Long-time readers will know I have a soft spot for the Warcraft franchise, especially World of Warcraft. As a day-one player who has experienced everything the game has offered, including the Mists of Pandaria expansion, I’ve seen it go through a fair few changes. New races being added, enhanced weather and lighting systems being introduced, a new class thrown into the mix, talent points being redesigned, and a constant stream of rebalancing for everything involved, That said, some things have stayed the same in the face of change. New abilities would continue to crowd up toolbars, the rise of damage and health numbers for players and NPCs alike spiralling up exponentially, and the models for the playable races becoming more and more dated as the years went by. With the upcoming expansion Warlords of Draenor approaching, Blizzard saw it as an opportunity to fix these things, and so with patch 6.0.2 being unleashed last week I returned to the MMO behemoth for the first time in nine months. It was time to see if the game that sent the genre mainstream still had the ability to pull in new punters and veterans alike.
I’ll tell you one thing though – WildStar’s combat and traversal systems have spoiled me rotten compared to WoW's seemingly archaic mechanics, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
The inclusion of the Worgen, Goblin and Pandaren made it quite clear that the original race models needed an update. The blocky, expressionless and (in the case of humans) hairlipped choices on offer just didn’t blend with the rest of the updated visuals of the game. Thankfully, after years of waiting the update has arrived – except for Blood Elves, who will have to wait a little while longer to be made more beautiful. If I’m honest, I really shouldn’t be impressed by the new visuals and animations considering what the competition has produced elsewhere in the genre, but I really am.
The visuals of these new models may not be the best the industry, but they fit with the art style perfectly whilst bringing them in line with prominent NPCs who have been updated for years, such as Varian Wrynn and Thrall. This means that facial expression are now reflective of emotes being performed, eyes look like there is life in them instead of painted on, and ability animations are far more in keeping with the presence of each race. Again, there are things that most current MMOs have nailed down for quite some time, but it’s good to see that Blizzard are still capable of tuning up the old engine.
The cosmetics are not the only thing that has been fine-tuned, though. In what Blizzard have been calling the Stat Squish, all the ridiculous numbers involved in combat – from health pools to damage output – have been reduced on both players and NPCs to much more sensible numbers. To me, this was a much needed step to take, and it should mean we won’t have to fight a boss with a trillion hp any time soon. That said, there have been reports of the stat squish not applying to certain start areas, but Blizzard are in the process of ensuring new characters won’t have to fear instakills much longer.
Elsewhere, reducing or consolidating both combat stats on gear and the number of class abilities has been done in an effort to stop players needing to go find online guides to optimise their characters. Unfortunately, while this has been successful to a degree, the truth is that the need to look outside the game to find the optimal build and combat rotation for a player’s chosen class is still there. For newcomers at least, the game steers players in the right direction much better than it has done in the past, but I do wonder if fresh blood will be able to get to grips with WOW these days, especially if they’ve touched much more responsive games that feature dodge mechanics. Seriously, I can get past the lack of telegraphs, but not things like dodging or double-jumping (damn you, WildStar!) made the limited movement really stick out.
On top of the combat changes, there have been several quality of live improvements that have been sorely needed for years. The addition of the toybox collection means that joke or novelty items no longer take up much needed inventory space, much in the same way mounts used to.
With Warlords of Draenor right around the corner, the tradition of pre-expansion content has returned as the Iron Horde invades through the Dark Portal. Sadly, this event has been severely lacklustre compared to previous efforts. A single quest chain comprising of some kill quests and a few conversations with Thrall (regardless of how awesome his is as a character) pales in comparison to the regular invasions that happened prior to the Burning Legion, or the plague that preceded Wrath of the Lich King. Even the level 90 version of an updated Upper Blackrock Spire come across an uninspired reskin of the existing encounter. As a warm up for the next big chapter, it has failed to get me excited, which is a huge shame considering how much I rate the story. Perhaps the best stuff has been saved for Draenor, and as a fan of the franchise I certainly hope that is the case.
And yet, despite my criticisms, and despite how other MMOs are offering new and exciting content, I was to see how it all plays out. Maybe it’s the investment of time I’ve put in all these years, or maybe it’s because I know I will get to see all the content thanks to easing the access of content (or dumbing it down, depending on your viewpoint) but at the end of the day the standard Blizzard created with WOW ensures that even with the changes included in the latest patch, I can still jump in and get back to slaughtering the other faction like no time has past. Whether it’s worth the subscription though, that’s still up for debate, but I feel Warlords of Draenor will be Blizzard’s last chance to prove there’s still value for money in it.
World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor releases for PC and Mac on 13th November. For more information please check out the official website.