Retrospect: World of Warcraft

Flying atop a gryphon out of the gates of Ironforge is still somehow stunning to me. I feel that the art makes great use of stylized colors and scale to achieve such timeless scenes.

World of Warcraft has been a part of my video game experience for nearly 10 years. As a result, it stands apart from most other games for me and many other fans. However, as with nearly anything of such scope and history, World of Warcraft has fallen short of its peaks.

With the last few expansions, many have felt that the game had lost touch with what made the game so special and important. This is certainly a feeling held by those behind the recent petitions for official Vanilla servers – servers distinct from the current game, which would allow players to experience WoW as it was years ago. I can certainly understand the desire for such an experience, and I would try it out if there was an officially supported option from Blizzard. Just the same, I can see why Blizzard would be so hesitant to do that – as artists I imagine they would rather create something new in WoW that captures earlier successes rather than have their current work ignored for something from the past. But I do not want to touch on that debate at all – it’s really not my place as I am honestly unsure which option is best for the game overall. The latest expansion coming this year – Legion – certainly seems to display a lot more effort by the developers to recapture the scope of World of Warcraft while delivering something new and fresh.

The last three expansions have seen a lot of turmoil for WoW. This can be seen in the subscription numbers, which have plummeted during this time period in particular, whereas they saw a near constant rise during the original game (Vanilla), and the Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King expansions. The expansions that followed seemed to, for the most part, lose favor with many players. Cataclysm remade the original world and effectively erased the possibility of experiencing Vanilla WoW and provided limited endgame options, Mists of Panderia introduced a setting and narrative quite different from the franchise’s history, and Warlords of Draenor was noticeably lacking in actual content.

One of the few things that Warlords of Draenor included that I am still very happy about: new character models.

Perhaps it is that last one that sticks out the most. Warlords of Draenor delivered a leveling experience that some now argue was too short and shallow, while the endgame was essentially a more limited version of Cataclysm. This was compounded by the lack of updates in an MMO that still requires a subscription. Blizzard has given players few content updates since November 2014, but all the while has still been collecting monthly fees. Two major patches were released, but only that last one, 6.2, actually added new things to do.

Warlords of Draenor had some interesting mechanics early on and was fun for a while – as many reviews reflect. However, the actual support that is necessary for any sort of MMO to thrive disappeared from Blizzard. There has been speculation that Warlords of Draenor was a rushed and unplanned expansion due to the impact of Project Titan and its cancellation. Others believe that this went further, that the developers realized how little they had with Warlords, cut the content short, and put all their effort towards Legion. But we have no evidence of any of this, and I don’t want to speculate. All I can say is that Legion, unlike the last three expansions, actually seems to be providing content for every kind of player. Only time will tell if that actually recaptures the scope and fun of WoW.

Some things never change; silly humor still pops up in new quests as it did in older ones. While it is a small thing, this continues to bring a great sense of joy to the game’s universe, and nicely contrasts darker themes.

As a longtime player and fan, it is strange to see the game go through such changes and challenges. I want World of Warcraft to continue to succeed, to bring the same joy it once did, but I also realize it is an ancient game. That being said, even the original Everquest is still running. Why can’t WoW keep going? But that leaves me wondering, why is that so important? Why do some games, particularly MMOs, grow so important to their communities that we fight tooth and nail to keep them alive?

Sadly some great landmarks are gone from the game due to updates to the world. Others, however, continue to stand in their stunning scope. I still remember walking past these guys 10 years ago.

For the last few months, I have been replaying WoW in perhaps the truest sense possible through legitimate means. I wanted to understand what about WoW brought so much enjoyment that it became so important for so many players, and to see if that can still exist in today’s World of Warcraft. I left behind my max level character, whom I have played for 10 years, and created a new character. I avoided all the perks that were available from my old character; no gold, no special items to level more quickly, no gear at all that wasn’t earned by this new character alone. All I wanted was to jump into the boots of a new adventurer, and rediscover Azeroth on my own, as I had done 10 years ago.

At first, I was annoyed at little changes here and there. Westfall wasn’t what I remembered. I avoided Redridge entirely as I disliked the new story line so much. As a result, I started planning my path through the world more deliberately. I would run around with the map open in-game. I found new stories and old ones alike. In the Duskwood I faced my old nemesis Mor’Ladim and relearned his story: a Paladin corrupted and turned undead. I discovered how the jungles of Stranglethorn Vale had changed, but, again, in ways that allowed me to enjoy both new and old adventures alike. Eventually, making my way through those vast and ancient jungles, I found myself running through ancient troll ruins, stopping evil rituals meant to revive an ancient empire I remember fighting years ago. In between all this, I would wonder around, picking up one-off quests that were particularly interesting, or looking for new areas, as well as those I had missed the first time around.

Mor’Ladim is a very minor character, but still important to me. He was one of the first enemies I faced that had a serious and unique backstory. He is still in the game for players to learn about and defeat, although it is a soloable fight now – for better or worse.

I was hooked all over again, and it was for the same reason as back in 2006 – the game planted you in a world of massive scope in every detail, with gameplay mechanics that easily immerse you. It felt like an adventure because the world was so big, so diverse, and the core gameplay was masterfully crafted to make your character feel easy to control, yet limitless in options. It feels like you are the adventurer, as though you are standing in Azeroth, even today after so many years and changes.

All this makes me realize now that the heart of World of Warcraft is still there for me. However, when you hit that max level, it becomes buried under boring systems made to just artificially prolong the experience. WoW’s most successful expansions had endgame systems that engaged players in three main ways to continue the adventure; solo content, small group content, and raids for large group content, all with regular updates. The more recent expansions, instead, seem to barely meet the needs of players in all three of those categories. Whereas most older expansions had patches that added additional dungeons or solo quest-lines, Warlord of Draenor had no additional dungeons and the endgame quests were tedious and bland in their narrative and mechanics. Atop this, solo players mostly seem pigeonholed into micromanaging their garrison – a base required for the main quest-lines – instead of exploring the massive new world built for this expansion.

The newer quests, especially in the old continents, have some very fun stories and mechanics. Here you chase a troll necromancer trying to revive bosses defeated by players years ago in huge 20-person groups.

As you can see, my opinion of World of Warcraft is quite split, especially after restarting my adventure from scratch. I am playing even more now, leveling my character and taking my time, as it has made me realize how much I enjoy simply journeying through one of the most unique and most complete worlds in video game history. But at the end of this massive and diverse adventure stands the current endgame- shallow, cold, and quite pointless.

As I think about this, however, I am hesitantly optimistic about the new expansion, Legion. For the first time, I feel as though Blizzard is aware of the need to continue the adventure at the endgame in a variety of unique ways, to meet the diversity of players that journey through Azeroth. Legion seems to be designed with the mission of giving every player something fun, as opposed to just giving every player a time-sink. World Quests that provide dynamic objectives and rewards in the open world may finally make exploration a true endgame option. The class order halls, while still worryingly close to garrisons, seem to provide the promise of better, more coherent stories relevant to each player’s class choice. Even more fascinating is the premise of Suramar: an entire zone for quest-lines dedicated to experiencing new stories rather than mindless gear grinding. Even the tried and true dungeons and raids are coming in more flavors to meet the desires of players.

This was always one of my favorite sights in Stormwind. I hope that Legion lives up to such grandeur.

I cannot say that Legion will recapture the desires of players like myself, or of those who still yearn for the Vanilla World of Warcraft experience. But I can say that I finally see a true effort on Blizzard’s part to meet the adventuring needs of all of their players, and not to force them into limited, shallow options as in recent expansions. Until Legion’s release, I will be enjoying my latest adventure with my new character. It hasn’t recaptured the original experience that introduced me to this massive world, but it has reintroduced me to the possibilities of adventure across Azeroth. Hopefully, Legion will build an endgame around that same legacy of epic adventure that delivers unique stories and experiences.

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