There will be a good deal of discussion...there already has been a good deal of discussion...about the finer points of Cataclysm: the implications of new class/race combinations, the lore surrounding the new races, the new guild leveling/achievement system, etc. All of these changes will be picked apart and either lauded or criticized ad nauseum on blogs, forums, and trade channels.
But let's step back and look at the big picture. What makes Cataclysm more than just additional content? What makes it an important step in the evolution of WoW...even the Warcraft brand itself? Why is this expansion pack important?
There are several reasons. I'd like to explore a few here.
Almost a Sequel
Cataclysm is the first expansion pack that almost feels like a sequel. We're essentially getting a new game from the bottom up, but, unlike a true sequel, we don't have to start from scratch. Not a bad deal.
What that offers World of Warcraft is replayability. My main is a Human Warrior named Misneach. If I decide to reroll another Human Warrior named Misneach on another server after the xpac drops, the leveling experience will be almost entirely different. People with multiple 80s can reroll a new character and not deal with the same old treadmill they've seen so many times before...new zones can be explored, new quests can be done, and the environment and landscape will not be the same as it once was from 1 to 85.
The continued use of phasing technology in Cataclysm will make what has become one of my favorite aspects of WotLK a common experience throughout the leveling process. Your actions will matter. If you help NPCs take a town for the good guys, that town stays with the good guys...it doesn't revert a couple of minutes later so someone else can do the same quest to get the same result while you stand there and watch.
Quests that utilized phasing made the trip to 80 far more interesting and satisfying than the trip to 70. If you can get that feeling from level 1 forward that will, in my opinion, make the entire leveling process much more enjoyable. It's hard to feel like a hero when the good you've done gets undone a few minutes later.
Major Lore Event
If Blizzard extends the Warcraft brand after the servers shut down, any future Warcraft titles will be impacted by the emergence of Deathwing and the resulting cataclysm. This is arguably the biggest thing that has happened to Azeroth in the five years WoW has been active.
When Cataclysm was the suspected name of the expansion, many people, including myself, assumed it would be centered around the cataclysm that resulted from the destruction of the Well of Eternity. We thought we'd have a couple of new zones to play in and end up fighting Azshara in the Maelstrom...essentially cleaning up the 10,000 year-old mess.
After all, adding new zones in expansion packs is expected, and there's nothing wrong with that. However, to change the existing areas so drastically is a bold move that will make us feel like we are a part of a major episode in the history of Azeroth. This won't be a Caverns of Time flashback, this will be something that happens now and will have current and future implications...and we get to see it and deal with the fallout.
Regardless of the whining about the small things that is bound to flood the internet until well after we've hit level 85, Cataclysm is a good thing. It's a major world event, bigger than any other, and we get to be a part of it.
I, for one, think that's pretty cool.
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