It was going to take a lot to get me back into World of Warcraft. Almost half a decade had passed since the last time I set foot in Blizzard’s shifting virtual realm. Back then, having played intermittently over the course of a few years, that lingering sense of fatigue finally bubbled to the surface.
Despite the recent launch of Cataclysm, World of Warcraft’s third expansion, my desire to log in every morning waned to that point that I flat-out cancelled my subscription. It was an easy choice at the time though one I would inevitably come to question, whenever bored of playing consoles or craving some MMO action.
At no point during my voyage through Azeroth did I ever reach the higher echelon of Warcraft die-hards. I didn’t share that same level of passion or worship required to join a guild of strangers, complete dailies, and join raiding parties. Still, I was a regular player, with hundreds of hours spread between numerous characters, each exploring their own corner of the Warcraft universe.
More importantly, during my years spent as a thrall to Blizzard, I had garnered a sacred fountain of memories that remain fresh in my mind even to this day. From creating that first custom character to my self-imposed quest from Ironforge to Teldrassil, there were some genuinely seminal moments.
Going into Warlords of Draenor, I knew I would never be able to recreate these personal set pieces. Thankfully, Blizzard was on the same page and, instead of pandering to my nostalgic tendencies, the developer kept me focused on the path that lay ahead, not the one which I had reluctantly left behind.
This latest expansion wastes no time when it comes to setting the scene. Deep within the arid wastes known as The Blasted Lands, a dark portal has arisen, spewing forth a relentless tide of Orcs calling themselves The Iron Horde. Seeing the imminent threat, thousands of heroes flood from kingdoms far and wide to hold back the invasion. In a last ditch attempt to save their homeworld, an elite brigade of Azeroth’s finest -including yourself- breach the portal, looking to end the threat once and for all. Beyond its foreboding depths you find a war torn Draenor and, on top of that, an alternate timeline.
For me, the Dark Portal (or Great Portal, as it is also known) signified more than just an assembly of polygons and textures: it was my gateway back into World of Warcraft.
The one thing that had always held me back from renewing my subscription was knowing that straight out of the gate I’d be playing catch up. Even with my best character – a level sixty two shaman – I was looking at a solid thirty to forty hours of continuous play just to get a taste of the game’s freshest content.
Warlords swept away that barrier within minutes of me cracking open the box. By the time I’d finished messing about with its flashy, velcro-sealed cover, I used the expansion’s free code to net myself an instant level 90 dwarf paladin.
Jumping straight in at the deep end after a four-year hiatus sounds like a lot to take on. It is, in truth, yet the way Blizzard slowly integrates its new wave of fast-trackers makes the opening hours of Warlords extremely approachable. As soon as my paladin appeared on-screen, I was expecting a mosaic of icons to suddenly to blow up in my face, each one denoting an extremely complex power bound to one of innumerable hotkeys. Thankfully that wasn’t the case. Instead, the game drip-feeds your character new abilities upon completing earmarked quests, expanding their combat dynamism while trying not to overwhelm the player.
The first area in Warlords of Draenor is the portal’s landing, complete with sprawling battles and burning structures everywhere you look. It’s a grand spectacle even by MMO standards with plenty of set-pieces putting your own custom character in the spotlight. Instead of playing the nameless grunt, your on-screen avatar actually carries a fair amount of weight and is often referred to as commander.
Leading on from Warlords’ prologue, you’ll begin to journey around Draenor, liberating its indigenous peoples while constantly driving back the Iron Horde. Although this central conflict is the overriding focus of the expansion, there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface. However, many of these narrative threads lay scattered under walls of text only those familiar with the lore will dare to seek out. Needless to say, for long-time fans of the MMO, there’s plenty of fan service, stretching beyond just a handful of well-placed cameos.
One new feature every player can enjoy is the introduction of Garrisons. Unlocked just a couple of hours into the expansion, this complex will serve as your foothold in Draenor; a customisable hub that will continue to grow as you explore the planet and gather resources. Though Garrisons can act as a sort of status symbol, they have plenty of useful applications too.
Structures can be built in order to help with crafting, for example, granting access to reagents and recipes you’d normally have to train for. Garrisons will also house any agents you happen to recruit while out in the field. Visiting their barracks will allow you to dispatch them across Draenor where they will earn experience and gold, as well as rare items to help you in your adventure.
Of course, you needn’t bother with a Garrison at all. Although it serves as a worthwhile addition to the existing toolset, some players will no doubt neglect their strongholds in order to blitz Draenor zone-by-zone, ploughing straight through its myriad quest chains. Either way, the expansion is just as accommodating.
Several hours in and already I was starting to feel at home again. Having re-established the basics, my attention soon turned to levelling up my paladin as well as seeking out better gear. This search ultimately led me from the beaten path as I sought to rekindle my love for Wacraft’s dungeons. These five-man gauntlets used to be a daily staple of mine so I was keen to see how they held up several years after my departure from Azeroth.
Adopting my new role as tank, I initially had some reservations. Although much of the expansion’s solo content had been a cakewalk, it had been ages since I’d played Warcraft as part of a team, let alone as tank – a position that requires constant awareness and efficient crowd control. Here, the expansion doesn’t offer the same level of hand-holding but, in truth, it wasn’t needed. After a brief panic and bit of field testing, I had adapted my solo playstyle enough to become the cornerstone of my team, successfully blitzing the Bloodmaul Slag Mines with zero casualties.
Warlords of Draenor’s dungeons themselves are cleverly designed, though there’s little room to break new ground. Aside from a few set-piece moments and the usual bells and whistles, you’re still walking from point A to B, pulling mobs of enemies and devising strategies to take down bosses. With that said, they continue to have enormous appeal, thanks to the prospect of rare loot as well as their reliance on teamwork and cooperation. It’s a shame that the same level of multiplayer interaction isn’t more present throughout the expansion. When not dungeon-crawling I often found myself wandering Draenor alone, occasionally spotting another adventurer here and there but that was about it.
With my month’s subscription having just expired, once again I find myself at a familiar crossroads. There’s a part of me that wants to carry on the journey and become even more immersed in World of Warcraft. The nagging realist, however, is advising me against investing any more time, despite Blizzard providing a fantastic “welcome back” experience. Given more free time and a dramatically sparser backlog of games on every system I own, I’d no doubt take the occasional plunge back into Azeroth. The simple truth, however, is that World of Warcraft (and just about every other subscription-based MMO) is hugely incompatible with the way in which I play games.