World of Warcraft's latest expansion Legion drops this Tuesday. The game set the standard for MMORPGs in 2004 and set the stage for the modern MMO. Its subscriber numbers have faltered, but most games still wish they had a fraction of WoW's success.. Today, we're taking a look at how the game has evolved over time and how it stacks up to the shadow of its former self.
When World of Warcraft (or WoW) first came out in November of 2004, it was a very different game than it is today. Rather than releasing "World of Warcraft 2" or "WoW: 3", Blizzard adds expansions that extend the game's story and add new features. You likely know all of this already, but it creates an interesting dynamic where the current WoW exists in the same place as its predecessors. Legion will be the game's sixth expansion in twelve years. But are WoW's best days behind it, or here, right now? Here's how we're breaking it down:
- World of Warcraft (2004-2010): Everyone has a different opinion on when WoW's real "glory days" were. However, the base game (often referred to as "vanilla") along with the first three expansions — Burning Crusade, Wrath of the Lich King, and Cataclysm — make up the first half of the game's life. We'll approach this broad time period as "classic WoW."
- World of Warcraft (Legion): WoW's latest expansion brings a ton of new stuff including a new Demon Hunter class, legendary artifact weapons from WoW lore, and home bases where your class can hang out together. On top of being one of Blizzard's most ambitious expansions, Legion has the added benefit of coming out in the same year as the Warcraft movie. We'll touch on why that's important, as well as how the game compares to the classic WoW. We'll also be glossing over most of the two recent expansions, Mists of Pandaria and Warlords of Draenor because let's face it, you probably did, too.
To cover as much as possible, I've been checking out the Legion beta for a few weeks and I've spent time revisiting vanilla WoW via some less-than-official channels (please don't ban me, Blizzard). However, WoW is huge. Part of the beauty of this game is that everyone can have a different experience in the same world. Be sure to share your own experiences at the end. You can also check out Kotaku's in-depth tour through all the old expansions here.
WoW Used to Feel More Massive Than It Does Now
Blizzard chose the name World of Warcraft for a very specific reason. When you first start to explore the game, it feels massive. Each race has its own starting zone with a cluster of quests that exist in your own little neighbourhood. You have to run painfully slowly from one village to another. By the time you reach the nearest capital city, you think that it couldn't possibly be any bigger. This is it. This is the big end goal of the entire game.
Except it doesn't end there. Pick any direction not over an ocean and you can just keep wandering forever. When you take your first flight from one city to another, it starts to sink in. This really is a world. You could walk from one end of a continent to another if you wanted. Best of all, each area is riddled with quests, characters, and things to do. If you want to level up one night elf character by trekking from the capital city of Darnassus across Kalimdor, you can do that. Then you can start a whole new dwarf character who resides in Ironforge and wander across the Eastern Kingdoms without seeing a single thing your night elf saw.
The first couple of times you level a character like this, it's exhilarating. When you're on your tenth character, it's not nearly as fun. So over time Blizzard has added things that make travelling across the world easier. You can use your hearthstone to teleport back to a single home location. In Burning Crusade, Blizzard added flying in the new continents. In Cataclysm, they added flying everywhere. Cata also added a cluster of portals in major cities like Stormwind and Orgrimmar to destinations all over the game world. In a way, Cata was a turning point where the feature creep started to boil over.
Nowadays, you can hop on your flying mount to bypass any inconvenient mountain. The Group Finder tools made it progressively easier to find other players to play with. When you want to join a dungeon or raid, the Group Finder will just teleport you there. A lot of this is functional, making it easy for people to traverse long distances, meet up with friends quickly, and help other players.
By the time you get to Legion however, all these additions have added up to a big world that feels really small. It only takes a few minutes to get across WoW's giant continents. It's no harder to run dungeons with someone on the other side of the planet than it is to play with someone in the same city as you. Blizzard tries to deal with this by disabling flying in the new continents you visit, but it only goes so far. The new Broken Isles area in Legion is beautiful, but it never quite captures that same sense of grandeur.
This change isn't necessarily a bad thing. Walking everywhere is tedious and it can take away from actually playing the game. On the other hand, when you can teleport all over the planet, breeze past the scenery at 300% speed, and ignore most of the little details, it starts can start to feel like Legion could just be its own game, rather than part of an ever-expanding world. While new players still have to do a bit of work at low levels, it's impossible for anyone to go back and really feel that same restricting sense of a world too big for your character.
Old WoW Was a Harder Grind, But With Better Rewards
In vanilla WoW, you progressed from level 1 to 60, at which point you'd hit the level cap. It took months. Blizzard wasn't building massive virtual continents for nothing. If you wanted to reach the top level, you had to work for it. The game always had a strong focus on what it calls "end game content" (stuff you play once you reach the level cap) but in classic WoW, early questing mattered.
After grinding away for months to get up to the level cap, you finally received your just reward: more grinding. Dungeons and raids offered new and bigger challenges featuring grandiose characters from the Warcraft RTS series. This trend continued through the game's early expansions. One of the most incredible moments in WoW history came during Wrath of the Lich King when you climbed the steps of Icecrown Citadel, and fought your way past eleven raid bosses to slay the Lich King Arthas. It was a hard battle. Depending on your group, it could've taken weeks or months to get there. It was worth it.
Blizzard rewarded that kind of dedication. The early expansions were packed with legendary weapons that were incredibly rare. Raid groups of forty people would get together to take down powerful bosses for the chance at getting a weapon that only one person could use. These were incredible moments of teamwork. Those rare few who won their hard-earned trophies carried them with pride.
In Legion, literally everyone is given a legendary weapon right at the beginning. It's...pretty underwhelming. Don't get me wrong, the legendary weapons are cool, and it's fun to explore the lore (we'll come back to that.) But having a team of NPCs all agreeing that you're the chosen one who deserves this unspeakably powerful weapon that every other player is also using starts to feel a tad cheesy.
Yeah, and maybe a random guard in Whiterun is the Dragonborn. He just doesn't know it yet. One example where this gets really weird is for shamans. One of your artifact weapons in Legion is the mighty Doomhammer, an item with a ton of history and in-game lore behind it. This weapon has been used by Orgrim and Thrall, two of the most important figures in Warcraft history. It even appears in the Warcraft movie being carried by Orgrim, who is gigantic and covered in muscles. Above, you can see my tiny dwarf carrying it like it belongs there, or something. This is a bit like giving some teenager Captain America's shield. When you receive the Doomhammer, Thrall tells you that you're already more powerful than he is with it. Even though he literally killed Deathwing.
When you're already a legendary hero at the start, it gets a little difficult to take any challenges seriously. WoW has also made it easier to raid without having a guild, so you could feasibly play without ever working with friends over the long-term. You get a lot of cool stuff, but it's not as hard to earn it. That hard work leads to a sense of satisfaction. Without the grind, the rewards can feel cheap or meaningless. When everyone's super, no one is.
Legion Is the Most Accessible This Game Has Ever Been
Hanging out with Malfurion in one of the starting zones in Legion. If you've never played WoW before, this may be the best possible time to join. All those changes that have "watered down" the classic WoW experience also make it easier for newcomers to join in the story where it's at now. You get a free boost to level 100 by purchasing Legion. If you don't have time to join a guild and raid a few times a week, you can just hop into the Group Finder to join with strangers.
The classes have also been simplified a lot since the early days. In vanilla WoW, you had to collect ammunition for your weapons, learn complex talent trees, and study the text of quest logs to figure out where you're going in a huge world. If you wanted to join a guild or run dungeons with friends, you needed to install add-ons, read forums, and prove you could handle the pressure. Now, talents are much simpler, an organised quest log points you in the right direction, and no more ammo.
Of course, this doesn't necessarily make the game simple. Just simpler. You'll still grind for hours collecting pelts and herbs, killing mobs, and digging through poop. You should still study the mechanics on raid bosses, which isn't easy. New players won't be able to just walk in to fight Xavius in the Emerald Nightmare and expect to do well. Heck, new players probably can't be expected to know what half the words in that guide mean (or this one, really,) or even what the "Emerald Nightmare" actually is. There's a lot of learning new players need to do and raid boss mechanics are still ridiculously complicated.
If you want to try to move on to higher difficulty levels, Blizzard still lets you do that. Heroic and Mythic versions of dungeons and raids offer tougher challenges, better rewards, and require a lot more coordination. The only difference is that now players have a more clearly laid out path to get there.
Blizzard's Finally Getting the Hang of Telling Stories In Legion
If you didn't have time to join a guild and progress through huge raids in the old days of WoW, you didn't get to see the real story of the game. I ran into this problem when I started Cataclysm. The giant black dragon Deathwing was destroying the world. I wanted to know how this story ends. This was also the time I was working 80+ hours a week and raiding was not a possibility. To this day I still haven't gone back to finally kill Deathwing. Old raids were even harder. If you wanted to take down Illidan at the Black Temple or slay Arthas at Icecrown Citadel, you better have some free time on your hands. These guys were their expansions primary antagonists and if you weren't raiding, you never saw them.
In Legion, that entire dynamic is turned upside down. The opening sequences carry you through a series of scripted scenarios with voice acting, character interactions, and a better look into what's going on in the world around you. You'll meet the big baddie Gul'dan at the start of the Demon Hunter quest line. If you're playing now during the pre-launch demon invasions, you can team up with everyone else on your server to take down massive raid bosses just wandering around the starting zone. The group finder also means that since you can hop into a raid with strangers, you're not locked out of the final story if you can't "git gud." It will be tough and some jerks might complain, but it's easy mode. They will live.
Your character is also more important to the story. In classic WoW, you're a peon with no skills killing random boars in the forest to bring meat to a local villager. In Legion, you are the grandmaster in charge of your entire class. Yes, every player is roleplaying the guy in charge of all the other players in their class. It's...weird.
This approach draws you into the story, though. For example, my mage in Legion will be rebuilding the Hall of the Guardian. For most of my WoW experience, I didn't really know what the Guardian was. In fact, I only learned about it from the Warcraft movie. While I was busy missing out on all the high-level content in earlier WoW expansions, I missed those mythical elements. Now, Legion has you face-to-face with the characters throughout the entire expansion, not just at the very end in raids. Sometimes it feels like it's forcing you into an all-powerful hero role, but it means you feel less disconnected.
So far, this has done more good than harm. Warcraft has incredibly rich lore and Legion is using its new features as a way to connect players with it directly. Maybe it's a bit cheesy to make your character the Chosen One, but that framing device allows you to explore the various factions and characters in the Warcraft universe on a more intimate level.
World of Warcraft isn't the same game that it used to be and — barring some massive legacy server project — it never will be officially. What we have now, however, isn't bad. Blizzard has stumbled some in recent years. While I had some fun with Mists of Pandaria and Warlords of Draenor, each of those expansions felt like weird offshoots of WoW, not a central part of a bigger story.
Legion is a return to WoW's roots while keeping a lot of the best elements that Blizzard has refined over the years. From a lore perspective, we get to see the return of some major characters with fresh eyes (as a side note, I highly recommend reading the Illidan book as backstory for the new demon hunters). We get new weapons, new challenges, and much better ways of experiencing this massive story. Despite the updates and tweaks, the game we have now looks pretty good. However, old players and new ones alike can at least share a sentiment over the one thing that hasn't changed in all the years WoW has existed:
Fuck these boats.