Having returned to World Of Warcraft after many, many years away from Azeroth in our new Inventory Space video series, I'm taken aback by how disjointed the new player experience has become. Blizzard have streamlined the early game, sure, but in doing so they've made it almost impossible to pin down my sense of place in the world. As Blizzard carves out new space for new regions and races with each and every expansion, I wonder: has the game become too big? Or put another way: am I unable to grasp just how vast its become?
The new player experience in WoW is very different to how I remember it. Back in my day you'd pick a race, like Human for instance, and you'd begin your journey in Elwynn Forest tackling Kobolds for their candles. As you started slowly levelling up, quest givers would nudge you towards the little town of Goldshire. Here you'd get a grounding in professions, perhaps fish in the rivers nearby or seek out some iron ore veins for that relaxing clink. And as your confidence grew, and you took down an enemy that sported an intimidating golden border for the first time, you'd graduate to the dusty fields of Westfall.
Now you're encouraged to choose Exile's Reach, a new starting island that's quick and snappy and streamlined. It's a showroom filled with WoW's hippest quests, like ones where you slam a giant boar through armies of ogres, or mutate animals with a gnome-engineered zapper. All of it is tied together by a bespoke storyline that culminates in an NPC-guided instance where you fell a dragon! Yes, there are basic fetch quests, but even these are punctuated by voice lines (I know!) and the odd cutscene (huge!). In all honesty, it's an excellent advert for WoW's advances over the years.
But if you follow the flow of Exile's Reach, you quickly lose track of your place in Azeroth. You bounce off Stormwind having spent all of 20-minutes there, before you're ferried across the ocean over to the gloomy isles of Kul Tiras. Time ticks by and you're dinging level 15, 20, 30 at lightning speed. Gold will positively fall out of your Pandaren pockets, as you purchase a mount and then learn to fly your very own gryphon. Head into town and there are portals that whisk you to many of the game's major cities. Not once has someone offered you a chance to tackle a dungeon; maybe it's buried in the menu?
"No matter where I was, I understood my place in Azeroth"
I know, I know. I could play WoW Classic for that delicious vanilla flavour, or choose Elwynn Forest as my starting area instead of Exile's Reach. Even still, I think that normal, retail WoW has become a disjointed experience that's concerned more with shuttling me towards max-level daily quests, than embedding me in its storied history. But with expansions and regions up the wazoo, I'm unsure whether Blizzard know how to collate it all into a package that's all-encompassing yet doesn't take you hundreds of hours to complete.
Don't look at me! I have no idea how Blizzard can fix a fractured Azeroth. Maybe, just maybe, it needs to shape its world and its systems by forcing players down one steady track, rather than building a motorway through many of its forgotten areas. I say this because Final Fantasy XIV doesn't - without spending money - let you bypass its history as a new player. You're forced to engage with its beginnings and work your way methodically through its expansions one by one, so by the time you've reached the endgame, you know exactly how you've ended up there. This approach doesn't come without one major caveat, though: FF14's early portions are slowwww, to a point where it can be actively offputting for folks who want to reach the more modern, more engaging stuff.
Still, WoW has lost the sense of adventure it used to capture so brilliantly. And I think it's because Azeroth back then was a perfect size, with regions that I grew to understand deeply, to the point where I could map a mental route through its areas with relative ease. No matter where I was, I understood my place in Azeroth. I knew the gulf between Alliance and Horde members, and where their battle lines were drawn. Things were tougher back then, like earning money and travelling around - heck, you couldn't get a mount until you dinged level 40 and had 100 gold to spare, which was an effort to scrounge together back then. Without a mount, you were forced to either run between zones or use public transport (gryphons and blimps) to get around.
But I wouldn't say the game's difficulty translated to frustration. If anything, it forced community interaction and scored many of its dirt tracks into my memory. I distinctly remember popping "LFG Scarlet Monastery" into the dungeon finder part of the chat, sliding into a party of randoms, and riding my ram across several zones to tick it off. Here's a video that illustrates how you'd learn the lay of the land, and the seamless nature of it all.
Azeroth today is a sea of bolt-ons, with many of the game's oldest – and arguably bestest – areas bypassed by Blizzard's streamlining. And because it's so enormous now, with so little emphasis on carving out your own adventure, it's impossible to wrap your brain-arms around it all. Somehow, WoW's world has become so vast it feels less expansive as a result.
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