Until recently it might have been considered hyperbole to say that World of Warcraftbears little resemblance to the game that it launched as six years ago. But now, following the recent releases of both a major free update and the eagerly anticipated Cataclysm expansion, there's no denying that the fantasy world of Azeroth has changed forever. Entire regions have been brilliantly redesigned following the dragon Deathwing's destructive flyover, and you don't need Cataclysm or even either of the earlier expansions to enjoy exploring them (though you do need Cataclysm to fly around them). Cataclysm brings plenty of great content to the table in addition to old-world flying, but like Wrath of the Lich King before it, it's an expansion aimed primarily at players with high-level characters.
The naga aren't a fully playable race yet, but you do get to take one for a test-drive in the underwater zone of Vashj'ir.
The most noteworthy content that Cataclysm offers for newcomers to World of Warcraft comes in the form of playable goblin and worgen (werewolf) races. Like all races, they have unique traits that make them particularly well suited to certain classes or professions, but the most compelling reason to play as them is to experience the all-new zones where their adventures begin. The two could hardly be more different; the worgen starter area is reminiscent of a perpetually dark Victorian England during a werewolf epidemic, while the goblins' is almost futuristic by World of Warcraft standards, with flashing signs and marketing personnel that you can cruise past in a garishly painted hot rod. What these zones have in common is that they both feature a decent variety of quests, and like many of the other, redesigned starter zones, they do a good job of making you feel like a character of some importance from the outset, as opposed to one who starts out performing menial tasks and killing unsuspecting wildlife.
Regardless of which of the 12 available races you choose to play as, there has never been a better time to come to World of Warcraft as a new player. Not only are the redesigned starter zones significantly more fun than they used to be, but the game now does a much better job of explaining class abilities as you unlock them. For example, when you unlock the frostbolt ability as a mage, the tooltip associated with it tells you not only that it hurts and slows down enemies, but also that it's a good spell to open a fight with. And as a hunter, you're told that your damage-over-time serpent sting attack is especially useful against enemies that take a long time to kill. If you're a newcomer, these tips are invaluable, and if you're an experienced player who has previously found one or more of the 10 character classes too confusing to play, now would be a great time to give them another try. Don't bother attempting the archaeology profession with your new characters for a while, though.
Archaeology is a chore at any level, and best avoided until you have a flying
Available to characters as soon as they hit level 20, archaeology is a new profession introduced in Cataclysm. It's a secondary profession like first aid, cooking, and fishing, which means that you can learn it without having to give up either of your gathering or crafting professions. On paper, archaeology seems like it would be one of the most compelling professions in the game, but in practice it's a time-consuming grind that rewards luck rather than your considerable efforts. After spotting a dig site on the map of your current continent (there are always four sites to choose from on each), you first have to make your way to the correct zone, which, even if you have a flying mount, can take a pretty long time. Then, once you're inside the area marked on the map, you start surveying it; you break the ground with a pickax and then, assuming you haven't found artifact fragments on your first attempt, you find yourself looking at a tripod-mounted telescope with a colored light next to it.
This telescope points roughly in the direction of the nearest fragments, while different colored lights let you know how far you are from them. It can take several minutes to find the three fragment deposits at any given dig site, and much longer if your character isn't a high enough level for nearby enemies to ignore you. Fragments must be collected in significant quantities before you can hit a "solve" button to piece them together and make objects that have already been randomly assigned to you as projects, and that you probably have no interest in making. The problem isn't just that the vast majority of archaeology items serve no purpose other than to be sold to vendors for insignificant amounts of money, but also that you know exactly which pointless item you're going to get as you work your way around multiple dig sites to assemble it. It's like knowing that you're holding a losing lottery scratch card, but having to get a coin out of your pocket and scratch it anyway, several times, before you're allowed to try another. There are some very desirable rare and epic artifacts up for grabs via archaeology, including mounts, pets, weapons, and crafting recipes, but it's unfortunate that there's little fun to be had trying to obtain them.
Fortunately, there's plenty of fun to be had with Cataclysm content elsewhere, starting with five new high-level zones that boast more than enough varied quests (more than 100 in each) to get you from level 80 to the new cap of 85. Like those from the original game that have been revamped, each of Cataclysm's zones has its own story to tell and is almost entirely self-contained. This portion of the game feels less organic since you more or less just move from zone to zone rather than rely on quests to gently nudge you toward other areas, but this is ultimately a better system because you're more likely to see quest chains and their respective stories through to their satisfying and occasionally spectacular conclusions. These stories all relate to the overarching Deathwing narrative, but you certainly don't need to complete every quest in every zone to understand what's going on. In fact, depending on how you play, you're likely to reach level 85 before you reach the end of your fourth or even third Cataclysm zone. You'll still want to play through all of them though, not only because they're a lot of fun, but also because completing quests is the only way to unlock many of the faction vendors, repeatable daily quests, and portals to and from your faction's capital city.
All five of the high-level Cataclysm zones (as well as many of the low-level zones that were revamped prior to Cataclysm's release) make extensive use of the phasing technology that was introduced and used sparingly in Wrath of the Lich King. As you progress through each zone's quests, your actions have an impact on the world around you that, though dramatic in your instance of the zone, are visible only to other players who have completed the same quests that you have. For example, while you're taking part in a large battle against elemental forces in the visually striking underground realm of Deepholm, another player who hasn't spent as much time questing down there (or who is further along than you are) might fly overhead and not see a battle at all. Key characters appear in different places, significant enemies don't respawn after you've killed them, and even the scenery changes on occasion. By the time you finish in a zone, you really feel like time has passed and that you've made a difference, which definitely beats wiping out an enemy force only to see it causing chaos again a few minutes later after it respawns for the next player.