World of Warcraft: Legion has been out for several weeks now, and rather than do the general ‘first impressions’ style review that so many people are happy to bash out, I decided to properly immerse myself in it. Like a fine wine, I aimed to truly savour it, sampling its oaky and perhaps nutty overtones – with a richness that belied its age.
Wanky wine metaphors aside, I really did play WoW for years. I was a day one adopter – the greenest of greenhorns. I had never played an MMO before, but sure enough I rocked out of the starting zone as a Night Elf warrior, complete with misspelt name (I really wanted to be known as ‘Midnight’ – so ‘Midknite’ would have to do). My journey to become a true hero would begin, and years of friendships, milestones and electronic hardship would lay the foundation for what I would consider my Warcraft tenure – as I came to consider myself a fairly established WoW-er.
As time passed, the World of Warcraft changed dramatically with each expansion, and I felt my obsessive passion start to wane. This continued until I eventually found myself entirely disinterested in the one expansion I thought would truly grip me – Mists of Pandaria. Freed from Azeroths’ grip, I moved on to other genres, platforms and yearly game releases with impunity. Eventually I would find myself buying and playing the Warlords of Draenor expansion, which definitely tickled my interest and stoked some long dormant embers of excitement, but it did not truly grip me – I would again let my subscription time out and bid farewell once more.
So how does Legion stack up to (over) a decade of nostalgia? I am a firm believer of good ideas being established and developed, and I consider myself a good judge of identifying concepts that show real promise. Warlords of Draenor was an expansion that showcased a lot of drastically new gameplay and storytelling elements – all it took was Legion to take those germinating seeds and seriously let them bloom. Ask any WoW player to share the particular plot points of a particular quest chain and they are likely to tell you they needed to gather a particular cracked basilisk foreskin to upgrade their gloves – but they may well struggle to tell you why they needed to do this. Storytelling in WoW has been forced to evolve alongside the narrative structures established from other games over the last 10 years, so Blizzard has ensured that if you can’t be bothered reading the quest text, you are still going to be privy to the true nature of what you are doing, and revel in the epic moments that are taking place – with you smack dab in the centre.
This is brilliantly displayed in Legions’ zone/questing structure. Before you even touch down on the Broken Isles (the obligatory new land mass for the expansion), you are guided through a brief series of quests that establish why you are now here, and just how dire the situation is.
The pre-patch for Legion (technically Warlords of Draenor content, but I am going to mention it here regardless) was an entirely narrative-driven experience that probably turned more pages in WoW’s story in the space of a few weeks than the game had managed to do in several years.
** HERE BE SPOILERS, IF YOU LIVE UNDER A ROCK, LOOK AWAY NOW. **
Blizzard George R. R. Martin’d the heck out of this b*tch. Most expansions start the same way – A new threat of some kind emerges, and we as players are subtly told that although we might be ending current content as hot shit superstars, day one of the new content will see us as cold diarrhoea in a dixie cup. It’s standard fare. Legion started much the same way, but the ‘you are nothing’ statement came with some extra hard punctuation – an exclamation point that was very much communicated through the deaths of several of the games major lore characters. King Varian Wrynn, of the alliance, is literally obliterated into dust – and the current Warchief of the Horde, the troll Vol’Jin gets stabbed in the chest. No off-screen stuff, no awkward raid encounter to defeat them ourselves. A series of beautifully rendered cinematics invited us to their deaths – and for the horde, their funerals. Elevated stakes for all!
So when the expansion opened its doors, there were a lot of players harbouring some bad blood for the burning legion and the villains responsible for dicking over their respective faction leaders. Their first objective upon embarking on their Legion adventure – procure some new kickass hardware. This is the first true narrative-driven experience for a player entering the Legion experience, and is one of the biggest new fandangled features of this expansion: getting your hands on your very own artifact weapon.
Unique to the Legion expansion, Artifact Weapons are special …er… weapons that your class can equip, that have their own levelling experience and can be shaped by the player to suit their playstyle. Lore-wise, they are quite often representative of some great item of power from the overarching story of the Warcraft world – and now they rest in your hands. This means that players no longer seek out weapon upgrades for themselves in the form of replacing their current item – they instead have this specific weapon that grows in power as the player does. Players will also find themselves able to spend ‘Artifact Power’ to unlock unique stats and abilities from the weapon itself. The curve of experience required to upgrade ramps up significantly to make sure someone wanting to max out their weapon will be playing the expansion for a good long while. Again, not criticising this – it’s common practice that anything worth having in an MMO will take time and effort.
These Artifact Weapon quest chains are the first taste of the solid narrative-driven experience that really defines the Legion expansion, with each player choosing from a selection of weapons that cater to a class’s unique playstyle and then embarking on a mission to retrieve it from whatever fate befell the original owner. These quests are fully voice acted, and take you to many locations throughout the old World of Warcraft, places you may never have had a reason to visit or perhaps have simply had no reason to return once you had finished up with the place. You are introduced to characters that will likely follow your journey throughout the expansion. All this is before you even truly set out to conquer the new content of the expansion – the storytelling really does start with a bang.
This then leads to a player’s experience when levelling in a new expansion zone. In Legion, the content within a zone will scale to the players level, meaning that the majority of the zone content is non-linear; the player can pick and choose where they go and what they want to do. This also means that zones are free to tell their own story – as there is no dependence on a prior zone coming before OR after it. It provides a platform for some really impactful stories to be told, with unique and interesting moments occurring frequently. Blizzard has even gone out of their way to create brilliant cinematics to play at key moments to make sure that the zone’s story progresses with the right highs and lows to be memorable. I played the majority of the expansion with a friend in the same room as me, and as we played through a particular zone he managed to pull ahead of me a small amount. He was wearing headphones, but I heard his reaction to a particular event (“Holy S#%t!”) and sure enough a few short minutes later I too was in the same boat… Holy S#%t.
These stories are then allowed to culminate in group content and dungeons, to make sure that encounters are given the room and the gravitas they require to really nail a conclusion. One particular zone’s story had a big encounter in the world and the death of a major lore character, before continuing into a five-person dungeon, and finally, a 10+ person raid. And with the sliding scale of difficulty that has been established over the last few expansions, these stories are in no way hard-gated to your average schmuck. Dungeons have three difficulty levels that entirely communicate directly to a player’s level of commitment, as do raids – even going so far as to allow a group of strangers to come through and blitz raid content at a simplified level for the sake of seeing the sights and getting some generally shiny gear. Many might mock ‘Raid Finder’, but truth is it has a place in the game and it accomplishes what it needs very well.
With this, I would like to spotlight the endgame of Legion. I made sure in my experience that I not only reached this level of player, but I also did what I could to excel in it (in my opinion). To this end, it also meant I had to delay this review enough to truly dig in to one of the main draws of Legions endgame content – Mythic Keystones.
A ‘Keystone’ dungeon is essentially a challenge mode where an established dungeon is given a time limit and a checklist of both mobs and bosses, to kill. You are then tasked to not only complete this task – but to beat the clock in doing so. Many small things are shifted to try and streamline the process – such as their being a countdown and ‘gate opening’ for players at the start of the run, and that regular boss loot is removed from their respective sources and instead put in a chest rewarded to the players when the finish line is reached. A unique and fun spin on dungeons as you have come to know them, but the real challenge comes from the fact that your Keystone can be upgraded. This means that the challenge will increase for the chance of getting better loot and true bragging rights. And as these stones rank up, additional challenges may be added – such as the dungeons mobs gaining new abilities. This can be as simple as the dungeons having MORE mobs than usual, or far more diabolical – like enemies buffing their friends when they die, meaning a large group of enemies will eventually end up with one super-powered, vengeful fiend empowered by the death of all his mates.
These challenge dungeon runs also collate to a leaderboard to be viewed by friends and guildies, meaning that you can reach ever higher to impress and see where your power ceiling is. And of course, as you challenge yourself, your loot will improve and therefore your power ceiling will increase – creating the perfect synergy of carrot and stick.
It is features like these that really allow people to better communicate with friends, and while still having their own little corner of the world to call their own that really sells the longevity of this expansion. I am already excited at the notion of new dungeon releases, and what that would be like to tackle in the keystone environment. Finding little corners to cut to save time, without neglecting your kill list really does appeal to me (and by the looks of the Web, a great many other people). And with so many electrifying stories established at the start of Legion I find myself genuinely wanting to stick around and see what comes next. When this expansion wraps up I can only imagine that the future of Azeroth will be far from predictable.
There really has been no better time to get re-acquainted with the World of Warcraft.