WoW Factor: The World of Warcraft expansion tour – Cataclysm

In homeboy's defense, he really was a harbinger of doom.

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.”

I ruined just... all the things.

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.

Too much forging ahead making everything worse to do!

Major changes

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.

I'm a jerk!

Playerbase consensus

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.

You know what you are, you're gonna be a star.

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.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with a decade of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.

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Cataclysm was one of my favorites (Legion = MOP > BFA > Cata = WOD > WOTLK > BC > Vanilla). Flying changed everything. I was in a World PVP focused guild, and without sharding, the flying allowed people to respond to world alarms and start mass pvp while retaining the name recognition from classic-era expansions that made it satisfying. This was the only expansion where questing content was designed to fly while questing…and Vashjir, while certainly polarizing, still stands out as my favorite zone ever. CC was an absolute necessity in heroics, and I felt like end-game PVE was worthwhile as someone who didn’t raid at the time. Then raid finder happened. It was hopelessly overtuned to be difficult at launch, and groups were day-long affairs where randoms were swapped in and out until raiders and a few holdouts finally managed to clear raiding in a PUG. It got me into raiding for the first time, seeing the challenge that was there and how much fun it could be. Determination stacks weren’t a thing yet. My transition to Taiwanese servers during WoD would get me out of raid finder for a while (raiders that pay per minute rather than flat sub fees are WAAY less willing to put up with players learning to play), but its introduction in Cata was an experiment that turned something 2% of players engaged in and that devs spent what seemed like 15-20% of their time making into something for everyone.


Excellent series so far…excited to see where it goes when the writing becomes more challenging :)


This is, surprisingly, a fairly measured opinion.
There were many reasons why folks were quite smitten with Cata at the time. The overall prevailing negative opinions seemed to come about later. My personal view and one I have been arguing with people about for years now.
The entirety of the Dragon Soul patch and experience. All of it, everything. Remove that from the equation and replace it with something that did not SUCK, and how different is the opinion of Cata then?
Cata was riding very high, very high indeed, with the release of the much loved Molten Front, and the Firelands. The Molten Front in particular Seemed to be universally adored. Also it was available as personal progress to everyone. The niggling little things that Elliot mentioned were absolutely not an issue at that point.
Dragon Soul.
Like someone farting in an elevator when you got about 20 more floors to go…
It was top to bottom atrocious.
So let me ask the comment crowd here this? My personal pet opinion on the matter. If Dragon Soul was removed from the equation in some hypothetical, and replaced with even some filler. Just standard XYZ stuff to close Cata. Yeah junk food content may not have made it a masterpiece, but when looking at trying to make sense of the post mortem Cata. The elephant in the room is how it ended.
I have been saying this for many years. Whenever the crowd chimes in “Cata SUCKED”
I disagree.
What say you? If you were only looking at the first, non Dragon Soul half of Cata, would you see it differently???????

P.S. Straight wall of text at this point, sorry. The main reason why I have fought this fight for years now is because I loved the first half of Cata, and I am constantly under assault about that and having to defend it. I quit WoW like 2 months into Dragon Soul. Not that anyone cares. =D


I had quit before Dragon Soul came out.


Had Blizz made the water raid that was supposed to be a part of the fire and water portion of the expansion it would have pushed Dragon Soul further down the line. This could have lessened the content drought at the expansion end which always makes raids worse then they are. I’m tired of Blizz cutting their losses and ditching large chunks of expansions because they want to hurry to the next one in hopes all will be forgiven. Yrel’s storyline was destroyed in WOD because they removed the Shattrath raid, and we got the Grommash bs that didn’t make sense as we let him be a good guy? Now they are skipping 8.3.5 to hurry over to Shadowlands and just laid a huge dump on this expansions finish. Map out the major parts of the expansion and don’t cut them, ever, deal with it and give us the whole story we are paying for.


Abyssal Maw. That was what the forgotten raid was called. The entrance portal was right there at the bottom of Vash’jr. The story of the zone led you right into it.
Yeah it would have been interesting what could have been.
I am with you on the WoD cuts. Perhaps it could have been redeemed. It sure as heck was butchered without the missing content. Farahlon anyone?
BFA? I have no idea. I didn’t last a week…
From what I read it sure does sound same ol’ same ol’ though….

Robert Andle

I’d say it still sucked. It ruined all the old zones, it introduced boring linear questing into WoW and if you think the Molten Front was universally adored, you’re clearing forgetting just how many people hated it. The Dragon Soul patch was just the crappy icing on a fifth rate expansion.

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Loved my Worgen druid. Hated Vashj’r. Hated Uldum even more. Most of the hatred I heard for this release revolved around the annoying water zones and the sky-high hopes everyone had for Uldum that were dashed in short order.

I liked the soundtrack…


One thing that WoW does really well is the music.


Right? They don’t get enough credit for music and sound production.


My main issues with Cataclysm:

– It removed most of the portals from Shattrath and Dalaran, meaning even with flight enabled travel often got slower. Having to use a boat or a zep was often enough reason for me to log off for the day.

– The “time travel” you would experience when traveling between the base game zones and the older expansion zones made leveling feel even more disjointed, making the experience quite worse for anyone that cares about lore and story.

– The questing felt not just linear, but railroaded. While the quests themselves weren’t always bad, the strict railroading ruined the experience even for the few quests that were actually good. This more or less destroyed the replay value for me.

– Too many (and too badly written) pop culture references. It often felt like I was playing through a clearly amateur wish-fulfillment fanfic rather than professionally written game content.

– Acquiring end-game gear was purely RNG. And I utterly hate RNG when applied to rewards, to the point any game with non-deterministic rewards is a game I will absolutely stop playing as soon as the rewards start to matter (or else, for offline games, I use cheats and mods to make the rewards deterministic).

– Drastically increasing the difficulty without changing how the LFD selected players. The LFD looked at gear level to determine if you were properly geared for the dungeon — but it disregarded enchants, gems, specs, if the gear was PvP, and even if you were able to actually equip the gear at all; you could purchase BoE gear for a completely different class and store it in the bank, and that would trick the LFD into allowing you into higher difficulty dungeons. Thanks to that, LFD would gleefully (and often) assemble groups where the gear they could actually use for the specs and roles they would be playing didn’t even come close to passing the many DPS checks that were present in every heroic dungeon.

– Ghostcrawler addressing the concerns about dungeon difficulty with a long post that could be summed as “Git Gud”. That was the last straw for me.

(The additional rep grinds full of dailies would have been a huge issue for me, mind, but I left before that one could become unbearable.)


And this is the expansion that killed WoW for me. I was very enthusiastic at the beginning. Loved playing a Worgen. Then I realized that to see the other half of the Worgen story you had to play a Forsaken.

I did not like the zone redesigns and the fact that there were flight points about every 10 meters, and then we had Andorhal (the beginning of the ‘Sylvanus always wins meme’). One mission you are winning (as Alliance), next boom it’s all over and you have lost because of reasons.

No class quest, everything super-linear. Argh – terrible.

Then we had two zones which basically were Rambo and CSI: Miami homages, and of course Westfall had the uber-edgy and powerful villainess. Again a case of ‘suddenly everything is on fire’.

And turning half of one of the new zones into a terrible Indiana Jones homage…

I liked the Azshara zone as it was. Peaceful.

Do I have to mention Southshore?

And Darkshore and Auberdine was just upsetting.

So as an Alliance player this expansion bloody sucked.

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I’m tryingto remember — if you were a new character just starting out, was the world destroyed for you, or did it change only at a certain level? This kind of expansion would seem to be made to take advantage of phasing.


Cataclysm was the first expansion that prompted me to completely lose interest in WoW for a few years. I hated how I hit level cap within a week and was then just grinding away at dailies/dungeons to raise numbers up. That just wasn’t interesting or compelling enough for me to keep playing at that point, not to mention the game world got nuked and replaced. That was also the point where they started heavily altering the talent system and shoving the resource gimmick into specs.

Apparently raiding-wise Cata was really good, but I couldn’t keep enough interest to see that. There are certainly good things I liked about Cata but for every good thing I can think of at least two negatives.

To me Cata was the embodiment of the new WoW team philosophy which has grown so horribly out of control since then. Playing the patch is all they want you to do now, and they will remove older content/systems to push that idea forward so you never feel like you want to actually dawdle in a previous expansion. If it isn’t broken, they will break it anyway so they can keep things fresh. This stuff did start to a degree in WotLK, but Cata was where they started going all-in.

David Blair

I felt like the organic went away and the leveling played out in a more mechanical structure. It’s been too many years for me to remember it exactly but the undead starting areas became; “Go here. Do 4 quests that are equal distances away from this hub, ignore rest of map, difficulty of each task is the same. Go down the road to next hub, do 4 quests, so on and so on…”

Robert Andle

While there have been much worse expansions since – hello WoD and BfA – Cataclysm is the one I hate the most. It ruined so much old content and replaced it with some of the worst leveling content we’ve had to date. Some zones had such amazing potential, but ultimately ended up a disappointment (the Indiana Jones storyline in Uldum was just cringeworthy) and even now I find it hard to summon up any kind of enthusiasm to level through them.

This was when I first started playing on private servers because the old WoW was the game I wanted to play, not the mess it turned into, and while I’ve returned to WoW time and again over the years, for me Cataclysm was when things started going wrong and it’s never really recovered.