The developers of "World of Warcraft" wanted to breathe new life into their flagship franchise and they were willing to blow up a large part of their world to do it.
"Cataclysm," the third expansion for the best-selling online role-playing PC game from Blizzard Entertainment, goes on sale Tuesday.
As the name implies, a worldwide catastrophe has shattered the game's setting of Azeroth. Towns have been destroyed, floods and droughts have ravaged the world's landscape, and tensions between the game's two main factions, the Alliance and the Horde, are high.
And the giant dragon Deathwing, the villain who caused all the havoc in the first place, is pretty keen on finishing what he started.
There is a method to all this destruction.
Game developer Blizzard wanted to improve the original content of "World of Warcraft," which had largely been untouched for years. That required a complete overhaul of Azeroth.
"One of the things we heard a lot in the planning stages for 'Cataclysm' was that 'World of Warcraft' was a great game and if you referred your friends to it you would tell them 'Just get through the first 60 levels then it gets fun after that,"' game director Tom Chilton told The Canadian Press.
"And it illustrated to us that there was a problem with the way that our current game content was just a lot more compelling, more fun, then our old game content."
To do that, Blizzard had to update the core of the game and so even "World of Warcraft" gamers who don't purchase "Cataclysm" will benefit from its improvements.
While the "Cataclysm" expansion pack features new areas to explore, new dungeons to delve and two new playable races, many of the changes brought about by the expansion are already available for free.
Every original zone has been redesigned with new quests and in many cases a completely new geography. The changes are large enough that the free content could be considered an expansion in its own right.
The new content isn't just thrown in either. The quests are now largely part of a greater storyline rather than one-off chores, and players are tasked to do big picture missions, such as bombing enemy cities or taking down a powerful adversary, at a much earlier level than before.
While sweeping changes have taken place to the game's environment, the core gameplay of "World of Warcraft" remains the same.
Players control a single character, which can be created using one of the 12 races and 10 classes available. Players who prefer sneaking around and taking out enemies unseen may choose a night elf rogue, for example, while those who prefer fighting on the front lines might create a burly orc warrior.
The character becomes more powerful and gains more abilities as it gains levels by killing monsters or completing quests. Many quests can be handled solo, but some of the challenging dungeons and raids will require groups of five or more to tackle.
And those who wish to pit their skills against human opponents can take advantage of the player-versus-player battlegrounds, where the Horde and Alliance factions struggle for dominance in battles ranging from five-on-five skirmishes to large-scale conflicts.
While there is enough free stuff to keep players busy for hours, Chilton thinks Warcraft fans will still gladly shell out to buy the expansion.
"As long as there is a good chunk of new content for players to experience that comes with purchasing the box then I think we're OK on that front," Chilton said.
"With the five new zones we're adding for characters (levels) 80 to 85, and being able to participate in all the new dungeons and all the new raids, it's enough for a player to justify (and say), 'This is worth buying the box for, even though I got all this other stuff for free."' "Cataclysm" could become the fastest-selling PC game of all time.
Bilzzard set the mark with World of Warcraft's first expansion when "The Burning Crusade" sold 2.4 million copies in its first 24 hours after release. The game's second expansion, "Wrath of the Lich King," broke that mark with 2.8 million units moved in 24 hours.
Some stores in Canada planned to open at midnight to deal with the expected demand for the game, while Future Shop flagship stores in Vancouver, Edmonton and Toronto scheduled launch parties.
Those who buy the game early will likely want to create a new character as "Cataclysm" introduces two new playable races: the beastly worgen and the brilliant and shrewd goblins.
Goblins have been part of Warcraft lore since "Warcraft II" was released in 1995, and Chilton says Blizzard have had plans for them some time.
Worgen, a society of shapeshifting werewolves, are a less obvious choice, especially as this savage race will be joining the more refined Alliance side of the conflict.
While worgen have mostly been used as fodder for players to kill for experience points thus far, their motivations and backstory will be fleshed out in "Cataclysm."
"We had the idea for a while that we wanted to introduce the goblins as a playable race and at that point we started thinking about what other race we would introduce alongside of it that would just sound really cool and exciting," Chilton said.
"So we kind of felt (the worgen) were one of those really cool looking races in the game and one that could stand for a lot more buildup."
As with previous expansions before it, "Cataclysm" comes with an epic villain to confront. The big baddie this time is Deathwing, a giant dragon who has awoken from his slumber in Azeroth's core and burst through the world's surface, causing the titular catastrophic event.
While Deathwing has been around in Warcraft lore for a while, he is arguably one of the more obscure members of its rogues' gallery.
"He's an interesting character because he's an older lore character from before 'Warcraft III' but newer in the sense that we haven't exposed as much of him to our current player base," Chilton said. "But I think he's a pretty easy concept to get: Giant angry scary dragon who hates everything and is out to destroy the world."
And he's off to a good start, as the fallout of his emergence has resulted in more than a reshaping of Azeroth. The resulting storyline has seen the death of major lore characters as well as escalation of hostilities between the Alliance and Horde factions.
With the action taking place on Azeroth proper instead of a different world or continent like the last two expansions, the stakes seem much higher in "Cataclysm." As ambitious as the third expansion is, Chilton says the "World of Warcraft" franchise still has room to grow.
"There's still plenty of characters to kill off," Chilton said.
Gamers will need the original "World of Warcraft" game plus "The Burning Crusade and "Wrath of the Lich King" expansion packs to play "Cataclysm," which is rated T for teen.Report Typo/Error
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