Flea-bitten: My Life as a Wolf in World of Warcraft Cataclysm

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The chance to play a werewolf in a zone that's all Victorian London teeming with guys in top hats and tinted spectacles like Gary Oldman's in Dracula?

Sold. Vampires are fine, but wolves are so much cooler. Plus they feel more creepy out-of-control Stephen King in a way World of Warcraft's "look ma, no flesh!" Forsaken undead don't.

World of Warcraft Cataclysm, Blizzard's rattle-the-world expansion, may be a lot of things, but one of them's about making Alliance cooler. Enter the Worgen of Gilneas, long shut away behind a wall bordering Silverpine Forest along Lordaeron's western coast. Horde, by comparison, get money-grubbing Goblins.

What sounds cooler: Squat green super-nerds with pointy ears? Or, you know, werewolves?

Fright Night

The launch screen for Worgen locks in the spooky mood: Mist-bathed moon. Ragged pines. Wind-scraped cliffs. Hulking mansion on a rise. Rosebushes. Rosebushes? Yep, there's a rose theme here. I couldn't say why, but it sure mitigates the starting zone's fascination with drip-drip-drip gray.

What to name my new bipedal canus lupus? How about Azhdak, after Azhi Dahaka, a transliterated Iranian moniker meaning "fiendish snake," ascribed to a Zoroastrian demon who, were he cut open, would spill forth serpents, lizards, and scorpions to blanket the earth. Imagine that as a racial perk.

And now we're starting. The intro teases silhouetted werewolves leaping between and off of rooftops. I'm hopeful for all of a millisecond that'll be in the game. And then I remember I'm playing an MMO, not Assassin's Creed: The Howling.

Oh well.

Mission Possible

The first few missions predictably introduce the interface. This is how you move. That's how you target. Click this kind of symbol to trigger that event. After completing a handful, there's the inevitable "leave this area and go to that one" quest. All the while, the game's throwing experience at me like a flush drunk on a charity bender.

And one point, a dozen fellow newbie Worgen spawn in at the same point, which, given the game's absent collision detection, makes for a kind of freaky visual all its own.

Everyone wants to give me bags or weapons or play dress-up. While dispatching a bunch of attacking Worgen, Gilneas's prince tosses me a wolf fur coat. Ha ha, very funny my prince. Also: Very multitasking of you.

At some point the story turns on its racial premise. Let's just say you don't start as a werewolf. My only quibble's that the narrative transition where the coup de plot's delivered--one moment you're in a church, the next, well, somewhere else--isn't handled very well. I've played it twice now, and I'm still not sure what happened. Blizzard's spent a lot of time in Blizzcasts and "making-of" videos patting themselves on the back for smoothing the narrative in Cataclysm. Note to those guys: Mission not accomplished. Yes, I can piece together what happened more or less on my own, but then I shouldn't have to.

Once More With Feeling

The next few player levels illustrate how much Blizzard's learned in six years about quest variation. At one point in the Worgen intro quest line, you'll have to launch yourself with a cannon at two ships to dispatch their captains. If you aim poorly and miss the deck, you'll have to double back, retake the cannon from the enemy, and try again. There's one where you're bombing swarms of Worgen from horseback, and another where you employ dogs to hunt and attack nearly invisible enemies. All in all, a nice chance of pace.

And yet for every one clever quest, you get 10 of the not-so-clever kind. Kill six of this. Scavenge for three of that. Go talk to some person who needs assistance finding something. Save four of these citizens from certain death. The problem's that Blizzard's never figured out how to make soloing interesting. It's all brute force mouse-clicking and leveling, most of the latter automated (you'll only fiddle character stats indirectly by equipping gear) with a dash of storytelling, a story that's basically retold (the names change, but little else) wherever you go. Fail states are pretty well nonexistent until you hit the high-level dungeons, group quests, and PvP areas later on.

That's my experience rolling through the first 9 levels as a Worgen warlock, anyway. Gilneas looks and sounds and feels cool, but leveling's as boring as ever. Blizzard claims they've retouched every other zone in the game, and that quest progression's been streamlined as well as contextualized with the Cataclysm storyline folded in and paramount. We'll see. Worst case scenario, I get to 85 that much faster, and fall back on calling that the point at which the Cataclysm refresh really begins.

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