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After a good five months in which my lack of purpose, funding and available time kept me away from World of Warcraft, I have finally renewed my subscription in order to enjoy the Cataclysm prequel events ahead of the expansion’s launch in December. It’s felt quite strange, attempting to engage with the game again after so long. World of Warcraft was my first MMO RPG game; thus it is the only game I’ve had to return to without the luxury of starting at the beginning.

Many patches have passed me by since I played ahead of the Ruby Sanctum, back in June. I expected a few changes as a result of this. The largest of these changes came in the switch from version 3 (Wrath of the Lich King) to version 4 (Cataclysm). Though announced well in advance, the changes this patch brought were sweeping and disruptive. My ‘main’ is a warlock, and she bore the brunt of the biggest changes. The entire warlock mechanic shifted, from gathering Soul Shards as enemies fell in order to power spells, to these reagents now powering upgrades to spells which now required no such soul-draining. The UI changed; my inventory shifted now it was no longer bogged down with bags of 28+ soul shards; Spellstones and Firestones, once applied to my weapons in order to boost spell damage, have become inert mementoes; most of my gear was rendered inappropriate, as outfits featuring spirit no longer provided useful statistics. This on top of the facts my UI had been changed, many character abilities were removed or altered, and my destruction specialisation points had been reset, all made for a hefty bout of housekeeping as I attempted to re-learn the game.

Talent points were reset in order to facilitate widespread change; the panel now comes with useful pop-up tips.

There are some unique challenges inherent in re-learning a character who, at level 80, is expected to be fairly confident in their role within the game. I’ve written about the social expectations within the so-called ‘endgame’ many times before, as peer pressure can mount upon even the most regular of players; this frankly becomes overwhelming when you attempt to engage with the game after a few months’ break. Whereas I would start a console game again from scratch rather than attempt to follow on halfway through a save file, MMO RPGs like World of Warcraft rely upon weeks and months of accumulated knowledge – and often upon the choices made with finely-tuned reflexes as well.

There is, of course, an element of muscle memory involved with these games. Though the rules had changed quite dramatically for warlocks, it didn’t take more than a few hours’ practise for my spell rotations and spacial awareness to kick back in. Trickier was the navigation of my UI, as it had literally taken a year for me to arrange each character’s spells and abilities in such a way that summons, silencers, healing spells and other types of shared ability could be found within roughly the same area on-screen. Now that the number of abilities has actually been reduced for many of these character classes, I find myself having to start again from scratch.

All this adjustment comes within an exciting time for World of Warcraft‘s visiting players. Though I arrived too late for a much-hyped assault upon the Echo Isles – and thus the formation of a home city for the troll race – I came at a time when cataclysmic events have begun to rock Azeroth. Blizzard has arranged similar ‘prequel events’ in the past, such as a largely player-run gathering at the Dark Portal prior to The Burning Crusade and a Scourge invasion upon each faction’s capital to announce Wrath of the Lich King.

Rumblings of the changes this year have been in place for quite some time, with mysterious earthquakes having long rocked the cities of Orgrimmar and Stormwind. Emissaries from both factions – including the disputed Horde warchief, Thrall – have departed Azeroth in order to research the threat, and currently stand at a cliffhanger in quest chains related to the event. City guards also have players working on undermining the persistent Twilight’s Hammer cult, and their efforts to summon elemental beings into each capital. Their efforts have succeeded this very week, as players who might have thought their work against Twilight’s Hammer done were confronted by thunderstorms and inferno.

Blizzard orchestrated their launch of Wrath of the Lich King with vast numbers of undead foes and ice dragons; razing these havens for players of all levels, when often the only threat they’d face would be an organised raid of 40 or more players of the opposing faction. No NPC enemies had been allowed inside these areas of player commerce and training before. Similarly for Cataclysm, the darkening of skies, the cries of desperate citizens and the eventual eruption of elemental portals triggers an invasion which fundamentally disrupts all activity within the city. Players who might have been minding their business in auction houses, guild vaults and smithies will find themselves alone and unable to work; instead they are recruited into war.

Panic strikes the Horde capital of Orgrimmar.

I’ve been deeply impressed with how war efforts have been arranged. As one would expect, it is largely a level 80 player’s game. Weaker elemental foes give way to elites who can only be realistically beaten by high-level players, and once players have beaten the attack back (with help from boss characters like Rexxar, Vol’Jin and Garrosh) they are allowed entrance to four quick boss battles. There is a role for lower-level characters though, as instead of being called to arms they are directed to build barricades and rescued citizens, trapped in elemental prisons. This rather frantic effort runs alongside pitched battles in which your character may find themselves targeted by an indomitable foe, only to be saved by a level 80 ally. The player community does not often come to each other’s aid in this way before, and so it is refreshing to see such change upon the social scene as well as the game world itself.