By Al Bickham on December 4th, 2010 at 12:00 pm.
Greetings, gunners. As an old comrade-in-alms of the RPS Hive-Mind and a long-term dabbler in World of Warcraft, I’ve been drafted in to give a brief account of all the pre-expansion shenanigans that have been going on in the run up to the launch of Cataclysm.
It’s the biggest expansion to hit the game since its 2004 launch, and in the run-up patches a quite enormous amount of content has been incrementally downloading through game clients worldwide. The purpose of this patching has been two-fold: to offer players some kind of context for the expansion before it hits, and to put them through some memorably mad shit that they’ll remember for a long time to come.
Halfway through October, the first pre-Cataclysm patch dropped, and you could tell something was up.
In the old-world pre-expansion landmasses of Azeroth, there were occasional earth-tremors. Nothing more than a couple of points on the Richter scale; nothing more than a raised eyebrow to hint of impending troubles. Then one day while in Stormwind, one of the two Alliance capital cities, I noticed a curious little widget, like a little glowing canister, floating in the street. Suddenly they were everywhere, down back-streets, nestling in the corners of packed market-squares; odd, inscrutable, a little bit ominous. Outside the Stormwind auction house a city guard popped up with a quest-symbol hovering over his head. He wanted me to pay a visit to the town guard Commander at Stormwind Keep, and find out what was up,
It turned out that cultists, preaching the end of the world, were appearing around the city at the same time as these odd devices. What followed was an extensive flavour-quest chain, which required me to investigate and discredit the cultists. Clues to their origins pointed to a camp in the forest outside the city.
A quick scamper through the forest uncovered a camp where ex-Stormwind residents were building and priming the devices. The quest turned into a form of infiltration, and soon I was masquerading as one of the cultists – complete with doom-saying sandwich-board slung about my neck. I was asked to return to the city by the cult leader, and place more devices which, it turned out, were designed to unleash elementals all over the city.
At this point, my curiosity lay in a kind of tension with the fact that I was actually doing the cultists’ work for them. Was I contributing to, or even hastening, whatever big-bad was about to befall the world? I kind of wanted to head back to the camp and slaughter them all.
More devices appeared. Small elementals popped up in the city from time to time; weak, low-level, and easily dispatched. Unease spread throughout the city. Martial law descended, and at one stage, I found myself at the city gates, assisting the guards by slapping manacles on citizens whose papers weren’t in order, thinking ‘What am I now, NKVD for the Alliance?’. It was all a bit uncomfortable.
October passed the baton to November. Time passed. The tremors got worse.
And then, about 11PM one Monday evening after some low-level guild raiding (our guild is small, fun, and made up of pals whose lives don’t permit the heavy, several-times-a-week raiding of the really serious types), we were all cackling on Skype about our latest comical dungeon-wipe, and one of our members started yelling about chaos in Stormwind. Those that could made the trip over from whatever points of the globe they were at. And what a sight awaited us.
Portals peppered the city, and water Elementals were literally pouring out. Serious elementals, the three-times-your-size, level 85 Elite kind. It was utter chaos. The word soon spread, and in short order the place was packed with players, all pitching in against these behemoths. Some bright fellow set up a raid group, which he then yelled across the city. We all joined. It was pretty amazing to see that his first thought was to organise people properly against the threat.
Despite the fact that there was no quest-giver tied to this sudden event, a series of quest-like tasks appeared on-screen. We had to close these portals by killing the things coming out of them, and collect sandbags to bolster key parts of the city, as there was fear of flooding.
It took about 45 minutes to secure the city. A rather stunned bunch of players reconvened in the market district – the natural gathering place for players in Stormwind – only to find two new portals shimmering there. Nothing came out. They looked rather inviting.
Attempting to enter these portals automatically queued you in the dungeon finder, WoW’s co-op dungeon instancing matchmaker, for a couple of unique boss battles. It turned out these bosses were encounters lifted from old-world, pre-expansion content, ripped and remade for a well-geared level 80 crowd. And when you popped in with a group of four other players to dispatch them, they also dropped some pretty tasty loot.
The same was happening in Ironforge, the other alliance city, and Orgrimmar and Thunder Bluff on the Horde side. The invasions came thick and fast every few hours, and there were four post-invasion bosses in total to tackle, who dropped a variety of loot useful for those in Tier 10 gear; not top-of-the-range, but the kind of stuff that gives you a leg-up into the Ice Crown Citadel endgame instances.
Then, last week, the final, pre-Cataclysm patch dropped, and everything changed forever.
The first thing you saw after the patch was Cataclysm’s opening cinematic. It depicted Deathwing, big flamey elemental dragon and Azeroth’s new uber-villain, rising from the cavernous deeps and wreaking havoc across Azeroth. Jumping into the game, it was quite clearly a massive amount of havoc.
Whole zones have been reconfigured. The dry, dusty canyons of Thousand Needles, for example, have been flooded, and are now bristling with new quests. I hated Thousand Needles when I spent my early levels questing there. It was dull as dishwater, and is actually quite interesting now.
Darkshore, notorious for its long, tedious runs between quests and their givers, has been reshaped, and the quests have been wiped and replaced. Whole areas of The Barrens are scarred and gouged from Deathwing’s attacks, and the battlements of capital cities have taken a pummelling. There’s so much fresh content now for lower-level players, there’s actually a really compelling incentive to start characters from scratch; something which, after five years of playing the game, I simply couldn’t countenance before the changes.
As a result, I’m quite looking forward to rolling a new Worgen or Goblin – the two new races that the full expansion will bring – and trying out those old instances that have been readdressed in the patches. We’ll have more on the expansion itself next week, after it launches.