The World of Warcraft community has been stuck between a rock and hard place in recent years. After two disappointing expansions (with Shadowlands in particular in the running for worst WoW expansion of all time), frequent content droughts, and a year's worth of disturbing headlines in regards to developer Blizzard's alleged "frat boy" workplace culture, it's no surprise that many longtime WoW players have moved on to greener MMO pastures. Though positive changes have been made in the past year both in regards to how Blizzard operates as a company and how Blizzard is approaching the future of WoW, for many fans, the changes were too little, too late.
The situation raises some questions: What impact will Dragonflight have, and can the upcoming expansion, currently slated to release before the end of the year, bring players back? That still remains to be seen, but having spent more than six hours playing a version of the upcoming expansion ahead of its public alpha test (which starts today), I can say with confidence WoW finally seems to have found its footing after two years of stumbling around in the Shadowlands.
In many ways, Dragonflight feels like a back-to-basics expansion. That's not a bad thing. Gone are flashy, headline-grabbing new features like Covenants, Soulbinds, Azerite Armor, Artifact Weapons, Class Halls, Garrisons, Warfronts, Island Expeditions, and the like. Instead, Dragonflight's list of core features is actually quite small, with most of them focusing on the fundamentals of the core game experience: class progression in the form of new talent trees, reworked professions, and a much-needed user interface update. Character progression has always been the core of what WoW is about, and Dragonflight offers a refreshingly straightforward take on it--your class is your class, and all of the class's full potential is there for you to play with. While each class does have all-new talent trees inspired by the game's pre-Mists of Pandaria days, there are no other bells and whistles attached. You select your talents. You learn some new abilities. You experiment. You find a build you like. You play. Simple as that.
That sounds incredibly basic, but it's a breath of fresh air. For several expansions now, classes have been bootstrapped to additional progression systems that, at the end of the day, only served to make them less fun to play. To be able to simply change builds and experiment with the two talent trees available for each class specialization (one for the class as a whole and another for that specific specialization), without having to worry about crafting a new Legendary item, or picking the right Covenant, or getting a better Azerite power, is a welcome game-changer.
It means players can focus more on finding the fun of their class and perfecting their preferred playstyle, instead of grinding for resources tied to progression that ultimately just exist to waste time. I didn't get the chance to put every class's new talents through the ringer (there were only a handful of classes sporting their new talents in the build I played), so I can't ultimately say how each class feels with new talents or what class balance will be like. But what is clear from my time with Dragonflight is the new talent trees are a massive step forward, even if they are inspired by systems from the game's earliest days.
The new Dracthyr race (which is exclusively the new spellcasting Evoker class) is the expansion's headlining new addition, and rightfully so. Evoker, which I spent most of my time during the preview playing, is a blast. It also features new mechanics and some visually striking abilities that truly make it stand out.
Unlike every other WoW class, the Evoker is innately tied to the fact that Evokers can only be Dracthyr and vice versa, so much so that many of the Dracthyr's racial abilities feel like an extension of the class. Knocking enemies into the air with a tail whip or pushing them away with a wing buffet pairs perfectly with the Evoker's many instant-cast abilities, allowing you to make distance between you and the enemy while still dishing out damage. The Dracthyr even have their own version of the expansion's dragonriding mechanic as a racial all their own, granting you yet another way to soar into the sky and use your momentum to more easily navigate the often-vertical environments of the game's new Dragon Isles continent. Dracthyr, and by extension, Evokers, are surprisingly mobile, with a number of Evoker abilities and talents allowing them to dash, hover, fly, or reposition in ways no other WoW class (aside from maybe the Demon Hunter) can.
For now, Blizzard has taken the approach of treating the Dracthyr and Evoker as exclusive to one another, despite fans asking for Dracthyr characters to take on other classes. In a recent GameSpot interview, associate game director Morgan Day emphasized that while Blizzard built the Dracthyr's racials with Evoker mostly in mind, they still needed to potentially work with other classes, and teased that one day the Dracthyr could grow beyond their current magic-based roots.
"Future Us might decide, 'What if the Dracthyr could be other classes as well?'" Day said. "Right now, it doesn't make a lot of sense for them to have the opportunity to roll another class because they are kind of just waking up and discovering who they are and what their innate abilities are. As they interact with the world and learn more about Azeroth and the different races and cultures of Azeroth, maybe they'll pick up on some of those other skills. But that's a Future Us thing."
When it comes to customizing the look of their Dracthyr, players may find their options somewhat wanting. Like Worgen before them, playing a Dracthyr means having an alternate form (in this case an elf-like "visage") you can use when not in combat. Considering the WoW universe is filled with examples of dragons taking on the forms of Humans, Gnomes, and Tauren, it's a little disappointing Dracthyr players are limited to what are essentially Blood Elves with more scales and horns for their mortal alter-egos. Associate art director Tina Wang told GameSpot there are no current plans to add more race options for the Dracthyr's visage forms.
Shortly after they were revealed, some fans complained the Dracthyr dragon forms looked too scrawny, and that's still the case here. There is one body type that is noticeably more bulky than the others, but the remaining three body options are nearly indistinguishable from each other, as are most of the faces. Aside from those two features, the rest of the Dracthyr customization options get the job done, with a large number of horns, snouts, and accessories to choose from.
Those options include customizable armor, though they come at a cost. With the exception of (from what I can tell) shoulder pieces and belts, equippable armor does not appear on Dracthyr characters when in dragon form. Instead, players can choose to wear a few pieces of cosmetic armor that are selected from the character creation screen or the in-game barber shop. From what Wang said during our recent interview, the lack of visible non-cosmetic gear for Dracthyr has to do with the fact that the Dracthyr themselves are unlike any other race in WoW, with massive wings, long tails, large clawed feet, horns, and more. Considering how much of WoW revolves around collecting cool armor for transmogrification purposes, the fact that Dracthyr characters can't see the gear they have equipped when in combat or running around in their much cooler-looking dragon forms is a huge bummer. Wang did, however, tease that players will perhaps be able to unlock new Dracthyr customization options through completing certain questlines in the future.
The Evoker sports two specializations, each with two core flavors. Devastation is the class's damage specialization and channels the magic of the Red and Blue dragonflights to deal fire and ice damage. Preservation is the Evoker's healing specialization, and uses the nature-focused power of the Green dragonflight and the time-manipulating sorceries of the Bronze dragonflight to protect allies. Due to there being no dungeons available in the hands-on preview, I mostly played as the damage-dealing Devastation spec while questing around the new Azure Span zone. I initially found my fire magic-based talent build to be a little underwhelming, but swapping to a more ice-focused build an hour or two into my play session produced much stronger results. Both are fun and flashy, and regardless of which build you pick, you'll be using some, though not all, of the same abilities.
Core to the Evoker are what Blizzard is calling "empowered" abilities, which is a fancy way of saying you hold the ability key down to charge it up, and then release the key to cast the spell. The idea for empowered abilities had been floating around the development team for years, Day said, and it simply fell into place when Blizzard began to put together the core of what the Evoker class was all about. Both Devastation and Preservation have a few different empowered abilities. Some deal more damage the longer they are held, while others will effect more enemies. Some heal more allies or have a stronger effect depending on how long the ability is charged. It's not exactly an earth-shattering new gameplay addition that hasn't been done before in other RPGs, but empowered abilities are still a fun mechanic that breathe some much-needed new life into WoW's gameplay.
The same can be said for the expansion's new dragonriding mechanic, albeit with more mixed results. Since WoW's inception, riding a ground mount has simply meant having a passive speed boost that lets you run from point A to point B faster than if you were on foot. Flying mounts, while a major addition back in The Burning Crusade, were essentially the same thing, albeit much faster and without the need to follow roads. Dragonriding changes that, and requires you to actually engage with the mechanics and the environment if you want to travel quickly. In Dragonflight, players will earn special customizable dragon mounts that can be ridden using this new mechanic while in the various zones of the Dragon Isles. These mounts have Vigor, which is essentially a stamina bar. Using special abilities, like an upward dash, uses a certain amount of Vigor, while traveling at high speeds (or running around on the ground) will recharge the Vigor bar.
It's a great idea in concept, and makes for much more engaging gameplay than simply getting on your standard flying mount, enabling auto-run, and leaving your keyboard for five minutes. To reach max speeds, you need to dive downwards or catch gusts of air that will grant a speed boost. Trying to fly up a tall hill or mountainside isn't really possible, as you'll lose momentum and speed before too long. It's not flying in the traditional WoW sense, but more like falling--with style.
That's not to say dragonriding can't be fast. It's possible to reach speeds that, according to Blizzard, are "easily" twice as fast as the fastest traditional flying mounts if you use dragonriding well--albeit at the cost of having to listen to a weirdly grating sound effect while traveling at high Vigor-restoring speeds, one that I can only hope is changed or altered prior to launch. After several expansions of flight only becoming available after players complete specific achievements many months after an expansion's release, it's nice to have a way to get around more quickly from the get-go. There are even mini game-like races, complete with Bronze, Silver, and Gold ratings, for you to test out your dragonriding skills. Wang said the game's capital city of Valdrakken is situated at the highest point of the Dragon Isles, which will let players leap from the walls and dragonride to whatever area of the continent they want to explore. Players are meant to use the environment to their advantage when it comes to dragonriding, Day said, and internal playtests have shown it's possible to almost never touch the ground if done correctly.
"With traditional flying, we felt it wasn't nearly as engaging, or even engaging at all; it's just another form of 'I'm going to hit my auto-run,'" Day said. "The gameplay that is involved with dragonriding itself, we think, is really awesome. The joy of movement as questing through the zones is part of the gameplay. It's not what you might be used to, just auto-running around World of Warcraft."
Overall, dragonriding is a welcome addition that makes the moment-to-moment action of Dragonflight that much more interesting. Unfortunately, I felt like I was frequently going up a slight incline or trying to reach some higher vantage point that didn't allow me to get the necessary speed to use it effectively. Dragonriding will improve over time as you unlock more Vigor and abilities for your dragon, but at the start, it feels like an occasionally fun, occasionally frustrating mechanic that could use a little more fine-tuning as players get accustomed to the intricacies of the system.
As much as WoW is about combat and character progression, it's also about the titular world of World of Warcraft, Azeroth. On that front, what little I've seen of the Dragon Isles already delivers. I got to explore one new zone in the hands-on preview, the Azure Span. It immediately conjures up memories of the game's Northrend continent, specifically zones like Grizzly Hills and Borean Tundra, which, according to Wang, was definitely intentional. Even just based on this one zone, it's clear Blizzard is looking to welcome players back home to Azeroth after two years of adventuring in the oftentimes gray and brown environments featured so heavily in the Shadowlands. The Azure Span is home to icy cliffs, vast tundra, crystal caves, lush forests, and more. Add in the return of classic non-player character races like Gnolls, Furbolgs, and the Tuskarr (along with the return of Hemet Nesingwary), and the Azure Span is bound to be a fan-favorite.
Are a new class (bolstered by a new race), a design philosophy focused on improving evergreen features of the game, and a return to Azeroth enough to, ahem, "wow" jaded players into giving Blizzard's nearly two-decade-old MMORPG, and in many ways Blizzard itself, one more shot? That all will depend on whether Blizzard can stick the landing.
Many players have balked at the idea of Dragonflight releasing this year, an unexpected development given the expansion's late reveal and even later public alpha test. Some fans have even begged Blizzard to delay Dragonflight into 2023, knowing all too well that WoW can not afford another miss. Day said the team is taking a new approach to alpha testing for Dragonflight, with smaller, more focused tests that will roll out more quickly compared to previous expansions' alpha tests. From the small chunk I've played, it's hard to say whether Dragonflight feels like it will be ready to release in less than six months. The polish is definitely there, although I did find an occasional bug that prevented me from casting abilities or completing a quest. But that's to be expected; the alpha has just started, and there are months-worth of alpha and beta testing yet to be done. What I can say after my playtime is this: Dragonflight has me excited to play WoW again, and that's a feeling I haven't had in a long, long time.