Despite being a decade old, World of Warcraft‘s fifth major expansion manages to make the ageing MMO feel as relevant and modern now, as it did upon its original 2004 release.
Tradition is still the name of the game, of course; over the years, countless millions have spent time in Azeroth. To change too much would achieve little more than alienating those players who slip back into the game with each expansion like a pair of well-worn slippers. But Warlords of Draenor shows that Blizzard hasn’t run out of ideas. If anything, the new features make you wonder why other MMO developers haven’t thought of them sooner.
Over the past decade, players have conquered Ragnaros; they’ve shown Illidan that they were, in fact, prepared. They’ve managed to freeze Arthas in his tracks, quench Deathwing’s insatiable thirst for destruction, and forced upstart Orc, Garrosh Hellscream, into retreat and early abdication of his leadership of the Horde. Many fans have complained over the years that Blizzard has been burning through its established characters at such a rate that they risk running out of lore to mine, and those complaints are well-founded.
Warcraft‘s universe, as detailed and expansive as it is, is not infinite, after all. WoW‘s story beats have always relied on tying up danglers left behind by the franchise’s prior existence as an RTS series, rather than setting up new foes and iconic characters. A decade on and World of Warcraft‘s existence accounts for over half the lifespan of an entire franchise. The well is running dry.
Blizzard’s solution to that problem is a healthy Doctor Who-style dose of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey messing around with the established timeline. Fresh from his defeat during the climax of previous expansion Mists of Pandaria, Garrosh manages to escape through the Dark Portal and travel back through time to Draenor prior to the events of the very first Warcraft game (which is now an astonishing 20 years old).
Once there, he stops his Orcish kin from being corrupted by the demonic forces of the Burning Legion, joins the interstellar invasion force as a partner rather than a slave race, and manages to unite every Orc faction under a single banner. Thus, he manages to prevent the Burning Legion from destroying Draenor and leaving it in the sundered mess we saw in The Burning Crusade, and essentially rewrites the entire series’ timeline. Not satisfied with that, he initiates a new invasion of Azeroth, with the united Orc tribes marching under the banner of the Iron Horde.
The events of previous expansions still happened, but at the same time they didn’t. The Draenor you explore in this expansion is, essentially, an alternate timeline – displaced from mainstream continuity, but still able to impact it thanks to the Dark Portal’s ability to transcend space and time. By the time the prologue missions are over and done with, you want to reach for the medicine cabinet to quell the headache acquired from attempting to make sense of it all. Best not to question it, and just go along for the ride.
And what a ride it is. The story is complete bunkum, of course, but it’s hard to care when it’s delivered with such gusto. In previous expansions, storylines would end by asking you to group up and venture into dungeons. Here, they climax in large-scale battles which take advantage of the scenario system introduced in Mists of Pandaria, punctuated with in-engine cutscenes showing off the overhauled character models that Blizzard has introduced – a long-overdue shot in the arm to an archaic game engine.
Blizzard also takes its phasing tech to new heights, as zones transform around you depending on what stage of the story you’re at. Sure, you’re still playing an MMO, you’re still following a largely linear plot, and the transitions in the environment are scripted, rather than dynamic. But more than ever, World of Warcraft feels like a player-driven experience, rather than the on-the-rails skinner box of years gone by.
Presentation has been bolstered by long-overdue overhauls of many in-game models. The work isn’t yet complete – at time of writing, Goblins, Worgens and Blood Elves have yet to benefit, and most enemies, particularly those that have been around since 2004, look just as outdated as they have for many years now. But Blizzard’s artists have breathed new, more detailed life into their primary characters, bringing them to life in a way which gives the game a new sense of vitality.
Simply put, the new models look great. They retain the same chunky, heavily-stylized look that WoW has always had, but feature more muscle definition and facial animation. It’s not quite the Pixar-film-in-motion that you might hope for (you need to look to the recently-announced Overwatch for that), and this is still a game that will run happily on a low-spec machine – but the visual upgrade manages to provide further evidence that well-considered visual design can bring an almost-timeless beauty to even the most antiquated technology. Blizzard’s games have always favored visual style over sophistication, and Warlords of Draenor underlines just how effective that approach can be in the right hands.
Warlords of Draenor provides more than a fresh lick of paint, however. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the new Garrison system – which is introduced early on and proceeds to dominate and inform nearly every aspect of your playtime. For years, veterans of the franchise who remember a time before Blizzard revolutionised the MMO space have been crying out for a return to the series’ real-time strategy roots. Warlords of Draenor isn’t the answer that they were hoping for, but it’s clear that Blizzard has been listening to their fans.
Garrisons are effectively a halfway-house between the player-owned-housing seen in other MMOs, and the traditional base-building seen in a traditional RTS. After playing through the expansion’s lengthy (and highly impressive) prologue, you’re tasked with establishing a personal base of operations.
Once that’s done, as you progress through the story you unlock plots, on which you can construct buildings from a wide number of choices. Are you a PvP player? You’ll want a Gladiator’s Hall. Perhaps you’re a tailor, and want some additional resources to (slowly) bolster your reserves? You can do that. There’s a building to support every profession, but the fun lies in picking what to have as a side choice. Access to the auction house? A stable to show off your growing collection of mounts? Warlords of Draenor proves that Blizzard knows what its fans want, but it doesn’t bow down completely to player convenience – forcing you to make some difficult choices that feel almost tailor-made to drive you towards levelling up alts so that you can enjoy the benefits of everything.
Buildings can be upgraded, too – provided you have sufficient resources. You can acquire these either through completing quests and scavenging during regular exploration of the world, or by sending followers on missions. Upgraded buildings confer stronger bonuses or entirely new abilities. A salvage yard might just cause occasional resources to appear at its most basic level, but at level 3, you might start getting rare or epic loot as a reward for successful follower missions. The urge to max out everything is strong, and more than enough to keep you logging in for weeks.
Followers are an ingenious addition to the game – if, for no other reason, than to ensure that people keep logging in each day. As you work through the new zones, you’ll come across characters you can recruit to your growing army. From your headquarters, you can send these followers on missions – from which they can gather supplies, earn XP and level up. Or, you can assign them to your buildings, where they grant bonuses to things like the amount of ore your mine generates each day, or increase the chances of getting rare loot. They can even accompany you on your exploits in the wider world, giving all the benefits of playing with someone else without the need to group up with another player.
Last, but not least, these followers level up the more you send them on missions and ask them to keep you company on your travels. The more you do with them, the more powerful they get, and the more impressive your rewards. Missions are a simple case of picking from a list and assigning a follower to it, then waiting for a timer to expire. It’s all very Facebook-y, but depth is granted by special abilities which confer bonuses to certain missions, or added effectiveness if they’re assigned to certain buildings.
There’s also a good amount of fan service on show in the followers you collect. Harrison Jones, Leeroy Jenkins, and other familiar faces can all be added to your troupe, and they make their presence known by hanging around your garrison and wandering about according to their own routines. If you can’t find the follower you assigned to a building, it could be that they’ve nipped to the privy, or are enjoying a tankard of ale in the tavern. When you finally track them down, it’s hard not to smile when you’re greeted with a witty rejoinder. Leeroy Jenkins might not be the most effective or hard-working follower you have, but hey – at least he has chicken.
Garrisons are so successfully integrated that once you get used to their inclusion, they feel as though they should have always been there. They’re not without their downside; the ability to effectively side-step the need to travel to capital cities to manage your resources and professions means that WoW‘s social aspect feels less relevant than ever before, and thanks to a limited number of plots, it’s hard not feel as though Blizzard is attempting to encourage players to create as many alts as possible in order to cover all possible bases. In addition, and ironically for an MMO, Garrisons mean that WoW can effectively be played – at least for the most part – as a single-player game. The new capital city of Ashran already feels like a ghost town, with people only making the trip to turn in items for reputation gains with the expansion’s new factions.
So as welcome as they are, the addition of Garrisons is something of a double-edged sword. WoW‘s player community has long complained that features like the Dungeon and Raid finder have detracted from the social cohesion of the game, that dungeons have gradually become little more than long-winded and linear grinds with a treasure chest at the end – unlike the expansive mazes in vanilla WoW. They have a point; the dungeons in Warlords of Draenor are linear to a fault, feeling more like protracted and linear obstacle courses punctuated by boss fights than ever before. But for the most part, they’re well-designed (with the exception of the once-seen-always-despised Skyhold), and changes to the loot system mean that all players have a good chance of getting useful gear relevant to their class, instead of relying on the lottery system of old.
With an average run clocking in at around 20 minutes, completing these new dungeons takes up far less of your time than it used to. But that’s not a bad thing. World of Warcraft is now a game able to be enjoyed in bite-sized chunks, rather than lengthy night-long waits monitoring general chat while standing idly in your capital city. A plethora of new achievements, rare spawns and even more side-activities means that addicts still have plenty of reasons to log in every day and play until the wee hours. World of Warcraft is a more forgiving game in its old age, one less prone to requiring players to set aside entire evenings to mine its depths, and that’s something to be welcomed.
Lessons have also been learned from the complaints that Mists of Pandaria‘s end-game was too focused on reputation grinding and repetitive daily tasks. Both of those aspects are still there, of course – it wouldn’t be WoW without them – but their presence, and emphasis, has been lessened. Warlords of Draenor features just 3 new factions, and you’ll reach the upper tiers of their respect through bog-standard play, rather than grinding out the same old objectives over and over again. The rewards they offer are also less enticing, with a heavy emphasis on cosmetic attractions like different mounts and companion pets instead of top-tier raiding gear. Hardcore WoW-philes will still want to max out their reputation with them, of course; but it’s no longer necessary if you just want to remain on a level playing field with others. The world’s most accessible MMO just got more accessible.
Problems do rear their head. However well World of Warcraft manages to catch up to its contemporaries, there’s no escaping that this is still a massively-multiplayer game whose origins hail from the turn of the century. Quests still have you killing X amount of Y mobs, or gathering enough of a certain object. You’ll still be escorting NPCs, and even though Blizzard has streamlined every class, you’ll still fiddle around with hotbars. The window dressing and presentation is good, but not good enough to hide the fact that some of the spinning wheels underpinning World of Warcraft’s design are starting to rust.
There’s also the fact that, as great as it is, the addition of Garrissons comes at a price.
As previously mentioned, World of Warcraft now feels more solitary than ever before. If you don’t want to, you needn’t ever set foot in the new capital city, and despite the game enjoying a bolstered player base that has seen active subscribers rise to over 10 million – a peak not enjoyed since 2009 – it often feels empty, with phasing tech hiding players who haven’t reached the same stage in a zone as you, dungeons requiring little teamwork, and no real need for discussing tactics or sharing secrets. Warlords of Draenor is good – great, even – but it lacks mystique. After ten years, we haven’t so much peeked behind the curtain of World of Warcraft’s inner workings, as we have pulled the curtain back, torn it off its railings, and thrown it in the trash. This is a game that we know inside-out, and while Blizzard’s additions to it are more than welcome, they can’t disguise the feeling of familiarity which accompanies this latest add-on.
So a decade on, Warlords of Draenor feels like a necessary update to an increasingly tired formula, rather than the bright new thing. For the most part, it succeeds in its goals: the visual upgrades are instantly noticeable, the focus on cinematic story content over walls of text is welcome; and while Draenor could so easily have come across as a recycled version of Outland, Blizzard’s art team has delivered a world at once familiar, but with enough differences to rekindle your sense of adventure.
But World of Warcraft is also a game that is nearing the end of its lifespan. Technology, game design, and players have all since moved on to greener pastures; and while Warlords of Draenor might tempt them back in the short-term, it’s hard not to imagine that in six months’ time, we’ll be reading about yet another dip in subscribers as players get bored of the now-standard drip-feeding of new content.
Still, as MMOs go World of Warcraft is up there with the best of them. Blizzard’s entry into the genre smashed records left, right and center upon its original release – and it did so thanks to peerless art design, a canny eye for spotting the flaws in the genre, and lore-master Chris Metzen’s wonderful imagination.
Is Warlords of Draenor going to revolutionize the MMORPG? No, not by a long shot. WoW’s mechanics are still eclipsed by more forward-thinking games like Rift, Guild Wars 2, and Wildstar. But when the familiar manages to be as beguiling as this, it’s hard to care.
In that respect, World of Warcraft’s fifth expansion is a triumph – giving a decade-old game a new lease of life, proving that Blizzard still has what it takes to dazzle players with drastic shake-ups to established mechanics. That a game still feels relevant ten years after launch in such a fast-moving industry is nothing short of extraordinary; but then Blizzard has always has had a knack for defying the odds.
Warlords of Draenor isn’t perfect as a game in its own right. But as an expansion to a decade-old institution? Well, that’s where it shines.