Cataclysm comes to Warcraft's world

In the six years since its 2004 launch, online role-playing game World of Warcraft has reigned unopposed as the king of the massively-multiplayer market -- but there’s one thing that’ll kill a long-running game quicker than anything else: boredom.
Never a company to do things by halves, Warcraft creator Blizzard plans to keep the game fresh by mixing things up a bit. This December, it’ll release a new expansion for the game -- its third so far -- in which players will witness the release of a vast, ancient dragon from an interdimensional prison. First on his agenda: ripping the game’s all-too-familiar world to pieces.
If you want to get an idea of how that might look, here’s the game’s opening cinematic, which premiered over the weekend to widespread acclaim:

As Warcraft fans will probably be well aware, that’s Deathwing -- or to give him his proper name, Neltharion the Earth-Warder. A vast black dragon, he’s the father of Onyxia and Neferian, foes Warcraft players are already acquainted with: they’re two of the game’s biggest and baddest bosses. Last time we met Deathwing was fifteen years ago in 1995’s Warcraft II, but he’s spent his downtime plotting revenge against...everyone, apparently, including both the Alliance and the Horde, the opposing sides in World of Warcraft’s conflict.
Sounds like bad news for Warcraft’s 12 million players, but we’re guessing they’ll probably take it in stride. If nothing else, Deathwing’s appearance is likely to be a breath of sulfur-tinged fresh air. Many of the interconnected “zones” that make up the games’ world have been unchanged since the game’s 2004 launch, and doubtless a healthy number of players are ready for a literal change of scenery.
But even if there are still some holdouts who’ll mourn the reshaping of zones like the Barrens, Cataclysm’s list of other changes ought to pacify them. For starters, the game’s level cap -- the point at which characters stop advancing -- is being raised from its present level of 80 to 85. Two new playable races -- the Goblins for the Horde, and the wolf-like Worgen for the Alliance -- are being introduced. There’s a host of new high-level zones and adventures for players to discover, a new trade profession to master, and those with flying mounts will now be able to use them across all the game’s zones.
In fact, there’s only one group of people likely to be looking nervous at the sound of Neltharion’s wingbeats, and that’s Warcraft’s competition. For some years, making a successful online role-playing game has been a matter of peacefully coexisting with Warcraft rather than trying to challenge its mighty subscription numbers. Some recent hits, including big names Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons & Dragons Online, have resorted to eliminating their monthly fees in an attempt to entice players fed up with Warcraft’s $15 monthly subscription.
Despite these challenges, Warcraft’s player base -- which passed the 12-million mark just a few weeks ago -- shows no signs of shrinking. Look out for Cataclysm, confidently expected to outpace even Blizzard's own behemoth StarCraft II to become the biggest-selling PC game of the year, to hit stores and digital distribution channels on December 7.