World of Warcraft: Cataclysm has done many interesting things to the 1-15 and 80-85 level single player experience. The moment to moment gameplay has been improved all around; the quests are more interesting, the plot is more exciting, and a lot of the practical elements of travel and questing have been streamlined. However, these changes have affected the Massively Multiplayer part of MMO, and deserve some critical attention.
For one thing, it takes a lot more suspension of disbelief to engage the story. There has always been a problem in creating a believable narrative in WoW. As you return to an NPC to collect your reward for killing the bad guy and saving the town, you see another player talking to the same NPC, picking up the quest to do the same thing. It doesn't make sense, but we excuse it because of the nature of the game. There's an acceptance of multiple things happening at the same time, in multiple states of progression, like some kind of collapsed quantum universe.
However, with the expanded use of a technology Blizzard call phasing, in which the players are actually placed in different versions of the world according to what they've accomplished, the stories have expanded to make the player even more central. Now, you're not just the one who killed the bad guy and saved the town before moving on to the next self-contained segment of story, but you're a central character in eight hours of gameplay. This is cool for the player, but when you come out of it and realize that everybody else in your race had the same experience, it raises some questions about the point of MMO's in the first place. Maybe you could all have fended off the bandits of Westfall, but could you all have been the one to expose the Twilight Cult? Should an MMO be a single player experience in which you happen to be on a server with a bunch of other players having the same experience, and you just get together for dungeons and raids? Or should an MMO create stories in which players play roles that contribute to a shared storyline?
Furthermore, in Cataclysm's attempt to make a stronger single player experience, its tools for doing so have shown lacking. There are times in the Goblin starter zone where the story is advanced by declarative sentences printed in big yellow letters on the screen. Instead of doing what other video games do through cutscenes or in-game animations, Cataclysm delivers with the awkwardness of a writing student who hasn't learned "show don't tell" yet. Cataclysm does have more cutscenes, though. Some are good; I enjoyed the Goblin flight from their exploding island. However, the assault on the Vortex in Vashj'ir, where the player has to sit alone, passively, in a submarine for almost ten minutes listening to NPC's deliver emotes and Saturday-morning-cartoon dialog, is exactly the opposite of what I want in an MMO.
All this is bizarre to me, since most of the writing in WoW is a fantastic mix of high fantasy and pop-culture humor, and Blizzard is a master of constructing cutscenes and pacing gameplay. I'm not quite sure what happened, but in an attempt to create a better single player experience, it's grown some sore thumbs that would make me put down the game if there weren't such an excellent MMO behind it. However, as much as these things bug me, I still can't deny how it all still just works. Never once was I left not knowing where to go next or at a loss of things to do. The story is always in service of the gameplay, however polished or awkward it may have to be to do so.
On the multiplayer practical side, grouping in dungeons has never been easier in WoW, and yet never more lonely. Gone are the long hours of trying to get a group together, traveling there, summoning people, explaining things, and preparing for the first pull. The new dungeon finder makes it easy for people across servers to find groups and jump into an instance in minutes. However, also gone are the interactions that let you really build connections with people on your own server that you would see over and over again. Because the dungeon finder places you in a group of people you will never see again, there is no incentive to get to know each other or even say hello. It's a little sad to me, though I think it's a net gain, as it's also never been easier to find a guild that fits with your play style and personality. So it's a little harder to meet new people outside of a guild, but it's much easier to run an instance if you only have an hour to play.
Where the game still shines for me, though, is the class mechanics. I have spent the majority of my time in Azeroth being a healer, and out of the past five or six years, the mechanics of healing are the best they've ever been, which is to say they used to be pretty boring (though still fun enough for me to play for hundreds of hours). The new priest abilities provide flexibility and tactical decisions while still being fairly simple and not usually requiring more than six hotkeyed spells. While I won't stick around long enough to see end-game raids, the five man healing I've done has been challenging and fun. With the cheap and convenient dual spec system, there is no penalty for being a Holy priest, as anybody who leveled to 60 as Holy can remember.
For all my bitching, don't get me wrong; I think that WoW is the best it's ever been, though it's really a very different game than it was when it first launched. While this is to be expected and commended, it raises some questions about the MMO-ness of the world's most popular MMO. At the height of its popularity, there has never been a better time for another game to come in and redefine what MMO's should be. Until then, I'll be doing Gnomer runs with my goblin guild and spending way too much time picking flowers.