World of Warcraft is forever changed.  The latest Cataclysm expansion has been out for just over two weeks now and by and large I'm hooked on the new content.  So much of the world has changed that there's no real way to see it all and it feels like a comfortable familiar yet new world.  I'll spare you the boring details on what has changed and get right down to it.  The change is better for WoW's longevity despite the crying and moaning you see on the official forums.

Gone are the easy heroics that award loot at will.  Gone are the days where mana was endless and consequences for actions trivial.  Instances harken back to the early days where tanks need to be tanks, healers were concerned about mana and mages knew where their sheep buttons were.  Ah, the good ole days...  As a long time player, it is refreshing to see these changes.  I wonder how long it will be until Blizzard caves in to the massess raised on Wrath of the Lich king's easy paths to epicness.  Collectively, many veterans are waiting for the other shoe to fall.

From a healer's perspective (85 Disc Priest), here's what I've found the Cataclysm to be.  

1) As I gained levels from 81 - 85, I progressively became weaker.  I know it was intentional on Blizzard part but the point was driven home in Vortex Pinnacle, an instance off the coast of Uldum.  I was a few hundred thousand experience points away from level which meant I would level during the instance.  We were cruising and it was a good group; not perfect but good.  Half way through the instance, I dinged level 83.  The second half of the instance was brutal.  I was constantly out of mana.  I could feel the increased weight of my healing spells.  The same thing happened at 84 and again at 85.  I'm healing for somewhere around 20% more hitpoints versus level 80 but my spells now cost 200% more mana while my mana pool has gone up perhaps 20% from level 80.  

Tanks no longer can mitigate as much damage on their own.  My friends tell me that their avoidance is down 20% from level 80 at level 85.  Sure hit points are higher, but they are taking 20% more damage.  I'm healing for 20% more so it's mostly a wash except that those same spells cost 200% more mana.  Playing smartly is now a requirement and I've run out of family member's fingers and toes counting the number of DPSers that haven't figured this out.

The result of this is that instances are harder to run today then they were in Wrath of the Lich King.  They're fun again from my point of view but those that are doing heroics are crying and screaming about the difficulty.  I'll check back later when I have a high enough gear score to run heroics.  Can Blizzard stick to their guns for the good of the game?  Even if it costs them subscriptions?  I doubt it.

2) Archeology is strangely addicting.  With Cataclysm, Blizzard implemented a new secondary profession called archeology.  An NPC named Harrison Jones hands out the skill from the library in Stormwind complete with references to the fedora wearing, whip toting action archeologist himself.  The entire mechanic reminds me of surveying in Star Wars Galaxies and is just as fun.  Survey the land and the skill spawns a device on the ground that points you in the direction of a hidden artifact.  Red, yellow and green lights on the device tell you if you're close in a virtual marco-polo sort of way.  When you find a relic fragment, it gets added to other fragments that you've collected until you can complete the research on a new relic.  Every couple of dig sites will get you a completed relic and a chance at discovering one of the rare relics that are part of the profession.  It's fun and earns you quite a bit of experience if you do it while leveling.

3) Experience is now granted for gathering nodes.  Simple, clean, effective and should have been done ages ago even if it causes couples that play together to diverge in levels.

4) Flight in the old world has been a long time coming.  Prior to the expansion, I would often go to places that were not finished in the game.  There were ways to get under Stormwind and fall through the world for instance.  I realize why flight was not possible and it was because vast stretches of land were unfinished.  That said, a little part of my explorer side died on the 7th of December.  I spent a number of hours simply searching for ways to get to places that few others had been.  Most players simply immersed themselves in the illusion that was the old world.  I, however, looked for ways to break it and while I like flight in the old world, sadly, my exploring days are over.

5) Finally, I want to talk a moment about Guild Achievements and Leveling.  With Cataclysm, guilds can earn levels which led to the following exchange in Stormwind proper.

Player A: Looking for a guild to join!
Me to Player A: Band of Brothers is a casual leveling guild if that suits your taste.
Player A to me: What level are you guys?
Me to Player A: We're level 2.  BoB is a small guild that is just getting started with Cataclysm.

The top guilds are level 4 or 5 and each new level brings with it, new perks.  There's now a class of player looking for guild perks that won't join a guild below a certain level.  I'm reserving judgement on the new system but if that example is prevalent, it might be harder and harder for guilds to recruit that fall behind the curve of advancement.  This of course makes it harder to catch up to the curve of advancement making the whole Guild Achievement and Leveling system something of a game changer.  Guilds in World of Warcraft were primarily social groups.  They are no longer that and I'm still not entirely sure the change is a good one.

Overall, I'm impressed with the new expansion.  I've played it enough to see that it is both needed and a refreshing change.  In many regards, this is Blizzards best expansion to the now six year old game.  We'll see where they go from here.  Join me on Duskwood's alliance side and we'll run a few instances together.  Look for Kressilac.