Turn back the clock to 2004 and Half-Life 2, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and World of Warcraft, the MMO adaptation of the enormously popular real-time strategy series, were the most well-received games at the time. While the former three have become classics, WoW was and still is the epitome of what the genre could and should be: incredibly immersive, with rewarding — though sometimes daunting — complexity in its mechanics. Vanilla WoW along with The Burning Crusade made individual characters feel like catalysts for necessary and massive change. Warlords of Draenor is hearkening back to that now decade-old feeling, with a focus on fresh models and rewarding tasks while stripping away some of the complexity and tiresomeness to put players on a ride of non-stop entertainment and action.
Appropriately, the game begins with a jump back in time: Garrosh Hellscream evades his captors, hops back in time to Draenor, avoids the enslavement of the entire Orc race to Pit Lord Mannoroth and unites the many splintered factions under a new banner: The Iron Horde. With the intention of using this past army coupled with technology brought from his future to annihilate the Alliance and Horde of the present, he begins a campaign of violence. This is the scenario players find themselves thrust into.
As either a freshly-minted level 90 or a veteran of the Siege of Orgrimmar from Mists of Pandaria, players are tasked with pushing back Iron Horde influence across the Draenor of the past. The questing and all its facets are where the detail and effort put into emphasizing immersion and tangible progress first become apparent: Blizzard has ramped up the degree to which phasing and instancing parts of each area occurs. As objectives are completed, the world tangibly changes around the player. The visual confirmation of efforts is a rewarding indicator of progress for those not keen on picking through the incredible amounts of quest text for the same effect. It also helps that just about every pre-Cataclysm race has had a visual upgrade that makes them all the more fearsome and visually interesting as they carve out a new legacy.
To further alleviate the tedium that is sometimes associated with questing, the areas in Draenor are packed with an incredible amount of detail that benefits the player when discovered. Rare monsters that drop better than average items, pieces of treasure scattered in nary-explored corners and bonus zone-specific objectives that grant a large amount of experience drag players out of the point-to-point objective fulfillment that can make the level grind feel more like a chore than anything else. The roughly 30 hours and 500 quests it takes to get from level 90 to 100 feel much more like a gradual campaign against the Iron Horde than an arbitrary set of missions with intangible outcomes. Blizzard has even added small cutscenes at progress points while questing and during dungeons that give a much-desired cinematic perspective of the events unfolding.
Coupled with the visual indicators of progress is the unprecedented capacity for players to establish their own customizable foothold in this foreign and hostile environment. Garrisons are a brilliant new feature in Warlords of Draenor, wherein an upgradeable bastion is granted to each player. Players then recruit followers through questing or discovery to complete missions or man any of a number of buildings. Missions play off the followers’ strengths and can reward high-level gear. The Garrison’s components can allow players without crafting professions to create goods, disenchant items and gather leather, herbs, fish or ore as well as undertake quests for any of the expansion’s dungeons. This is an addictive addition which further breaks the monotony of questing by forcing players to pause and micro-manage their followers at roughly hourly intervals for optimized income and item generation. At level 100, the Garrison can come under attack and requires a focused defensive campaign to protect.
The environments of Draenor are beautiful and varied, from the icy and mountainous Frostfire Ridge to the lush plains of Nagrand. Unsurprisingly, the sound design is as stellar as ever in Draenor as in the rest of the Warcraft universe: sweeping strings and ominous, driving brass add ambiance in the perfect tones whenever appropriate. Characters’ voices are done in mostly excellent quality, with a few campy or unfortunately average examples only somewhat detracting from the overall experience.
Most visually stimulating are the dungeons, which feature detailed and extremely fleshed out scenarios for groups of players: save the corrupted Kirin Tor mages and Stormwind from the sentient plant life of the Everbloom, rescue slaves from the Slag Mines or confront Ner’Zhul, leader of the Shadowmoon Clan, in their Burial Grounds. Currently, and excluding the re-opened Molten Core, there are 8 dungeons added in Warlords of Draenor. While the first three available from 90-99 are somewhat underwhelming, the four level 100 dungeons as well as Skyreach are incredible in their detail and required amount of coordination. The challenge is higher than ever before and even more so in the Heroic versions, which make each instance a serious undertaking. Some trash monsters are a little repetitive, but the bosses make awesome encounters.
Currently, once players hit 100, there are a number of paths to pursue including building out your Garrison, gearing up in preparation for the December 2 release of 10+ person raids, pursuing player versus player action and completing unfinished questlines (spoilers: the Nagrand main storyline quest is absolutely incredible and deserves your attention more than anything else mentioned above). A number of extremely rare monsters drop exclusive rideable mounts that make each zone worth revisiting in and of themselves. The wealth of options pre-raid is a glowing indicator of things to come in what is easily the best World of Warcraft expansion in years, possible even since The Burning Crusade.
Warlords of Draenor puts just about every other MMO in recent memory to shame. Guild Wars 2, RIFT, TERA, WildStar and others don’t boast the sense of satisfaction in the quests, reward in the dungeons, progress towards real achievements or impact on the surrounding world that are all available in spades in Draenor. Even Cataclysm and Mists of Pandaria fall short. Blizzard has taken everything from its 10 years of experience and distilled it down to its purest, most entertaining form, and it’s a struggle to peel oneself away from it. For disillusioned former veterans and newcomers alike, Warlords of Draenor is the time to pick up a new WoW expansion; it’s just that good.