One of the most eagerly awaited MMO game expansions of all time, World of Warcraft's Cataclysm launched at 11 pm UK time on December 6th. Hours in advance, players congregated in the main cities of Stormwind (Alliance faction) and Orgrimmar (Horde faction) for this historic event. I had never seen so many mammoth mounts in one place as in the central square of Stormwind at 10.30 pm. People started to drift to towards the flight trainer, knowing that at the strike of the clock they would be able to upgrade their flying skill to be able to take to the air in the old world and access the new zones. Fireworks were being let off. Every class was using all their most pyrotechnic area of effect skills, so that rains of fire and whistling white blizzards and bubbling death and decay surrounded everyone. Shamans had their elementals out and warlocks their doomguards. Other players brought out the insufferable train sets and dancing flames, and whatever other playful gadgets they owned, all to add to the party atmosphere. Must admit it was electric. Then when the moment came, amid cheers and the chiming of the city clock, we were given a message to log out and back into the game so that the new features could take effect.

One hour later and counting...

Well, I guess we had to expect that. Every server in Europe had their entire populations log off and on at the same time and the login servers went rigid with horror. Happily, we kept trying and those of our guild who had determined to stay up nearly all night eventually managed to get back online.

I have experienced all expansions to WoW and this one has been the most crowded and overwhelming. The population has expanded a lot since the last major new content. (Worldwide WoW now has a population of 12 million.) The behaviour of a lot of players wasn't too salutary on that first night either, so much so I had to escape the new level 80+ starter areas - Mt Hyjal and Vashj'ir - in order to roll one of the new classes, in this case an Alliance Worgen. It seemed an awful lot of badly-behaved kids had been allowed to stay up late that night.

Since launch, I've tried out characters for both of the new races, Worgen and Goblins, and have to say I think that Blizzard has poured its creativity and wit into the Goblin race, more so than the Worgen werewolves. Worgen start off GRIM and pretty much stay that way, surrounded by righteous and priggish humans. The Goblins, fun-loving rogues to a man and woman, are far more enjoyable and I found myself more sympathetic to them. They have character, which I felt the Worgen lacked, even though they look amazingly cool. Now I've got my Worgen out of her starter area, I'm starting to enjoy her more, but don't take my experience as gospel. A lot in our guild really enjoyed the Worgen early levels. Personal taste, I guess.

Most of the changes to the game took place in late November, in The Shattering event, when the world of Azeroth underwent a major overhaul and the new landscape was initiated. The new 'Big Bad', Deathwing, was released to unleash his fury over the entire world. Familiar zones were shattered and remade. The world players had known for six years changed in an instant. This has been so impressive it's led many of us to think that what Blizzard has given us is not just an expansion but World of Warcraft 2, without the hassle of starting again from scratch with new characters in a new game. The graphics have improved enormously with shimmering vivid detail. Quest lines in the old world have improved tremendously, not just in logistics but also in creativity. The only complaint is that the original player races could still do with a bit of nip and tuck. They've not been updated since launch six years ago, so are getting on a bit now in appearance, but I understand this is something in the developers' 'to do list'. The two new races shine in comparison.

Since 'Wrath of the Lich King' expansion, Blizzard has attempted to involve players more in the lore of the game, with great success. OK, there were one or two places in Wrath where after the tenth time of hearing a particular speech, or watching a particular interplay between NPCs, the content became somewhat too old and lengthy for comfort, but on the whole players felt much more integrated with the world, not only through political events happening around them as they played, but also by being directly involved with them. This policy has been extended into Cataclysm, and by questing in an area you feel fully immersed in its lore and the lives of its people. Quest chains have been streamlined throughout the world, so you no longer have to make those lengthy journeys from one NPC to another over multiple zones that were the bane of early WoW. Another innovation is that you don't always have to return to a quest giver to receive the next part of a chain. You'll receive a message from that NPC telling you where to go next and what they want from you. This saves an enormous amount of time. Quests are inventive and entertaining, making the whole levelling experience much more enjoyable, whether for the quest-jaded veteran wanting to try one of the new races or a complete newbie to the game. For newbies particularly, much work has been done to guide them as unobtrusively as possible. WoW was never a newbie-friendly game before, simply because in so complex a world there was a lot to learn, and unless you had the help of other players, or were prepared to do quite a bit of research online, it was often hard to find your way around and get to grips with the game. Blizzard has done a lot to address this so that new players can immerse themselves quickly and learn much of what they have to know.

But it has to be said that soloing is not encouraged in WoW. There are now so many perks involved in belonging to a strong and stable guild that few players will want to miss out. Of course, if you are not already 'guilded', finding a home that's right for you could be as hit and miss as it was before. One thing I do think WoW could do with is a 'bulletin board' in cities where guilds can describe what they're like so that they can attract the right members for them and people can find a suitable guild for themselves. This is found in other MMOs and it's a great feature. At the moment people might have to search, research and apply on the net to find a comfortable home, or else just respond to requests in General Chat from guilds looking for members and hope for the best. Word of mouth and being introduced to friends of friends is still the safest way to find a guild that suits you, but for that you already have to know people in-world. To me, guild recruitment is something that should take place wholly in game, with the least inconvenience.

In Cataclysm, when you are part of, form, or join a guild it becomes a 'reputation faction' that you have to curry favour with, to get from neutral to exalted status. This is done by completing quests or achievements, or simply by working on your trade skill professions. Guild rep can be gained in many ways. With higher reputation you are able to buy cool things from your guild, including mounts and mini-pets. The guild itself 'levels up' like a player, and this requires the input of its members. Simply playing the game and taking part in all of its aspects will level your guild. As it levels, perks are 'unlocked' for the members, including enhanced levelling experience, faster travelling, extra guild bank slots, items from the guild vendor, and many other desirable features.

The decision on Blizzard's part, weeks before Cataclysm's release, to remove all the portals to major world cities from the previous expansions' hub locations of Dalaran and Shattrath was met with disapproval by players, and no one can deny it was very inconvenient while people still raiding or questing in distant Northrend wanted to see The Shattering content too. Players took for granted being able to portal swiftly about the entire world of Azeroth, and it was rather a shock to find yourself having to wait for slow boats and zeppelins again to travel between continents. But now that we are all back in the old world, and can use flying mounts there, the travel aspect doesn't seem so bad. If you have a mage character, you have a nice little earner in providing portals for other players, although it can be annoying when you are constantly bombarded with 'whispered' requests for the things. Dozens of new flight paths have been added to the game for those who are not yet of a level to have a flying mount and who need to use the 'taxi services'.

Questing is challenging again now, and I'm not just referring to the overcrowding in areas. That will pass. It's clear that we're not supposed to simply coast blindfold through the new levelling zones, but at the same time, if you know your class and can play it properly, the challenge is welcome rather than a chore. If you've got to level 80 you should know your class(es) well and if you're new to the game, the improved help facilities will contribute to you getting to know all aspects of it once you get to high level.

The new instances (or dungeons, for a group of 5 players) are also at first challenging, but we've found in our guild that the most difficult bosses in them are simply a case of learning tactics, often similar to bosses we've done in earlier content. Perhaps some dungeon bosses now use abilities we found only in raids before, but with a bit of common sense, they are not tiresomely difficult. What players have to get used to is a return to an earlier style of play. Teamwork, remember that? This isn't an AOE fest like most things were in the Wrath expansion. Most times it's helpful to use crowd control abilities to trap, stun or interrupt mobs. The habitual 'rush rush' behaviour of people in pick up groups of random players (the much maligned 'pugs' of the Looking for Dungeon feature inaugurated last year) will no longer wash. Yes, you do have to pause for a moment and use tactics. Yes, your healer might run out of mana if the triage isn't going too well, so back off with the aggro-inducing damage. Personally I applaud this more intelligent approach to playing the game, but watch out for a few drama histrionics in pugs until the 'random player base' gets used to it...or quits. Same outcome.

I've also found in solo questing on my Balance druid, the character I elected to level to 85 first, that I'm using skills I rarely used in Wrath. Mobs do a lot more damage. I sometimes have to heal myself mid fight! Unheard of! I can't remember ever using Entangling Roots in Wrath to keep mobs at bay for a while, but now it's pretty useful. Same for the knockback skill Typhoon. I didn't even have that on my action bar during Wrath. I assume it's the same across the classes, meaning that even in solo situations, crowd control helps. But all this said, I'm not finding the levelling experience annoying. I remember levelling caster classes way back in Vanilla WoW, where the progress was fight, drink, fight, drink, in order to get your mana back. You don't have to pause so much now, but you are kept on your toes. Respawn rates for mobs are swift so you can get surrounded quickly. You might be rooting one mob while fighting another, because two or more at once would shred you, at least until you've geared up a bit. Plate-wearing classes might have a better time of it. I've not tried my Paladin tank yet so can't comment.

For veterans, the overhaul to questing post level 80 to reach the new cap of 85 is the major part of the game at the moment since few guilds have yet got a team to raiding level (i.e. the larger instanced dungeons for teams of 10 or 25 players). For those who raided before, it's a wrench to discard those lovely Purple epics in favour of quest reward Green items, but we knew this would happen. Epic level gear no longer drops as loot in heroic versions of the 5 man dungeons like it used to; it only drops in raids. However, some epics can be crafted by players and others purchased from reputation factions. Continuing the trend from Wrath, raiding has been made more accessible to everyone, so that smaller guilds can get a look in. There have been changes to raid progression so that they should no longer become outdated by the introduction of a new one before the majority of players have finished the previous one. It was a great disappointment for many that Ulduar, one of the best raids ever designed by Blizzard, became obsolete before its time (in terms of loot that dropped there), and it became difficult for guild raid leaders to get players to go back there.

But raiding is perhaps something to consider for the New Year, once everyone has geared up at least one character to the required standard. That won't be a chore. The new zones are beautifully designed with entertaining quest-lines. For those who are familiar with the game, old favourites reappear, such as Harrison Jones the Archaeologist (no prizes for guessing who inspired him), with a very amusing story to follow in the Egyptian-themed land of Uldum. The zones each have a unique feel to them, from the underwater mysteries of Vashj'ir , to the newly-opened mountainous landscape of Mount Hyjal (which was present in the WoW map since the beginning but never before accessible outside of an instanced raid), and the deep caverns and crystal grottoes of Deepholm. (That zone, for me, was the most jaw-dropping of all the new ones.) There are new reputation factions to befriend, and this includes a new PvP faction in Tol Barad the World PvP area, who offer enticing merchandise once you've earned enough rep. You will probably need to purchase the gear offered by all the various reputation factions in order to be able to survive the heroic versions of the 5 man dungeons, the gear from which will be required in order to start raiding again. But the game is not just about raiding. With nearly two dozen new non-combat pets to collect, and nearly as many new mounts, including eight different stone drakes, there is plenty for collectors of such delights to hunt down.

Finally, some info about the new secondary profession, Archaeology. This is very addictive, but also very time-consuming. It becomes available for a character once he/she reaches level 20. At any time there are four dig locations available to you per continent, and this includes the previous expansion areas of Outlands and Northrend. These dig sites show up on the world map. You don't have to compete with other players for nodes or items as in other professions, so a big hooray for that! You simply fly from site to site, use your surveying equipment to hunt for relics and dig them up. I won't go into too much detail about the mechanics of the profession, but at higher level there are some great things to discover, including epic gear, various amusing 'toys' and again, mounts and pets. You do have to travel a lot, though, so I'd recommend just using one character to work on it, otherwise you could literally spend all your time digging! However, you do get good experience points from it. One player in our guild levelled nearly all the way to 84 without doing a single quest or dungeon, just concentrating on Archaeology.

I was greatly impressed with Wrath of the Lich King, and doubted Blizzard could top the atmosphere and game play of that, but they really have excelled themselves with Cataclysm. I can whole-heartedly recommend it to seasoned WoW players who might've taken a break, veterans of other MMOs who are considering giving WoW a try, or complete newbies to this kind of game. You won't be disappointed.