In Cataclysm, Blizzard has liberally applied its phasing technology - changing the zone as player completes quest to reflect their deeds. It was introduced in Wrath and is used to great effect here, making for a much more significant feeling of progression and time than we've seen in an MMO yet. This improvement makes it more jarring when you encounter a hiccup in the system, like an unclear objective or a breadcrumb trail that abruptly ends. They feel far more flawed than they would have otherwise.
Even if the star of the show might be the destroyed old Azeroth, long-time and current WoW players will find the high-level content is just as engaging as the new low-level stuff, if not more so. From the Egyptian-themed Uldum and crystalline Deepholm to the underwater ruins of Vashj'ir and the lofty midair temple of Skywall, Blizzard has once again demonstrated why its art team is widely considered one of the best in the business. A game should not look so good on a decade-old engine.
Everything I've said about the strength of the low-level quests applies to the brand-new areas, and you can really tell that the developers had a lot of fun coming up with new scenarios and quests that aren't just "kill this" or "bring me that." You'll still find quite a few of those - they really are the bread and butter filler of an MMO - but the increased emphasis on storyline and in-game cutscenes that change the world around you means it feels like progressing a tale rather than rote grinding. If gathering explosives means I'm rewarded with a cutscene where my handiwork dramatically explodes an enemy base leaving it in flames whenever I walk by, I'm okay with it.
Players who love grouping with others and running dungeons may initially find themselves out in the cold. You won't be able to join a dungeon group until you've found the physical entrance to the zone out in the world, which feels a bit jarring after growing used to the convenience of the Dungeon Finder automatically slapping a party together. That said, it's no different from how things were before the Dungeon Finder existed, but it does feel like a step backward for people who enjoy group play.
If you found Wrath's dungeon-running too easy, Cataclysm should hopefully offer more of a challenge, though Blizzard has been open that it would rather not return to the brutally difficult days of some of the Burning Crusade heroic-level dungeons. Early on, it looks as though it's delivered on that promise, though the true test of an MMO comes with time.
There lies the true difficulty of reviewing an MMO: It's impossible to know how it will age. You could never have predicted how Arena-focused Crusade would become just as you could never have guessed how easy Wrath would have ended up. All we can do is judge what is there in front of us, which is the best-designed content - rather, the best-designed version - that has ever existed in WoW. The rating you see below is a moment frozen in time as the game exists now, and there's no question that it will evolve.
It's certainly not perfect. Some players may be let down that all the new zones are in old-world Azeroth instead of a completely new area, and others may not appreciate some of the design decisions. Despite all the changes, the game remains World of Warcraft at its core for better and for worse. If you've been adamantly opposed to the game for six years, it won't change your mind or win you over. If you've ever been on the fence, though, or if you once loved the game but left to move on, then it may be what you're looking for. This is why this game has twelve million subscribers.
Bottom Line: Blizzard tears WoW to the ground and builds it up more skillfully than ever before. The new content is creative, has a tangible sense of story and progression that you wouldn't expect from an MMO, and is implemented so skillfully and smoothly that the bumps in the road are actually a bit jarring. Excellent art design goes a long way at concealing the cracks and wrinkles in a ten-year-old engine, but it is at its core still World of Warcraft and a fresh coat of paint and a significant tune-up can't change that. And yet, maybe it doesn't have to be anything else.
Recommendation: If you've ever been curious, or if you used to play but have stopped, there is no better time to get on the train. Just be warned that you might not want to hop off again.
John Funk drops epics when killed. Please don't try to test this.