So, here we go again. After 12 years at the top of its genre, World of Warcraft is expanding again. Unbeatable antagonists the Legion are back, again. There are massively overhauled classes, gear, dungeons and other systems, again. It’s still the only game that can suck a week of my life away in a blink of an eye and it’s brilliant. However, its future is still undecided and, once again, depends on what Blizzard do next. They have given themselves every opportunity not to let it get away from them in the same old ways, but it’s going to be a challenge.
The levelling content is superb. After over a decade of iterating on the basic process of going out, getting the goods and coming back for your experience, gold and items, Blizzard’s quest designers are getting mighty good at it. Everything has massive stakes; nothing feels like a chore. I didn’t collect a single boar gizzard, but I did slay dragons, stop demon overlords, find long-lost relics and witness the downfall of heroes and villains alike.
At its very core it even gets away from the natural mob-killing grind that the MMO often comes down to. There is so much variation in what you’re doing, which characters you’re controlling, why you’re there and how you have to react that it is, simply, different. Within that, the stories are no longer ‘Great hero shows up, saves cats from trees and goes away again with a new pair of Superior Boots’. It is still the highest of fantasy nonsense, but it is so committed to it and so willing to write out, kill off and dispense with characters new and old that it can’t help but be entertaining. Things are more epic now.
Mixed up with all that is how you actually progress, with leveling itself bringing no benefits beyond moving you forward to the next challenge while actual improvements and new abilities are tied up in your artifact weapon. A new resource is spent on progressing through its nodes of various passive effects, ranging from major changes to skills or new, powerful triggers for your particular skill rotation. They’re never going to change how you actually play and overall seem under-exploited given their focus in Legion’s storyline and marketing alike, but as part of a game that has perfected the art of giving joy through watching numbers increase, they do it as well as anything else.
At the new level cap of 110, it’s odd how little changes and how well that works. Between the new scaling tech keeping enemies relevant and the way that zones are structured to be more focused on exploration than quest hubs, max level simply means your gear starts to improve at a faster rate and you have more options open to you. So many options, in fact, that it’s close to overwhelming - three different types of dungeons to do, a whole fifth zone to explore and unlock more stuff, the rest of your class-specific campaign to finish. It’s an obvious reaction to the complaints about a lack of things to do in Warlords beyond grinding dungeons and it’s a massive improvement.
The largest part of that, the game’s biggest success story and what its future may hinge on, is world quests. These are, essentially, an infinite well of stuff to do out in the world, in groups or solo, that reward currency, gear or special items. They’ll show up and tell you, for example, the peace-keeping Wardens faction wants you to kill this elite mob for some gloves. It will be powered up with new abilities plus more health and damage to make it a tad more interesting, and once you beat it you’ll automatically get the reward. There’s thirty of these active at any one time, rotating every few hours, so only the most hardcore players will run out.
It just works. It is exactly what the game needed, both in terms of ever-changing content for maxed out players to devour and a way to reuse old areas, quests and designs to lighten the workload for the folks at big blue. It’s also why constant, regular updates will prove the life or death of Legion even more so than making up for the massive content draughts of previous expansions. This system cannot be allowed to languish in pointlessness and mediocrity after everyone’s geared up past its scaling. It must continue to expand, new areas added to it when they’re introduced, with quests set there merging into the arsenal of possibilities. It will also need bespoke additions of its own, to keep things fresh.
Ideally world quests, and the scaling technology that powers all the best bits of the Broken Isles, will eventually expand into the rest of Azeroth and its various alternate dimensions, continents, planets and timelines. At that point it really will reach a point of never-repeating, always accessible stuff to do, and both initial implementation and the control structures around it to focus players a little will require an immense amount of work.
If these new systems continue to be expanded, paired as they are with some of the game’s best-ever dungeon design, a great item curve in the early going and the upcoming unlocking of two new instances, a new difficulty and the raids, Legion will be the best WoW has ever been. The same could be said, and was, of previous expansions before the onset of nothing, but the warning signs aren’t there this time. Patch 7.1 will hit public testing within the next couple of weeks. Raids and Mythic+ begin before the end of the month. Blizzard are speaking and acting when it comes to providing new stuff to do.
Does that make it the perfect expansion? No. Between artifacts, some poorly structured campaign missions, the odd quest hub that still sees you doing a thousand small tasks at once and an infinite minutiae of class balance that I’m not only refusing to get into but don’t fully understand (protection warriors are fine ergo everything is fine, in my opinion) there are flaws. But with the biggest demands ever placed on them and the greatest price for failure, the extra time and testing given to Legion has paid off.
Now Blizzard just have to keep it going, again.