I've been playing World of Warcraft on-and-off for ten years. I kicked off our Comfort Games Games series of articles. What did I write about? World of Warcraft. As I said in that piece, I've been playing the game since its first beta and its troubled launch; I've continued with every other beta and troubled launch since then. I haven't always been faithful - I've logged some time into a few other MMOs like Guild Wars 2 and Final Fantasy XIV - but at this point I treat my WoW sub like I treat a utility bill; it's something I pay every month.
Since the original launch, I've gone through many phases. I started as a completely casual solo player in Vanilla WoW, before getting into guilds and raiding in Burning Crusade. That's also where I picked up my first main character, a Blood Elf Protection Paladin. Ever since then, I've been a tank (and once they added dual specialization, a healer). That character took me to Cataclysm and level 80 before things like this job meant I couldn't reliably play the way I used to. I actually missed most of Mists of Pandaria, including its raiding scene. I bought the game, I just lacked the time to dive in.
Late summer, during the game release lull, I decided to start anew. No one I knew was on my Horde-flavored server anymore, so I thought a change was in order. This time I rolled an Alliance character, a Human Protection Paladin. I remembered the early bits of World of Warcraft's Alliance side from my time in Vanilla. This was a chance to see not only how the other half lived, but also how the game had changed in ten years. Over the years, Blizzard's quest design and storytelling have improved, something you'd probably miss if you didn't start over again. If the Comfort Food Games article was about my previous journey, this is all about my new one.
The Whole of Azeroth Will Break
Even from the beginning, Cataclysm allowed Blizzard to bring forward the overarching plot of its expansion. Elwynn Forest remained largely unchanged except for certain sections with burning forests and encroaching Blackrock Orc incursions. The latter comprises a small part of the area's overall story, most of it is about those surviving Deathwing's razing. That includes the Stormwind Guard, the citizens, and even the broken Defias Brotherhood. Westfall saw more drastic changes with the expanded Sentinel Hill, the Raging Chasm breaking up the landscape, and the improved Deadmines.
It's here that another big improvement over "ye olden days" appears. Dungeon Finder is an absolute godsend. I remember the days when you had to yell in LFG chat to find a group, hope that group had the right make-up, and then cross your fingers that everyone was skilled enough to finish the dungeon. It's a problem that repeated itself from 10-60. Now? Once I received the story quests to head into Deadmines, I popped into Dungeon Finder and had a group in under 10 minutes. It was beautiful.
I continued on into Redridge Mountains and Duskwood, again struck by the fact that many of my quests now had a point. They tied me to specific major characters in Warcraft lore, the overall Alliance/Horde conflict, or even to the city of Stormwind itself. Before Cataclysm, each zone felt like its own tiny world, separate from everything else. Part of that feeling is still manifested post-Cataclysm, but Blizzard did a better job of pulling each of these early zones together under one banner.
Stranglethorn Vale, one of the most annoying and contested areas of pre-Cataclysm WoW, breaks with that story to play up the growing Troll presence (a set up for later events). Cataclysm actually shattered the zone into two areas: Northern Stranglethorn, with a larger Alliance footprint and a huge spiraling crater called The Sundering, and the Cape of Stranglethorn, which feels largely like the original zone. From there I headed to Western Plaguelands, which trades in the completely Blighted look for one that continues to illustrate the conflict between the living and the dead. The zone also reflects changes from the Wrath of the Lich King Death Knight starting quests, where Hearthglen was reclaimed by Tirion Fordring. The Alliance side features the faction-friendly Death Knight Thassarian as a major quest giver in Andorhal, following his appearance in the Death Knight opener.
Western Plaguelands is much the same, but it marks the start of a few major storyline quests. Blizzard seemingly realized that it didn't have to completely change the geography in each zone, it just had to make those zones more important in the overall story. Plaguelands plays host to the Battle of Darrowshire, while Badlands is the first time you really get to meet Cataclysm's final raid boss, Deathwing.
Unfortunately, Blizzard loses the plot again in the next four zones, Searing Gorge, Burning Steppes, and Swamp of Sorrow. The Blasted Lands features a few changes, like the story of the Gilnean city of Surwich, but it still felt like a slog, one that wouldn't end until I reached Wrath of the Lich King.
You Are Not Prepared
If any expansion fares poorly due to the old world changes in Cataclysm, it's Burning Crusade. The entirety of Outlands felt like a museum of old quest design and storytelling. Each zone retains vanilla WoW's feeling of being completely different and the more important lore and villains of the expansion are completely non-existent for a solo player.
The zones still hold a bit of awe in them, from the rolling hills of Nagrand, to the dark bog of Zangermarsh, and the jutting spires of Blade's Edge Mountains. I even hold a place in my heart from the city of Shattrath, despite the fact that it's a lonely ghost town now.
If it wasn't for the Dungeon Finder, Burning Crusade would've been a complete wash for me. Certain 5-man dungeons, like Hellfire Ramparts, Shattered Halls, and Escape from Durnholde Keep were still as fun as I remember them, but the expansion still felt like pulling teeth. If you want to know how much Blizzard has improved over the years, the transition for Cataclysm to Burning Crusade is the teachable moment.
You Shall Be King
Wrath of the Lich King is the upswing, the point when Blizzard started to rethink how it laid quests out. It's where the studio realized a large portion of the playerbase never rose higher than world quests and 5-mans. It's in Wrath that Blizzard begins to do its best to put characters like Arthas front-and-center for certain quests.
Wrath is also the expansion where phasing makes its welcome appearance for the first time. The effect for phasing is rather important: it allows the player to feel like they're changing the world, while still keeping it the same for those who come after. From a narrative standpoint, it's become one of the biggest features in Blizzard's toolbox.
Wrath is when I returned to a better mix of PVE questing and 5-man dungeons, instead of sticking mainly to the latter. Area storylines were generally better than Burning Crusade, with few throwaway quests. The 5-mans are some of my favorite ever, mostly because they have solid stories and can be completed pretty quickly. The boss-only Trial of the Champion is one of my all-time favorites, but there's still the Culling of Stratholme, Utgarde Pinnacle, Halls of Reflection, The Violet Hold, and Hall of Lightning. That's a host of amazing instances. Whereas Burning Crusade felt like walking on broken glass, Wrath was skipping down the yellow brick road for me.
All Will Burn Beneath the Shadow of My Wings
That transitions back into later Cataclysm, which seems to be where Blizzard just decided to have fun and cut loose a bit. All the high-level Cataclysm zones are distinct breaks from what's come before.
Vashj'ir is almost completely underwater, with Blizzard offering new underwater mounts to traverse the zone. Demigod Nespirah sits as a living fixture in the center of Vashj'ir, providing a sense of scale usually missing from World of Warcraft. Deepholm is quite possibly the best-looking world zone that Blizzard has ever created, with design and art direction that puts some other titles to shame. Uldum is a zone-long Indiana Jones joke with a heavy Egyptian feel to it.
Later Cataclysm almost makes me wish they hadn't touched the old world, because these zones are a cut above. I want more of that.
What is Worth Fighting For?
Which brings me to Mists of Pandaria, an expansion I found to be an odd disappointment compared to late Cataclysm. The zone design and art direction of the average Mists area outstrips previous expansions, but outside of the Dread Wastes, none of the zones ever hit the innovative heights of Cataclysm.
Mists has areas that are a joy to look at - certain parts of the Jade Forest and Vale of Eternal Blossoms are complete stand-outs - but playing them doesn't feel any different. There's no emotional stakes for much of Mists either. Early quest progression is concerned with establishing the Pandaren race and their culture, and it's not until later that the true threat of the expansion begins to make itself manifest. You're questing to get to the good parts, while on tour of some excellent vistas. Every part of the expansion should be "the good part", but it sadly wasn't in Mists.
Which brings me to today, when the portal to Draenor opens and my level 90 Paladin kitted fully in Mists quest gear steps into a new expansion. A new world, new character models, stronger lore, a new quest system, and Garrisons await me. It's been an interesting 10 year ride, and seeing that entire ride again over the past few months has been illuminating. Many harp on Blizzard for not changing World of Warcraft, but it's surprising how much actually has changed in the game. Warlords of Draenor is not the same game I loaded up on November of 2004.
I look forward to seeing where the next 10 years takes the game.