It's been well over a year since I quit World of Warcraft cold turkey. After playing the game pretty much nightly for over a decade, apart from a short break during the Cataclysm expansion, the game's appeal had just waned for me.
My unsubscribing was almost entirely due to the Warlords of Draenor expansion, which I found a fairly mixed bag in terms of what it brought to the game. Things didn’t start well for what was WoW's fifth expansion: During the first week following its launch, there were significant problems with server crashes, and hours-long queues to get online. Fortunately, Blizzard was fairly quick to respond with new hardware, and resolved the issues within a few days, but it was a reminder that MMORPGs are complex beasts, and even a company as experienced as Blizzard can't always get things right.
Once the launch hiccups had been brought to heel, players settled down and started to enjoy what Warlords of Draenor had to offer. In terms of content, I think the expansion was mostly solid. Leveling up from 90 to 100 was a quite enjoyable experience thanks to a far more streamlined questing system that helped eliminate a lot of needless schlepping about of yore, and made progress feel smooth and efficient. While there was little in the way of truly new and innovative quests, the journey across Draenor was still varied and interesting.
One of the headline features of the expansion was building a garrison. It certainly started out fun, and while its myriad of daily tasks ended up feeling like busy work over the long-term, it was nevertheless quite rewarding constructing your own personal castle and kitting it out with profession vendors and buildings that gave you additional perks. On the down side, players spending so much of their time in their garrisons made Azeroth's cities feel dead as social centers, but I think overall, the garrison concept was a novel one that worked quite well.
Life at maximum level in Warlords of Draenor was pretty much business as usual. There were dungeons and raids to get your teeth into, and the new looking for group/raid finder system helped players very easily hook up with one another to experience WoD's higher-end challenges. However, while the content was generally good, it felt somewhat eked out over the course of the expansion. Players using the LFR to run new raids quickly got bored of them, and as a consequence the game began to hemorrhage subscribers. By this time last year, WoW had lost 44% of its audience in six months – a quite precipitous decline. Well over five million players were still active in the game – an extraordinary number for most MMOs – but it seemed that World of Warcraft's best days in terms of its user base were well behind it.
I was one of those who unsubscribed during that period. As a hardcore PvPer, I felt that Warlords of Draenor's player versus player content was a bit of a disaster. The big new PvP addition for the expansion was Ashran, a dedicated world PvP zone that promised large-scale battles between the horde and the alliance. Unfortunately, it launched with serious problems, and required months of tuning to get it right. Even when it was "fixed", it still wasn't particularly enjoyable, so all that was left for my PvPing was regular battlegrounds and arenas, which I'd already ground through for years beforehand. Familiarity bred contempt, and following the collapse of my raiding guild, I decided to leave the game until the next expansion.
Fast forward a year or so, and here I am back in the game, having downloaded the Legion pre-patch ready for the expansion's launch at the end of the month. The first thing that I needed to do (apart from update all of my long out-of-date add-ons) was get my head around the character changes that the new expansion has brought about. Pretty much every character has been redesigned, with significant changes made to each toon's three specs to give them more distinct identities.
It's a very bold move by Blizzard, and one that seems to have had a very mixed reaction from the player base, if World of Warcraft's official forums are anything to go by. Some players are screaming blue murder that they've been nerfed to the ground, while others seem to love the new changes. That's nothing new, then, but what's for sure is that the character redesigns are quite broad reaching, and in some cases completely alter how certain characters play.
I'm quite astonished at how much my main discipline priest has been overhauled. I seem to have lost several key spells to other specs, while gaining a few new ones. But what's significantly different is the way that the character now plays – I have a few healing spells, but it seems the main focus with a disc priest is to heal by damaging enemies. I've tried doing so in a few practice raids, and I'm slowly getting used to this new way of playing, but I'm not sure how much fun it is. It just seems a little clunky and lacking in precision.
Hunters have been similarly worked over, with certain signature spells being consigned to specific specs, and new ones added to fill the void. However, like all characters it seems, the trend has been to reduce the number of available spells, making the game simpler to play. Marksman is my usual spec, and it has some interesting choices when it comes down to selecting talents, one of which completely does away with a pet to gain an increase in damage. So far, the spec seems to feel somewhat limited in PvP compared to where it used to be, because it's lost a lot of its old (and fun) tricks to other specs. That's understandable because its focus is on DPS, but it just makes the character feel a little one-dimensional. Traps are now the domain of the new survival spec – which has now become a melee class – while beast mastery spec has been tweaked around more pet-oriented spells. Like marksman, both specs are quite straightforward to play, and feel very focused around their respective core strengths – but also feel a little limited compared to the way they used to be.
The thing to consider, however, is that while characters have been significantly reworked, we're not seeing the whole picture yet. One of the major new features of Legion is artifact weapons. These powerful quest items can be leveled up as you progress from 100 to 110, and will add spells and effects to each of your character's specs that will help enhance the way that they play. Until we experience exactly how much these weapons change up each character's playstyle, we're not really seeing the new character changes in the proper context.
Additionally, there's the PvP side of the game to consider. WoW's developers have put a lot of time into overhauling this aspect of the game for Legion, and while there are disappointingly no new battlegrounds scheduled for this upcoming expansion, major changes have been made to the overall PvP system that sound very positive. Basically, there's a new PvP honor system that enables characters to level up in arena and battlegrounds, and as they do they can access new talents. These are specific to PvP only, but will help add further depth and interest to the way that characters play.
PvP is also being made more accessible. Players engaging in PvP will now have their gear stats nullified, and will instead be given a premade template based on the spec they're playing. The only advantage gear will give in Legion is a very modest average level bonus that increases player stats by a fraction of a percent per level, making for as even a PvP playfield as WoW has ever seen. This means PvP gear is now a thing of the past, and anyone can basically join in and play – even if they have poor gear, they should be able to hold their own against more powerful adversaries, because the stats disparity is now so narrow. I think this new change is a great move, and one that'll help the PvP side of the game be more interesting, and fairer to all.
The combination of the new character redesigns, artifact weapons, and PvP honor talents add up to some of the biggest changes WoW has seen in years in terms of the way it fundamentally alters how the game is played. Whether or not it's enough to bring back subscribers to the levels we've seen in the past remains to be seen, but as a lapsed subscriber myself, my interest in WoW has definitely been piqued by the Legion pre-patch. While I'm not completely in love with the way some of my characters play at the moment, I'm keen to find out how they'll evolve as they level up, and that's more than enough to make me feel optimistic about Legion.
Needless to say, we'll be reviewing World of Warcraft's next expansion when it goes live on August 30th. Hopefully this time around it'll have a smooth launch!