We’ve got an odd relationship with World of Warcraft. We’ve played it since launch but taken many year-long breaks in between sessions, each time levelling up someone new when there was a new race or class. We loved the game during The Burning Crusade but since then nothing had really grabbed our attention. Cataclysm’s refreshed starting zones were a lot of fun and Pandaria looked amazing, even if the lack of real change felt like a letdown. After two years on the Pandaria content we felt thoroughly burnt out by what had become a stagnant game. Once Warlords dropped we logged back on with our Undead Mage, decked out in LFR gear from Siege of Orgrimmar, and lept through that portal to Draenor. Again.
It’s undoubtedly true that Blizzard have got better at single-player content. The opening missions in Warlords are engaging, have real characters and drama, a variety of objectives, and sensible explanations for why so many other players are doing the right thing. The momentum keeps up until you get your garrison, a kind of hub that you build yourself and then the expansion settles into more familiar territory.
Questing after that point is quite spread out with different zones to choose from and while they’re all realised in a polished and visually appealing way, none of them are particularly memorable. Nagrand will bring back some nostalgia for older players and the main story has some entertaining sections but too much of the quest text is dull and uninspired until you’re soon skipping through sections just to get to the objectives.
The garrison itself is possibly the most compelling part of the new expansion, but it’s hard to tell if it’s in a positive way or not. From the garrison you can build structures linked to various professions and aspects of the game like mounts or pets. You can hire followers and send them out on Facebook-game style missions where you have to wait for so many hours to get them back and see the result, with the chance of loot, gold and experience coming back to you. There’s even invasions which are incredibly rare and see you buddying up with other players to defend your garrison from an army of a mob you’ve been particularly victimising lately.
There’s a lot to do in the garrisons to be sure, and a decent amount of customisation. But after a week or so it really begins to feel like you’re just signing in to perpetuate the grind without any gameplay whatsoever. Every day we’d go do all our mining and gathering herbs (which you can do without having the profession, netting you a large amount of materials and destroying any reason to have a gathering profession as the Auction House is flooded with cheap mats). We’d send our followers off on missions and get our rewards, sometimes we’d fulfil a daily work order. None of this was gameplay, it was just clicking through menus to make numbers go up so we could get to see new boxes to make new numbers go up. This kind of grind has always been part of the core of MMOs but it’s rarely felt so close to the surface.
Other innovations in the game are much welcomed. We really enjoyed the new system for rare mobs and treasure catches. They often litter your map (especially with the incredibly useful HandyNotes add on) and give you a reason to explore with some great fights and loot available in little out-of-the-way places. The respawn timers on rares is incredibly short so you’ll never have to wait for ages to kill one, eliminating some of the dead-time that used to be so prevalent when doing this kind of thing in early expansions.
The dungeons are sadly just more of the same and incredibly easy. We’re not great players by any means but we flew through the heroic versions of every 5 man on our first try with each. Gone are the days where you needed to crowd control certain mobs or learn strategies. There’s a handy dungeon notebook to tell you what to do in your role and as long as you pay a little attention you can rattle through each one with a group of non-communicating strangers fairly easily. Looking for Raid is the same, even easier than before with the first wing of the raid being available at the time of writing and easily completable in fifteen minutes without any skill or nuance involved.
Challenge modes make a return and these are much more challenging, especially if you’re going for gold, but the fact remains that this is the same content you’ve already run through five or six times before to get geared up and then you’re doing it again with some very artificial constraints. That is what World of Warcraft has become – you play through the semi-engaging story until you get to the end game, and then you do the same thing over and over with very slight changes each time.
One positive step forwards is the raid system. Using a new looking for group tool you can advertise for people you want to join in with a raid. It’s not Looking for Raid, it’s more involved and actually encourages communication in the way that the LFG channel used to many moons ago. We managed to take out the first four bosses of the raid using this tool with complete strangers, but we didn’t feel like strangers when we downed the more difficult bosses. The raids are quite a nice mix or challenging mechanics but without horrendous DPS checks so it rewards co-operation rather than the grind. Of course the toxic atmosphere that pervades MMOs is still present with arguing, being hateful towards new players and constant blaming and kicking going on, but if you find a nice bunch there’s a good time to be had.
The sad thing is that these raids, arguably the best and most interesting actual gameplay in the game, often require a time commitment of three or four hours at a time. This restricts the ‘fun’ part of the game to a hardcore group that have that kind of time available. PvP is woefully underdeveloped at the time of writing with the new PvP zone, Ashran, not really working as intended so right now it seems to be raids or nothing.
Warlords of Draenor was enough to get us playing WoW for another month, but now we’ve unsubbed yet again. There’s no big change up, there’s no new races, new classes, new interesting stories. Instead there’s more grind, less of a focus on professions or gameplay, less innovation. It’s fairly polished and there are good ideas, but if you’ve left World of Warcraft before, this won’t be able to hold your attention for long. Worth the money for the time you’ll play it but we still want so much more from World of Warcraft if it’s going to impress us again.