World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor is officially, incontrovertibly A Thing. But what kind of a thing? Well, it's a WoW expansion, so don't expect the world's most immersive virtual minigolf park, a karaoke-based Annoy John simulator, or a really good hotdog. But it is pushing into *some* uncharted territory, and for the rest, well, there's always time travel. Warlords of Draenor is headed back in time to the horde's original home, Old Draenor - Outland before it was Outland. There, you'll find the usual fare like a raised level cap and new zones, but also time-twisting storylines, a robust player housing system with NPCs that can run dungeons for you, revamped raid and inventory systems, and more. Words and video below.
Time travel is never a good idea, but - in the wake of his recent in-game defeat - Garrosh Hellscream has temper tantrum cryflailed his way right into it. Warlords of Draenor will begin with the former Horde warchief and a magical "friend" barreling into the past to prevent the Horde from getting cursed and ultimately setting the events of WoW into motion. Garrosh won't be the final boss this time, but he will be a major player in the plot. His plan? To unite the various pre-curse orc clans and form his own Iron Horde. I don't know why he calls it that. But, to be frank, unless you're eight-year-old me, you're probably not here for the story. I know grown-up me isn't.
The result of all this space-time jambalaya stirring? A wholllllle newwwww wooooooorld (of Warcraft). Old Draenor - which ultimately rotted into Outland - is a "fully realized world." During a feature-focused panel, Blizzard explained that it'll have oceans, skies, and giants. "What kind of world forges a race like the orcs in the first place?" pondered lore master Chris Metzen. "It is a brutal place."
In practical terms, this means seven new zones with heaps of familiar orc clans/faces (including Thrall, Ner'zhul, and the like) and some callbacks to Outland like Shattrath City and Zangarmarsh. I can't help but worry, however, that the "new" zones might end up less new - more in line with, say, the Azeroth revamp in Cataclysm - than Blizzard is promising. We'll see.
Undoubtedly exciting, however, is the ability to set up your own home base almost anywhere within the distant past's future present. Garrisons are WoW's take on player housing, but they're far more than glorified trophy rooms. For one, they're basically fortresses size-wise, and they house small armies of customizable, upgradeable NPCs. You'll even be able to send your personal horde out to run dungeons, meaning that you really don't have to do anything yourself at all anymore. OK, maybe I'm exaggerating (NPC runs often take days or even full weeks), but it's a system that does seem to de-emphasize the whole "multiplayer" angle of massively multiplayer role-playing. And the "player" part. Sounds convenient, though. Trade-offs and whatnot.
Various Garrison buildings also give you access to professions you wouldn't otherwise be able to use, and they do, in fact, occupy physical space in the game world. They aren't just instances. Also, you can pick your Garrison's location and move it at will. I'm wondering what'll happen when the land is naught but Garrisons and world-weary old-timers fondly whistle out, "I remember when this was all fields. And lava. And ogres," but Blizzard has yet to address the possibility.
(Also, an aside: it speaks to the weird Groundhog-Day-style permanence of WoW's narratively impermanent world that everyone would go back in time to prevent The Ultimate Cataclysm and decide, "Welp, guess I'll build a house for the first time ever right here. Not, you know, at home. Nope. Gonna do it while locked, tooth-and-claw-and-auto-attack-key, in climactic battle with the greatest evil this universe has ever seen." I mean, I suppose the long-term "war" context makes it less preposterous, but it's still kind of silly in a "this is definitely a videogame" sort of way.)
There are also seven new dungeons, including the ogre-themed, non-linear Bloodmaul Slag Mines, which sounds like a delightful place. Longtime fans, meanwhile, might be interested to hear that vanilla WoW mainstay Upper Blackrock Spire (aka, UBRS) is getting a complete revamp. I am willing to bet actual, germ-infested money that there will be an official Leeroy Jenkins reference in there somewhere. I am preemptively groaning, sighing, and puking in anticipation.
Blizzard didn't go into much specific detail on raids, but the developer panel did note that all raids at all challenge levels will smoothly scale between 10 and 25 players.
On the PVP side, the big addition is Ashran, a gigantic sandbox of blood and thunder and - as is the case with most wars - fun (tee-hee gigglefart). It's a persistent war that never ends, and my notes further read, "IT WILL OUTLIVE YOU AND YOUR CHILDREN. THEIR CHILDREN. THE SUN." I don't think Blizzard said that, but I clearly found it to be an important revelation a couple hours ago.
Then I saw a naked gnome. OK, it was wearing a stylish loincloth undergarment, but it certainly stood out in a sea of largely clothed features. Why was he on the big screen? What was he trying to tell me with his enthusiastic undulations? Probably nothing, but Blizzard went on to explain that ancient vanilla WoW character models are finally getting a fresh coat of paint. The orc, dwarf, and gnome examples looked a little better than before, but the biggest difference will apparently be in faces. Now older races will have teeth and tongues and eyebrows. Take that, David Cage.
World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor looks like a decent expansion all things considered, but it's largely par for the course. Also, its direction and the messaging behind it strike me as a bit puzzling. The "revisit characters and moments from Warcraft I, II, and III" angle sounds like a mushy, gushy spoonful of nostalgia - something that makes the childhood Warcraft lover in me squeal with glee - but I doubt it'll do much for anyone else. I suppose, though, that WoW's no longer looking to hook players of all cultures and creeds. This is maintenance, in a sense. Something to keep existing players interested and happy. And who knows? Maybe the focus that a smaller audience allows will be good for WoW in the long run.
Then again, 7.7 million is still a lot of people. It's a strange place for a game to be, and WoW is undoubtedly navigating choppy waters. As for what happens next, who knows? Maybe WoW has a long life ahead of it as a mid-sized MMO. Perhaps, however, it's already started circling the draen.