Blizzard has made no attempt to hide the fact that after ten years, World of Warcraft isn’t exactly the king of MMOs that it used to be. The game has seen declining subscriber totals each year and, despite the boost that accompanies each new expansion pack, the developer doesn’t expect the game’s subscription totals to do much more growing. Although Blizzard cancelled Project Titan, the powerhouse developer isn’t ready to throw in the towel on the MMO genre just yet. Warlords of Draenor releases next month and we’ve already begun exploring the new content thanks to a limited beta.
The fifth WoW expansion pack starts off by sending level 90 characters through the Dark Portal to jump into an alternate timeline where the future of the Warcraft universe is about to be rewritten. The game still looks a bit dated compared to something entirely new-gen like Shadow of Mordor, but the facelift given to all of the original character models goes a long way towards bringing WoW into the modern era. You can explore the new character models for yourself on Battle.net, but we assure you that seeing all of the unique Orcs and Trolls running around Orgrimmar before we even reached the new areas is a major improvement.
Warlords succeeds in capturing an epic feel in the starting zone. From the moment players arrive at the Dark Portal, they are battling armies of mobs alongside some incredibly important characters in Azeroth history. The events taking place in the Draenor starting zone feel a bit chaotic, but lore lovers will get a kick out of fighting alongside Thrall and other historical figures from the Warcraft universe.
Although the starting event is undeniably big, players aren’t given much of a reason to care about what is happening. Players well read in Azeroth history should be able to follow along just fine, but without a crash course in Warcraft 101, new players will be thoroughly confused about the ‘who’ and the ‘what’ of the game’s major conflict.
Although the starting zone was pitched as a tutorial for players using the 90-level character boost, there is little to no training offered for inexperienced players. Unlike the Death Knight starting zone in Wrath of the Lich King, players in Warlords are dropped right into the action with close to a full spellbook to explore. The mobs seem to be low power enough to offer a learning curve for new players, but they are still basically on their own for learning the fundamentals of combat, questing, and exploration.
Once we fought through the starting zone, Horde and Alliance players were shuffled off in two separate directions. The new content follows the trend of the previous few WoW expansions and really puts players on rails a bit. We definitely had the freedom to explore and tackle side quests in whatever order we pleased, but if the goal is to level up, you are pretty locked into following the narrative and exploring Draenor in the order that Blizzard intended.
Outside of the chaotic battlefield of the Dark Portal, the zones became much more interesting. Players have the opportunity to explore an alien world before the Horde has a chance to destroy it. The departure from the typical fantasy landscape that WoW players are used to offers a welcome change of pace. The quests boil down to more of the same: Escort missions, kill ten of this creature, collect fifteen of some other thing; but we weren’t expecting anything too game-changing on that front.
With no new races and no new class, the major new feature of Warlords, aside form the ten new levels to grind through, is the introduction of Garrisons. Unfortunately, the new house-making feature isn’t as robust as we hoped. At launch, Garrisons don’t quite live up to the player housing experiences offered in games like Final Fantasy XIV, WildStar, or even some in-browser Facebook games.
Part of the appeal of owning an outpost is carving out a place in Azeroth that is uniquely yours. At this point, Garrisons don’t vary much from player to player. The interactive aspect of Garrisons allow players to spend time toying with an architect’s table and a mission book. The architect’s table allows players to continue customizing their households, as they unlock blueprints for upgrades and expansions, and we hope to see this feature expanded shortly after launch.
The mission book allows the head of the house to send followers out on adventures in the hopes of gaining resources and influence. The mission book shows promise, but in its current state it doesn’t live up to similar mini-games like Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag’s fleet missions. If players are offered the chance to control the mission from an app, as they could in Black Flag, it might become more appealing. At this point, the Garrison experience doesn’t live up to WoW’s previous mini-games, like the ridiculously addictive battle pets.
Although the new zones and the updated character models are both stunning and the story is full of Azeroth superstars, Warlords doesn’t seem like it will offer enough introductory material for new players. If Blizzard is only worried about retaining current subscribers and maybe bringing back some old ones at this point, then maybe that won’t be a problem. Either way, we look forward to seeing the final version of the expansion when it launches next month.
World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor, the fifth expansion for the game, releases on November 13, 2014 for PC and Mac.
Follow Denny on Twitter @The_DFC.