Every time Blizzard releases a new expansion for World of Warcraft, the same old questions and theories make their rounds on the internet like clockwork. The most common, and dare I say the most ignorant of these is: “will X expansion save WoW?” I’ve always hated this question, not because I’m a fanboy (I am) or because I love the game (I do), but because it assumes that an MMO’s quality directly correlates with its subscriber numbers. It’s a question that ignores context, and fails to recognize that a wide variety of factors decide whether the player-base shrinks or swells. People might leave WoW because of the quality, or just because they don’t have the cash for the subscription fee. They might leave because they landed a new job and have no time for such a life-consuming hobby, or simply because it’s a twelve-year-old game and they need a change of pace. They might leave during a particularly brutal end-of-expansion content drought, as many did during Warlords of Draenor’s 16-month-long final tier.
For an equally extensive variety of reasons though, people return to World of Warcraft. Maybe they miss old friends, or want to make new ones. Perhaps they lost that nagging significant other who never made an effort to understand, and found someone who shared their love of games. Nostalgia likely plays the largest role in people’s return to WoW: old players may not remember the endless grind of vanilla, or the hassle of buying ammunition for their hunter, but they remember the important things. The nerd screams after a hard-earned Ragnaros kill live long in the memory, as does the feeling of wonder when first exploring the titan city of Ulduar. Others might remember the first time they felt like a god in PvP, or the day long battles for Alterac Valley. Many players are even joining the Horde or Alliance for the first time, possibly after having seen the recently released Warcraft movie. In my case, I saw in the beta footage a glimmer of the old Blizzard, a company still uncorrupted by corporate sterility, and a collection of developers who made games they wanted to play.
I propose a better question then, one that’s unconcerned with whether or not WoW is still the most popular game on the block. Is World of Warcraft: Legion a great game?
The answer, in my mind, is a resounding “yes.” Gone are the days of sitting in your garrison alone and playing a watered-down Facebook game. No longer will you reach max level, and ask incredulously, “is that it?” Now, you don’t even need psychedelic drugs to understand the story. World of Warcraft is back, but perhaps more importantly, Warcraft is back. It’s as if Blizzard realized they had a perfectly good story going, and that they didn’t need wacky 80’s time travel to advance the tales of their classic cast of characters.
Before I continue, I feel I should clarify: Legion isn’t a great expansion simply because Warlords of Draenor was bad. It stands on its own merits, and makes substantial improvements to almost every aspect of the WoW experience. In the past few years, I’ve often felt, rightly or wrongly, that Blizzard had become lazy with WoW. Complacently resting on their laurels, they continued to bat away suggestions for new features with “it’s too time-consuming” or “we’ll get to it later.” Though it was probably unintentional, Blizzard began to appear dishonest to the community. They promised features that never made it off the planning table, and took shortcuts when creating content for consumers paying a $15 monthly subscription. One of Legion’s most apparent successes so far is the improved attitudes of the game’s developers and community managers. For example, in a recent Twitch Q&A session (the mere existence of which is a minor miracle), Assistant Game Director Ion Hazzikostas was asked why the warrior order hall quest line was so much longer than that of the other classes. Hazzikostas, rather than scrambling to construct a believable excuse (in true Warlords of Draenor fashion) outright admitted that it was a screw-up, and explained in detail why it happened and what would be done to make it right.
This proactive and transparent attitude, I believe, is the key to Legion’s greatness. The developers are paying attention to the players, but equally, they are no longer allowing the whims of a few vocal forum denizens to decide the direction of the game. World of Warcraft players are now once again witness to the incredible talent and creativity present at Blizzard, unfettered by half-baked strategies meant to retain subscribers rather than actively improve the game. WoW’s development team clearly put their heart and soul into this incredible return to form for the franchise.
Let’s start with the leveling process, the first thing you’ll experience when you return to the game (assuming you have a level 100 character or a boost). If this is your first time playing, you’ll be leveling from 1 to 100, but that’s an extremely easy task and should take no more than a week. It becomes readily apparent as you complete the initial scenarios that Chris Metzen has abandoned his fear of killing off major characters in horrible ways. Without giving too much away, within the first hour of your Legion experience, three important figures in the Warcraft universe are now dead and cold, with zero chance of a resurrection. Some have glorious heroic deaths while others… let’s just say it was brutal to watch. This sets the tone for several of the new zones, the questing of which has earned Legion the facetious moniker “WoW of Thrones.”
Your next objective is to acquire your artifact weapon, a powerful piece of gear unique to your specialization that you’ll use for the rest of the expansion. Each artifact has its own talent tree of sorts, consisting of traits which can be upgraded by artifact power, or AP. Additionally, you’ll receive a new ability from your weapon that adds a new facet to your playstyle. As you continue to gain AP from questing, dungeons, and player-versus-player, you’ll continue to gain traits which affect your gameplay. Some traits have fairly boring effects, such as flat damage increases to your various abilities, but others (specifically golden traits) are more significant. For example, shadow priests have a golden trait that summons tentacles to cast mind flay on the target, while a fury warrior trait called “Odyn’s Champion” allows your offensive abilities to reduce your cooldowns. To upgrade your weapon or acquire new weapons, you must return to your order hall, a class specific hub from which you’ll begin the quest line of each zone.
Mechanically, the questing feels smoother and more engaging than in past expansions. Although I personally read every quest, most people don’t, and thanks to the improved quantity and quality of voice acting, that’s alright. You can speed through every zone and still get at least a general idea of the story, given that you watch the high quality cinematics. You can also take a slower path, completing all the side quests and bonus objectives while hunting every treasure. The zones can be played through in any order, and will scale themselves according to your level. Only Suramar is gated behind your level, as it’s meant for players who’ve reached 110. Each zone has a self-contained story, so you don’t need to worry about spoilers. After you’ve completed a zone, you can return to your order hall to choose your next one.
Quests that involve vehicles are fewer than before, though there are several that force you to play as another character with different abilities, solve a puzzle, or perform some sort of non-combat action. As much as I applaud Blizzard for trying to be creative and going beyond standard “kill and collect” quests, I couldn’t help but be annoyed by some of these innovations. No matter how cool it might seem to rain fire from the sky on a dragon’s back, or trace magical runes with your steps, these kinds of quests remove you from the character you’ve spent so much time and effort improving. The vehicle UI is just as clunky as ever, and quests that involve it only serve to highlight the engine’s age and unsuitability for anything but MMO combat. I wish Blizzard would just stick to their strengths and let the player explore the class and specialization they chose, rather than slow the experience down with gimmicks that could have been better expressed in a cutscene.
Fortunately, this is a fairly minor gripe, and I know plenty of players who love those kinds of quests. Overall, I enjoyed the Legion leveling experience quite a bit despite its considerable length. I can foresee leveling alts being painful, though I’m not sure how Blizzard can fix this short of adding new heirloom gear that increases your experience gain all the way up to level 110. On the other hand, unique order hall questlines for each class might make leveling more engaging for severe “altoholics.”
Questing doesn’t stop at max level, and rather than dailies, players now chase world quests, which appear across the Broken Isles at random and have a wide variety of objectives. This world quest system is Blizzard’s fantastic strategy to remove players from their garrisons and return them to the world. Though Suramar is a max-level zone, it isn’t a traditional daily quest hub in any sense. Like the other Legion zones, it has its own questline and story for players to advance through, along with various world quests. Suramar is also home to a reputation-locked attunement questline for its two dungeons, something which will either terrify or overjoy players who remember the vanilla game.
Most world quests can be soloed, though some require several players to complete efficiently. More difficult quests give the player more time to complete them, while simple quests often disappear in less than a day. Every day, the player receives a new emissary quest, which requires the completion of four world quests in a given zone. The relevant faction quartermaster will provide the rewards for an emissary quest, which can be order resources to upgrade your class hall, gold, artifact power, or even a legendary.
Yes, you read that right: legendaries are now extremely rare drops rather than seemingly endless grinds. The longer you go without a legendary, the higher the drop rate becomes. No longer will you slave away for Archmage Khadgar as he tasks you with the acquisition of 200 squirrel toenails or whatever else his nebulous magic requires. Frankly, I couldn’t be happier with the new legendary system, despite my terrible luck when it comes to drops. The legendary rings in Warlords of Draenor were problematic in just about every way. Since every class could get one, everyone had to participate in a terribly tedious questline just to compete in raids. If you came into the expansion a bit late and wanted to still be useful in PvE, you couldn’t, since the endgame was balanced around an item that took months to acquire.
Besides, the legendary questline made zero sense. The stated purpose of upgrading your ring was to infuse you with the immense power required to defeat powerful raid bosses. You were then required to kill said raid bosses for the resources needed to upgrade your ring. This circular storytelling was emblematic of Blizzard’s lack of effort during Warlords of Draenor: they couldn’t even be bothered to think up a valid narrative cover for the acquisition of a single ring. Even worse, they couldn’t be bothered to make a legendary more interesting than a ring, which doesn’t even have a visible model.
In Legion, though, we have access to an impressive number of legendary items with unique models and effects. When you start out, you can only equip one legendary at a time assuming you’re lucky enough to have one drop. As the expansion continues and you progress your character and order hall, you’ll be able to equip several legendaries simultaneously. Now, a larger part of gearing your character optimally will be deciding which combination of legendaries is best suited for your role. While it could be argued that this system represents a “Diablo-ification” of WoW, it adds spice to a formula of set bonuses and stats that’s changed little over the game’s twelve-year lifespan. What’s more, legendaries can be acquired through any type of content, and though their drop-rate is tiny at low difficulties, there’s always that chance you’ll be screaming your lungs out after a normal 5-man boss kill. This incentivizes helping friends through easier content that you’d normally ignore: not only can legendaries drop, but regular dungeon gear has a small chance to be upgraded to a much higher iLevel.
There’s certainly nothing boring about regular old 5-man dungeons either. In fact, Blizzard has gone above and beyond with small-group instanced content, and Legion’s dungeons are some of the most epic in the game. Given WoW’s age, I usually don’t expect much visually, but my jaw dropped during several dungeons, most notably Halls of Valor and Maw of Souls. It’s a testament both to how gracefully Blizzard’s cartoony art style has aged, and to how the WoW’s graphics have been upgraded to appeal to the high standards of 2016’s gamers. The Emerald Nightmare, Legion’s first raid, is equally if not more impressive than the 5-man content. You start in the hollow heart of a corrupted world tree, then take portals to nightmare versions of various iconic zones to battle the raid’s bosses. One giant spider boss makes her nest below a floating, corrupted version of Thunder Bluff. Ursoc, a giant bear boss, lives in a twisted Grizzly hills. The penultimate boss, whose name I won’t spoil because he’s highly significant lore-wise, resides in what can only be described as Moonglade on acid. The final encounter of Emerald Nightmare takes players to a cloudy grey expanse reminiscent of the heroic Sha of Fear fight from Mists of Pandaria, and forces half your raid team into a dreaming state at various times.
It’s an epic way to cap off a fantastic first month of the Legion experience, but what’s most impressive to me is how much is yet to come. A remake of Karazhan as a 5-man uber-dungeon is coming soon, along with a mini-raid that wraps up the story of Stormheim. Then, the Nighthold raid is expected to be released early next year. In just the first six months of Legion, there’s already more content planned than Warlords of Draenor provided in its last two years. This isn’t even including PvP content, which is quite robust this time around with the addition of an honor talents system and the separation of PvP balancing from PvE. I just hope Blizzard keeps their promises this time, and continues to add to the game rather than resting on their laurels.
Blizzard has made mistakes, too, and part of Legion’s success in the future will lie in their humble recognition of failure. I was surprised last month when they announced a hotfix for the day Mythic raids came out. This hotfix contained drastic class changes that I feel should have been addressed during the eight-month-long beta period, and it went against Blizzard’s stated philosophy of making minimal nerfs to prevent people from regretting their artifact weapon choice. Fortunately, they discussed some of the more controversial changes in the hotfix and revoked them. Still, this problem could have been avoided through active use of the public test realm and more transparent communication. I can only hope that the balance team recognizes that internal testing alone won’t be sufficient going forward.
All in all though, World of Warcraft: Legion is an exceedingly well-made game. It’s a fitting send-off for Chris Metzen, Blizzard’s Senior VP and longtime writer, character designer, and voice actor. If you’re an old player feeling the itch to return, this is a better time than any to do so. If you’ve never played WoW, stop reading reviews and go experience it for yourself! The game is at this point a cultural monument to a whole decade of nerd culture, and right now, it’s also incredibly fun to play. So grab your chicken, stare those whelps straight in the eye, and bellow your name as you run headlong back into Azeroth, just as Leeroy Jenkins did so many years ago.
Image Credits: Dylan McAdam (Dargrul; Helheim)