So how did that work out? What's been happening with the game over the past year? Let's pick up in December because that's when the story really begins, a story that involves a dragon smashing huge chunks of both continents to pieces. The result was a complete revamp of the game's lower-level areas, the addition of several new high-level areas, and a redesign of the way the game handled progression. It kicked off a war against primal forces and Old Gods for players, and that's without even getting in to the mechanical shifts.
Greatest hits, only greater
Cataclysm turned what had been thousands of tiny story arcs across the old world continents into a handful of new and straightforward arcs that ran through an entire zone. Leveling through Hillsbrad suddenly meant following a specific storyline about the Horde's efforts against the lingering Alliance forces and the growing territory of the Forsaken. Leveling in the Southern Barrens gave the Alliance a pitched battle for new territory. Each zone tied together several elements and ushered players through a coherent set of events, usually culminating in some exceptional rewards.
Of course, then players would hit 60 and be sent into old content from The Burning Crusade, which sort of shot the whole revamp in the foot. But points for effort.
The new stories haven't always been met with approval from the players, and there are certainly people who miss the old world the way it used to be. But there's no way to assert that the quests are worse from a technical standpoint. Questing has been refined down to a science, with several well-placed hubs and a variety of types of quests. If anything, the most common complaint is that the leveling path via questing is so scripted that there's no room to run off the rails any longer.
The game didn't just head back to the old for zone revamps, however. The main new content pushes both involved revamps of old dungeons, with the first major content push revamping Zul'Aman and Zul'Gurub, and the second introducing a new raid against the grand-daddy of raid bosses, Ragnaros. Some players were upset to see old content rehashed as new, but others enjoyed the fact that old favorites weren't being left to languish in obsolete level bands.
More players seemed to be irked, in general, by the high level of difficulty found in endgame content right out of the gate. In sharp contrast to the fairly forgiving and AoE-happy setup in Wrath of the Lich King, Cataclysm's dungeons expected players to lead off with lots of crowd control and careful play. Time, of course, ameliorated some of the issues, but players were still sometimes put off by the sheer climb in challenge.
Shocks to the systems
The expansion also brought with it several other overhauls, starting with a big change in the way that talent systems worked. Instead of players picking and choosing with a point every level, the trees were massively stripped down and asked you to pick an overall spec very early. The downside was the crippling of odd hybrid builds; the upside was getting access to many marquee abilities of each spec from the start. Of course, the talent system still had issues, which ultimately will lead to another wholesale revision coming next year... but that's another discussion.
Reforging was also introduced as a further way to customize the stats on a given item, allowing players to get rid of less-desirable statistics on each piece of gear in exchange for better performance. Stats in general were also streamlined so that two physical DPS classes in plate armor would want basically the same stats, all in an attempt to eliminate the need for strange one-off items for outlying specs.
The first major patch of the expansion introduced the Call to Arms feature, which was meant to give incentives for running random heroic dungeons when certain roles were in demand. As expected, part of the playerbase was quite upset at the thought that players with certain classes would get extra rewards over others, but other players were just happy to have the incentive in place, and the system hasn't been removed subsequently.
Last but not least was the introduction of the guild leveling system, expanded in the first major patch with guild challenges. This system allowed players to earn experience and reputation with their guilds, unlocking certain guild-wide benefits as well as new heirloom items for guilded characters. As with many parts of the expansion, it had positives and negatives. Certainly, it rewarded players who had been with a single guild for a long time, but it also made smaller guilds much less able to recruit new members due to their lower guild levels. It also wasn't terribly kind to social guilds, with the systems rewarding a much more gameplay-focused drive.
Despite all of the additions and updates, the fact of the matter is that Cataclysm didn't wind up hitting the high-water mark for WoW. The most recent news of subscriber numbers puts the game at 10.3 million, which is a staggeringly large number, yes, but it's a number that keeps shrinking over time. And the game's introduction of an endless free trial up to level 20 shows signs that the game does not, perhaps, have the ability to hook players that it once did.
Next year, the new expansion, Mists of Pandaria, is expected for release, containing another new race, a new class, and another revamp to the game's talent system. Certainly there's no shortage of people looking forward to the new expansion, even those somewhat disappointed by Cataclysm. The year might not have been a banner one for the industry giant, but there's still quite a bit of life left in Azeroth.