When Blizzard announced Cataclysm Classic servers for World of Warcraft, there was some bemusement in the broader MMORPG community. Cataclysm has always been controversial, and to this day a lot of people see it as one of the worst expansions, a moment when the game began its decline.
I’m ambivalent towards classic servers regardless of expansion, but I am inspired to push back a bit on some of the hate towards Cataclysm. While I don’t believe it was one of the best expansions, I don’t think it deserves to be remembered as one of the worst, either.
Let’s start with the old world revamp, arguably what Cataclysm is most remembered for. It was controversial at the time and remains so to this day.
The biggest and most valid criticism of the world revamp is that it effectively erased the vanilla world from the game. I have little love for the vanilla world, but I’m a believer in game preservation, so I do think people should have had a way to go back and revisit what came before. Not having that was a mistake.
Of course, now that vanilla servers are a thing, that version of WoW can be revisited, so the biggest problem with the world revamp has been solved. It did take many years, though, so I can understand if some sore feelings remain.
Some also complain that the world revamp showed a lot of favouritism to the Horde, but like most complaints of Horde bias, this doesn’t really hold up to logical examination. The Alliance had more and better leveling content in the original version of the old world, so the Horde’s claiming of additional territory was just an attempt to finally make the game fair. Story-wise, the Alliance also won many noteworthy victories to go with their losses, including wiping out an entire Troll tribe, major advances in the Barrens, and destroying the oldest Orcish settlement on Azeroth.
A criticism I’m a bit more sympathetic to is that too many of Cataclysm‘s zones featured joke quests and pop culture references, but WoW has always had silly quests, and only Hillsbrad Foothills and maybe some of the early Goblin zones were jokey the whole way through, so I think people exaggerate the extent to which this was a problem.
Another complaint is that the world is now forever frozen in time during the Cataclysm era, without the full backstory easily accessible, but that’s not much different from having it frozen in time in the vanilla era. Let’s not pretend that the vanilla world was particularly coherent for those who didn’t play Warcraft III, or even those who did. I still have no idea how the Night Elves wound up in the Alliance.
I think it’s fair to say that in hindsight, there are ways the world revamp could have been handled better. But I also think it was absolutely necessary and on balance a strong positive for the game.
People have a lot of nostalgia for the vanilla version of the world, but even back in 2010, it was showing its age badly. Agonizing travel times, low drop rates, unfocused quest design, and many more sins dogged it throughout. For WoW to stay healthy in the long term, it needed to modernize.
Beyond simply polishing the mechanics to current standards, the revamp brought a lot of other good things to the game. We gained the ability to fly in the old world, allowing us to appreciate the scale and beauty of the game as never before. While not every revamped zone was a slam dunk, many of them contain great stories and memorable quests.
It was also an incredible boon for altoholics. I got dozens of hours of entertainment from leveling various characters through all the new-old zones. For people like me, Cataclysm‘s world revamp was probably the single biggest content update in WoW‘s history.
Unfortunately, this did leave fewer resources for endgame content, and that brings me to what I think is the most interesting part of analyzing Cataclysm. Its endgame brought the expansion’s biggest blunders, but also its greatest triumphs.
There are times I feel that even trying to rate WoW‘s expansions against each other is a flawed concept because the game can change so much even from patch to patch. No expansion embodies this better than Cataclysm. It was a starkly different experience at the beginning compared to what it was like by the end.
The first six to 12 months or so of Cataclysm endgame sucked. They really, truly sucked. Responding to criticism of the casual nature of Wrath of the Lich King (which in hindsight seems to have come from a vocal minority but appeared prevalent at the time), Blizzard greatly increased the length and difficulty of heroic dungeons.
While every expansion brings a gear reset, Wrath had brought with it unprecedented levels of item level inflation, so the reset at the start of Cataclysm hit especially hard. Secondary stats dropped so far that some characters lost dozens of percentage points worth of critical strike chance, just as one example. Healing was also revamped to make mana a relevant resource once more, a jarring change for players who’d grown used to spamming heals without a care.
On top of all that, this was the start of Blizzard scaling back on currency-based gearing. No longer was it possible to get a full tier set from a vendor, and this was in the days before transmog, so those of us who didn’t raid were stuck in mismatched clown suits. It felt like a stigmata for the crime of not being hardcore enough.
Early Cataclysm endgame was spending more time doing less content, at a much higher difficulty, for less rewards, with characters who felt like pathetic shadows of what they had been in Wrath. It was miserable.
Slowly, things improved. Natural gear progression eventually got dungeons back to a more manageable difficulty level. The Molten Front added a much-needed dose of solo-friendly endgame content. But it wasn’t until the final patch, 4.3: Hour of Twilight, that things really turned around. And boy, did they ever.
Patch 4.3 brought with it the raid finder, finally allowing players of all stripes to participate in the most epic and important content in World of Warcraft. It really can’t be overstated how significant this was, especially for those of us who care about the story. Finally I was able to see the climaxes of the game’s stories without dealing with all the baggage of progression raiding.
For me personally, I think the addition of the raid finder may be the single best change WoW ever made, and whatever others say, I will always have immense love for Dragon Soul, the first raid I got to finish while it was relevant.
Very few patches to any game offer features as game-changing as the raid finder, but 4.3 wasn’t even satisfied with one game-changing feature. It also gave us transmog, to this day one of the game’s most beloved features. At last we were free the tyranny of clown suits; the true endgame, fashion, had arrived.
For my money, WoW‘s endgame has never been healthier than it was in 4.3. With the dungeon and raid finders, all endgame content was accessible. We still had currency vendors for gear, and even if they’d stopped offering current tier sets from them entirely by that point, you could still get some good items from them. While I prefer purely currency-based endgame, this was a pretty happy compromise between currency and drops, and it’s never really been equaled in WoW since.
Wrath of the Lich King is remembered as something of a golden age for casual players, but it wasn’t until the end of Cataclysm that WoW became truly inclusive to all playstyles, and I think 4.3 deserves to be remembered as the true high water mark for casual WoW.
Cataclysm did a lot of other things right, too. When I think of my all-time favourite MMO boss encounters, a disproportionately large number of them are from Cataclysm. Elemental Bonds was a great piece of story, and one of the only times in WoW‘s history Blizzard added a major piece of content just because it was fun, without any obnoxious time-gating or associated grind. Cataclysm added the dungeon journal, a crucial resource for learning encounters; it’s one of those ideas that’s so good I don’t know how it didn’t become industry standard.
Honestly, at times I’m surprised I don’t rate Cataclysm higher. When I start thinking about it in detail, I can think of so, so many things about it I loved. It’s just easy for them to get over-shadowed by all the things it also did wrong.
When I remember Cataclysm, I remember a messy, inconsistent expansion that had many great moments but ultimately felt like less than the sum of its parts. But I also remember it as an expansion that shored up the game’s foundations and established some of WoW‘s best systems.
I believe Cataclysm should be viewed not as a total misstep but as a period of growing pains. It was awkward and at times painful, but it was necessary, and the game is much better for it.