In my mind, Cataclysm still feels kind of recent. I don’t know exactly why. It came out closer to World of Warcraft’s launch than the present day, and we’ve been living with the awful post-Cataclysm world much longer than we had the original. Heck, I think that’s a good chunk of motivation for a lot of people briefly interested in WoW Classic without an intent on sticking around. If you’ve joined the game within the past decade or so, the only version of it you’ve ever known is the half-ruined world.
The funny thing is that Cataclysm has, on a whole, enjoyed something of a revival in player opinion as the years have gone by – and despite what many people have thought about it over the years, it actually wasn’t quite as reviled as a lot of players remember. That makes this in many ways one of the more interesting looks back of this particular tour, since it’s one of the times we’re looking at something a bit more complex than “everyone liked it then and everyone likes it now.”
Premise & setting
It turns out that Deathwing, the big black dragon bad who’s been mentioned here and there, has been chilling beneath the surface of Azeroth. Now he’s breaking out, laying waste to all sorts of places across the Eastern Kingdoms and Kalimdor while somehow just not bothering with Northrend. Maybe the cold hurts his delicate toesies. Anyhow, he’s trying to let the Old Gods out again, because that’s just what you do when you’re an insane black dragon corrupted by Old God whispers.
Of course, all of this destruction shakes up a lot of existing problems. For example, the wall starts breaking down between Gilneas and the rest of the Eastern Kingdoms. Suddenly Grim Batol is more accessible. The flaming minions of the Firelands are invading Mount Hyjal. Something something underwater zones. It’s all kind of tenuously connected, as is the amount of storytelling justfying Garrosh as the new warchief, the new state of the Horde and Alliance following the end of the war against Arthas, and so forth.
But really, all of that is just the reasoning for what the actual premise is here, which is functionally a reset to zero.
The reality is that Cataclysm was put forth and advertised as a turn back to the home front and an effort to bring the old world up to par with the stuff on display in Outland and Northrend, with more modern quest technology and actually finishing a lot of half-done zones and regions. It brings flying into the old world when previously you weren’t allowed to take off, allows you to explore zones that had been blocked off for whatever reason, and generally turns the map from being a series of valleys carved out of impassable mountains into an actual sprawling map.
In other words, it was at once a sequel to the core zones and an effort to remake and update everything to what the designers at the time felt like the base game should have been from the beginning.
Setting up an expected back-and-forth that would be rather rudely shown to be inaccurate in a couple more expansions, Cataclysm added two new races, with Worgen for the Alliance and Goblins for the Horde. The former deserves a bit of attention, since there had been a popular fanfic theory at the time that the Worgen curse was running rampant through Gilneas, and then… here’s exactly that, in exactly the same way players speculated.
Oh, and then that story flatlines to basically never get resolved or addressed ever again through the run of the expansion, so… yay?
Moving along, the other major change was that the expansion changed the entire pattern of leveling and getting talent points. For the first time, talents were changed completely, now shifted to much more stripped-down trees and forcing you to pick a specific primary tree. Talent points now arrived every other level, and you had to focus on your “main” tree first, which also delivered some of the more iconic abilities far earlier than before. I’ve argued in the past that once this fundamental nature for talents was changed, we no longer had any firm grounding or a sense that anything was beyond changing, but we’ll leave that to one side for the moment.
The novelty of Hero classes was rather demolished here by making Blood the tanking tree for Death Knights while Frost and Unholy were made DPS without any option. So from here on out, Death Knights were functionally just another class, but one with a special intro and a higher-level start.
The entirety of the old world was opened up for flying, which meant that travel got massively easier; in the same moment, maps were changed across the world, with a general sense that the map was representative not of a fundamentally timeless region but a sign of what was happening right now. This became very silly when a storm that started nearly a decade ago is still hovering in the exact same spot despite the zone story claiming that it would be resolved, but on the bright side, it… well, it was silly then, too.
Of course, as implied, all of the zone stories were changed and updated, in many cases with heavy doses of pop culture references (especially on the Alliance side). A couple of dungeons were also heavily altered from their classic forms, with new bosses and story to make up for the progress of the overall story.
Toward the end of the expansion, Blizzard also added in the Raid Finder, which allowed players to queue up for easier versions of raids much like with dungeons. The game also added the transmog system through patches, which allowed players to alter gear appearance for a unified look.
Beyond these changes, a lot of the game’s systems were very much “Wrath of the Lich King but more.” Selecting different difficulties for raids? Yes indeed. More reputations and dailies? So many. You want currency drops? Well, we’ll do that begrudgingly, but we’ll still do it! You get the idea.
When the expansion launched, WoW was at its absolute subscriber peak. And players saw the expansion, and… they were pretty happy! At first, anyhow.
There’s a general feeling that no one liked Cataclysm when it was the current thing, but the reality is that the expansion got good reviews when it launched and a lot of people were just happy to be able to fly in the old world, to see the story actually move forward instead of having these spaces be frozen in time, and so forth. There were a lot of little niggling things, but none of them really started to ping on everyone’s radar until time had started to go by, starting with people noticing how gosh-darn hard Heroic dungeons were now.
See, Blizzard had paid attention to all of those people whining that the game was too easy now, and Cataclysm hit back with a lot of Heroic dungeons that were tuned to be hard. Some of the feeling that they were too hard had more to do with the fact that these were new dungeons being done with worse gear compared to Wrath of the Lich King, but that was compounded by gutting the options for just buying gear with currency that made Heroics feel… more like a chore than before.
More to the point, the lack of any coherent throughline to the story meant that the zones largely stood apart, and the overall reaction to the zones was… well, generally pretty negative. Some of them were disliked because of navigation (Vash’jir), some because of the story content (Uldum), and some of them were panned because they turned one faction into a comedy punching bag (Twilight Highlands). Cataclysm came in with a lot of promise and welcome, but the more the expansion wore on, the more people were irritated by the many ways it fell short of the fun that had been on display in Wrath of the Lich King.
That’s not to say it’s all doom and gloom, though. The addition of transmog and Raid Finder seemed like an olive branch for players who had felt a bit alienated up until that point, and so while Cataclysm ended its life being disliked, a lot of the reception to it as the worst expansion ever was based more upon a shallow reference pool. Add in the shock of the talent changes (which no one was super thrilled by) and it’s easy to see how it spent all of its own life and the entirety of Mists of Pandaria being blasted as the worst conceivable update to the game.
Oh, how little people knew then.
A wanted Classic experience?
The thing is that as mentioned, a lot of what turned people off from Cataclysm was some of the shock to the system. We now have a solid idea of how the game’s Heroics are supposed to work, making it easier to jump in and do them as intended – and presumably leading to less sticker shock when they turn out to be tuned harder. I think there might be people who really would like a chance to go back and re-evaluate the expansion in response to some of the much less-loved expansions that came later.
At the same time… a lot of the problems in this particular expansion didn’t get fixed. We’re still living with them now. And if we’re talking about a server launch in 2025 (if we assume a Classic expansion launches every other year to stagger it with actual expansions), either a lot of these problems will have actually been rolled back or we’ll still be suffering under them.
Would you want to play an expansion that feels like a worse version of Wrath? Or would you already be gone by the time it became an option? I don’t see this one having a whole lot of legs without a major change to the status quo, but I can’t write it off altogether.