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.
It’s time for a new World of Warcraft expansion, which means it’s also time for a big ol’ review. Legion has launched and we’re primed to bring you everything you could possibly want to know about it. Given the size of the game we’ll be doing so in an in-progress style. For details on how that will work, what we’ll be covering and when you can expect updates – plus the review itself – read on.
Most importantly, we’ll be taking a week to score it so if that’s all you’re interested in check back on Monday, September 5. However, expect updates daily between now and then on server stability, how good the dungeons are, whether levelling is fun, how the storyline plays out, what it’s like at max level – anything you could want to know before returning to the soft embrace of the MMO. These will be presented in headers below, so you can tell at a glance which aspects of the expansion are working, which aren’t, and get the details if you want them.
In addition, we’ll have videos of anything cool we find, from all the dungeon bosses to great quests and class hall campaigns. Our review character is a human warrior, so things will be Alliance-sided. You’ll find all those over on our YouTube channel – do subscribe for that and much more from our growing video team. In fact, here’s one right now…
Legion launch in-game
While we’re showing that off, here’s some thoughts on server stability in the early going.
Legion launch stability is exactly what it needed to be
After Warlords of Draenor – and a few other notable missteps over the years – there was a worry that Blizzard had lost the knack for getting games into the hands of players ready to go. Legion doesn’t make up for the hours spent hovering over an unenterable but inescapable garrison, but it does avoid the same problems. Things were just about silky smooth right from the ten minute early launch to days later. Here’s the one major error I had:
Hardly crippling, and given the massive number of players bombarding servers, I can forgive it. This maintained through US server launch and into the week, so things seem stable. My particular server is not very populated, and there’s reports of more problems from realms with larger numbers of players, but it’s not unplayable by any means.
On the bugs front, I’ve had a very smooth time. Launch night held a couple of quests that were uncompletable for some, and unphased areas can lead to a humongous number of players vying for the same mobs. Hotfixes have been deployed to make this less annoying to deal with, however, and it’s usually a quick, smooth ride. Certainly nothing is on the tier of the errors that prevented anyone from getting more than ten minutes into Draenor back in 2014.
So, first test passed: it actually works. For how it plays, read on.
Legion questing is the best it has ever been, once again
As wonderful as this is, it’s barely surprising. The quest team at Blizzard has been outdoing themselves with the levelling experience of each new WoW expansion with every release since The Burning Crusade. Of all the complaints about Warlords of Draenor, nobody could say it didn’t have the best storytelling, quest structure and overall ‘singleplayer’ content of any expansion so far. Legion, somehow, is a similar case.
Of all things, voice-acting is a key part of it. Not only is there more of it than ever before, the game relying on far less reading while you’re killing mobs, but it’s of a higher standard than we’re used to from WoW. Within the first third of Azsuna, my chosen starting zone, I was completely sold on a new character purely down to the skill of his voice acting, showing what I thought was going to be a throwaway named quest mob to actually be a funny, introductory and tragic look at one of the expansion’s main antagonist factions, the mana-devouring nightfallen.
Quest improvement is true in pure design too. Further into the same zone, I entered a wizard school of elf ghosts – it’s just that sort of place – and came to my first highlight, helping a student master his studies via fighting the monsters he was researching in book form.
It’s not massively different from the way most quests are set up, but the setting, the filters and the plot of the whole thing gives it a new feel. The secret to a game the size of World of Warcraft is finding every possible way to make the old new again. I’m happy to kill three mobs in a row when it comes with a unique flavour for the same reason that bringing back 328 boar intestines doesn’t fill me with determination.
There is also a higher degree of world interaction on display than we’ve seen before. Most everything in an area has some quest assigned or purpose for existing beyond decoration. Sometimes this means being part of the zone objectives, percentage bars that need to be filled up by achieving goals in a small area, killing mobs and saving civilians usually. These are no more compelling than they were in Draenor, but still function as a good backdrop and a solid dump of XP and resources, with the added bonus of more obvious reasons why they’re necessary plot-wise, and being tuned more tightly to finish roughly when your quests do.
But beyond those, something as simple as an idle animation can be vital for a quest just a few moments later. I thought this practice fight playing out between two students was just for my amusement when I walked in, but the hat is required to disguise yourself and progress deeper into that same magic school:
Wider than both those points is the structure of the zone as a whole. It feels like the bigger picture design of how questlines progress has evolved. Previously, WoW was a game of showing up to a small town and spending two hours there solving every little problem the people had. Now, you’ll deal with the most pressing threats and get out of there. Far from making sure the cows are rounded up, you’ll wipe out the demons and be pointed on your way. It keeps the storyline moving forward, allows individual quests more time in the sun and generally builds the idea of an oncoming threat more effectively. It also means there’s more room in the world for off-the-beaten-track quests, secrets, rare spawns and easter eggs, which I’ve done a shocking job of finding but am enjoying immensely.
So far, so good. There’s been more imagination in the first days of Legion than in the previous year and a half of the game combined. This isn’t simply a case of me luckily starting in the best zone either, with others following up in a similar manner and having their own twists. Stormheim has you climbing mountains with a grappling hook to stop barbarian hordes, while I’ve just finished dealing with fel-infused Tauren in Highmountain.
This laser focus on single, excellent quests can be seen most effectively in the start of the storyline. The quest ‘A Falling Star’ is the first part of the plot, and it takes a full hour to complete its various winding paths. It’s not simply linear either, sending you to grab the titular item, then pushing you back to the old world to clear out a Legion invasion. Within it is another whole quest, one that would be the finalé of a zone-long line in WoW’s past. Here, as you can see in the cut-down version below, it’s just another step on the road.
This is also a good example of how the formula is imperfect. While the set up and varied locations of this quest are great, the details let it down. To begin with, anything based around water in WoW is an absolute pain to deal with due to slow swim speeds. The hardest of the hardcore have various mounts and tools for dealing with it faster, which only makes it more annoying for the new or time-poor. In the second half, wandering around the Exodar stopping demon portals is great in theory, but they’re frustrating to grind through and the size of the area and number of portals required, plus some specifics of how often enemies spawn, lacks tuning.
But that isn’t what’s important – it’s the fact that a major storyline quest isn’t simply walking between two cutscenes, or ten minutes of talking. It’s the reuse of old areas players either feel attached to or won’t have seen before if they’re new. It’s actual character development partnered with gameplay that is more than just a distraction. It’s a well told, well-written story with a satisfying ending that exploits all aspects of the game, not just dialogue or quest text, to tell its tale. That’s a great place for WoW to be at.
Where things have fallen down is in the MMO feel of the world. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not expecting an entire zone packed with people, particularly when playing in the early hours, but it is launch time – I’m here for a crowd. There were times I went a dozen minutes without seeing another player. After the great group-effort feel of the demon invasions from the last three weeks, it’s an odd change. Whether it’s a factor of the new phasing tech, a bug with software designed to mitigate the flood of players or simply indicative of a lower player count than previous expansions, it lets up only in unphased areas, where there are then far too many players.
Legion World Quests fix WoW’s oldest problems – for now
MMOs have unique challenges. They’re expected to be games that can occupy players for months or years at a time. In exchange, the content being fought through isn’t always expected to be different. Raid bosses do not change week-on-week, new zones aren’t added every day. Repetition, and to an extent grinding, is expected and just part of the life of the game. Those with more time to dedicate will get more out of it and a balance is struck for those without.
This lead to the development of daily quests, repeatable ones that supplied various resources, eventually building up to a big reward. Over the course of the game they’ve ranged from immediately tedious to eventually tedious, with rewards mandatory for progression or simply cosmetic. World Quests are an attempt to fix the boring parts of that without removing repeatable content that keeps players coming back.
They work by giving you timed objectives in the world, dozens of them at a time. They reset after hours or days, require different numbers of players, and use the quests and monsters that are already there to give you tasks. Compared to a dozen daily quests or the truly old school habit of grinding for materials, they’re obviously a vast improvement. You’ll fly from one end of the world to the other, seeking out the rewardsyou want, prioritising loot in your weaker slots, reputation in factions you prefer or gold if nothing else. They’re tailored to your professions, so there’s more personalisation, and there will basically always be one you want to go and do, some requiring groups for the properly good loot.
It keeps players out in the world without giving specific direction. It stays relevant for longer, and gives rewards immediately, using Diablo’s system of randomly selected priority zones to direct you and offer a bigger reward once a day. As opposed to daily quests, those rewards also aren’t lost if you’re AFK for a little while, saving up to three of them to be done once you return rather than you always being pressured to log in each day or be behind the curve. These longer timeframes are a theme of Legion and do come with their own pitfalls as the hardcore run out of things to do, but those players have been finding ways to keep themselves occupied across massive content draughts and will rarely get bored. For everyone else, they’re a huge boon, not pressuring people to log in even if they don’t want to.
Only available at max level once you’ve gotten at least a taste of each zone, they’re easily one of the highlights of this early stage. The question is how will we feel once they start to repeat, after all the gear rewards are irrelevant, when we’ve killed the same rare mob 10 times, heard the same voiceover about how what we’re doing is important and observed that no matter how many we do, it doesn’t actually have an affect on the world?
That depends on how they’re improved upon. If every major patch brings new ones, upgrades the rewards, keeps them relevant, they could be a feature that runs and runs, becoming as normal in WoW as mounts. That also depends on regular updates, something that Blizzard have committed to but are aware they missed on in the past.Patch 7.1, Return to Karazhan, has already been promised to have more outdoor stuff, but the magnitude of it remains to be seen. With more than thirty world quests available at any one time, a couple of new ones won’t have a noticable affect.
However, with the way Legion is built to allow all content to scale and be played at any level, particularly max, and World Quests often reusing elements, they should be able to incorporate almost anything that is added. Obviously some amount of it has to be new for the purpose to be fulfilled, but it reduces the workload.
Overall, it feels like World Quests will define the game. If they’re successful and Blizzard keeps them interesting, it will be indicative of them doing it expansion-wide and keeping their promises about constant, meaningful updates. If they aren’t, and people are bored of them faster than Blizzard can update, their rewards becoming insignificant, then it will likely mean there are deeper problems with Legion as a whole. That is a story for the next few months.
Legion at level 110 is packed with stuff to do
The endgame of an expansion is where it really lives or dies. Blizzard have, to an extent, ‘solved’ levelling by making it quick, easy and packed with story moments. It is as close to a single-player campaign as WoW gets, with most classes played well being able to solo everything other than the dungeons. At max, where the majority of players spend vast amounts of their time, things are reinvented each time.
Legion has gone wide. Upon hitting level 110 you:
- Unlock a new zone, Suramar, which is huge
- Gain access to World Quests
- Unlock three new dungeons
- Also unlock heroic and mythic versions of all eight available dungeons
- Unlock the rest of your class hall campaign along with various storyline quests
- Profession questing is massively expanded with the help of world quests
- Once you’ve spent a bit of time in Suramar, two further dungeons unlock
- In a few weeks raids and the Mythic+ dungeon difficulty will also be available
If it were possible for there to be too much to do in an MMO, Legion would be bordering on it. It’s almost overwhelming to step into Dalaran for the first time at max level and instantly have a dozen things asking for your attention. Wherever you spend your time will give relevant rewards, but each looks enticing.
The truth is that it means that if you ever get bored in one area of the world, or if some tasks you want to do with friends and others without, there’s always something else to be getting on with. With the scaling of the world, anything you’ve still got left to finish doesn’t feel like you’ve outgrown it, and you will still have zones left to complete which will take a good few hours. Rather than getting straight down to dungeon grinding within the first few days, I’ve still got a full quest log and storylines to finish.
Much like World Quests, it’s a question of the future. There’s definitely much more potential here than in the recent past, many more tools for Blizzard to exploit to keep things interesting. We also already know what the next six months looks like, from patch 7.1’s Karazhan to the second raid, Nighthold, hitting early next year. The groundwork is done for all of that to keep the game interesting for much longer.
Most importantly, there’s evidence that they’ve the skill to pull it off too. Everything that revolves around lategame in Legion is of the highest quality, from varied questing to excellent dungeons to skill-testing dailies rather than click-‘n’-forgets. The tuning is off in places, the Warrior class hall campaign being a great example with over-long fights and easy deaths, but that takes a hotfix to change, not fundamental problems to root out.
By Monday, I’ll know more about how satisfying it remains. For now, I’m getting back to it.
Legion artifacts suffer an identity crisis
The core idea of the artifacts is solid – legendary weapons from throughout the lore, some new, some we’ve been reading about or watching NPCs wield for more than a decade. Putting these into player’s hands, particularly when they face the enemy that’s been building as the big bad since Warcraft III, is a no-brainer in creating interest. However, their implementation doesn’t quite live up.
The quests to acquire them are great for all the reasons we’ve already discussed – they’re in-depth, fully voice acted, don’t outstay their welcome and have the added bonus of returning you to older parts of the game to expand on parts of the lore. Each feels as special as the last, be it something like Ashbringer (a weapon that was datamined in vanilla WoW but never implemented, making it legendary in-game and out) or a newly developed one. My sword and shield are crafted from the scales of Deathwing, a dragon who took the role of apocalypse-bringing threat in a previous expansion, and that makes them cool even if they’re not as deeply tied to the history of the game. Here’s all three of the Warrior artifact quests:
If you want to see more, World of Warcraft YouTuber FinalBossTV (aka Bay) has videos of every single one of the quests on his channel, taken from beta. Having watched them all through the quality maintains, even if they sometimes repeat areas and stories between classes. While not preferable, given the amount of content in Legion there was always going to be some overlap somewhere.
However, once the items are acquired, they stop feeling quite so special. Nevermind that every person running your class/spec combo has one, but their effect on your game just doesn’t hold up to the gravitas with which they’re presented. Each provides one new activated ability, usually on a reasonably long cooldown that outputs serious damage. While that’s nice, character progression of some sort is expected as part of an expansion.
Beyond that they’re improved through finding items in the world. This becomes a new kind of levelling up, giving you artifact power that turns into points, put into skills that improve your other abilities. Like the talent trees of old, the vast majority of these are minor percentage improvements to damage numbers, health pools or spell output. 6% more AoE there, a bit of crit chance here, an extra-powerful shield every so often. It’s expected that you will eventually fill all of these nodes, but it will take a couple of months into the expansion even if it’s a primary focus of your playtime. This removes the problem of boring choices, but doesn’t prevent each spent point not feeling like a real upgrade to your character – the original reason that talent trees were removed.
To help combat this there are powerful nodes at the outer edges, each requiring focusing on a specific path if you want to unlock it first. However, these are all passive and, at least in my case, aren’t going to affect my playstyle. They say do the thing you’re doing most of the time anyway, but now sometimes there will be an extra proc and the enemies will die slightly faster. I’m glad they’re there, but they don’t fill me with inspiration and feel like the ghost of old WoW design refusing to be ousted from its newest elements.
It’s also the only form of actual character progression in the expansion. With the significant redesign of talents that came with patch 7.0 this isn’t as much of a problem as it could be, but a single active ability, three passives and some numbers being buffed isn’t going to make my character significantly different from the end of draenor. Again, the amount of pure stuff to do in Legion means I doubt I’ll be left inactive by this, but as a much-vaunted part of the expansion it’s got little on the quality of the rest. Hopefully when it’s inevitably expanded upon in patches, it’s in more interesting ways.
Class halls and quests are Legion’s best feature
Intricately connected to artifacts, class halls are our new homes. They’re designed to replace Draenor’s much-lamented garrisons, bringing forward the feeling of ownership over a chunk of the world while not being the only part of that world you spend any time in. They’re also less personal, with every other member of your class wandering around the same space. While it continuously breaks the fantasy of you being the one who commands this area, it prevents the feeling of lonliness and makes the world feel more populated.
Every class has their own. The warrior one, Skyhold, is essentially Valhalla, battle-heaven for the tribes of not-Vikings that roam the Broken Isles below. It’s full of Valkyries, thunder gods, golden thrones and large, angry men with axes that say things like ‘die well’ instead of ‘goodbye.’ It’s a fantastic place to hang out, and Blizzard have managed to theme the same management minigames everyone else gets around its more hardcore inhabitants well.
It and other Halls – which range from a demon battlecruiser to a destroyed alien world and back again – are the central element of one of the expansion’s most pushed elements, that of class fantasy. This is, essentially, trying to make players identify with the role they’ve chosen, enhance the individuality of each while making everyone feel, well, really cool. It’s the same force that drove the massive redesign of talent trees and specializations which was, for hardcore players, easily one of the most interesting things about the expansion as a whole.
With class halls, it’s monumentally successful. I literally leap into the sky to return, because the Warrior class fantasy is apparently ‘Viking badass.’ While in Skyhold I recruit squads of heroes brought back to life because they were just that great, and send fleets of battle angels off to do my bidding. When I want to leave I fall to the ground as an unstoppable meteor, able to land in any zone.
Not only is it undeniably rad, it’s something unique to choices I’ve made. Meanwhile, the suspension of disbelief to ignore other Warrior players with the same weapons and access as I is far easier to accept than the ultimately empty world that Draenor lead to. It’s also full of character and spectacle, rather than an army base with a few buildings you quickly move between each day.
Mechanically, it’s an obvious expansion on the garrison. Gone is the mindless list of near-pointless quests, giving rewards you quickly stop caring about. In the same theme, there’s no longer a small nation of characters to command who quickly blend into one, instead each class gets their own set of champions to send out on far more interesting endeavours. They bring back more useful items, are away for longer and having them in the field with you is more interesting, providing unique and powerful abilities. This is compounded by a set of long-term research options that cost heavily to switch between, either benefiting you or your champions and feeling both like actual choices and committments once taken. As with the great cost of switching between artifacts and their individual powers, this is a clear theme of the expansion as a whole.
And no, these aren’t massively more interesting than the garrison was, but it’s a solid build on the better parts of that system. It keeps that Eve-like always-playing feel without becoming a chore, at least so far. It provides a place to log out and come back to, but actively pushes you out into the world. In the early going that’s in the form of ordinary questing and the class hall campaigns that see you building your army for a strike against the Legion.
These loop back into what’s great about all questing in the game. There’s enough room now that whenever you’re pointed somewhere for a class activity it is at least partly dedicated to that cause, rather than being packed with other stories. I headed to the peak of the highest mountain in the Broken Isles to hunt down a massive wurm, alone at the top of the world earning the loyalty of more powerful companions. Like everything else, it’s amped to infinity in its grandiosity and all the better for it. Here’s me doing the first few:
These campaigns are also constantly in motion. If you’re not actively pursuing objectives, your champions are on one-time missions (again, rather than the endlessly repeating strings of garrisons) to bring back intel about where you’ll be headed next. I don’t know how this will finish, but it shows that Blizzard are concious that the formula only works when you’re seeing new stuff from it whenever you return, rather than living there and brainlessly clicking as in Draenor.
The only part that seems off so far is the balance. There is certainly a little too much on the management side and a bit too little on the adventuring one. While it means that when you do head out it feels special, there’s some disconnection between the presented weight of the tasks at hand and your active involvement. Equally, while the lore implications of what’s going on are far more interesting, you’re still moving between a couple of NPCs and making sure percentages are as high as possible. That doesn’t necessarily make it a useless feature, but it caps how invested I can get in it.
The major worry with class halls is that they will repeat the garrison’s fate – what felt like WoW’s greatest ever feature quickly becoming its most maligned once the originality wore off. Best guess at this stage, and that’s really all anyone can offer before 2017, is that they’ve avoided the previous pitfalls. At max level, the endless world quests will keep you moving out into the world while the relative low value of automatic dungeon and raid runs will stop the group finder becoming a go-to for ignoring other players. None of that prevents what is a quite grindy and uninteractive system at its core becoming boring, but it’s exactly the move that needed to be made.
Legion dungeons are promising – so far
Dungeons are my favourite part of World of Warcraft and where I spend the majority of my time, not having the patience or committment to become a proper raider. Part of why Warlords of Draenor never properly soured for me was the strength of its dungeons. They were interesting, the right length, didn’t have too much trash and each boss felt unique, required tactics and always gave me something to do. Legion living up to that will be a major factor in how long it keeps my attention.
At this point it’s looking good. Here’s the first I did, the Eye of Azshara:
Each boss is challenging in a number of ways, and has that balance of hectic reaction and mild panic that makes for excellent stories and keeps me queueing up. At these difficulties they’re not designed to kill you, but it’s clear that once the harder versions unlock at level 110 they’ll require coordination and thought in equal measure.
It also just looks gorgeous, a statement that rings true throughout the expansion. The lower zone count has allowed artists to focus and has produced wonderful results. The quality that is being dragged out of WoW’s ancient engine astounds me every time, but it’s the benefit of a well-chosen art style exploited by a great team. The transition from stormweather to clear skies at the end, lifting the feeling of oppression held by lower visibility, is wonderful.
Enemy design is similarly great, and WoW has finally hit a stride when it comes to scale. Enemies get bigger as they become more threatening, obviously, but the start and end points are something Blizzard have struggled with for years. This, where your first boss is roughly twice as big as your own character and the finalé just about fits on the screen with all the bombastic spell effects going off around it, is perfect. It can’t be overstated how much this helps create something, in tandem with good design, that keeps me interested.
Not shown in the above is the amount of trash mobs – non-boss enemies – there were to move through. WoW group content is at its best facing long boss encounters with multiple phases to counter. Filling the inbetween section with too many basic enemies, whether they’re challenging or not, takes away from that and exists only to fill time. If they’re too easy they’re pointless, while dying repeatedly is as frustrating as any boss wipe without the promise of a worthy sack of loot at the end. Eye of Azshara doesn’t necessarily ruin itself with a higher-than-average count, but if every instance is similarly stacked with packs it becomes a problem. Halls of Valor, the second I attempted, was lighter, with more evenly spread bosses and trash that could be bypassed cleverly.
At most I expect enough trash to teach me a couple of mechanics for future boss fights, build up the world and fill the space created by well designed levels. Eye of Azshara’s open layout affords it the room to have much more, letting enemies be used as background decoration rather than roadblocks. It’s great that instances can be laid out like that now, and that multiple routes through are supported in more than just raids – Eye’s first four bosses can be tackled in any order. It provides diversity in design that the long corridors of old didn’t have, and makes those traditional indoor linear instances more fun through added individuality. Halls of Valor is an example of that for its majority, with an area that opens up more to keep it fresh. It’s excellent.
In fact, I could see Halls of Valor being one of my favourite ever WoW dungeons. It will take a dozen more runs at varying difficulties to confirm, but it’s brilliantly stylised, well paced and each boss is fantastic. The finalé, against Odyn, has absolutely loads of stuff going on at once without becoming confusing and I look forward to seeing all its permutations. Equally, the earlier bosses don’t fall into simplicity, as can often be the case.
It’s too early for me to tell you which way Legion’s dungeons will fall as a package. Instanced group content is an area Blizzard has improved upon expansion after expansion. I hope – and expect – this will be no different, and what I’ve played has reassured. The committment to integration with the world, which has been successful so far, and encouraging custom-made groups over using the automatic tools are solid building blocks on top of the brilliant designs we’ve seen before (not to mention the infinitely scaling Mythic+ mode that makes dungeons more relevant to endgame than ever). But it all hinges on the layouts and encounters continuing to improve.
Legion’s storyline is epic Blizzard nonsense
I don’t think I’ve played a WoW expansion, or even a Blizzard game, with so much focus put on the plot. It’s never been the core of what they do, and while many got attached to their collection of corruption and redemption stories in the 90s and early 00s, it’s hardly something they’re reknown for anymore. Blizzard stories fit a theme and that theme is nonsense. However, they do it better than almost anyone else. Be warned, going forward there will be some spoilers for what you get up to in Legion.
Take for example, the zone of Stormheim, where the werewolf Genn Greymane is going after the undead banshee queen Sylvanas for what happened at The Broken Shore. Look at how ridiculous even that sentence is, then watch it play out:
So just to recap, an aged werewolf got into it with an undead archer over his dead friends, while she was trying to enslave a race of Valkyries so she could live forever. Oh, and what you don’t see there is what my character was up to while it was all going on, proving to the long-dead eldars of that land that he was worthy of receiving one of the world-saving Pillars Of Creation that could stop the invading demon hordes. From outer space. It is momentously ridiculous, bordering on the insane and so densely packed with characters, lore and made up words it might as well be a new fan-series of Star Trek.
I, for one, absolutely love it, and this is the best they’ve ever done.
Leading into Legion there were animated shorts and novels and two-hour audio dramas, all released for free. Blizzard have invested so heavily in their own world that it’s impossible not to get sucked in. There are so many stories that one of them will grab you, an entire world built up around archaeologist murlocs, buddy-cop pairings of Warlocks and Demon Hunters and trips to hell. All of those are quite literal, that last also happening in Stormheim towards the end of its story, where a sorcerer casts you and the ghost-founder of the land’s warrior women into the depths.
From there you have to fight out by striking a deal with Helya, the cruel hydra-like ruler of the land. Everything is like that, life-or-death stakes mixed with high fantasy at every turn. If you aren’t getting yourself out of Helheim you’re saving an entire dragonflight from destruction, killing a vampire or committing espionage against the opposing faction. And that’s just the sidequests.
However, some classic problems still return. Dungeons are now much more integrated with the world than they were in Warlords of Draenor but there’s still a lack of explanation of where some bosses came from. You can read the in-game dungeon guide to get some idea, but would it kill to put more than the final boss in the world before we go up against them, or provide some explanation as to why it’s okay for us to, in the example of Halls of Valor, rampage through heaven? These problems aren’t universal, but it’s rare that everyone in a group will actually know all the bosses, why they’re there and what the story of the dungeon is. Instances like this are always the best content the game has to offer, the ending of individual stories and where you spend the majority of your time once you hit max level, so explaining them should be top priority.
The wider picture, of a world-ending invasion of Azeroth by the Legion, has an odd relationship with the game as well. While the zones are greatly developed with individual plotlines for each sub-area, the need to do that detracts from the larger story. It’s been many hours since I felt as if this destructive force was on the doorstep of the world, with just the barest hints of their influence showing up. While it never devolves into the boar-collection problems of the distant past, things felt focused coming in, especially with the way Demon Invasions were handled.
When the Legion is there, as it was in early Azsuna and in the Falling Star quest, they’re the most interesting and significant villain the game has had in years. Their influence is depressing, our victories always pyrrhic. It’s rare that the good guys come out on top other than when we finish an instance, and even then the wider story is always the Legion is still here and we don’t know if we can stop them. A proper, all-conquering evil, and it’s a shame not to see them directly more often.
How this all wraps up I’m still to find out. I have another three zones to battle through, with their own mini-movies to show off – do I even need to spend words on confirm that yes, the Blizzard cinematic department is still at the very pinnacle of the industry? – and more stories to tell. Hopefully the baseline quality maintains and it all comes back to the big bads in the end.
That’s all we’ve got to say for now – check back every day for more thoughts, analysis, info and videos on Legion. On Monday: final judgement.