It’s now been eleven years since World of Warcraft first captured the hearts and minds of millions. It’s frankly astonishing, even with smaller numbers these days, that Blizzard still touts millions of active monthly subscriptions. But, like many, the excitement with which I once awaited expansions and content updates has dwindled in recent years. I thought WoW was passing me by… and then I played the new Survival Hunter.
Now, let’s be clear. This is still World of Warcraft. If you’re tired of questing with exclamation and question marks, or running dungeons to get better gear, you’re probably not going to be thrilled here. But I’d also wager you’re just tired of the entire theme park MMORPG design. No, this is still WoW. Luckily for me, I don’t think I’ll ever fully tire of those mechanics as long as there are developers out there willing to mix things up, or at least try to take on new approaches to old ideas.
But to get to the core of why Legion is shaping up, even this early, to be a stellar expansion from the Blizzard team we have to go back to why WoW used to have me waiting in lines at midnight outside of my local Gamestop. For a time between 2004 and 2008, WoW was just about the only game that mattered. Not just for me, but for the most of the PC gaming world. Gamespy, god rest its soul, devoted comics to it, everyone was trying to recapture what made it great with their own game, and no one really complained that its endgame was basically running on a treadmill to get purple items for your paper doll.
About 2 hours of Survival Hunter goodness
People just played. They played with friends, strangers, made oodles of alts, and shared stories of dungeon runs gone awry. Back then, WoW was a game that showed millions it was OK to be a gamer, to play with others, and talk about it with random people you met in real life. Now eleven years later WoW is just one among a sea of games that people spend all day talking about, sharing, and devoting their time to. The landscape has changed, but much of Azeroth has stayed the same at its core.
So when I logged into the Alpha to try Legion’s new Survival Hunter spec, I wasn’t expecting the game to surprise me. I figured sure, I’d be a hunter with a melee weapon, but everything else would be the same. Then I used a harpoon to launch myself towards enemies. Then I used a mini flaming turret to set them ablaze. Then I used a Dragonsifre trap to send foes fleeing and causing burn damage in others. Then I launched a sticky bomb at my foe and watched as it exploded and knocked all enemies to the ground. Suddenly, I was playing an entirely different class than I expected.
And that’s when it hits me. I keep seeing people say that Blizzard is scared to try things that are different with WoW, and yet with Pandaria and Draenor both, the content has been vastly experimental. From personal farms in Pandaria to Garrisons in Draenor, Blizzard has been toying with and experimenting with loads of new systems. Farms were a hit, even if they got left behind in Draenor. And for a while, Garrisons were something people loved, before their multiplayer limitations were realized and the repetitive nature of sending followers on missions became a chore.
This time, Legion is all about a few things: firstly, it’s about the new artifact weapon system. Essentially letting players level up and tweak their weapons as an extension of their character long after they hit the new cap of 110. Secondly, it’s about the ability to go to any zone in the expansion and have it scale to match your level. No linear path through zones should hopefully mean players find repeating content more enjoyable on their many alts. And lastly, and perhaps most importantly to me, Blizzard is tweaking each of their classes’ specs to effectively make each class have three unique ways to play. A Survival Hunter will feel vastly different from the Beast Master, and both will play vastly different than the Marksmanship Hunter. This is something I feel WoW has been trying to do for years and is finally getting right in Legion.
Now, for all I know, when Legion launches it could be met with the same amount of hype and adoration as Draenor originally was… and then it could have just as much a backlash unless the content keeps rolling in where it has failed in both Draenor and Pandaria. There are big hurdles for Blizzard to surmount, the biggest of all is turning WoW into a game players want to subscribe to for months on end again. I can say though, that after spending a few hours with a Hunter spec I never used to enjoy, I’m beginning to see just how much fight World of Warcraft has left. Blizzard isn’t done with its flagship game, and as it moves into the second decade of its life, I have a feeling they’re just getting started with a whole new era for the game. And I really hope I’m right.