World of Warcraft is one of my comfort food games; it's one of the games that I'll revisit and return to again and again, even if I don't play it everyday. Other games may draw my attention like Wildstar, Final Fantasy XIV, or Guild Wars 2, but in the end I always come back to WoW. Blizzard has found that fine line between adding new features and keeping the entire thing feeling like the same game it's been for the past decade.
World of Warcraft's upcoming expansion, Warlords of Draenor, allows Blizzard to revisit the areas and characters it introduced in 2007. Players visited Outland, the twisted hellscape formed when the Dark Portal opened and destroyed the world of Draenor. The planet was the original home of the Warcraft's Orcs and the nominal home of the Alliance's Draenei, but after a cataclysm (not that one!) the world was warped and the demonic Burning Legion set up shop.
Warlords of Draenor gives players a chance to see what Draenor was like before the Orc shaman Ner'Zhul ruined everything for everybody. Following the end of Mists of Pandaria expansion, where the Alliance and Horde came together to take down crazed Horde Warchief Garrosh Hellscream, Garrosh makes a prison break. With the help of an ally, Garrosh goes back in time to early Draenor, meets up with his dad Grommash Hellscream, and warns him about all the bad things that are going to happen to the Orcs. Together, they create a new Iron Horde using technology from Garrosh's time and run rampant over Draenor. It's up to you, whether you are Horde or Alliance, to step up and make sure the Iron Horde doesn't threaten Azeroth.
Blizzard has kicked off the closed beta of Warlords of Draenor, so I've been spending the past week playing the new content on and off. It's still World of Warcraft mind you, Blizzard hasn't completely redone the formula. Most of the work in Warlords of Draenor seems to be about bringing a decade-old game up to snuff with current competitors.
The primary focus of this is the brand-new character models, which are pretty spectacular. It's been an ongoing problem for Blizzard, because the newer races like the Worgen, Goblins, and Pandaren have models that far outclass those found in the original World of Warcraft. In addition, the world itself has benefitted from growing PC power, with more complex armor, architecture, flora, and fauna, while the characters models have been trapped in the past. This became readily apparent when playing in Mists of Pandaria, with our older characters beside the refreshed models of characters like Thrall, Vol'Jin, Varian Wrynn, and Garrosh.
Not all the new models in game right now; human male and undead female aren't done, and the Blood Elves are completely missing in action currently. What is in the game though varies from amazing to slightly better. On some models, like the human female or male Draenei, the new animations are better, but you won't notice the changes as much while you're playing. The animations are improved, but seeing them side-by-side is imperative. In contrast, you can really see the changes in Tauren and Orc male models because they're much larger characters overall. Especially in the facial animations, there are some drastic improvements here.
One thing that most people don't realize is these new models will extend to every NPC in the game. Updating the dwarf model means every dwarf in the game is changed, extending back through even the older expansions. When pictured in that larger scope, what Blizzard is doing here is pretty impressive. When it's done, World of Warcraft will get a fresh coat of paint on some of its older elements, which will help it stand up against graphical powerhouses like Final Fantasy XIV. And if your PC can't handle all of the new models, you can toggle back to the older models in the options.
The rest of the changes are primarily focused on storytelling. Blizzard has been changing how they approach the story in World of Warcraft ever since Wrath of the Lich King. While older WoW gated the best storylines and characters behind raid content, in Wrath, Blizzard decided to give more players the chance to interact with these mythic figures and that trend has continued on since then. Yes, the final fate of many story characters is still trapped in raid content, but Blizzard has made getting into raids much easier than it was in the past.
Warlords of Draenor drops you in the middle of a pitched battle in Tanaan Jungle, which seems to be a shared Alliance/Horde experience. You'll fight against the Iron Horde at the foot of the Dark Portal, with Thrall, Vindicator Maraad, Lady Liandrin, and new characters from both sides. This opening area showcases the threat the Iron Horde presents to both sides, from the Draenei society to the Orc clans that aren't siding with the new force. You'll meet Ner'Zhul, Kargath Bladefist, Blackhand, and Kilrogg Deadeye, as Blizzard tries to lay out why the Iron Horde is bad for everyone.
The most interesting part is the shift towards the player being the centerpiece of everything. You're the one that both sides trust to get things done and ultimately that pays off when you finish Tanaan Jungle and head to your group's starting zone: Shadowmoon Valley for the Alliance and Frostfire Ridge for the Horde. Here, you're thrust into the spotlight as World of Warcraft shows off its newest feature: Garrisons.
Garrisons are your own private city in the World of Warcraft and actually act as your starting point in these new zones. Every Garrison is located in the same place - Lunarfell in Shadowmoon Valley or Frostwall in Frostfire - with players being phased into their own private instance once they cross the garrison boundary. Within the story, the garrison is the Horde or Alliance's outpost in this alternate past and you are the Commander of the garrison due to your actions in Tanaan Jungle. Characters like Maraad and High Overlord Saurfang follow your orders here. It feels rather cool, though it could diminish those characters in the long run.
You'll begin with a Town Hall and a few followers, but you can find further building plans and followers out in the world while you're questing. Bring these back to your garrison and you can build new buildings. Your new followers can be sent out on timed missions to level them up, get bonus XP for you, and unlock new items. Each follower has their own abilities that counter situations in each of the missions, so it's imperative to have a good variety in who follows you. In the end, it's not far from the extra missions in Final Fantasy Tactics or Assassin's Creed: the followers go away for a specific amount of time and return clothed in success or drowning in failure. The garrison is a much better way to fill in your downtime than the tedious Farm from Mists of Pandaria and there's a real sense of accomplishment as your garrison begins to fill out and resemble a real city.
The story in the first zones weaves in and out of your garrison, tying it to the "real world". In fact, most of the missions you're given now feel like a real concrete story. On the Horde side (my Alliance character glitched out, preventing my progress) you'll find yourself beside Thrall as he meets the father he never knew, Durotan. Durotan's Frostwolf clan isn't allied with the Iron Horde and it's up to you to help them regain their lost lands and take a few in turn. Here, Blizzard's phasing tech really aids the overall story with a bit of sleight of hand. You'll enter places like Bladespire Fortress that are held by the enemy and within the span of a few quests, those areas are delivered into Frostwolf control. This is done usually by quests that send you into a specific rooms or caves within your current area; when you return, the phase has changed to reflect the new status quo.
It makes it feel like you're a part of the larger war, pushing the opposing side back and taking areas for your side. Phasing was used like this in Wrath and Mists, but here it's a stronger part of the overall experience. It's a bit of single-player within a larger MMORPG, presenting a version of the world that you feel you had a hand in.
Many of the smaller throwaway quests have been moved into other areas: smaller cities, bonus objectives, bounties, and named monsters. The smaller cities and outposts have their own tiny stories outside of the overall zone story, which you can keep track of using the all-new quest log. Bonus objectives have no story whatsoever: you enter an area and the objectives (kill 10 sad people) are automatically added to your quest log. You can completely ignore them if you so desire, but if you choose to finish them, you're automatically given XP and gold for your trouble.
Bounties and named monsters are two sides of the same coin. Bounties can be found on bounty boards in each city, giving you a task to kill an elite monster. Named monsters intersect with bounties; in fact, if you find a bounty monster out in the world, the quest to kill it is given to you automatically. These named monsters are marked on your mini-map with a skull and they usually offer a blue item from your trouble if you kill them.
It's interesting that there's such a strong delineation between the quests that "matter" and the stuff you're just doing to level. If you're someone who just plays World of Warcraft for the story, Blizzard wants to make it as simple as possible to get to that without all of the extra mess. In fact, it feels like Blizzard is using Warlords of Draenor as an olive branch to players. "However you want to play, we don't really want to force you into other aspects of the game," I feel like the publisher is saying. As a story person who avoids PVP and has left his hardcore raid days behind, I appreciate it.
Warlords of Draenor feels like it'll be an expansion that's a bit stronger than Mists of Pandaria. To me, Mists felt like Blizzard experimenting to find it's path in the future. Warlords feels like the result of those experiments; a stronger experience in storytelling and gameplay features surrounding the standard combat. Abilities have been streamlined, stats have been squished, graphics have been polished. Blizzard wants Warlords to be the expansion that brings players back into the game. For me so far, it's a success and I'm looking more forward to Warlords than I did its predecessor.