Disclaimer: while this is technically labelled as a review (because I’m not sure what else to really call this), I’m not interesting in assigning scores or even give any sort of recommendation. This is simply a reflection and commentary on said game.
An odd thing happened to me towards the end cycle of World of Warcraft’s last expansion, Warlords of Draenor. I stopped playing the game. Now, this hasn’t been too unusual. I have taken breaks from the game before, but it was the nature of my break that was surprising and, to be quite honest, a little alarming.
Generally, what usually happens during the wind down of an expansion is our guild loses interest, and I end up playing less simply because there’s not many people around in guild to play with. I still log in and do things in game, but generally it’s at a reduced playtime than normal. This time however, once we were vanquishing Archimonde on heroic difficulty pretty regularly, I ended up staying away from the game, not even logging in occasionally. Part of it was there was a plethora of other things occupying my life (notably X-Wing and Imperial Assault have been considerable timesinks for me) but I was beginning to wonder if this was going to be the beginning of the end of my interest in returning to the land of Azeroth.
With the release of the latest expansion, Legion, I think those concerns are assuaged. At least for now.
How WoW got its groove back
Indeed, there’s been a new sense of optimism among the community regarding the state of the game. Not that there hasn’t been at the launch of each new expansion. But it feels like WoW is actually going to move past the issues that have plagued past expansions’ end of life cycles and might finally deliver an expansion that, from beginning to end, will keep players engaged.
Part of it has been the public abandonment of Blizzard’s goal of trying to push out yearly expansions, which always felt like an internal contradiction in the company, given Blizzard’s reputation of not releasing anything until they think it’s good and ready. The hope now is, with the stated focus on making sure there is a steady stream of content (something the goal of yearly expansions was supposed to provide), there won’t be any more of the dreaded “dead time” in transitioning between expansions. Time will tell if this works out, but given the past experiences with previous expansions, hope is high this approach will be a vast improvement.
If it’s not broke, then don’t fix it (but tweak it a bit)
The story behind this expansion isn’t much different than the last several expansions. Some malevolent force (this time a LEGION of demons), threatens the world. The leveling zones involve rallying allies and obtaining some uber powerful artifacts known as the Pillars of Creation. There are a lot of tie-ins to locations and characters from previous expansions, which is a nice touch. Each of the 12 classes also has its own unique story content to play through, adding some replay value for people who like to play multiple characters.
Leveling itself hasn’t really changed much. The only major change has been the scaling technology that’s been implemented in the zones, which allows players to complete questing zones in any order. Monsters dynamically scale with not just your level but with the level of players around you, allowing players of varying levels to quest together without feeling awkward.
The main story lines in the questing zones don’t take very much time to complete: roughly 2-3 hours of focused game play the first time through for each zone. The questing itself is the same old same old (kill x things, collect y shrubberies) but there’s enough story content interspersed to make the experience feel less like grinding to max level and more like progressing through a story. No one’s going to think the story content is on par with anything like The Witcher or Mass Effect, but it’s nice to get a powerful, even touching, cinematic to cap off your work. Some of the cinematics were actually quite jarring emotionally for those of us veteran WoW players, particularly the introduction scenario in Broken Shore and the concluding questline of Val’sharah.
Visually, it’s amazing that a game engine that has existed for more than a decade actually doesn’t look that dated. Certainly when you compare it to more modern titles it does start to show its age, but it still holds its own.
When everyone is super, then no one will be
One issue with the story for this expansion, however, is the incorporation of the player character. Previous expansions noted the importance of your character, but now you are considered the greatest ever of your class and given a snazzy title (Highlord, Battlelord, Farseer). Which is cool and all, until you realize there are dozens of other greatest of your class running around. That kind of blows away that immersion, and it feels kind of weird.
This is furthered exemplified by the new artifact system, in which your class ends up with a set of the more famous weapons in Warcraft lore. It’s kind of weird to walk around with Ashbringer or Doomhammer only to see dozens of other players wielding the exact same weapon. Even though the artifacts have coloring and skins to somewhat personalize the appearance, it just doesn’t feel as special, to the point where I may feel compelled to transmog the weapon to something else at some point. It is still nice to not have to worry about needing weapon drops in dungeons and raids, which were a notorious hindrance on your character’s progression if you got unlucky. It’ll be an open question how this is carried over to future expansions, however.
Stay awhile and listen … I mean, Lok’Tar Ogar!
World of Warcraft has never been shy about incorporating elements of other games, but this might be the first time Blizzard has delved into one of their own games to do so. Two very big components of game play for max level player, World Quests and Mythic+ Dungeons, lift wholesale the bounty system and Greater Rifts, respectively, from Diablo 3. World Quests seem a little more enjoyable than the typical Daily Quest grinds of the past, but probably will be running stale in about a month or so. Hopefully Blizzard adds things incrementally as the expansion goes on.
Mythic+ Dungeons, however, are very intriguing. While the general idea comes from Diablo 3’s Greater Rifts, it’s an evolution from the previous system of Challenge Mode Dungeons. These dungeons worked by scaling your player’s gear to a fixed level and having your group try to clear that dungeon as fast as possible. It was a neat way to instill some competition into the game outside of the PvP world, but also kind of limited. After all, you can only optimize your gear and approach so much before the “optimal” time is achieved and the competition is effectively over. Mythic+ changes this by instead of fixing player gear level, the dungeon itself scales up, using a keystone leveling system similar to Diablo 3. This will allow for more fun competition, as you are not only trying to get the fastest dungeon clear time, but also the highest difficulty. I generally had no interest in Challenge Mode Dungeons, but Mythic+ seems like I might have a fun activity to partake in outside of raiding.
Not much has changed in raiding. Gather 10-30 people, enter the instance, kill the instance, work around some mechanics, and kill several bosses to acquire items. The change to the personal loot system to allow people to trade useless items they receive to each other has been a welcome addition, and our guild is actually finding it a better system than relying on the old master/group loot method. But then again, the problem with the last couple expansions has never been the quality of the raiding content, but the quantity. As long as there’s a steadier stream of encounters across the life of this expansion, it should be more than enough to keep a raider like myself engaged.
The first raid, the Emerald Nightmare, opened up last week and my guild has plowed through all 7 boss encounters on normal difficulty without too much struggle. It’s difficult to assess whether normal difficulty feels right. We breezed through it but at the same time we’re a pretty experienced raiding guild. Visually, though, the place is pretty ugly. Too much red, green and black clashing together that just makes my eyes bleed. Though it is a nice touch that the area “transforms” once you defeat the final boss, which is actually very pretty (as shown in the screencap above). But for the most part the encounters have been fun and our guild is looking forward to seeing what heroic difficulty will look like.
All in all, it looks like I’ll be in the land of Azeroth for the foreseeable future. We’ll see how things look over the next few months. A massive remake of an old dungeon, Karazhan, should be available before the end of the year, along with a mini raid. The content will certainly be there, and hopefully it will remain compelling.