After years in the making, once more Blizzard updates the content of their persistent world MMO with new zones for people at the previously highest experience level to go out and quest in, and raised the level cap to add five more levels. (instead of the previously established ten) Not one to leave out those who have yet to reach the present "max level", Blizzard incorporated a new profession, that of Archaeology and radically redesigned the main world itself, shaking off the persistence that MMO's are more typically known for. One of the ways that this is accomplished is with honest redesign of the map, making hills and valleys where previously there were none. The other and more ingenious is smoke and mirrors in the form of "phasing", where NPCs, geographic features, terrain and even other players will be replaced by the changes planned. Say you begin in the ruins of a castle overrun by orcs. You do a quest to wipe out the orcs. Most MMO just don't send you back there, forcing the player to imagine that the orcs no longer exist, even if the models remain there in the game. With phasing, once you turn in the exterminate orc quest, the return trip no longer has orcs there. It may even have occupying forces of your faction now helping rebuild the castle.
The meat and potatoes of the expansion are the new zones and I must say I am impressed with each and every one of them. Given that World of Warcraft is running off a six-year old graphics engine, they still manage to add tweaks and changes that make things striking, lovely, haunting or evocative with their tool sets.
At level 80, a player is given the option of one of two starting zones (however they are by no means locked into those zones only, and can opt to go back and forth to fill their quest logs) one is the historic Mount Hyjal, scene of the final battle in the WarCraft 3 real-time strategy game. Players can visit the fallen world tree and perform quests on behalf of the ancient spirits of nature to help heal the land, especially against the present influx of angry elementals summoned by a nefarious cult from the Elemental plane of Fire that are attempting to raze the entire mountainside. The other "beginning" zone is that of Vashj'ir, a lesser known place (in terms of lore), that is a sunken city from thousands of years past, where the inhabitants, once elves were turned into the aquatic naga race. While full immersion in an underwater zone is exceptionally creative and the way they handle moving about beyond simple swimming is cute (You get a seahorse mount in the first ten quests or so), I am slightly phobic of deep water and the ocean, so when quests had me going into dark caves I would feel anxiety, even though it was just a game. It is not my favorite zone for that reason, despite the interesting quest chains and beautiful imagining of the vibrant undersea life. (I imagine various coral reefs and continental shelf were examined for artistic inspiration) Also, don't fuck with the whale shark.
After one finishes Hyjal or Vashj'ir (or ends up level 82 by whatever means) the player is then prompted to visit Deepholme, the Elemental plane of Earth. Here is where the terrible dragon aspect Deathwing once took shelter to lick his wounds from his defeat back in events that occurred within the time scale of WarCraft 2 and detailed in several novels by Richard Knaak. The Cataclysm storyline brings him back as the new menace to the face of the world of Azeroth, and it is by his destructive presence that so many things have changed. Quests involve snubbing the efforts of the same cult that's busy ruining Hyjal and making amends with the native inhabitants of Deepholme who recall the tumultuous time spent while Deathwing was residing down there and how it upset their normal way of doing things.
Once one completes Deepholme (Or is level 83) they are prompted to visit the land of Uldum. A large mass of the continent of Kalimdor had lain hidden by power Titan magic and machinery, yet Deathwing's sundering of the world ruined the previous fail-safes and now the splendorous Egyptian-themed desert location of Uldum lies open for exploration. The quests here focus around a race of cat-centuars known as the tol'vir, who were created by the Titans to safeguard Uldum and now that its been exposed to the world they need some help. Likewise one begins to aid a certain explorer/archaeologist and his rival through an amusing series of quest chains that pay homage to a series of action adventure films one may be familiar with if they know of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.
The last zone available for exploration and questing takes the fight to the fortifications of the adversary. In the Twilight Highlands, players are encouraged to aid sub-factions of their own. The Alliance work to help the Wildhammer dwarves, one of the three Clans of dwarves who excel in the rearing and tending of griffons as well as having a shamanistic and down-to-earth nature. The Horde work alongside the Dragonmaw orcs, one of the longest established warbands to have invaded Azeroth in the first two wars, and who tame and ride dragons to use in their battles. Due to the heated conflict between the two groups, a unified front has not been formed to strike at the Twilight Hammer cult, and players are thrust into the middle of the inter-faction rivalries. While in other MMOs this may be one of those sorts of zones where even doing a quest might flag you for Player versus Player fighting, not so here. Except on servers where world PvP is normal, those on player versus environment servers can opt to not become flagged and continue doing their quests without hindrance from the other faction (At least, more than normal).
Throughout the game players are not only treated to updated visuals on the zones, but also a fresh musical score and added in voice acting, sometimes for good effect and some times not. I am pleased to see greater use of in-game cutscenes as well, though I felt in a few places they got a bit overwhelming (Uldum primarily) I am pleased with the end result that Blizzard has put through on this game. It does seem to lack some elements of finer polish that Blizzard was known for in earlier days, but nothing is perfect and I'm willing to overlook some of the little glitches where this is concerned due to providing such quality to me in everything else.
Graphics: 7/10 (As lovely as all the new models and designs are, the stuff that hasn't been changed.. hasn't been changed. If you do not like the aesthetics of the character models, you still won't as Blizzard basically took a big magnifying lens to the RTS game and gave us models in that semi-cartoonish style to play with in 3D)
Music/Sound: 9/10 (The musical score is lovely, it's great to hear more individually voiced models and listening to Budd is a riot)
Gameplay: 8/10 (Unchanged really. There's more use of the "vehicle" UI for quests both at low and high levels, but they work. If one is familiar with MMO layout, there's nothing new here (In fact many MMOs are accused of face-lifting WoW's. If one isn't, a newly revamped system for early levels helps guide someone through playing the game)
Story: 10/10 (For those who are familiar with the WarCraft storyline from as far back as the first game it's all brought about here and adds into that lore with new twists and changes to both the old lower level zones and the inclusion of the higher level stuff. Combining the serious with a healthy does of humor, the quests and their associated storylines that play out through them are charming to behold and I do not mind the thought of repeating them for other characters.)
Overall score: 8/10 (or 9/10 if you round up) the expansion adds a fair amount of new stuff to dig into and explore, despite it being geared for those at the upper level of experience, the Sundering changed how one progresses through the earlier levels as well, making things new for those who felt the game was old and stale. I eagerly look forward to getting more involved in the new dungeons, raids and finally testing out that archaeology skill.