It's the end of the world... of WarCraft.
The World of WarCraft as we know it is about to go through some crazy changes in Cataclysm, its third expansion pack. An ancient, evil entity known as Deathwing is awakening from thousands of years of forced slumber and it's about to tear the world of Azeroth apart. The repercussions of his escape are dire, echoing throughout the land.
[image1]Just about every area that veterans of WoW took for granted have gone through some serious changes. The amount of work that has gone into this redesign is insane, considering the original World of WarCraft was more than five years in the making. Once dry, arid areas like Tanaris, the equivalent of the Salt Lake, are now lush, while low-level favorites like The Barrens are now divided into two with volcanoes everywhere. There are actual hints of green in an area previously called Plaguelands that isn't ghoul-related. Exploring Darkshore with my Night Elf druid was surprising, since the lively Amberden harbor is now home to angry spirits who murdered all of the populace in the area. No, not my beloved hippogryphs!
The changes go beyond the cosmetic for the old Azeroth continents. Every area has been rebalanced for the extended level cap of 85 and quests are now different for newly created characters starting at level 1. There are also a few new areas that used to be just names when you opened your map before. Hyjal is a full-fledged area, tucked into the continent of Kalimdor, and it serves as a "starter" zone for characters coming in fresh from Wrath of the Lich King at level 80. The lore is there to explain just what the heck happened with the world, dealing with a cult bent on bringing Deathwing back to full strength. (Note: They succeeded.)
Vashj'jr is WoW's first underwater area, placed right in the middle of Azeroth's continents. A couple of dungeons are open to beta testing, one of which takes place in this sunken city. Don't worry about drowning, though. Following the (fun) absurdity that is WoW, you'll be able to breathe, eat, fight, and even sleep underwater.
Veterans will be excited to know that a long requested feature has been finally realized: flying mounts. Thanks to the redesign of the old areas, flying is completely opened right off the bat in the beta. The cost for this skill hasn't been addressed yet and people who played through Wrath of the Lich King should expect some sort of fee for flying, following the example in Northrend in the previous expansion.
[image2]All the while, seeing both factions' capitals from a bird's eye view is just awesome. These cities have also gone through some changes, most dramatic of which is Orgrimmar, the orc's capital city in Durotar, that has gone through a 'minor' management shift and has seen the coming of the Horde's newest race, the goblins, who have opened shop in town.
But rebuilding the world of Azeroth wasn't enough for Blizzard. They have decided to add a couple of new races to the already expansive character creation screen. Not only that, but the classes have become more flexible and more combinations are available; for instance, now Humans can be hunters and Trolls druids. The Alliance now greets the Worgen, a race of cursed humans who can turn into werewolves, while The Horde have opened their doors to the Goblins. It's still a little weird seeing goblins joining a side in the conflict between factions due to their neutral stance through the expansions, but there's a story behind that.
Both new races get a starting zone that makes prolific use of the phasing gameplay introduced in Wrath of the Lich King. Gilneas is the Worgen's starting zone, a realm that decided to close itself off from the rest of the world. As soon as you roll a new character, you are thrown into an armed conflict, as citizens join the armed forces in order to defend the kingdom from a werewolf attack. This isn't much of a spoiler, but you end up infected and having to live with the fact that you are now one of them, with a major difference - you can still think and act like a human. Gilneas is the least developed of the two new race starting areas in the beta, but even so, it already looks incredible and gives off a definite Sleepy Hollow vibe.
The Goblins are just crazy. Plain and simple. Their starting zone, in perhaps an homage to games like Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row, is an urban environment built directly on a tropical island. Your new character is an up-and-coming merchant who has just been promoted by the local mafia. Safe to say, things on the island turn into a mess when the Cataclysm occurs.
[image3]The Goblins are all about big insane contraptions, which becomes immediately apparent in their starting questline. Even though I was a boss in town, I still had to go hunt worms in a ore mine and hold a party for demanding guests. This wouldn't be an MMO if I didn't have to kill a certain number of something, right? Well, since the city is paved with streets, I got a car to drive around. At level 2. While nowhere near as fast as normal mounts, the hot rod can run over just about everyone in the game with hilarious results.
It's easy to complain that Blizzard is making World of WarCraft easier with each patch and expansion. Like an old curmudgeon, some players complain they had to walk miles in the snow to scrounge up gold for a mount back in the "old days", while new players coming into Wrath of the Lich King only had to play for a few hours in order to get the same results. That's bologna. The game is becoming more and more accessible, with less of a grind for newer players. This is plainly seen in the new class spec system, which strips away much of the confusion by limiting the choice to one spec for the first 31 points you'll be receiving as you level up through the game.
For instance, if you reach level 10 as a druid, you will have to pick one spec and play through it until you reach that point limit. This makes spec-ing a character less complicated so that you don't have to look through spreadsheets. It also strips much of the stress that comes from deciding what your true specialization will be after reaching the level cap. Skills are much more integrated into the game once they become available, with notifications when you level up that tell you to go to a trainer for a particular skill you've unlocked.
As someone who's been playing World of WarCraft off and on since Burning Crusade, it's great to see how much they have listened to feedback from the players in this newest expansion so far. Even though it's probably a few months away, there's plenty of new things keeping me anxious enough to run around questing even on the beta. Of course, you will eventually have to round up 25 players to kill Deathwing as he probably won't be in anyone's reach anytime soon. But that's well after Cataclysm officially hits the World of WarCraft later this year.