World of Warcraft: Cataclysm - This is how the world ends

With today's launch of World of Warcraft: Cataclysm looming over us like, well, "a giant dragon" is probably a bit redundant ... Nevertheless, we turned to Massively's Ryan Greene to explain why you might be interested, either if you're new to the game or simply looking for an excuse to return to Azeroth.

Have you noticed a new excitement in the air? Have you felt the rumblings from the deep places of the world and tasted dread on the wind? Have you wondered why all your nerdiest friends planned months in advance to contract fake illnesses on the same day?

Cataclysm has arrived, and World of Warcraft will never be the same ... which is the same cheesy line you've been hearing for weeks, if not months. WoW's third expansion is huge news for dedicated players, but what does it mean for everyone else? For anyone who has never tried WoW or who gave it up many moons ago, the changes Deathwing hath wrought (with Blizzard's help) mean there has never been a better time to jump into the game. Seriously.

No, seriously.

That was a terrible, straight-from-the-back-of-the-box cliché, but it's true. With Cataclysm, the developers at Blizzard aimed to overhaul the original world of Azeroth -- which, let's face it, needed work. The old world, as it's called, was a mess in places. Many quests were boring or tedious, gear was itemized poorly, certain dungeons were winding and endless. For old and new players alike, creating a new character promised a painful slog through 60 levels of outdated design philosophy.

Cataclysm reshapes old Azeroth, giving the Warcraft world a much-needed facelift and tummy tuck, while introducing totally new low-level content. So what's in it for you?

The Cataclysm in a nutshell

You might have seen the cinematic trailer on TV, but Cataclysm happens because this really enormous dragon named Deathwing gets pissed and breaks everything. The Shattering, as it's called, actually hit WoW in a patch two weeks ago. That pre-expansion patch introduced a lot of the game's new features, while the rest of them went live with the release of the expansion itself today.

New ways to play

With Cataclysm's arrival, two new playable races, Goblins and Worgen, enter the fray. Goblins, which have always existed in WoW as a neutral, non-playable race, join the Horde. They're money-grubbing little wiseasses with thick, mookish accents and an affinity for technology that explodes as often as not.

A mostly new race of werewolf people, Worgen join the Alliance. They have shown up on occasion as Taylor Lautner enemy monsters, but now Worgen fight the good fight as Taylor Lautner shape-changing good guys. In a mechanic unique to their kind, Worgen can shift into human form whenever they're not fighting, though they always fight in wolf form.

As for WoW's other 10 races, they get to enjoy new class offerings. Trolls, for example, can now play as Druids, and Dwarves can be Mages and Shaman. (Shamen? Shamanz?) In all, Cataclysm introduces 13 new class options for the older races.

New starter areas

Newb zones bear a heavy burden in MMOs. Introducing beginners to the game world, they act as the cover by which the book is often judged. Today's increasingly elaborate MMO tutorials attempt to draw in potential paying customers, but most of WoW's old beginner zones offered little in the way of excitement or showmanship.

Not so any longer, as almost every race's starting zone has received the Cataclysm treatment. The Goblin and Worgen zones boast some of the most impressive storytelling in WoW, and the formerly homeless Gnome and Troll races enjoy completely new introductions as well. The developers gave most other starting zones a fresh coat of paint in the form of new equipment, more interesting gameplay and cooler quests.

New Azeroth

An awesome starting experience means nothing if it funnels into old, tedious leveling content. The Shattering made sure that doesn't happen. With few exceptions, Cataclysm has changed every zone in the original World of Warcraft for the better.

The extent of change varies by zone. Some areas received a few quest tweaks here and there and upgrades on quest rewards, while others, such as the infamous Barrens, got literally ripped in half. Dungeons also underwent serious improvements, from new quests and gear to sweeping redesigns.

How different is the old world? I created a new Orc Warrior two weeks ago, on the day of the Shattering, to find out. She would be the seventh Horde character I had leveled through Azeroth. Old zones that I used to hate, such as Durotar and Stonetalon Mountains, felt vibrant and exciting, offering new quest types and a clear path of progression. Some zones, such as Winterspring, looked the same but held fresh surprises. And others areas, such as Thousand Needles and Orgrimmar, are practically unrecognizable.

Leveling through Azeroth, which I haven't enjoyed in years, was a joy from beginning to end. The questing is so improved and seamless at times that I almost felt as if I should stop and catch my breath. My Orc reached level 60 in about a week and a half, and I immediately started making plans to level a Goblin in zones I hadn't experienced yet.

The high-level stuff

For all that it brings to the first 60 levels, Cataclysm promises a serious upgrade to the upper levels as well. The level cap jumps five notches to 85, and the expansion includes five new zones, all located on Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms.
  • Mt. Hyjal -- One of the two level 80 zones, and a famous location from Warcraft III. Also, it's a mountain.
  • Vashj'ir -- The other level 80 zone, this place is underwater. Fighting in this zone works just as it does on land, and everyone gets a seahorse mount on which to zip around the zone. Not even Aquaman has it that good.
  • Deepholm -- A vast underground cavern hidden beneath the ocean. I expect it'll be damp.
  • Uldum -- A desert zone that deals with a lot of the lore surrounding dwarves and, uh, other stuff. (I'm not big into lore.) It's like Egypt, if monsters had taken over Disney, which had taken over Stargate, which had taken over Egypt.
  • Twilight Highlands -- Dragons and cultists and Deathwing, oh my!
Five levels and five zones might not sound like a lot, but the leveling curve slows considerably in Cataclysm, even as the difficulty of enemies and dungeons takes a big leap upward.

The other stuff

Cataclysm introduces a few other features for old and new players, including:

Old world flying
-- Now players at level 60 and up can fly in old Azeroth, instead of just in the zones of the previous two expansions.

-- A new, optional profession that has players unearthing ancient artifacts to unlock neat rewards, such as noncombat pets and unique mounts.

Guild leveling
-- Leveling characters and completing dungeons contributes to your guild's level and unlocks neat rewards, such as noncombat pets and unique mounts. Whoa, déjà vu.

What Cataclysm isn't

Much like pizza or the Pocket Fisherman, Cataclysm is really swell and has a lot to offer, but it doesn't do everything. First and foremost, the expansion does not overhaul the content from Burning Crusade or Wrath of the Lich King. I speak from very recent experience when I say it sucks to transition from the awesomeness of new old Azeroth to the meh of Outland. But at least you only have to hang out there for eight levels, if that, before moving on to Northrend. And what's more, the leveling curve from 70 to 80 has been cut by 20 percent, so you'll be shipping off to Hyjal or Vashj'ir in no time.

Cataclysm also does not fundamentally change WoW's gameplay. Yes, we get new types of quests and exotic new locales, and the 80+ content promises to be a lot harder than Wrath's hit-it-and-quit-it dungeons. But if you've played WoW and hated the aesthetic or the combat or the fantasy setting, then Cataclysm isn't likely to change your mind.

For everyone else who has ever been curious about what the fuss is all about, or for anyone who moved on years ago and wonders whether WoW is worth trying again, Cataclysm is the time to find out.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.