Published: 31 August 2016
World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor is the at-time-of-writing latest expansion to the venerable World of Warcraft MMO developed by Blizzard and published by Activision. I find some amusement in writing my usual lead for this game, as if anyone doesn't know by now what World of Warcraft is. Even if one hasn't played the game itself, it has been hard to miss the name amongst gaming discussions of the many years gone by. Indeed, released back in the yesteryear of 2004, this game has inherited quite a reputation, and while it would be an extremely lengthy review to go over the many strengths and foibles of the game over the years, I felt it would be remiss of me not to have a point of comparison for the inevitable Legion review, when that expansion hits soon. So grab a lantern, a canary, and some spelunking equipment, cause here we go.
"We Will Never Be Slaves ... But We Will Be Conquerers"
Warlords of Draenor opens with the infamous long-time Warcraft baddie, the orc warlock Gul'dan, offering warchief Garrosh Hellscream a vessel of fel liquid, and with it, the promise of the demonic power that it manifests. Long-time warcraft lore-hounds like myself will recognize this as a re-enactment of the events that led up to the opening of the Dark Portal in the game that spawned the decades-old franchise, the original Warcraft. But this telling is divergent, for a defiant Garrosh rejects the offering, and slays the demon that Gul'dan had with him - the one that no doubt, Gul'dan would have sold out his brothers and sisters in the Orc Horde to. Garrosh defiantly claims: "We will never be slaves ... but we will be conquerors!" - and the cinematic cuts to that storied monument of the Dark Portal.
Warlords of Draenor uses the idea of an alternate-reality version of Draenor invading the Azeroth players know and love of today as a framing device to re-examine those original, foundational events in the story-line, and to give another look at many titular characters through the series' storied past. As such a framing device, it's so much lore candy to the fans such as myself, and no doubt many others. The story it tells, through both the ongoing plot arcs and the impressive, stylized cinematics is punchy and impactful, and seems to have learned from the lack of coherence that Mists of Pandaria possessed when it came to integrating with the rest of the lore. Warlords of Draenor feels like it fits into the lore like a pair of well-worn shoes, and it shows.
Discussion of particular plot points that would be a bit spoiler-y aside, there are two major problems at play with Warlords of Draenor's over-arching narrative. Firstly, the story that's told isn't really your story - there is a dissonant thing here where the story is making you out as the instrumental commander of the Alliance or Horde's respective beach-heads into this alternate Draenor, but the actual major plot points here, are taken by what are ostensibly second characters - Thrall, Khadgar, and so forth. Much like Diablo 3, you're more of a hired goon than anything. Unlike Diablo 3 though, which at least makes you feel like you're helping some higher power towards a noble end, Warlords of Draenor essentially has you do the leg-work ... only for those secondary characters to essentially steal the show and the credit in the cutscene. One didn't do the mythic endgame raid and deal with all its bullshit just to be upstaged, one imagines. This will bother some much more than it will others, but it nonetheless makes the story more detached from the player that is its protagonist, for it.
Quick aside note: I save the boxouts in PNG8 to keep file size down, which made that particular one a little grainy, its not like that ingame.
That aside, the improvements are much-needed really, the game was definitely showing it's age, and the textures that have gotten the once-over look much better for it as a result. There's a tendancy towards looking a bit too 'clean' in some cases that makes them still look simplistic, but one imagines this is to keep the somewhat cartoony style that has kept the game looking at least somewhat decent for as long as it has, over a decade now. Environments in particular look great now when you knock things up to the higher settings, too.
Actually, that's something worth noting as well - the high res textures, increased ground cover, better lighting and shadows, all that went into this graphical overhaul of the game, are all optional, and if you're playing on an older machine or perhaps a potato, you can still manage with the lower settings. None of this is forced on people and you can fiddle with the options to find the look and quality that you prefer. As someone that really doesn't like the modern trend towards these over-dramatic shaders that vomit bloom everywhere, I for one appreciated the ability to have the higher-res textures without also having some of the modern effects.
When it comes to big other ways this has improved the game beyond graphical fidelity per se, the main way has been animations, especially the facial expressions for character models and NPCs alike. While they tend a little bit into that comical side of things for my personal tastes, they're much improved over the old animations and are quite a bit more expressive compared to the old ones. In general the graphical look of feel has been improved significantly in that regard, though it's still the purview of addons to improve the faceplates and UI in general, sadly. We'll speak about addons a little later, though. And I'm not going to bang on it for a whole paragraph, but the number of disconnects was sadly also part and parcel with the old experience and something I wish they'd improved upon.
The cinematics are quite impressive
On the topic of things that have really come into their own, Warlords of Draenor's cinematics are quite impressive. Not since Wrath of the Lich King has World of Warcraft really managed to find a narrative stride with the cinematics, but they certainly nailed it in Warlords of Draenor, in my opinion. They're quick, punchy, and full of action, all while driving the plot forward. It works quite well to highlight particularly climatic events in the game and does a good job of fleshing the game out.
I remember reading recently that the Blizzard cinematics department has like 2,000 people assigned to it or some ridiculous number like that, and I can believe it. The quality of the renders on display throughout the Warlords of Draenor cinematics is nothing short of astounding, and they're replete with shots that could honestly be called works of art. The render quality, animations, and clarity of the animation are really quite stunning.
Where they fall apart is a general dissonance with the story itself. The game world spends all this time building you up as the commander of the Alliance or Horde force fighting back against the Iron Horde attacking from this alternate Draenor, and especially in the garrison mechanic, makes you out as that central character. Yet in the cinematics, you're nowhere to be found, usually. While I can understand them not having the time to put in doing that kind of high-quality shots for every possible player character, but you're rarely even given lip service, and it becomes quite contrasting and jarring with the juxtaposition.
Reductionism in mechanics allows for accessibility,
but sacrifices in depth in a way that isn't quite worth it
Right, so there's only so long I can go on about how very pretty Warlords of Draenor made everything before we had to address the great big elephant in the room that was the reductionist mechanical changes it's made with a focus on Player-versus-Player content and making the game more accessible to new players. The sacrifices in depth this makes aren't really acceptable to me, because the intimidating thing for a new player isn't really the RPG style classes and their related systems, but the fact that getting anywhere near a mid-level character is the thing you're going to need a few weeks off work for and probably absolute abandonment of whatever social life you happen to possess outside of gaming. The amount of content you have to push yourself through to level is nothing short of monumental and certainly hasn't benefited from the last couple of expansions stapling a few more levels onto the level cap every time, either. There's a reason there's a booming grey market economy selling services to level characters for you.
The problem with game depth that gets provided by World of Warcraft isn't even in any specific class, either, it's with the high number of classes, and having to learn how they interact with one another. Going through all of them in any kind of proper depth is the kind of thing you'd need a planned expedition, several weeks of supplies, a canary, and spelunking equipment to even begin to justice, but I mean, I can illustrate this just by listing them: Death Knight, Druid, Hunter, Mage, Monk, Paladin, Priest, Rogue, Shaman, Warlock, and Warrior. That's 11 different classes, and while having that kind of class diversity sounds like a great marketing point, it becomes a massive challenge to balance, and to keep the classes unique in, and while World of Warcraft does this better than most, it still suffers from each of them boiling down into one of the three "MMORPG" archetypes: DPS, Tank, or Support.
It's worth mentioning that there really isn't a class other than mage and priest that I struggled with the early game with solo, and solo is somewhat going against the means of a MMO. Although, it also bears mentioning half the problem with leveling at all is finding WoW players, especially veterans, who are willing to go through the starting areas with you again, may as well be looking for the ark of the covenant or wood of the true cross, it just generally isn't going to happen unless you have an enthusiastic friend who wants to get you into the game, the role I suppose I ended up filling with getting my wife into it.
There's a fair bit of redundancy between classes, really, as one might expect, but they at least maintain a certain individual flavour. Except maybe shaman and druid, whom inhabit a sort of shared niche in the lore that's confused even for someone like that me that's followed Warcraft since Orcs & Humans and can remember the cancelled adventure game from which Thrall originates. The bigger problem becomes that with several classes that essentially fulfill the same roles, organizing public groups for dungeons and raids becomes all the more complicated, which definitely wasn't the goal of the reductionism. Ironically, by making the game have clearer identities for the different classes by cutting back many of the duplicated skills, they exacerbated the complexity and difficulty of making groups. So ultimately, while I can understand the underlying motivation, their efforts here feel misplaced.
The main change was a very, very crippling one for the actual functional utility of garrisons. And it's simple: they took all the currency rewards out. All of them. Every single one. The language Blizzard used was they "scaled them back", but in some 100+ garrison missions I've sent those followers on since the patch, not a single one has offered a gold reward. It's difficult to understate just how much this undermined the value they had to players even at end-game, since while the gold wasn't much, it was still worth putting the time into setting up. Now after that change, there's no reason to do the follower missions at all except to level them to 100, and perhaps level them further (which gives them better items) if they're a bodyguard character. None whatsoever. There's rare quests that occasionally show up with item rewards, so it's worth checking to see if those popped up, but what had become an almost central mechanic to the end-game got relegated to the dust bin with a single, debilitating patch.
Incidentally, don't get your hopes up too much about the followers getting story arcs or even really story mentions; this isn't Star Wars: The Old Republic or something, and their interactions are kept to a few quips as you walk by in the base, and some admittedly usually-amusing one-liners if you have them travelling with you. They don't get to develop them, you never get attached, and this gives you even less reason to engage in the missions system available through the garrison.
An additional problem with the garrison is it kind of loses steam midway through the story arc of Warlords of Draenor: I was only about halfway through story completion when I had the structures all filled in and leveled to the second of three levels. Mind you, there's more to do with the garrison, as I said, that's two of three levels, but getting each respective building to its third level involves for each one doing the kind of 100% completion style achievements that I had absolutely no desire to engage in. As an example, to get the level 3 mine, which gives you raw ores for blacksmithing, you had to mine twice over more mining nodes than my blacksmith had mined in the entirety of Warcraft's existence since release - specifically on the alternate Draenor. And that brings us to my personal big bugbear with Warlords of Draenor:
Warlords holds most of the good content hostage
If you've followed me for some time you probably know that I've complained more than once about games that feel like they need you to do a lot of arbitrary bullshit before you can progress or the like, but all of that so easily pales in comparison to Warlords of Draenor. So, since I'm not going to get out with this review and feel right about it without saying it: fuck Draenor flying. There, I said it. Every attunement quest you might have done for a vanilla quest can't hold a candle to the utterly outrageous amount of complete padded faff that you have to do to get flying in Draenor, something you've been acclimated to having in the game for literally years, in all likelihood, if you're a regular or returning player. To get flying, you have to completely explore each and every zone, collect 100 arbitrary collectibles (most of which are trash you won't use), make every endgame WoD faction love you, complete all of the story, and a couple other things just talking about this gets me so frustrated and angry I literally forgot what they were. It comes down to this, with Flying and with every single one of the Level 3 building requirements for the Garrison: prove you don't actually need this, and you can have it. By the time you actually get these rewards, you'll have next to no use for it. I don't think I'd want to look at another raid or dungeon in Draenor again if I'd done them the gods-forsaken amount of times you have to, to build up reputation. Lets not even get started on all the randomly-spawning daily quests you have to do to get Flying, what I just remembered. It's ridiculous, it's an utter time sink, and it makes me resent an expansion I would otherwise be very favourably disposed to, given that I'm a sucker for World of Warcraft's soft, retcon-ridden canon, having basically grown up with the games in the series. Utterly infuriating. If you want to point the finger at one specific aspect of the game that made this review Neutral and not a recommendation, it's this, right there.
The story arc mechanic is a solid addition
As much as I complained about the lack of proper advancement through the myriad maze of old content in World of Warcraft and how it becomes very intimidating to the newcomer, Warlords of Draenor at least has this progression somewhat in mind for it's own content for 90-100, and it's a very good addition to the way the game handles the story arc quests. Each zone has a tracker for the main story arcs within it, that tells you what's completed and what's not, which helps signpost where to go. Additionally, the side objectives are also marked, they tell you very clearly what the rewards are, and it makes it easier to know what you're getting into in the side content and if it's worth your time, because a perennial problem with the side content previously was that it really wasn't worth your time in many instances.
More than the mechanics however, what's important and really quite commendable, is that more than any other expansion and arguably any other competing MMO other than Age of Conan, is that it goes hand in hand with a good narrative focus that helps make it easy to remember where you were. With the cinematic providing good punchy and memorable endpoints and plenty of likewise-memorable character interactions with the various big players such as Durotan, Thrall, Khadgar, Yrel, and more, it makes for a much easier time remembering where you were, because rather than just fading into the white noise of the MMORPG grind, they're things I actually recall, despite having completed my Alliance go at Warlords of Draenor a good year ago now and having just poked at it again with another character to refresh my memory, which wasn't inaccurate about those events.
The weak point here are the dungeons and raids, which they try to work into the story, but they end up seperated from it, and frankly, there's not much reason to doing them. Compared to stuff like the epic adventure that was Icecrown Citadel, they fall pretty flat in terms of holding my interest, and the meagre reward-to-effort ratio left me doing the ones I could do solo for the sake of having done them, doing the ones I couldn't with a group just the once for the same sake, and then never looking back. The rewards just aren't worth all the trouble and fuss that are needed for them, especially the raids.