New Beginnings in World of Warcraft: Cataclysm
The first thing I tell people new to World of Warcraft is to roll either Blood Elf or Draenei. Those races were the first two to be added to Blizzard's massive game, some three years after it launched. And in those years the guys and gals in Irvine have learned a hell of a lot about making virtual worlds that are fun to explore, quests that skirt the grind and experiences that instill a sense of adventure. You can see it as you survive a Draenei shipwreck on Azuremyst Isle or survey Scourge-scarred lands spilling out below Silvermoon. These two starting areas make the homes of the Dwarves, Tauren and Night Elves -- virtually unchanged since launch in 2005 -- feel old and busted.
That's all changing when Deathwing comes home to roost. World of Warcraft: Cataclysm will transform the world of Azeroth as we know it. When the aforementioned Earth-Warder escapes his prison in Deepholm and punctures a hole between the Elemental Plane and Azeroth, he'll unleash destruction that transforms the world. And Blizzard will take the opportunity of this turmoil to drastically change the quest flow for every race in Azeroth.
If you're not a dyed-in-the-wool World of Warcraft player and have been patient enough to hang through a couple paragraphs full of jargon and silly proper nouns, I'll spell it out for you in plain English. Sometime in the near future, World of Warcraft is going to change significantly. Soup to nuts. That's a big deal, because there's a lot of dusty space between the fresh Blood Elf and Draenei content I talked about before and all the nifty high-level stuff beyond the Dark Portal in The Burning Crusade and across the Northern seas in Wrath of the Lich King. Blizzard is, literally, changing its game.
But what we saw at BlizzCon this year gave us very little clue as to how World of Warcraft: Cataclysm will change the places we're familiar with. Rather, we saw the beginnings of two new playable races -- the Goblins and the Worgen.
Time is money, friend. These goblins look like they're about to mug you for all the time you've got.
A little background: Goblins, traditionally, have taken a neutral role in World of Warcraft. Squat, green and a little grotesque, these creatures are mostly mercenaries and merchants -- members of cartels who run airships, oversee cross-faction auctions, and (on occasion) take up arms if the money is right. If there's a dime to be made, Goblins are there. That means they can be found across Azeroth's two continents. In role-playing parlance, they're NPCs (non-player-characters), robots who sell goods or hand out quests.
The Worgen, on the other hand, aren't quite so ubiquitous. Ensconced in the gloomy forests of Silverpine, Ashenvale and later discovered lurking in the wooded Grizzly Hills of Northrend, these wolf-men have always been thought to be irredeemably evil. They're just one of a jillion creatures to be slain in Azeroth, enemies who attack the weak on sight.
From a lore perspective, it's going to be interesting to see how Blizzard nudges these races from their current alignments into either the Alliance of the Horde. The demos at BlizzCon gave a few hints as to how that will happen. Goblins, neutral in not so much a Swiss, but a Ferenghi kind of way, find themselves shipwrecked on the Lost Isles -- a sunny, colorful paradise gone awry. Here among the cliffs, caves and man-eating jungles, players will find themselves caught in the conflict between the Alliance and the Horde. Something will happen in those early levels that will force players to see the Horde side of things. And I imagine that something will have to be fairly dramatic, considering the financial hit this particular Goblin cartel will take once it swears off indifference and takes up the Horde cause.
The same goes for the Worgen. Players who roll as one of these lycanthropes find themselves in stocks -- imprisoned in the dreary human nation of Gilneas. Sentenced to death as just another slavering beast, they'll earn a last-minute reprieve when a kindly benefactor helps them slips the bonds of their curse. And with this second chance they're tasked to aid humankind and the Alliance, like a criminal on a very tenuous parole. And the first job is the fight off the Forsaken -- an army of the undead invading their grim homeland by sea.
Both races bring something new to their faction. They'll also be the zaniest. That may stick in the craw of some humorless Hordies, but those stuck-up jerks will gripe about anything. Goblins bring with them a wry sense of humor, an affinity for gadgets (playable Goblins will come equipped with nifty utility belts) and a truly down-to-Earth perspective. They'll be the first vertically challenged race to join the Horde.
Worgen will come with a built-in shape-shifting skill -- allowing them to morph between their wolf and human forms. Their ability to grow a pelt will make them very popular among certain fetishists. Furry fantasy asides, these wolf-men (and women) will immediately become the most bad-ass members of the Alliance. Until now, those fighting for the light have been fairly slight in build -- only the Hellboy-dyed-blue Draenei break out of the slender humanoid model. The Worgen are giant, loping, hairy beasts -- all claws, snout and fang. When they're not busy loping across the countryside, they'll drop to all fours and sniff the ground like a bloodhound.
The last thing I want to do is spoil the experiences to be had in the first hours of the Worgen and Goblin experiences. In a very real way I can't. Blizzard has a surprise up its sleeves for these two groups. At BlizzCon, both the Worgen and Goblins plots started at level 5. Something happens before you wash up on shore, before you're shackled and nearly condemned. Considering the ambitious storytelling that goes down when players roll the Death Knight Hero class in Wrath of the Lich King, I suspect that these initial moments will be innovative massively multiplayer set pieces that let players enter Azeroth in the midst of an adventure. Until now, the massive role-playing games usually start in moments of calm. Players appear in safe villages, surrounded by rats that need swatting.
With World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, Blizzard seems to be setting up the opportunity to start the stories of the Goblins and Worgen in medias res. If it winds up pulling off something fresh, this new expansion may change the way we're born into MMOs. That's yet another big deal.
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