World of Warcraft is ten years old and over that decade it has dominated the genre it popularised back in 2004. Given the size and devotion of its playerbase, it isn't surprising to see another spurt of growth, adding bulk in the form of a stack of new content. Tom Mayo explored that content and found that the game hasn't just expanded - with the release of Warlords of Draenor it may have received its most intriguing new feature to date.
Warlords of Draenor is World of Warcraft’s fifth expansion, and sees Blizzard rummage through the archives for inspiration, adding arguably the game’s biggest and most ambitious feature to date. We return to the world first visited in Burning Crusade nearly eight years ago, as players tackle a slew of new challenges with streamlined spellbooks and a fresh lick of paint.
Draenor arrives almost exactly as Blizzard celebrates World of Warcraft’s tenth anniversary. Whatever you might think of their ‘themepark’ model, they have arguably done more than anyone else to define and popularize this genre, creating a multi-billion dollar franchise in the process.
This latest expansion is their chance to leverage a decade’s worth of invaluable experience as top dogs in the subscription MMO market. They have made plenty of mistakes, and have been refreshingly frank about admitting as such in the past, but to what extent have they truly learned from them? It surely must be nice to be number one by such a comical margin, but along with that success comes a burden of expectation that couldn’t be much higher, particularly on the heels of Mists of Pandaria.
The previous expansion was a bit of a curate’s egg. Many important improvements were made to both systems (the crunch) and the way in which narrative was delivered (the fluff), but the setting itself proved controversial, if not alienating. Look, Blizzard. We know you came up with kung fu pandas five years before Kung Fu Panda. We know. But sometimes originators are forgotten in lieu of popularizers. John Venn didn’t invent the Venn Diagram, and yet it still bears (ha!) his name.
Pandas were everywhere in WoW. It was strange. It’s over now.
Warlords of Draenor is… More WoW! That statement, in itself, is something of a Rorschach test. You likely came here with at least a few expectations and preconceptions, and upon reading that you may have muttered, shrugged, or gazed with narrowed eyes and pursed lips into the middle distance. You may have experienced a deliciously giddy thrill.
Digging down through every layer, bullet point, and buzzword, the heart of the experience feels intact. In stark counterpoint to the recent trend of high stakes, high tension experiences like Day Z, Rust and Dark Souls, I believe World of Warcraft’s key to success is the warm glow of satisfaction rather than the jagged rush of excitement.
Everything you do while logged in increases your power slightly. Sometimes terribly terribly slightly, but this lumbering Satisfaction Engine only rolls in one direction: forwards. You can change the speed, but not the direction. That’s an imperfect metaphor, and exceptions can be found particularly in progression raiding and high level PvP, but at time of writing - five days after launch - those are not readily available experiences. They are part of Phase 2 (more on that later).
You will often hear the word ‘polish’ bandied about in reference to Blizzard’s approach, both by critics who wish to imply that they simply steal from others and apply nicer animations, and by supporters who appreciate the slick presentation. Really, it’s not polish. It’s lubrication. Blizzard are trying to achieve frictionlessness. Every time you log on, they want it to be effortlessly intuitive, no matter how much experience you have. This approach can and will smooth away some interesting snags, but this is pretty much the definition of a big, mainstream title and it thrives on weight of numbers. Said snags can lead to fascinating emergent behaviours, but are just as likely to irritate and push people away. Blizzard evidently feel that the cost of the latter is too high to justify the former. Mmmm. Lubrication.
By handwaving the setting of WoD back to Draenor, Blizzard hopes to appeal to their veterans. From the very first quest, familiar friends and foes from yesteryear pop up to say hello. Or sometimes “Arglebargle eat my axe!”, depending. Equally, though, this is an expansion that is almost ingratiatingly welcoming to new or lapsed players. For a (reasonably stiff) fee, you can get a brand new character instantly boosted to level 90, saving you potentially weeks and months of levelling through gubbins that no-one wants to think about right now.
Let’s talk a bit about the levelling experience of WoD – this is Phase 1. The introductory experience throws you into a pretty slick, action-packed, scripted sequence that gives you a chance to get used to the way your character plays. Vets will blast through with ease, particularly if they have raid gear from Pandaria, but there are a couple of buffs to help newcomers too. One teleports you back onto the correct path should you wander too far (exploration is fun, but is encouraged and rewarded once you’re into the game proper), and the other gives you a free resurrection once every three minutes should you get into a nasty scrape. It also introduces you to a handful of key protagonists and antagonists, who are pretty much all orcs. Sorry, Alliance.
Once you’re actually let loose, pretty much the first thing that happens to you is that you get your plot of land - your fledgling Garrison. This is by far the biggest feature of the expansion. When it was first announced, it was assumed it was going to be player housing, as featured in many other MMOs. As it turns out, it’s really much more like building a base in Warcraft III, then living in THAT.
Let us be clear, right up front - it’s super cool. Super super cool. It has been painstakingly designed to reach right into your brain and fondle all those little OCD nodes that make you want to keep playing “just a little longer”.
You populate your plot of land with small, medium and large buildings, and recruit followers. The buildings tie in nicely with tradeskills, but also give other powerful benefits like your own bank, auctioneer, herb garden or mine. Followers have skills and traits that make them suitable for specific challenges and roles. They head out on missions for you, level up, and gather valuable resources including new followers, gear for you, gear for them, and so on. Truthfully, I have even taken little breaks writing this review so I can check if any of my followers have finished their missions, and… Ooh! Vivianne, my fire mage buddy, dinged 92! Sweet.
Anyway. It’s also all inextricably connected to the 90-100 levelling experience. Finishing quest chains will occasionally earn you the respect and loyalty of the quest NPC. This is much more awesome than that dry description suggests. Completing an entire zone gets you a slick cutscene and generally also a blueprint that provides a big upgrade to your Garrison. Given that one character can't have every building at once, and given that each offers powerful advantages, this means that there will be a natural inclination to fill gaps with an alt or five. Previously, it has been possible to treat those alts as sweatshop workers. Do just enough with them to trigger a benefit, then give them minimal attention beyond that.
No longer. Blizzard have spent a ton of time on the 90-100 experience, they know people tend to blaze through it (Phase 1) and they want - no, need - to squeeze as much additional value as possible from all that time they spent. So yes. If you want more than one awesome Garrison, and it's damnably tempting, you will have to plough through to 100 every time. If it helps, imagine Blizzard stamping their feet and pouting adorably. "We worked so hard!"
You can have eleven characters on a server. Managing eleven Garrisons, all maxed out, sounds kind of intense to me. Nevertheless, I have no doubt that people will do it, and time will tell how much of an advantage it may offer.
It’s important to look at levelling in context. By the time a new expansion rolls around, players are generally pretty starved of content. It’s been a long time since they have explored, a long time since they felt challenged, and a long time since they weren’t a lazy apex predator, picking bits of one hapless enemy out of their teeth with the bent dagger of the other. When the floodgates open, we collectively click back into Phase 1 mode; a kind of gluttonous, dizzying, rushing mess. Quest text? We don’t need no stinkin’ quest text!
Now, it might seem like a shame that we aren’t encouraged to define our own pace, and stop to smell the roses should that be our preference. In theory, that is totally an option. Possibly more so in WoD than ever before, in fact. Blizzard have tucked away literally hundreds of rare minibosses and treasures that exist to be interesting distractions rather than critical for progression.
In practice, I found myself simply devouring absolutely everything in front of me in a frenzy. This is inescapably a level-based game, and the psychological compulsion is to get that first character to level 100 as soon as possible. It’s not just that it’s easier to smell the roses with alts once you are more comfortable with the game in general, it’s that time is a real factor.
There is a metagame momentum, particularly important when you consider that you will eventually hit the point where group content is very valuable. If you are attempting it at the same time as the roiling masses, terrific! If you get there after they have picked the bones dry and have moved on to the next thing, then it can get a lot more challenging.
I played through on my orc hunter (again, sorry Alliance), and while I didn’t have the best gear in the world, I got to level 100 in a few days. I don’t recall being challenged at any particular point by any particular encounter. The combat was not engaging, because I was never required to push more than about three buttons – even in the four unremarkable dungeons that I saw. The lack of a flying mount, even at max level, has been the topic of much heated debate over recent months, but my brain normalized this lack very quickly, and I haven’t missed flying yet. Rumours abound that it will return, but it’s not clear if, or when, that might actually occur.
Again, context is key. I tried levelling again on a squishy, be-robed mage, with whom I am significantly less skilled. My goodness. Suddenly, every fight was a fight to the death, and sadly not always theirs. I was obliged to use mobility abilities, defensive cooldowns, potions, and often quite a lot of swearing. This is more representative of a new player’s experience, and in many ways it’s more fun. For maximum fun-i-tude, bring along a friend. WoW is best played with a buddy. It can distance you yet further from all the fluff Blizzard will try to make you care about, but you will undoubtedly gain more than you lose.
Overall, despite the lack of high stake thrills – or perhaps because of it - the levelling experience was extremely… well, satisfying. That word again. The game has never looked better, with enemy models and animations that are good enough for me to occasionally just stop and watch them for a while. All the player models have had a huge graphical update too, but because you generally just see the back of your armour-plated head all those detailed and expressive new faces tend not to get a lot of airtime. I appreciated the work that went into it, in an abstract way, but honestly I felt that one of the smaller features - a UI update – made a more impactful difference to my enjoyment. Through that update, the way you interact with the world has been simplified and refined in a very elegant and effective way.
There’s undeniably a huge amount to do in Phase 1, but Phase 2 is where you take a deep breath. Relax. Let the red mist fade, take stock, and form a plan. This is where you will live over the next couple of years. Unfortunately I cannot say with confidence how game feels over time, at the level cap, simply because it hasn’t happened yet. There are heroic dungeons. There is a legendary quest chain that everyone can access from pretty early on. There are raids. There is a huge cross-realm 100 vs 100 PvP zone with fortresses, multiple objectives and other crazy shit. I cannot comment too much on these (yet), so I will refrain.
With a game of this scale, it’s hard to do justice to the details. Ultimately, I have hugely enjoyed my time with it so far. Occasional bugs aside, Blizzard are terribly good at this by now. The mood in my guild has been buoyant, and while a ten-year-old MMO is not the most accessible prospect for a brand new player, significant efforts have been made to make it somewhere that everyone can join, enjoy and call home. Literally call home, with Garrisons now being so prominent, and so damnably addictive. Speaking of which, I think it’s about time to check my followers again...
Warlords of Draenor is available now.