WoW Factor: The real reason World of Warcraft’s Cataclysm world revamp was awful

Yeah, this is a thing.

‘Tis the season for all of us, once again, to talk about the deeply unpleasant and disappointing expansion that was World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, which will soon be upon us once again. There seem to basically be three stances around this upcoming expansion for WoW Classic. The first is to posit that maybe some re-evaluation is in order as we all play through an expansion that is 13 years old now and will be somewhat older when it releases, so maybe not all of our opinions have aged perfectly. The second is to speak out in emphatic defense of the expansion prematurely and sing its praises despite its historical reputation. And the third, of course, is to just be angry that this is where the classic game is going next.

I come here to do none of the above, since I already talked about Cataclysm as a Classic experience back when I did the big expansion tour in 2020 and nothing has really changed since then. (There are columns where my opinion has substantially changed since I wrote them, but I generally stand by what I wrote then, and in this case I am still proud of all of those.) Instead, I want to talk about something very specific with the old world revamp that came along with Cataclysm. Why do people hate it? Because it ain’t easy to talk about.

As with many things WoW-related, the discussion of “what made Cataclysm bad” tends to get sidelined a lot by rage merchants on both sides of the aisle. On the one side, there are people who have an endless amount of rage for anything that deviates from their vision of the “good version” of WoW, which is universally a gated community in video game form in which they are the chosen ones allowed to live in safety and joy. On the other side, there are people who have an endless amount of rage for those people who rage and feel like contrarian sentiment is, in this instance, the morally correct stance.

I belong to neither of these groups, and in fact I am entirely of the mind that the world revamp we got in Cataclysm was necessary. Not simply the part where the maps had to be filled in to allow for free-form flight, although that’s also true; more in the sense that what questing in WoW looked like in 2010 was very different from what it had looked like in 2004. Standards had risen, and while Cataclysm-era questing still feels a bit dated, it does not feel like the original vanilla quests did compared to Wrath of the Lich King.

As a concept, the world revamp was always a good thing. Where our troubles begin is what the world got revamped into… and exploring that requires diving into how WoW has handled silliness over time.

The right time to do this was two decades ago.

Now, let’s be absolutely clear about this: WoW has always been silly because Warcraft as a franchise has always been silly. Anyone who talks about how WoW Classic and Vanilla were gritty, serious settings is some combination of lying and wrong. This is a franchise that had a number of absurd jokes that would go on for some time if you clicked a controlled unit enough times, including a whole talk show parody for one unit. The original game had outhouse quests and an entire zone dedicated to nostalgic references. Saying that the world “got silly” in Cataclysm is ultimately just wrong, like saying that cats are a type of insect or glass is still a liquid or Game of Thrones had a satisfying ending.

In fact, many of the zones that are traditionally pointed to here are distinctly not silly. Westfall, for example, is an extended CSI reference… but it’s not silly. It has jokes, but for the most part, the story is straight-faced serious with occasional joke. And that is… actually the problem.

Back in 2008, Eric D. Snider wrote a piece called Batman in the Operating Room talking about how some comedy isn’t funny. The reference was, broadly, to the idea of Adam West’s Batman showing up in the middle of an episode of MASH. Both shows were comedies, but their styles of comedy were completely incompatible with one another. One was absurdist farce and slapstick; the other was dry, surreal, and highly conversational. Smashing them together leaves you feeling a bit odd, as if you know jokes are happening but you aren’t sure which part is the joke.

WoW has always had references in it. It has always had jokes in it. The two often coexist, but not always. You can have an entire questline that’s a reference to The Legend of Zelda that is not a parody of a game but just references, gently washed to work within the setting, where the joke is fundamentally… you know the clip.

The problem is not that Westfall’s extended CSI reference is played for a joke. It’s played entirely seriously. But because it is entirely a reference, you wind up functionally waiting for a joke. You’re waiting for the part where the parody drops a wink and a nod, and it never comes. It feels grating because you’re not going through a quest that is borrowing a reference to make a joke. This isn’t a parody of CSI; it’s just WoW’s thinly veiled version of CSI, but there’s no reason for it to be there beyond having a reference to a show that ended in 2015 but then somehow got a revival because life is a never-ending nightmare.

It doesn’t feel deliberate. It’s not a joke. It’s just something wedged in because this zone has to be about something and there’s no other zone about this, so this is something. The Searing Gorge is about a pacifist Ogre. That’s it. That’s the joke. Why? What does this mean? What does this tie into? It means that this zone has to be about something and heck, there’s a theme.

Since all of the revamp comes with the possibility that older characters will not level through the world, there’s definitely a sense that a lot of the game was filled up with references because that gives these zones something to be about. Whether or not that’s good is secondary. But you have to fill the world up with something, and so it all just exists like Doug Walker’s version of The Wall, an overstuffed soup of pointlessness that tries to have enough stuff without ever asking “is there a reason for all this stuff?”

And you know what? I get it. I can only imagine how hard it would be to be tasked with filling up not just several expansions of leveling zones but the entire existing world with quests. That sounds like a whole lot of work, and not pleasant work! I do not for one second blame anyone who sat down and groaned and cursed before saying, “Fine, this zone is a CSI reference; it gives me something to base my work around.”

The problem isn’t that people were not trying to do their best; the problem is that the approach itself was a bad one. Did the old world need a revamp? Yes. Absolutely. Did it need a revamp that remade every single zone in a way that often made the text of the quests downright unpleasant even if the mechanical experience was improved? No. And did it result in things now being just as dated as they were in 2010 and Blizzard never trying to do this again? Sadly, yes, and so the problem just shifted in a different unpleasant fashion.

It was an ambitious plan. But sometimes “small and functional” is the way to go.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with almost two decades 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.
Previous articleSiege Camp’s Anvil Empires pre-alpha begins testing housing interiors, player markets, and pack animals
Next articleStar Citizen brings three new vehicles, updated salvage, and more derelict settlements in alpha 3.22

No posts to display

oldest most liked
Inline Feedback
View all comments