Back when I killed the Lich King, it was with a guild mostly made up of RL friends who’d been rolling the WoW game for awhile. Shortly after that kill, however, many of the players considered it their pinnacle achievement that nothing could ever really top, so they left the game. Lately, they’ve shown a bit of interest in what’s going on with WoW (even if they can’t really come back because family, time constraints, and the $15 sub cost) and I offered to write up a primer covering the broad strokes of what happened since Arthas went dark.
So Deathwing chestbursts his way out of Azeroth, with a huge mad-on for roasting the world. The Old Gods have driven him mad as well as empowering him far more than his monstrous draconic elementium-armored form can even contain, so he decides that bringing an end to the planet he was sworn to protect is the best way to go out. Because it’s an apocalypse scenario, the end-of-the-world cult the Twilight’s Hammer join up with DW, as well as servants of the Old Gods, and the elemental lieutenants who have warred for them for millennia.
Atop Mount Hyjal, Ragnaros is summoned in and is aided by the Hammer in attempting to burn down Nordrassil. The Cenarion Circle calls for aid and they rally/resurrect many of the Ancients atop Hyjal to assist in fighting back the Hammer.
In the sunken depths of Vashj’ir, the naga are stirring, but it seems like they’re fighting against the Old Gods too… and hey, they still want to kill the surface dwellers too, no kidding.
In Deepholm, Therazane the Earthmother, Elemental Lord of Earth, refuses to let the earth elementals be corrupted by the Old Gods. So the opposition destroys the World Pillar, which is apparently a loadbearing structure for Azeroth, and the Earthen Ring struggles to rebuild the Pillar to keep the world from collapsing on itself.
In Uldum, the former servants of the Titans called the Tol’vir are faced with both incursion and betrayal. Some of the Tol’vir are returned to their former pre-Curse-of-Flesh forms by servants of Deathwing in return for crippling the area’s defense. What are the Tol’vir defending? Tell me, you remember back in Ulduar how Algalon the Observer was about to initiate a process that would trigger the world to get reset to a blank slate, thus wiping out all advanced life on Azeroth? Uldum is where the machinery for that process is kept, and the Tol’vir were there to guard it. “World-destroying machinery?” you say, but in the next breath the Twilight’s Hammer are there. (Also a bunch of tiresome Indiana Jones references.)
And in the Twilight Highlands, both the Horde and Alliance are making inroads to bring some old forces into the war; the Alliance arranges a wedding (really) to bring the many disparate Wildhammer dwarf clans together under the Lion Banner, while the Horde throws a coup to bring the Dragonmaw clan back into the fold. Aaaaand the servants of the Old Gods are chestbursting out here too because hey tentacles.
If it sounds like the narrative is somewhat all over the place, that’s because it is. Instead of a single-continent narrative, as was used in BC and Wrath, Cataclysm had the 80-85 zones spread out across the planet, linked only by portals from Stormwind and Orgrimmar and not really linked well in terms of narrative. The first round of raiding brought some of those narratives mostly to a close as well:
- The Bastion of Twilight (in Twilight Highlands, natch) had everyone clawing their way against the Twilight’s Hammer, from their dragon servants and Elemental Ascendants up to Cho’gall himself. Clearing the joint on Heroic unlocked a really crazy fight against Sinestra, the broodmother of the Black Dragonflight, who’s been hatching all the twilight dragons for her baby-daddy Deathwing. For the most part, this ended the Twilight’s Hammer involvement in the expansion (though some holdouts appeared later, because you can’t keep a good cult down.)
- Throne of the Four Winds was pretty similar to Gruul’s Lair from back in BC: first a council fight in the Conclave of Wind, and then a one-boss ohmygodhe’shugewhyarewedoingthis fight against Al’Akir the Windlord, Elemental Lord of Air. This ended the Uldum narrative pretty handily, even though the place wasn’t really given a strong narrative to start with and all of the potential with the location and the Tol’vir was really just left on the table.
- Blackwing Descent is an interesting anomaly because it’s really only tangentially related to the other narratives going on. Turns out that Deathwing stopped in Orgrimmar and Stormwind to pick up the heads of his two greatest children, Nefarian and Onyxia (respectively) so that Nefarian could continue experimenting with stuff, just like he’d been doing in Blackwing Lair all those years ago. Oh, and Nef got to take her sister and make MechaZombieOnyxia. There’s no Twilight stuff, no elemental lord stuff, no Old God stuff: in a lot of ways, BWD is a remix of BWL in terms of trash, boss flavor, and Nefarian’s constant mocking presence. And the final fight is Nefarian and MechaZombieOnyxia together versus your ill-equipped 10- or 25-man raid.
The End of the Beginning of the End
All that up there (well, in addition to a clutch of launch 5-mans which were all pretty diverse and mostly tied in with the above zones/narratives) was the launch content in Cataclysm. In terms of most of the systemic changes in the game, you’re familiar with most of those already: the talent crunch to shorter trees, the greater emphasis on spec identity, the first release of heroic remixes in Deadmines and Shadowfang Keep, the addition of worgen and goblin PCs to the game, as well as gritty things like the Justice Point gear sets that prepped you for that first tier of raiding. And the new class/race combinations. And the revamp of virtually every single pre-BC zone.
Through all of these changes, Cataclysm was very ambitious in trying to make the leveling experience more approachable to new players, but it also did that at the cost of endgame content. The linearity of the end-game zones, the initial punishing difficulty of the 5-man heroics (combined with the Luck of the Draw buff being bugged and healers having to contend with sweeping system changes), and the incredibly grindy aspects of Archaeology as the new profession were a turn off to a lot of players.
So evidence demonstrates that there was a swift drop in subscribers not long after Cataclysm launched. Aside from some of the flaws listed above, it might be because Deathwing wasn’t widely received as compelling a villain as Arthas had been (and aside from occasionally carpet-bombing a zone, he wasn’t as present as Arthas was in the leveling experience); for others, it’s because the game had changed too dramatically from the familiar. But as I’ll demonstrate in the primers to come, there was a lot more change to come down the pipe, some of it actually for the better.
What do you recall about the launch of Cataclysm? Any questions about the period I didn’t answer? Sound off in the comments.