Blizzard’s iconic World of Warcraft has been one of a handful of games that have endured in the massively multiplayer arena. While many highly-touted MMOGs have come and gone, World of Warcraft has lasted despite its tendency to rely on outdated mechanics and antiquated practices. Tens of millions have fell in love with the worlds of Azeroth and Outland, and the newly explorable realm, Draenor, proves equally appealing. Few other games offer that same sense of accomplishment you earn when completing a raid or finally receiving just that right piece of gear, and few have years' worth of quality content ready to absorb and stimulate you. When World of Warcraft gets a new expansion, it's a big deal.
Warlords of Draenor picks up right after the events of Mists of Pandaria, and has the game's latest big-nasty, Garrosh Hellscream, escaping from his confinement with the aid of a very large accomplice. He then travels back in time to Draenor, stops the Orcish clans from becoming corrupted, joins the Burning Legion, unites the clans into the Iron Horde, and realigns the Dark Portal to invade Azeroth. (As you might surmise, the Warlord of the Warsong is a very busy Orc indeed.) You play the role of an Alliance or Horde General, part of the force that drives the Iron Horde back through the gate. Warlords of Draenor opens with the most thrilling preamble since The Burning Crusade and the Legion's invasion of Azeroth, and in doing so, infuses the game with a sense of urgency that makes it feel like truly dire times.
Warlords of Draenor's complementary ties to The Burning Crusade are clear. It is, in many ways, an analog to the first expansion, but instead of Lord Kazzak opening the Dark Portal to Outland to release the Burning Legion into Azeroth, it is instead Garrosh unleashing the Iron Horde from a pristine Draenor. Warlords of Draenor’s deftly utilizes its thematic ties to previous events, offering an alternate universe that treats you to story elements that cleverly refer back to the entire series. Expect some mild confusion: This Draenor is an alternate Draenor and not actual Draenor Prime (which is Outland), and while the events that happened in previous expansions expansions actually did occur, they didn't occur on Draenor--or perhaps more precisely, they haven't yet occurred on Draenor. The in-game Draenor (as opposed to the Outland Draenor) exists 30 or so years before present-day Azeroth, because the Dark Portal can transcend both space and time. (Don't worry if you already feel lost; it's best to take it all in a little bit at a time until it makes sense.) Luckily, you can enjoy Warcraft lore whether you skim it or dive deeply, and if you haven't explored the original game and its first two expansions in great detail, you might wish to spend time with them, if only to enjoy all of Warlords of Draenor's delightful cameos and references.
This expansion doesn’t only turn the lore on its head, though: there is plenty under the hood to be excited about. The ability and stat systems have been overhauled to squish the stats down into more palatable numbers and a set of useful abilities for each class. If you had a million health prior to the expansion, you might discover you only have 400,000 upon entering Warlords of Draenor. However, the stat readjustment applies to enemies as well, so you will still be as powerful as you were previously. It is undoubtedly cool to deal thousands of damage per second, but it takes little time to realize that "hundreds" is the new "thousands," so you needn't worry about losing that sense of power that comes with the hard work of tailoring a character to your liking. Blizzard has also retired the superfluous stats of hit, expertise, dodge rating, and parry rating, thus streamlining the process of building a character even more. Abilities have been refined for each class to draw from a more useful pool, with fewer cooldowns and less crowd control, making gameplay more tactical than strategic in nature, with less emphasis on complex macros in an attempt to get players to spend more time playing and less time preparing. If you're a sporadic player, the new changes are welcome, as they minimize the commitment required to learn and absorb such a daunting amount of information. Fortunately, new characters can instantly level to 90, so anyone new to World of Warcraft can play with friends that have subscribed to the game for years, and veteran players have a fresh template upon which to experiment with new abilities and a new character.
Blizzard also has thankfully improved the visuals. All character models (save Blood Elves, Worgen, and Goblins) have received updates, and Blizzard is in the process of creating new models for enemies as well. Although World of Warcraft is still not a graphical powerhouse, the new models and textures make for a great compromise, enhancing the game’s aging visuals while still supporting an enormous range of systems. The graphical improvement is a bit haphazard in its current form though. The effect of the new models populating a world with many of the old is sometimes jarring, but more and models are scheduled to be improved, so this should not be a permanent gripe. Nonetheless, as graphical fidelity in other games increases at such a tremendous rate, it becomes harder and harder for World of Warcraft to counterbalance its aging looks with its charming aesthetic and enthralling adventuring.
Subtle improvements permeate the new expansion. The auction houses for each server have been consolidated into one entity, which makes searching for appropriate equipment less frustrating than before and widens item availability. The user interface, while staying the same as a whole, received a host of tweaks and upgrades to reduce frustration. It is great, for instance, to be able to finally label bags by item type and have treasures auto-sorted into them. Quest items now go in their own separate menu, so you never have to miss out on that 50th pair of leather pants just because something essential was in the way. Reagents can now be used in the bank, which is a huge plus, since it makes having to carry them around for long periods of time unnecessary. Given the importance of gear and items, it's wonderful to be able to spend less time organizing them and more time earning them.
Warlords of Draenor’s questing is notably more focused than with previous expansions. Although there are the typical collection quests, the quest UI changes get you into the meat of the game quicker than ever. The Dungeon Finder and player-vs.-player windows have been folded into the Group Finder, making it simple to find quests, dungeons, raids, or anything in between, thus eliminating a ton of the most frustrating aspects of WoW in one fell swoop. Blizzard has also expanded its phasing technology, allowing Draenor to appear quite different to each player, depending on their progress and story choices. Depending on your place in the story, you may see characters that have been long dead in other players' stories, though you still inhabit the same zone. The new garrison system uses phasing extensively, as each player-maintained garrison can only be seen by its owner or invited friends.
With all the changes laid out in Draenor, however, adventuring sticks to a familiar path. You log in, perform your dailies, then get to work for the various NPCs strewn throughout the land. Where things tend to diverge from the day-to-day workings of seasoned players are in raids and dungeons, if not drastically so. Raids have undergone a respectable facelift as far as difficulty goes, while still serving up satisfying encounters to seasoned vets. Dungeons automatically adjust individual difficulty levels depending on the number of players involved, and raids themselves range from casual to challenging. There's a system in place to ensure lower-level players can't accidentally sidle up into a higher-level dungeon they simply aren't ready for, and progression is tiered in a way that forces you to approach dungeons in a way that's fair for everyone. Loot drops have also been refined, ensuring hard-working raiders are rewarded with items they actually find useful rather than a bunch of trash or less-than-personal goodies for a one-size-fits-all series of frustrations.
Given the importance of gear and items, it's wonderful to be able to spend less time organizing them and more time earning them.
NPC awareness has never been one of World of Warcraft's strong suits; you might strut around upon a rainbow-colored tiger, brandishing high-level gear, and quest-givers might still talk to you in annoyance, as if you are a mere underlying in annoyance. In Warlords of Draenor, NPCs acknowledge you as a powerful hero, and your position as a General of the Horde or Alliance is rewarded by the aforementioned garrison system, which provides you with a large plot of land and the means to develop it. The initial garrison is fairly humble, but as you place more buildings and level them up, a collection of huts and tents transforms into a large fortress. Each building serves a purpose, with some serving to boost your profession or access the benefits of other profession, while some are just fun places to visit. Each building has its own unique impact on the world as well, activating quests once they have been built or upgraded. You eventually max out at 10 plots of land in your garrison, and with 21 buildings available, you must choose the proper ones to get the best benefits from your garrison. (Luckily, if you erect a building that doesn't suit you, you can demolish and replace it.) After the garrison reaches level two, you face keep invasions, although thankfully, invasions are not time-sensitive. It's easy to become attached to what amounts to your own little town, and you can find yourself spending more time collecting resources and attracting followers for your garrison than you do on the main quest line.
With a garrison come soldiers and staff, and you can also recruit a whole host of followers to command. As you journey across Draenor, you meet NPCs that can be recruited through meeting them, completing quests, earning achievements, or buying them from taverns. They come in three quality levels which determine their effectiveness: uncommon, rare, and epic, with the rarest of them requiring you to meet stringent prerequisites. Once followers make it to the garrison, they can be assigned to missions, or to work in one of the buildings. Each one possesses his or her own profession, items, and level, and you manage them through menus. You send your followers to quest, gather resources, and manufacture goods in their respective buildings, and use the same menu to collect the rewards. It's an adequate system, but with so much care put into the customization and building of your garrison, it's disappointing that you cannot accompany your followers on quests, help them work, or lead them into battle against another player in fortress-versus-fortress gameplay. For now, the garrison endgame lacks luster.
Warlords of Draenor has revitalized World of Warcraft with a huge amount of new content and refinement of the basic gameplay. Unlike the debacle of the New Game Enhancement of Star Wars Galaxies, Blizzard has not taken away anything with the stat changes, but instead finally fixed the “stat inflation” that had built with each expansion. For those new to World of Warcraft or those who have been around since the original release, Draenor feels like the beginning of a new era of the game. There are those who have said that World of Warcraft is on its way out, and that it is tired and old. Warlords of Draenor proves otherwise. Blizzard’s winning formula is not going anywhere.