Some grudge matches are worth waiting for. Ever since World of Warcraft [official site] launched, one of the biggest threats hanging over its head has been the return of the interdimensional demon army The Burning Legion. A force of pure chaos. An army capable of conquering a multiverse. Undefeated, except on Azeroth, but with even those victories planting the seeds of great threats like the rise of the Lich King, Arthas, and the tormented Illidan Stormrage. Now, they're back. Bigger. Stronger. Angrier.
And campaign-wise, this is the best expansion Blizzard has ever made.
As popular as World of Warcraft still is, it's been cool to bash Blizzard in recent years. Many players don't like the direction the game's gone, especially when it comes to the hardcore content. There's a certain ennui from going to brand new places now that just about every biome short of a zone based on a sherry trifle has been done somewhere. The engine and the nature of the questing is still rooted back in 2004, with variable levels of lampshade-hanging and shrugging. Certainly, mistakes have been made, audiences have changed. If it wasn't your game any more in August, it probably isn't going to be again now, regardless of how much content Blizzard churns out. (Warlords of Draenor admittedly having had far too little, and Blizzard being aware of it.)
But for all the kvetching, expansion pack to expansion pack, no other MMO developer in the world is as dedicated to playing with its systems, with refining ideas, with exploring new territory, and trying to keep the action fresh. To some extent, it's so expected that we get inured to it, with the obvious cool factor of Stormheim, one of the new zones, being largely based on using grappling hooks to get around mountains and launch assaults on enemy camps just treated as another gimmick. On the one hand, yes, it is. On the other... you've got a map devoted to zooming around on grappling hooks!
Legion isn't just a grab-bag of Cool Things to fill ten new levels with though. It's a greatest-hits compilation of the series so far, taking ideas that maybe didn't quite work and giving them another shot, and finding ways to give different elements another turn in the sun. When I heard the concept of it - the Legion reappearing in the Broken Isles, that being yet another part of Azeroth that's conveniently split up into adventure zones but nobody's bothered mentioning recently - it felt like the conflict was going to be... distant, I suppose. Technically a threat to Azeroth, but in the same way that the Scourge was stuck in Northrend, not really the apocalyptic, all-encompassing threat that it presented itself as. To some extent I still feel that. While there's been plenty of action, what happens on the Isles is more the Legion's attempt to gain a foothold than a full assault, with the goal of the expansion being to stick a plug up their fel-hole.
Things might heat up later in the expansion, as with Pandaria, or this could just be a preview for a future World of Warcraft: Invasion type sequel pack. I'm hoping for the former, but don't want to guess. Either way, outside of a couple of areas and the intro, the presence of the Legion is talked up more than felt now that the pre-release events are over and they're not all out actively attacking Azeroth proper any more.
However, while the quest to stop them is rooted in what fellow 80s kids can think of as T-Bag And The Pillars of Creation and anyone else can just treat as your regular old MacGuffin Hunt, it's one that ends up stretching throughout both Azeroth and its history. Early on for instance comes a Scenario in the Exodar, the draenai city/crashed spaceship that literally nobody ever willingly goes to. Both worgen and tauren take starring roles in the new zones instead of being pushed to the back (trolls, sadly, continue to get the shaft, even after Vol'jin's promotion to Warchief). The hunt for lost legendary weapons for each class takes place not in some random temple you've never heard of, but retreading famous World of Warcraft locations like Karazhan.
I really liked this, as one big issue with World of Warcraft both always spreading outwards and using distance as a measure of time is that so many great zones and dungeons have historically been totally underused. Going back to, say, the Lich King to retrieve a legendary Frost Mage weapon has so much more oomph, even if I was a little irked that he didn't recognise me and threw up a load of nonsense challenges to prove I was worthy of it. You owe me, Bolvar Fordragon, and don't you forget it.
None of this should suggest though that Legion only looks backwards. Far from it. It features one of the biggest shake-ups in the game's levelling structure yet, allowing you to do four out of the five zones in any order that you want, and scaling the loot and enemies accordingly. The result feels more like a military campaign than a ladder, with your hero locked out of the last zone not because you're not tough enough, but because uniting the Broken Isles is a key first step to fighting back against the Burning Legion. On that route, you also build up your Class Hall, which replaces the Garrison of Draenor with first a more interesting location (as a mage, mine was the former seat of an ancient magical order, complete with spooky paintings on the wall) and a second ongoing side story to dip into while you do your adventures in the Isles.
It being early days, I don't know if later additions will spark the same problems as Draenor. At the moment though, Legion fixes most of the Garrison's problems, with extra life from the other players running around, a far more scaled down and manageable series of quests that still leave you to do most of the interesting stuff, and an endgame that again focuses on getting you out into the world rather than grinding. Unique gear on offer in your Class Hall, for instance, is unlocked by specific challenges like beating bosses in a number of different dungeons or reaching Honored level with the elves of Suramar, the final zone that you head to at Level 110 after dealing with business in all of the others. The result, for now at least, lands comfortably between distraction and chore, and adding extra spice to your personal story.
It is a shame though that having lots of other people in your hall rather than simply NPCs doesn't do much for the fiction that you, yes you, are the lord of the manor, which is a part of the story that I personally like and think has been earned over the different expansion packs, but I'm aware isn't everyone's plate of conjured mana fritters.
More dramatic still is what happens at the end of the campaign. Traditionally, this has been restricted to running dungeons and doing the same dailies over and over again. Legion instead introduces 'World Quests', which spawn in all of the Broken Isles zones. There are hundreds of these, only a few available at once and for specific durations, with the idea that every time you log in, there'll be something new to go and keep progressing your character in PvE - to do something simple, like get wine and give it to some thirsty elves, or to team up with a group and fight a world boss. Players have already found and summoned one of those by near heroic acts of geekery. Every kind of play is covered, from PvP quests with bonus objectives to go and assassinate the other side's leaders, to additional objectives and bonus rewards for slaying particular NPCs in the dungeons. It's still functionally please-stay-subscribed busy-work, yes, but a hell of an improvement on past expansions' post-story world content.
Speaking of the storyline, again, Blizzard excels itself. If you're at all invested in the crazy soap-opera that is World of Warcraft lore, Legion is one hell of a trip. As if there's any doubt about how powerful they are, especially backed up with recurring 'kill this guy already' warlock Gul'dan, they start the campaign by murdering both Alliance and Horde leaders, shoving Anduin and Sylvanas of all people into the top seats, along with offing Tirion Fordring for good measure. Soon, things get worse! And worse!
Legion is a story of Pyrrhic victories, some in the present day, some in the distant past. No canon character is safe, no good deed is guaranteed to go unpunished, and much of the lore is surprisingly depressing given Blizzard's normal whimsy. There's a society of ghosts in one zone for instance, who have spent literally thousands of years resenting, hating and spitting on their former prince for destroying them all. Arriving in what's meant to be one of the most beautiful parts of Azeroth, you find that the Emerald Nightmare has already chewed it up and spat it out. Death. Death. Misery. Death. Drug abuse. Death. As one character points out, Legion members like Kil'jaeden the Deceiver have both well earned their nickname and see nothing wrong with spending 10,000 years casually plotting and preparing their revenge.
Of course, there's plenty of cheerier stuff around that, like the aforementioned grappling-hooking around Stormheim, becoming a champion pit-fighter slave for the amusement of giants who don't realise you're powerful enough to just walk away any time you want, and plenty of wackiness in the middle of literal trips to Hel and whatever. Mechanically, Blizzard also takes things up several notches with the enemy encounters. Far more of them than before now have the kind of abilities normally reserved for dungeon encounters - swirling fireballs or turning the terrain dangerous, or becoming unattackable until you destroy something nearby. They're still not usually that difficult, especially with the auto-levelling and other characters/players helping out. They can finally take some concentration and attention though, whereas before just about everything in the open world would just stand around and take its beating.
Not everything is a home-run, however. The first disappointment is the much talked about Artifact Weapon system. I like the concept of this a lot. Rather than trading up magic swords of legend every couple of levels, you get one at the start of the campaign that will be your primary, and then up to two more for your class' variants if you decide to swap. As a Fire Mage, I wield the mighty sword of Felo'molorn, with the power to hurl extra destructive flames at all of my enemies. Each weapon has its own bonus skills, and a selection of skins that make your unique weapon of legend at least look a little different to everyone else's unique weapon of legend. Personally, I'm not that bothered about that and can suspend disbelief just as much as when seeing someone else go by with the 'Kingslayer' title, despite everyone hopefully knowing that I did that.
Except for Bolvar, I mean. Bloody, bloody Bolvar...
The problem is that once you've got the weapons, they're very boring. Years ago, the Warcraft talent system involved getting lots of points as you levelled and dropping them into skills that gave you 3% bonus to fire and 4% bonus armour and 1% extra accuracy and 6% reduced chance of farting loudly at an important gathering and all of that stuff. Blizzard dropped it in exchange for the current talent system, where you just straight-up choose cool new skills or passive abilities, at least in part because the old way was boring. The artifact weapon system though is just that again, with a couple of unlocks that give you a new ability or notably alter one that you've got (for the Mage for instance, adding a heal to the Blink spell), but mostly just offer the tiniest upgrades that you can never, ever see in practice. For this, you're constantly collecting upgrades, returning to your hall, and never getting that big rush of a powerful upgrade.
Also, because you have to level up your weapons individually, you're at a huge disadvantage if you decide to jump to another spec. Not only do you have to go and quest for that weapon as well, which takes about half an hour, you've got to start acquiring points to top it up. This does become easier at max level, when you can spend Order Resources (and an NPC's time) to speed up the rate at which they develop. Still, a grind is a grind, and this should have felt much more awesome.
On top of that, while classes have seen reworking since Draenor launched, Levels 100-110 have no new talents to unlock, no new skills... no new anything really, except the occasional in-field gimmick like being able to summon dragon's breath against a few enemies in front of you. With limited armour upgrades and the aforementioned enemy scaling, I never really felt like I was getting any more powerful. It's a big campaign too. A lot of time to feel in a bit of a power rut.
One big aside to that though is that by having both the Class Hall and Artifact Weapons to power up, Blizzard has seized the opportunity to turn the Broken Isles into a huge scavenger hunt. Chests of Order Resources and Artifact Power giving items are absolutely everywhere, providing the first good reason in several expansion packs to go off the quest paths and see what you can find. Even if there's not that much in it, it's great to just be swimming around somewhere, spot a cave, duck in and emerge a little bit more powerful, or spot a chest and have to figure out how to get there. Eventually, you'll be able to fly. For now though, everybody's on foot throughout. It says a lot about how well designed the zones are that I didn't care even a little bit, even once.
My second big annoyance, which I'm aware not everyone shares but which really hacks me off, is that after Draenor finally stopped doing it, Legion is back to ending big quest chains in group dungeons. Most zones end with one where you have to acquire the local Pillar of Creation, and I hated, hated, hated, hated that every time. No, before someone snarks up, it's not that I have a problem with multiplayer in a multiplayer game or that it's hard to find a group. It's that I don't much care for dungeons in the first place, and when I've just done several hours of story in solo PvE, often full of stuff like personally passing challenges of virtue to be the only one capable of facing the dungeon, it's a real slap in the face to be told "And now you need a group of five to actually finish this." Give the dungeons their own stories. Use the World Quests to encourage people back in. That's fine. Great! But finish single-player driven PvE stories as single-player PvE, or don't design them around the player as a singular hero.
As for the dungeons themselves, the ones I've done - including all four levelling dungeons - have been solid. Cool settings, especially the Valhalla-esque Hall of Heroes. Decent enough bosses. Fast runs. Not too much trash. Fairly typical in design though, with no real surprises yet except having a PUG where the tank wasn't king of all douchebags and all of Team DPS actually knew their rotations. Amazing.
Finally, some extra additions to the mix. Though technically added just before Legion, the Transmogrification system is now far better, allowing you to reskin your gear with different looks. In a generous touch, Blizzard includes everything that you have or could have gotten through quests in your collection regardless of whether you still have it or sold it long ago. You can also combine items into outfits and see every possible transmog friendly item in the game. For truly hardcore players, which I am very much not, Blizzard has also added a new tier of difficulty to the top-tier Mythic dungeons, where new challenges are unlocked to make monsters harder and add handicaps like everyone taking constant health loss in exchange for better loot. I guarantee I will never personally set foot in one of these as long as the game runs, but in theory, cool.
Legion also introduces a new Demon Hunter class, which I haven't played much of. Demon Hunters are fun though, albeit in a bit of a war against the engine when doing tricks like double-jumping and floating down from ledges. I reported on them a while ago when they went into the PTR, and enjoyed my time there. For playing through the expansion though, my character's motto remains Mage 4 Lyfe (Lich 4 Deth) and I wasn't tempted to roll a brand new one. Should you want a new character though, or be joining Warcraft for the first time, your copy of Legion includes a free bump for one character to Level 100, and the ability to try classes out before committing.
If you are brand new to World of Warcraft though, the same applies here as the last couple of expansions - this isn't a great point to jump in. Blizzard's continued evolution of what it can be and do is great, but its ancient roots show through more and more each year. As with Draenor, it doesn't help that the story of this expansion requires a fair amount of background knowledge to appreciate, if not necessarily understand the importance of big events, why key deaths are genuinely gasp-worthy instead of just A Thing That Happens, and how this expansion's specific quests about collecting 20 bear asses really are an improvement over past bear-ass gathering adventures.
With that history though, at least at the start of the expansion, this is a new high point for World of Warcraft. Proof that Blizzard still has plenty of juice to squeeze out of it. Proof that even when the Legion is relegated to farm status, there'll be many more adventures to have, and that they'll be worth the wait. And proof again that while Blizzard can't hope to please everyone, it's not going to stop trying its best.
World of Warcraft: Legion is out right now and is available direct from Blizzard.