“Production quality” is an ambiguous term. It can be used to mean a number of things. In the context of this review, I use it to mean the quality of the game’s aesthetics and the engines that support them. This includes things like the game’s music, the writing, the in-game cut-scenes, the voice acting, and art design.
WoW has generally lived a schizophrenic life. By that I mean the quality of the production in various areas of the game is different and seems to contradict itself. For example, the art design and music in the game are incredibly good, but the voice over work—whether as a result of its direction or the conscious decisions made by some of the voice actors—is sometimes extremely poor.
How is it that WoW can endure such a strange dichotomy of production values and flaws? Is it because it’s a massive production, and a lot of MMO producers seem to run them more like cheap blockbusters than finely-crafted Oscar contenders? They are, afterall, expensive to make and maintain, so cutting corners is pretty alluring. But I really do think they could do better in some areas, and I think the payoff would actually be a lot higher if they would just take their time.
Art Design & Direction
The art direction is one of WoW’s best features. The painterly style of WoW has its charms. It’s not until I stop playing WoW for a while and return to it that I appreciate it. This isn’t to say WoW’s graphics are amazing. They aren’t. But that is a result of a conscious decision made by Blizzard to ensure older machines can run the game. I have no problem with that.
Perhaps the only slip-up in Cataclysm’s art design was the decision to leave the “mountains” in most of Azeroth as the molehills they’ve been since release. I still yearn for the mountains of Storm Peaks and Icecrown Glacier. They were pretty spectacular. So why couldn’t similar mountains be fashioned for the updated Dun Morogh? Oddly, even the mountains in Mount Hyjal are rounded, but I think that’s because they wanted to match the terrain style they used in the Hyjal TBC raid zone. Honestly, I think people are willing to suspend belief and understand the changes are cosmetic, and not necessarily a result of the Cataclysm itself. But, hey, that’s an idea, isn’t it? So I’m not sure why they left the mountains the way they were.
Otherwise, the art team did a great job with Cataclysm, and especially on the new Stormwind and Orgrimmar. Each feels enormous (for the scale of Warcraft) and I love the design work put into them.
Oh, and the new water is awesome, as well. But I’m not sure to what extent the art team deserves credit for that, since I don’t know who worked on it.
As usual, Russell Brower and his team have done a great job on the music used in Cataclysm. And while much of the older music was modified and re-recorded to meet the current standards of WoW, they made a wonderful gesture to Jason Hayes by keeping some his original recordings in the game.
The music in Cataclysm is one of its brightest spots in terms of production quality. And I hope Blizzard keeps Russell Brower around for a long time!
Sound Design & Editing
Sound design in Cataclysm is generally okay. However, there are some moments missing essential sounds, and other moments that recycle old clips and cause the scene to play out awkwardly.
Just take a look at the beginning of Mount Hyjal, when you’re flying into the zone during the introductory quest.
The music is great. But where is the whooshing sound coming from Deathwing’s enormous wings? When I first watched the scene, I thought “something is eerily missing.” Then I realized it was because it was much too quiet for what was going on. Even if it is just a dragon hovering, spitting fire into a pool of lava, and summoning Ragnaros.
What sounds are in the game are usually well done. But not always. Occasionally, they don’t seem to fit the situation or what you’d expect.
The voice acting in WoW is all over the place. If you raided during Icecrown Citadel, you know what I’m talking about. You go from the awesome “BOOOOONESTOOOOORM!” To the long, terrible monologue delivered by Lady Over-Dramatizes-and-Never-Shuts-Up. And then you go from Putricide’s amusing “Great news, everyone!” (A reference to Futurama, by the way.) To the atrociously annoying Sindragosa and her infamous “BETRAAAYS YOOOOUU!”
Of course, by referencing those examples, I’m using the greatest extremes of WoW to make a point, and that’s not really fair in criticizing the work done in Cataclysm. Cataclysm isn’t quite as bad, but it still has the same general problems. Some voice work is amazing, some is mediocre (to be expected for minor lines), and some of it is pretty awful (Sinestra, but she is not quite as bad as Sindragosa or Deathwhisper). Let’s take a look at one scene that really exemplifies all of those claims, the introduction to Vashj’ir:
As you can see, lines land in different positions across various spectrums. Some are good. Some are okay. Some are awful. Some are delivered matter-of-factly. Some are delivered earnestly and meet the level of seriousness demanded by the scene. Some are comical. Some are drab. This lack of direction (or poor direction, I’m not sure which) really causes the scene to play out poorly. And I’d say there is no payoff, if not for the fact it’s ended by a giant kraken.
Nitpicking, there are a few lines that really stick out like sore thumbs to me. The over-the-top deliveries of Mack Fearsen and Budd bother me especially, because they interrupt the original tone set by the soldiers. And then there’s Adarrah’s lines, which come off as forced and unnatural. And why the hell would you use the generic female human /cry instead of the voice actress’ own sobs? They did this in Icecrown Citadel, too, and it’s really starting to bug me. Is it laziness? Did they forget to write it in the script? I’d rather there be no sound and just the animation of her crying.
You’ll also notice some very odd timing on the delivery of the lines. That in and of itself is a problem, but it’s not the fault of the voice actors nor their directors, it’s the fault of the person(s) in charge of scripting the event in-game, as much as it is the engine that handles NPC dialog.
The general writing in WoW is split down the middle. On the one hand, the vocabulary and the technical craftsmanship of an individual line is usually good. But the script for various events is often melodramatic, and sometimes downright weird. Furthermore, the overall story generally feels second rate to me. Whereas Warcraft III had unifying themes of redemption and revenge, WoW’s themes are scattered and often incomplete. And while I don’t expect anything Shakespearean out of the game, I definitely think it could be much better than it is.
The poorer writing work could be a result of the fact that WoW’s creative development team hasn’t really grown at the same rate as the game. It used to be that many of the designers would actually write some of the story, dialog, quest text, etc. So creative development is still trying to find its footing now that it is doing more and more of the writing in the game itself. And, unfortunately, because I don’t really know to what extent they are doing the writing these days, any critique I have will come off as simply uninformed.
But I can stress the importance of having actual writers doing the writing for a game. A lot of companies employ them these days. And their games are (surprise) usually popular in part due to the excellent writing. (And if they also have great game play, that’s a bonus!) I don’t really know where Blizzard is going with WoW in this area, but I really hope their production leads begin to stress the importance and role of quality writing. A good start would be to tone down the popular culture references in some areas, make each scene and sequence more cohesive, and bring writing more to the fore of the PvE game.
In-Game Cut Scenes
Blizzard developed a new in-game cut-scene engine specifically for use in Cataclysm. This was done because the process of making pre-rendered cut-scenes is long and time-consuming.
Unfortunately, the engine wasn’t widely used this expansion. You see very few cut-scenes in zones like Mount Hyjal and Vashj’ir, but an absolutely enormous number in Uldum.
Why this is, I’m not entirely sure. And I’ve already discussed the issue at length in previous sections of this review. But it definitely bears repeating. Why would you develop a system for an expansion, and then make minimal use of it? To meet a deadline? Think about Starcraft II. Starcraft II has an in-game cut-scene engine, as well. The only difference? It makes liberal use of it from beginning-to-end.
I realize Blizzard thinks it’s really important to make deadlines in a game like WoW. If you don’t, people have to play the previous content for an extended period of time, and they might grow bored of it, which has implications in terms of people quitting and upsetting the stability of the game’s guilds. But I really think increasing the production value of the game will attract new players and inspire people who have quit to return. So the extra work (and, hence, the extra wait) seems worth it to me.
Another thing that bothers me about the way Blizzard used this engine was that many of the scenes went unvoiced (especially in Uldum). The dramatic impact of a scene is so much greater if you simply add voices to the characters. Reading is all well and good, but we are in an era of video games where the vast majority of story-driven games are voiced. Why can’t WoW’s major stories, then, be voiced from beginning to end? Cost? Time? Who knows.
And, finally, the system was really buggy. With something so important, you’d think Blizzard would make sure it wasn’t as laden with as many bugs as it was at release. There’s nothing more annoying than being unable to skip a scene you’ve already seen. Or having to watch an entire cut-scene, because it won’t give you credit for your quest otherwise.
The pre-rendered cut-scenes in Cataclysm are top notch. But they are few in number, as is usually the case in WoW. The game could really stand to have more of them. Maybe one for each major zone. And maybe one for each raid. I realize they take time to make, but they are a valuable asset to any game.
There’s also an issue in the sense that I think the production quality could be much higher than it is in Cataclysm. Why is it that we’re still required to read quest text almost seven years into the game? So many other games’ stories play out entirely voiced and acted. You walk up to someone who gives you a quest (or mission, or objective, or whatever the game wants to call it), and they express their plight clearly and concisely. Then off you go! (Assuming you didn’t decline it.) WoW (and, hence, Cataclysm) misses this. An MMO is not a novel. It shouldn’t be read like one.
I really hoped the in-game cut-scene engine would change some of this. And Blizzard has shown us it is capable of producing quests with high production values. And there is no better example of this than the Thrall quest line added in 4.2. But I don’t think Blizzard goes far enough. I’m fine if a quest asking me to kill some wolves around a poor farmer’s pig farm isn’t voiced or dramatically introduced. But when major quests with important plot development are doled out in the most uninteresting ways, I worry about WoW. Especially because games outside the MMO market have been advancing at a rapid pace. Why would I want to continue playing a game that doesn’t meet my rising expectations in production values? Cost? Guild attachment? These issues are becoming less meaningful, as expansion cycles increase, server transfers seem necessary when changing guilds or playstyles, and increased connectivity between players makes people less reliant on their guild chat and channels.
Overall, the production quality in Cataclysm is missing some very important pieces. And what does exist is middling. Some of it is great. And some of it is mediocre. Some of us come away from Cataclysm with a feeling of wanting more in this department. And that’s not a position you want to be in when the competition is trying to fill the void in this niche in the MMO market.