously served as outposts with fetch quests or delivery targets. It also allowed Blizzard to take places that had been easter eggs or simple eye candy for flight paths and flesh them out more, like the battle happening on a plateau near the summit of Ironforge. What I really liked though, is that the changes felt correct for the lore justification. Some zones got hit HARD, like, say, Barrens. Some of them were barely touched by Deathwing, but reflected a changing reality in the game world, like Western Plaguelands.
-Raids and Dungeons: I want to say first, that I get why the launch dungeon experience, particularly at end game and especially in Heroic difficulty was a bad one for a lot of people. Wrath had conditioned us into the idea that dungeons could be rounded up and AoE’d, and coupled with the long time we got to spend doing the Wrath dungeons in gear far beyond the item level we started at, the perspective of dungeon difficulty changed – a lot. But, here is the thing – as a healer, I actually loved the launch heroic experience – even with random groups. Yes, it was hard, and gearing up was a bit of a slog, but I felt myself getting measurably better with each pull. Healing that expansion was about triage, learning to leave well enough alone when a player was at 70% to focus on a player that was lower, while learning what spells to use to properly balance against incoming damage. Spell selection was a forcefully learned choice, and each healing class got some degree of change to make sure this was clear. I think the most I’ve liked the healing game in WoW was in this expansion – it always, even in Dragon Soul, felt like there was a choice in most scenarios and rewarded you for making the right choice.
-Looking for Raid: So this one will catch some flak, undoubtedly, but here is my take on LFR – I don’t do it that much, but I enjoy that I can take alts into a version of the raid, get some gear, and experience the fights. Sure, now that we’ve had it for a while, some fights are clearly just not even there on LFR in anything that resembles even the Normal counterpart, but I think LFR is actually a force for good in the game. Not everyone can commit to a full raid schedule, even a casual one, and having an option to still experience that content is good. Even if Cataclysm’s late implementation of this idea in Dragon Soul had some noticeable rough edges (need before greed in a group of 25 strangers? Hmm…).
-The Blending of Nostalgia and New: The revamps of places like Deadmines, Shadowfang Keep, Zul’Gurub, and the zone revamps gave players who were around for the first iteration of these places something cool to look at, with little throwbacks and reminders of what once was sprinkled alongside new graphics, new design paradigms, and new quests. They were new, yes, but they also weren’t – and I think many of the executions of these things were done just right.
But we can’t talk about Cataclysm without going into the negatives, and so here we go!
-Leveling Design: Okay, so in theory I understand that doing a 5 level jump sounded weird but could be rationalized, but in practice, it was awful. Player power in WoW scaled so high between Cataclysm and Mists of Pandaria that the item squish became necessary. Health totals jumped so high from ICC 25 gear to even level 85 normal dungeons that the balance felt silly, and it made missing a key quest reward feel punishing. Further, for the longest time, the gap in power between a fresh 80 finishing Wrath content and a level 80 mob in Cataclysm content was punishing. I leveled a monk a few years back from scratch and even in heirlooms, hitting Cataclysm zones was rough as hell. I get why that power jump was needed, but still – it could have been handled better. The scaling tech of today would, in theory, mitigate such a thing, but at the time, you just had a rough patch until quest gear got you caught up. Of course, if you were playing actively, a Wrath endgame-geared toon was ready to roll just fine.
-The Jumbled, Disconnected Zones: I like the individual zones of Cataclysm a lot. Like, A LOT. Uldum is one of my all-time favorite zones in the game. However, using a ring of portals to just jump all over the map made it feel disconnected. Each zone could feel like it’s own little instance, divorced from the larger gameworld context. Sure, in cases like Uldum, Twilight Highlands, Hyjal, and even Vashj’ir if you try hard enough, you can just leave the zone and see the rest of the world, but unfortunately that is not how it is explored. Realistically, I get that the “whole continent suddenly appears” thing is dumb as well, but I do like the cohesion you get from that approach, compared to dumping zones into a few choice locations and then using portals to link them all in.
-Old World Changes (Cons): Okay, so I get that some kind of rework was necessary to get the game world up to standard for flight. However, in many ways, the mythology of WoW Classic starts right with this expansion. It’s hard to even remember in many cases what the old zones were like, because they weren’t in the game all that long, relatively speaking. In some zones, the changes felt forced (Menethil Harbor flooded, even though nearly nothing else in the zone changed? Why? How?) where in others that needed changes, pretty much nothing did (Silithus got a small quest revamp and nothing more). Further to this point, I think it’d be nice to have a way to explore the old world, but ultimately, the desire to have “meaningful story development” happen overrides that practical concern. You can see how Blizzard has walked this back in newer content, like, ironically, Silithus now or Theramore.
-The Perception of Wasted Development Time: This one is about 60/40 between Blizzard and the community. The common refrain of Cataclysm was that the time Blizzard spent revamping the old world would have been better invested into the endgame content. Here is the thing – I at least partially agree, in that I do think we lost a lot of in-development content that could have been interesting due to the decisions made during the process of development and where time was invested. However, I also think Blizzard did a poor job of messaging around how much there really was in the new zones. With the faction reps, variety of dailies, zones like Tol Barad and the later addition of the Firelands daily area, there was a decent amount of endgame content – I certainly never felt all that bored during the lifespan of the expansion. Plus, we got a larger overall number of added dungeons during the expansion, with 5 dungeons added in Cataclysm patches, vs. 4 in Wrath. To this date, it is still the largest number of added 5 player dungeons in an expansion cycle.
-Flying in the Whole World: This is the place where my opinion is really, fully, set apart from the community at large, and I am okay with that. I think the common refrain we just discussed, about how the new zones weren’t all that great, is largely driven by a perception factor that we miss – it is possible, and indeed likely, that most players will never experience these zones from the ground. You can fly right from the get-go, and this factors into your perception of these places in a huge way. The zones are actually quite well filled out, full of details…that are mostly missed as you zoom between quest objectives. It is easy to shrink a zone like Hyjal or Twilight Highlands into being a small, sparse set of landscapes between quest hubs, but that is largely a perception that comes from never really getting down low and exploring them. The questing approach does well in some places to make you get down to ground level in segments – Hyjal in particular quite literally starts you atop the namesake mountain and has you “comin’ down the mountain” by exploring each piece of the zone, and using micro-hubs to push you to see much of it. But then, say, Deepholm has large unexplored patches. Twilight Highlands has few quest hubs and little to drive you to the space between them. Uldum looks like an empty desert waste from the skies, but down low you can see a lot of fun details and things to explore – and it, unfortunately, also has such a large amount of space between quest hubs that it feels barren more than it is. Vashj’ir gets around this by taking you to a place where the 3D space matters far more – which is why everyone seems to hate it and Blizzard has never replicated this degree of vertical navigation again, even in the reviled Antoran Wastes. I think this expansion’s breadth of actual content was in fact ruined by being able to glide right over the top of it. And that is a shame.
-Dungeon Finder’s Continued Iteration: Up front, Cataclysm dungeons at 85 were HARD. Players had noted discontent with how easy Wrath felt, and wanted a return to form. So Blizzard, trying to do right, tuned everything to a higher degree of difficulty, one that would work well…with a premade group. With the majority of the playerbase queuing dungeons in the Dungeon Finder, well, the results were less than spectacular. This led to the Luck of the Draw buff when grouped with randoms, tuning changes to the dungeons, and to a lot of general confusion about the direction of the game. I do think this misstep is what led Blizzard to the Mythic Dungeon model we have now – you can random queue for content that is made with that in mind, but for hard dungeons, no – find a group, and while they may still all be strangers, at least you vet each other and choose your fate with that. But at this point in time, Blizzard hadn’t planned for the fact that most players would be using random matchmaking, in groups that would often remain silent or close-to silent in chat, and without boss mods or any knowledge of the encounters. It took them a few months to stick the landing, which they did, but I would also argue that the shotgun approach taken to balancing for DF made premade groups get a worse experience, as I enjoyed running with guildies and beating the challenges the launch dungeons had.
-The Affirmation of the Long Content Drought to End Expansions: While every WoW expansion save Vanilla had a long, contentless period at the end, Cataclysm really hit this mark. Wrath gave us about 9 months of this, but Cataclysm gave us 10. Further, this was the point at which we began to simply expect the end of the expansion to drag on lifelessly, which then translated to 14 months at the end of Mists and 13.5 months at the end of WoD. This is a trend that seems like it may reverse with Battle for Azeroth, but even today – the skepticism of the community about that is largely grounded in what we have seen before, and the Dragon Soul Drought is a big part of that.
-Missing Content: It was clear, and even announced in some cases, that we would be getting more than we did get. There was supposed to be a Vashj’ir raid, including story with Neptulon. The Path of the Titans endgame progression system, a cornerstone of the announcement at Blizzcon 2009, gone completely. While I really enjoyed the Firelands raid tier, the fact that I was able to push my guild to Glory of the Firelands Raider communicated, to me, that the tier was incomplete – that water raid would have been a cool (ha!) contrast. The concept of the Bastion of Twilight was originally a Grim Batol raid, which had tremendous potential to be something greater – red dragons, maybe a cool look at dragon-ravaged dwarven ruins and the like, but we got BoT, which I did like. The elemental lords roles in the expansion felt odd in places – Therazane was pretty cool, and Ragnaros was a solid throwback with fun twists, but Al’Akir just kind of was there, and Neptulon…got kidnapped by an octopus. What could have been!
So overall, here’s my take on Cataclysm – it was, in my eyes, a great expansion with greater potential that will never get the praise I think it should, because the experience of it was marred by players getting the things they asked for and then changing their minds. It also suffers by being the turning point at which the nostalgia switch for Classic was flipped, meaning that players will associate Cataclysm forever with Blizzard taking away our old, cool stuff. Despite all that though, I found the expansion to be pretty great. Don’t get me wrong, it is certainly not near the top of my list, but I do find that it was a very competent expansion that took a lot of turns that were good for the game, even if those things are often drowned in a sea of negativity about old-world changes or hard dungeons or reused assets.
Much like the modern state of the game, Blizzard promised 100%, delivered under that, but what they did deliver was pretty good, and it planted a lot of seeds that allowed more changes – like the increase in graphical fidelity and the changes in gameplay that made balancing (relatively) easier.
One more thing worth noting with Cataclysm – it is, in many ways, the demarcation point at which we would say WoW began to decline. Time will tell if the game cycles back up to a steady 10+ million active players, or if early Cata truly is the peak of the game’s popularity, but it is an interesting milestone to note. I would ask those that have read to this point – why do you think that is? I am genuinely curious, as I understand that my views on this expansion are far out of the mainstream haha.