When an expansion like Warlords of Draenor comes along and adds 10 levels of content and a new end-game experience to an MMO that already has a decade of dungeons, quests, and raids to explore; there is obviously going to be a lot to absorb. Subscriptions to WoW skyrocketed this summer and fall, as PC gamers were won over by expansion hype and nostalgia for the game's tenth anniversary. Despite all the hype, we were unimpressed by the expansion's beta. A month later, the final product has arrived and the new content has caught us completely off-guard with its story-centric, engaging leveling experience.
We'll come right out and admit that this review is all about the level 90-100 leveling content, rather than the end-game. We haven't had the time to dig into the top-level content yet and some of the new raids haven't even been unlocked at this point. What we are able to judge is the MMO's 10 new levels of content. With Warlords of Draenor, the team at Blizzard sends adventurers back through the Dark Portal (which was the gateway to the game's most critically well-received expansion, The Burning Crusade) to a much darker world than Azeroth citizens explored in the last expansion, Mists of Pandaria.
To help win over new fans (and win back players who missed the last few expansions), Blizzard is offering a free 90-level upgrade for every consumer who purchases Warlords. Although the level boost was a little overwhelming in the beta, the experience was incredibly well-polished in the final product. After creating a new character, players are boosted to level 90 and dropped right into the middle of the action at the Dark Portal with only about three abilities. Rather than give new players a spellbook full of skills and talents to explore, boosted characters slowly earn their repertoire as quest rewards during the Draenor starting zone. This makes the difficult task of taking the reins of a level 90 character much simpler. Less experienced players will still stumble through their first few dungeons, but overall, the learning curve makes taking on any new class and role much easier.
Once your character, new or old, arrives in Draenor (probably with a fancy new character model if you're playing one of the classic races), the action really begins. Warlords offers one of the most exciting story lines that we've ever played through in WoW. Whether players are Warcraft lore geeks or not, it's impossible not to get excited about battling alongside Thrall and Durotan during their early days. It's very easy to get tunnel vision while leveling in any MMO, but Warlords makes it impossible not to care about the events taking place around your character.
Not only do players have plenty of well-placed cinematics and meaningful quest dialogue giving reason to care about the orcs feuding on Draenor, Blizzard makes players feel like their character is at the center of the action. Early on in WoW, there was a sense of excitement in just being one unimportant character battling through Azeroth. 90 to 100 levels later, many players have poured an insane about of time into their characters and into Azeroth. Blizzard helps reward these veterans for that time by making their characters legendary enough to play a key role in the battle against the Iron Horde. After planting our flag in Draenor by building a Garrison (which we'll return to shortly), we were able to fortify it well enough that Thrall, Durotan, and other important orc leaders felt safe using it as a base of operations. Not since the Wrath of the Lich King's instanced areas has Blizzard so successfully found a way to make player characters seem crucial to the bigger picture events.
One of the few downsides about the story in Warlords is that it's so orc-centric. The trailers made this pretty obvious, but it does get a bit boring seeing so few main characters that belong to the game's other twelve playable races. The story felt exciting to me as a longtime Horde player and orc fan, but some Alliance loyalists may have preferred a more varied cast of characters.
Once you get over the exciting story, the leveling grind in Warlords is very similar to leveling in every other WoW expansion. Players complete quests and dungeons in exchange for experience points and better gear until they reach max level. The new areas are gorgeous, but at the end of the day, you are still playing World of Warcraft. Fans shouldn't come into this expansion expecting any major changes to gameplay mechanics or aesthetics. MMO veterans can expect the usual assortment of fetch, kill, and collect quests along with the memorized attack rotations for each class.
With no new races or classes to get players excited, the Garrisons are the main new feature. Garrisons aren't the player housing mini-game that was originally expected, but they do offer an entertaining distraction to the rest of the game. Much like Battle Pets, the game-within-the-game offers players a way to receive cool rewards outside of the usual quest grind. Each player builds a Garrison shortly after arriving in Draenor and gathers followers (usually as quest rewards), who they can then send out on missions. The NPC followers are able to win supplies, bonus XP, or even gear for players.
The Garrison mini-quests operate a lot like the fleet missions in Assassin's Creed: Black Flag. As a matter of fact, if the Garrison could be controlled from a mobile device, similar the the Assassin's Creed mini-games, it would be much more addicting. Leveling up followers and building new structures in the Garrison is entertaining (even more so than the Pokemon-inspired Battle Pets), but having to check in at the Garrison to collect rewards or start new missions is a bit inconvenient.
If you've played World of Warcraft at any point in the past and it didn't suck you in, we don't necessarily think that Warlords of Draenor is going to be the expansion to win you over. The game is much more accessible at this point thanks to simplifications to group finding, item analysis, and skill specializations; but it is still the same MMO grind that it was ten years ago. If you're an old fan considering revisiting Azeroth (particularly one who enjoys lore), we definitely recommend walking through the Dark Portal once more.
World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor is now available for PC and Mac.
Follow Denny on Twitter @The_DFC.