“World of Warcraft: Cataclysm”

With more than 12 million subscribers, “World of Warcraft” is easily the world’s largest and most popular MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game). What could Blizzard Entertainment, the developers of “World of Warcraft,” possibly do to improve a franchise that has received universal praise from its critics and set the golden standard in its field? The answer: tear the game to the ground and rebuild it brick-by-brick.

Through the course of two game expansions and dozens of content patches, the two primary continents in “World of Warcraft” have faded from their former glory and receded into the shadows. These starting zones and regions, which remained largely unchanged since their creation in the groundbreaking original, had become outdated and stale. With the release of “Cataclysm,” the world of Azeroth receives a much-needed makeover.

Players who are familiar with the game will be happy to see that Blizzard has done away with the tiring conventions that plagued the starting levels of 1 through 60. Gone are the days of tediously slaying 20 boars only to find out your next quest is to slay 20 scorpions.

Players will now find a much more cinematic feel to the daily grind of moving from one level to the next. Quests are now infused with actual storylines and engaging dialogue interspersed with cutscenes complete with terrific voice acting.  The creative and inventive quests that were once sporadic and rare are now also a dime a dozen.

Complementing the new feel of “Cataclysm’s” quests are gorgeously redesigned landscapes. Previously lackluster zones have been replaced with vivid and vibrant backdrops, littered with re-textured NPCs (non-player characters) and items.  Though the game has never been, nor has it ever aspired to be, a graphics giant, the new lighting effects that come with the release of “Cataclysm” will help players forget that they are playing a game designed more than six years ago. Updated water and sunray effects breathe new life into the drab and dreary scenery of the old Azeroth. Also receiving an update is the game’s soundtrack, which has largely been forgettable until now. These revamped zones are now embellished with new background themes that complement the time and place of each area perfectly, whether it be an epic warzone or a quirky Goblin harbor.

While this face-lift is certainly remarkable on its own, “Cataclysm” simply would not be worth the price without brand new content as well. The most visible of these is the addition of two new playable races: the Worgen and the Goblins. Playing as a Worgen thrusts players into a world filled with gloom as it tells the origins of a broken people suffering from a werewolf curse. Goblin players, however, will receive a much more light-hearted welcome as they play out a crime-filled storyline of mischief and mayhem. Both starting zones are imaginative and exude a lot more personality than the starting zones of the older races.

In addition to these two new starting zones, the boxed expansion also provides access to five new end-game zones, which pave the leveling path from 80 to the new cap of 85. The most innovative of these is Vashj’ir, the entirety of which is played while submerged underwater. The introduction of a true underwater questing hub adds a new dynamic that veterans of the game will find stimulating and refreshing. Vashj’ir and the four other new zones are all very well made and thoroughly enjoyable.

Phasing, pioneered in the game’s preceding expansion, is utilized a lot more in the new expansion.  As players complete quests, the environment around them changes from one “phase” to another, offering a much more engaging and interactive gaming experience than previously found.

The five new leveling zones are accompanied by two new battlegrounds, one new PvP (player-versus-player) site, seven new dungeons, two new raids and two classic dungeons that have been remade. Each dungeon or raid comes with a normal and heroic difficulty mode, something veterans of the game should be familiar with. However, only players who have been playing the game since its infant days may be familiar with the difficulty of these heroic dungeons. Players can no longer mindlessly fumble through dungeons as they effortlessly did in the previous expansion. The added difficulty is a welcome change. Killing many of these heroic bosses requires careful planning, teamwork and communication.

However, not everything in the game has been changed. The game developers’ intrinsic sense of humor remains intact. There are countless new Easter eggs and allusions to popular culture that players will find amusing. From references to recent movies and TV shows such as “300” and “Jersey Shore” to oldies like “Steely Dan,” every player will find little surprises fit for a laugh.

Considering the enormity of the changes made, it is not surprising that the game is not without its bugs and glitches. However, Blizzard is known for hot-fixing the game’s issues quickly. Within a short span of time, the game should be extremely polished.

With all the changes made to the old world and the addition of new content, “Cataclysm” is essentially “World of Warcraft 2.0” and should take countless hours to fully explore and play through. Though “Cataclysm” brings with it the threat of the end of life in Azeroth, it breathes new life into the aged franchise and provides an adventurous and fun experience to players new and old.

Rating: 5 out of 5