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Cataclysm Beta:  Ever Upward on Game and Player

Cataclysm Beta:  Ever Upward

Michael Ubaldi  //  September 2, 2010

World of Warcraft's expansion takes shape.


ne hundred and twenty days is a long time for circumnavigating the globe or serving time in the pokey, but for Blizzard Entertainment, the last day of this year — 2010 having been selected for the launch of World of Warcraft's Cataclysm expansion — comes screaming at us.

So: Azeroth at the mercy of Deathwing by New Year's? Quality dictates Blizzard's release schedules, which is fortunate, because it also underwrites the developer's net worth. Time constraints don't apply — and why should they when millions play a game that has only gradually grown and changed over six years? Still, with the Cataclysm beta entering its third month a few days ago, the juggling act of renovating an entire world, adding new lands and two new races, and redesigning thirty character sub-classes shows fewer chainsaws and torches aloft than in early July or August.

But inasmuch as lead systems designer Greg "Ghostcrawler" Street loves the word "iteration," beta World of Warcraft remains very much in a state of creative disarray. Character talent trees, slimmed from 51 points to 31 points, see weekly changes of varying significance, eliciting cheers or ululations from players depending on who thinks who's bound to profit or lose. The first week, fat had been trimmed — but so had the meat, leaving a pretty deterministic game of hopscotch to the 31st talent and the first opportunity to pick talents from other specializations. Now, most sub-classes offer customization; some more than others, but Blizzard's recent solicitation should resolve any concerns about uneven endowment.

Thirty-one flavors: redesigned talent trees of most sub-classes offer customization, some more than others.
Since early July, I'm spent most of my time in the beta focusing on play mechanics for the warrior class. Warriors entered the beta with a few matters to address, including player-versus-environment (PvE) supremacy of the Fury tree from exponential resource scaling with powerful gear, and the PvE inadequacy of the Arms tree that resulted. The class' resource — rage — is no longer as directly affected by ever-increasing factors like Critical Strike Chance and damage done. Rage can no longer be repeatedly shunt to the offending ability — Heroic Strike — as before, either. These changes, as well as a slew of new talents and abilities, have brought Arms and Fury to some semblance of parity. Will that make raiders — most of whom choose Fury, many out of necessity — fair-weather, abandoning one sub-class for the other? Some worry; I don't, keeping faith in human penchants.

In the latest patch, designated 12857, players can finally avail themselves to the level cap of 85, every high-level zone, and every five-man dungeon not scheduled to debut on launch day. My class testing hasn't left much time for questing (my interest in keeping some new content fresh aside). What I have seen of reshaped Azeroth is impressive; though one of the new zones, the underwater rifts of Vashj'ir, bored me to the point where I stopped following quests as soon as my selected character reached a level that benefited testing purposes. Is it the incomplete scenery? The lack of music? I can't say, but athwart the brisk, earthy greeting players received as they sailed into Wrath of the Lich King's Howling Fjord, Cataclysm's grandeur remains, for me, in name only.

How does this beta compare to the culmination of Blizzard's last expansion two years ago? Remarkably closely — and, considering the scope of changes, maybe even further along. On the cusp of August and September of 2008, for example, warrior talents players take for granted — like Heroic Throw and Warbringer — had just been spotted under comedic, placeholder names like "Weapon Throw." The developers were still shuffling through possibilities, discarding talents and abilities before replacing them with new ones.

By the last week of August 2008, on the other hand, data-miners had uncovered sound files reserved for the Lich King's opening fusillade — the "world event" heralding the launch of Wrath. Everyone assumes that with Cataclysm, primal malice will wrench the very earth asunder, and all that, but apart from Blizzard's mere assurance, we know nothing else. And yet, in plain sight: the developers' confidence and players' swelling anticipation of it all.

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