Returning to Draenor
It’s been roughly two years since I last played World of Warcraft. A run of disappointing expansions and ageing gameplay mechanics drove me away from Blizzard’s MMO, and into a nomadic search for something new, exciting and satisfyingly deep. But then, like a siren’s call, Warlords of Draenor tugged at me. Although I was deeply skeptical about returning, could WoW’s latest expansion turn me around?
The short answer is yes, absolutely. From what I’ve played so far, Warlords of Draenor is one of my favorite expansions yet, easily joining The Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King. While the long term appeal remains to be seen, and substantial technical issues aside (which I’ll come to in a moment), Blizzard’s latest is off to a great start.
This Is A Low
When I look back on my earlier time in World of Warcraft, experiencing The Burning Crusade was probably the peak for me. Illidan had me eager to venture into outland, and the new zones were a kaleidoscope of wonder. That feeling continued into Wrath of the Lich King, with Arthus providing a strong reason for me to fight my way through Northrend. Both also had some great raiding experiences in the form of Ulduar, Karazan and Ice Crown Citadel. By contrast, Cataclysm left me in an unfocused and unmotivated low point. Mists of Pandaria was the nail in the coffin; the onslaught of daily quests at level 90 pushed me to logging out.
That funk stayed with me until roughly two weeks ago. I tried the tiniest amount of Warlords of Draenor in beta – enough to convince me to give it a try – and stumped up the cash for the expansion. I even got myself organized a few days beforehand, clearing out my inventory and quest log, and trying out some other parts of Patch 6.0. The new Reagent bank vault is hugely welcome, particularly as I’m a keen crafter. However, I’m less sold on the new character models – although great, they look odd when wearing older gear with low-quality textures, and I feel they can seem out-of-place in some parts of Azeroth.
With my level 90 mage taken out of storage, dusted off and prepared, it was time to move into Draenor. And that’s where the fun begins. While I was waiting on the mail service to deliver my copy, I was already hearing reports from friends about just how the expansion was going down.
Trouble in the Message Center
Over the last few years, I’ve been conditioned to expect MMO launches to be a chaos-filled mess, with data centers and developers lurching from one crisis to another, before finally getting things under control a few days later. Warlords of Draenor was no exception; the sheer flood of returning players put unexpected strain on server hardware, with a DDOS attack adding to the network woes. Blizzard’s immediate fix was to lower the population cap on servers, causing some legendary queue times. The studio has now admitted it ‘stumbled out of the gate, and is offering 5 days of gametime to all those affected by way of apology
Once I was finally in, the experience was actually great. The way the expansion was introduced felt incredibly heroic, surging through the Dark Portal to save Azeroth from the Iron Horde invasion. It’s very intense, cutscene – quest – action – in-game cinematic - quest, in a way that kept me moving through that opening chapter. Looking back, I was put off by what looked like a time-travel trope-fest that existed purely to indulge the yearnings of certain creative teams. The truth is that it doesn’t matter; Blizzard still tells a good story, particularly at the micro level. I was too busy having fun to worry about the timey-wimey nonsense.
An example: there’s a familiarity that’s come with this expansion. Characters like Magister Serena or Fiona the Caravan Worgen make a welcome return, but it’s done in such a way that makes me feel they have a story outside of what I find in-game. Yrel sometimes feels like a Deus Ex Draenei, but the banter she has with other NPCs helps to make the immediate story feel more alive, more purposeful. It’s these aspects that help to make the world feel more solid, and I just wish that other MMOs invested as much in this level of micro narrative.
It also feels like Blizzard have ripped up some of the linear rails this time around. I’ve found I often have two or three choices on where to go when questing. But the zones are also crammed with content – I’d discover area quests or bonus objectives from exploring, or kill a rare mob only to get progress on an achievement. It also works when grouped up – there’s virtually no competition for quest objectives or even loot rewards. I’m also loving the way that quest rewards are now tailored to my class and spec, making the ‘use or trash’ decision much easier.
In a way, those linerar rails have been swapped for logical or mechanical ones. Rare mobs now respawn frequently, but they only drop loot the first time you kill them, so they’re not farmed. Quest objective creatures are more of a damage sponge, but also have open tagging, letting more people dive in on the action. Yes, some of these ideas have been seen elsewhere, but it feels like Blizzard has thought long and hard how we actually play and worked out how to remove some of the speedbumps.
To The End
I guess the only part I’m really torn on is the Garrison. On the one hand, it’s great to have a base of operations that you can tailor to your character. Part batcave, part Despicable Underground Lair, it’s nice to have a place to store your minions (sorry, ‘followers’) and send them out on missions. But it also pushes huge numbers of players back to the same spot on a regular basis, and I’m really not sure that’s a good idea (anyone for a game of ‘Instance not found’?). I’m also really missing that capital city feeling.
Yes, the combat feels slow and antiquated, but apart from spec and talent updates, it’s still the same tab-target buttonfest that launched 10 years ago. While I appreciate that Blizzard’s looking to improve the visceral feel of action, I’m not sure how much they could change without it being WoW any more. Likewise, despite the best efforts of some very talented environment artists, both Azeroth and Draenor feel dated in places, even though it also means I can run WoW on both my high-end desktop and MacBook Air.
The truth is though, none of these get in the way of having fun. Overall, I feel like this is a cracking expansion, and I’m enjoying myself immensely. I came into Warlords of Draenor expecting my stoic British cynicism to be all-conquering, but I’m actually surprised to find myself eager to log in, check my garrison, and discover more about Draenor. I’m still uncertain about endgame – I’m three zones in and level 97 - but for now I’m having a blast.