'Cataclysm' Burns Away 'World of Warcraft''s Slag and Leves Behind a Dangerously Enticing Core

You may have noticed that I have a slight animosity toward games of the massively multiplayer variety. This is a point of view not without history, one built on lessons learned once upon a time when I marched to an altogether different tune.

I played perennial MMOG poster-boy World of Warcraft back when it claimed a mere 4 million subscribers. I had a nice little rogue, backstabbing and running dungeons and leather-working and spending, always spending. He ran with a group of people notable mostly because they typed in complete sentences and avoided all the things that "real" guilds did. (We did them all, too, eventually.)

He paid off in his way, being very good at what he did. I (being myself and 19 other people) killed a Black Dragon Broodmother once, back when claims to the first of those kills could be reasonably made. When the loot was divided, I walked away with treasure that nobody else at the time possessed. Heady days, those.

But at some point I realized what would have to be done to stay competitive. End-game curves ramp up ever higher, if not in terms difficulty then definitely in the amount of time required. Getting to the top is one thing, but staying there is something else altogether. Maintaining that expected place in World of Warcraft would have meant maintaining no place anywhere else, and how close I came to being fine with that before quitting scares me.

At its heart, World of Warcraft is the terminus of the hunter-gatherer instinct, the boundary marking the point where humanity's basic need to accumulate and build meets technology's victory over the difficulty our ancestors faced in these same tasks. More than anything else, World of Warcraft exists to fill this void. The game creates a world in which drudgery is once again rewarded, a world in which the fruits of that drudgery are given weight. Modern man may never appreciate the value of an apple that he never had a hand in growing, but his need to feel that sensation can be exploited by allowing him to forge a weapon that he thinks his avatar needs, while putting the materials used to make the weapon at the end of a series of hours-long dungeons.

Entire industries have sprung up around it, creating funhouse mirrors of the modern supply chain. Entrepreneurs quest for fame and wealth by digging their claws into World of Warcraft. The game has its own Googles, its own Facebooks, its own YouTubes, all powered by its players' desire to finish an endless game and an invisible underclass of Third-World factory workers who toil as in-game generators of currency and materials for the game's black market.

Cataclysm, the newly released World of Warcraft expansion, is perhaps the greatest mission statement of that ideal. Games like WoW build on themselves through planned obsolescence, leaving slug trails of newly useless content in the wake of their perpetual journey toward being the dragon that other dragons chase. In casting off this detritus, Cataclysm asks its players to consider the amount of time Blizzard put into its creation and asks them to respond in kind. Despite being the target of this obsolescence, the holders of WoW's 12 million accounts dutifully acquiesce.

Cataclysm makes WoW into all but a new game. Deathwing, leader of the Black Dragonflight and the latest in a long line of WoW end bosses, decides to take a joyride around the world of Azeroth, leaving his mark on it in a most cataclysmic way. Instead of simply tacking on a few new zones, Blizzard has created Extreme Makeover: Rampaging Dragon Edition, giving the entire world a "lived-in by an avatar of destruction" feel.

Stats have been re-crunched, revamping practically every facet of the existing structure and rejuvenating the systems that even the game's most fervent adherents admitted was tired. While the fundamentals of gameplay remain—warriors still tank, priests still heal—the details of its implementation have seen considerable polish. Cataclysm is one graphical overhaul away from being WoW2.

It could have been, but in a devious turn, it isn't. Cataclysm is nearly a full-fledged sequel, but instead of starting fresh and splitting focus, it piggybacks on its predecessor by becoming it, irrevocably rewriting Azeroth in the process. This isn't something that is typically done, and Blizzard's marketing team knows it. Cataclysm has gained much marketing momentum through the sheer balls it takes to turn so much previous history into a burnt-out cinder.

But the most worrying part of Cataclysm is the efforts it takes to fix its most egregious problems. Casual content, once a WoW afterthought, is on the rise, even more so than with the previous two expansions. End-game content is still the domain of group play, but those groups are less demanding in their requirements. Cataclysm is by far the easiest iteration of WoW to actually play.

This makes Cataclysm the latest in a long line of concessions toward making WoW universally accessible, and by extension more dangerous. WoW was bad enough when it was unpalatable, but turning it into something that anyone could conceivably lose a few hundred hours playing might as well be criminal.