With Exile’s Reach, World of Warcraft has never been easier to get into

Shadowlands' new starting zone and streamlined leveling are the perfect introduction to the iconic MMO, warts and all

I played vanilla World of Warcraft back in 2005-06, but university intervened before it could really sink its teeth into me. If ever I considered going back, I’d remember how complex and grindy it was, and the thought of catching up on 14 years is so overwhelming that I need to take a nap.

I get that it’s been streamlined in many ways since launch – hence the appeal of WoW: Classic for the hardcore – but with the Shadowlands expansion bringing a level squish and a wholly new starting zone, it’s about to undergo its most extensive such restructure yet. I’ve been playing WoW’s Shadowlands build and while I’ve been enjoying the gorgeous pastel blues of the realm of Bastion, I also wanted to start a character from scratch to see what awaits me should I return, as I doubt my old account is recoverable. RIP, Absolon.

Absolon was a human paladin, and I figure I’d better keep as much in common with my previous experience as possible (though I do switch race to Draenei). The game opens with my new tendril-chinned alter ego on a ship; I’m a raw recruit to the Alliance, on a mission to rescue an expedition that’s gone missing on an uncharted island. I meet Captain Garrick, my mentor for the starting zone, and batter some training dummies before a sudden storm crashlands us on Exile’s Reach, a new level 1-10 starting area for both Alliance and Horde. New WoW players will automatically start here, while existing players starting alts can choose between it and their race’s normal starting zone.

Fair warning: I’m about to discuss Exile’s Reach in some detail, which means spoilers for its main quest. It’s a basic, self-contained story with no real twists that’s over in less than three hours, but still, if you’d like to experience it first-hand, look away now.

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I wake on the shores of Exile’s Reach with a swarm of Murlocs assessing my unconscious body – as I get to my feet, they scurry away with a chorus of that adorable gargling sound they make. Garrick gives me a series of bog standard fetch quests to get our people back on their feet: kill Murlocs for the first aid kits they’ve stolen from us, that sort of thing. It’s intuitive, easy, and thus rather dull to anyone who has some basic RPG literacy, but an important introduction to the basics of questing and navigation for those who do not.

Prefer the vanilla flavour? See our WoW Classic guide first

A ‘sparring’ session with Garrick updates my lapsed knowledge of the Paladin’s core combat loop. This is far less intuitive, and I’m grateful for the refresher on building up Holy Power with abilities like Crusading Strike so as to cash it on abilities like Shield of the Righteous. Prepared to Garrick’s satisfaction, we go to rescue more of our comrades from a tribe of Quillboar. They’ve been puffed up as a challenge, but again, I never get even close to dying.

Having saved a typically excitable gnome engineer – a well-worn but always entertaining Warcraft trope – we head further inland to discover a sinister gathering of undead. Lindie Springstock (that’s the gnome) unshrinks a ‘Scout-o-Matic 5,000’ – a helicopter rotor with a grab arm – so we can spy on them, and I look forward to my first moments of free flight in WoW. In the event it’s a bit of a letdown: a flickering and conspicuously flat 2D sprite of a rope descends from the rotor’s unused grabber to lift me up, and the Scout-o-Matic flies about 30 metres north on a fixed path to trigger a cutscene before returning. Turns out a two-headed ogre mage named Gor’goroth is out to resurrect a dragon, and he’s about to sacrifice Garrick’s son as part of the necessary ritual.

Lindie proposes the bold plan of enlarging one of the local boars and using it to trample and scatter the gathering. It’s silly fun and a welcome break from WoW’s usual rhythms, which are already very familiar, but robotic, synchronised animations and a total lack of appropriate physics, sound effects, or reactions from the zombies again undermines the cool experience that was promised.

Yes, I know, WoW is fundamentally ancient under the bonnet and allowances must be made. I’m just giving my experience as a new player – or more accurately, one returning after 14 years. That experience isn’t helped by a couple of crashes, occasional juddering, and non-dismissable or bugged tutorial tips that refuse to go away. I moved while eating. I wouldn’t have done so if I’d known the punishment would be to have the message ‘don’t move while eating’ plastered onto my screen for the rest of the area, as if in adominition. I’m sorry, Blizzard! I’ll never do it again!

I pick up another clutch of quests, including one that features a conversation with the ghost of a fellow paladin. She gives an inspiring lecture on How to Paladin, extolling the virtues of courage, selflessness, duty, et cetera. It’s lovely, flavourful fodder for role-playing the particular fantasy of my chosen class and scratches the fluffy part of the brain that makes so many of us get into games like this. It’s like an ASMR video for nerds, and it’s nice to see the new tutorial area remember stuff like this as well as WoW’s mechanics.

After rescuing a druid named Meredy from the clutches of a pack of harpies, I have only the captain of the lost expedition to save. Meredy transforms me into an ogre so I can sneak into their fortress – I use the chat system to wave at Gor’goroth himself and challenge other ogres to a dance-off, before going on to kill them all. Our final task in Exile’s Reach is the three-player Darkmaul Citadel dungeon. I’m shown the handy in-game group finder, which includes buttons to specify your role in WoW’s famous tank-damage-support trifecta, as well as to indicate whether you’re able to show others the ropes.

The dungeon, like everything else in Exile’s Reach, is very easy and I never feel forced to seriously engage with the dynamics of WoW’s group challenges, but at least it mentions interrupting and dodging attacks and culminates in the classic fantasy experience of slaying a dragon. As we leave we find a troop of gryphons have arrived from the Alliance capital of Stormwind, and bid farewell to the new starting area with a cinematic flight from its shores. My gryphon drops me off at Stormwind’s gates, and I get a genuinely lovely bubble of nostalgia on my return to a digital environment that I last left 14 years ago. I still recall my first arrival in the Valley of Heroes: my friend Jack danced in the middle of this very bridge before taking all the clothes off his avatar and jumping into the river. Good times.

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As an accessible introduction to the essential elements of World of Warcraft, Exile’s Reach is a success. I do think raising the difficulty would’ve forced me to properly engage with its combat, when instead I was able to just muddle through, but it’ll at least give newcomers a theoretical grasp of those concepts, as well as a solid grounding in how to play WoW’s solo content. When newly minted level 10 players finish Exile’s Reach, they can level to 50 in any of WoW’s previous expansions (defaulting to Battle for Azeroth) before Shadowlands kicks in thereafter. I haven’t the first clue about the game’s current, overwhelming progression to level 120, but in Shadowlands, the path forward for my new Draenei paladin is clear and simple and I would feel confident to take it, were I so inclined.

So after all that, am I, personally, going back to WoW? Nah. Aesthetics are a big part of delivering on the epic promises of this most epic of genres, and WoW is simply too old and janky for my taste. If I were in the market for a life-consuming new MMO, Final Fantasy XIV is higher on my list, but I’m already heavily invested in Destiny 2 – a game which, for all its faults, at least looks and feels amazing to play. (And actually, at this point its faults are part of its charm; like a reality show full of the attractive but emotionally illiterate, it’s gone wrong in so many different ways it’s quite entertaining. You never know what’ll happen next.)

But that’s me. The level squish has been divisive, I know, but I’m sure some current World of Warcraft players will appreciate the simplified path for levelling their alts. And for those who don’t yet have a so-called ‘hobby game’, and can tolerate some palpable creaking of the joints, the most influential MMORPG of all time will soon be the friendliest it’s ever been.