It's strange how suddenly your weekend plans to vacation with your friends can turn into a "family emergency", where you have to cancel your plans and dissappear for 48 hours.
It's even stranger when that family emergency happens to fall less than 2 days after an expansion for a game that you've been playing since college.
An expansion that you forgot was coming out.
At 12:01 AM on Thursday, Novermber 13th, 2014, Blizzard Entertainment released Warlords of Draenor, the 5th expansion for the MMO heavyweight, World of Warcraft. The game comes at an interesting time for Blizzard, a time when they have moved to diversify their gaming portfolio, with revamped classics like Diablo and Starcraft, thinly veiled knock offs of other successful games, like the Defense of the Ancients clone Heroes of the Storm or the potential Team Fortress wannabe Overwatch. Despite this focus on expanding their gaming footprint, Warcraft still holds strong as the world's most successful MMO, with 6.8 million subscribers world-wid, and on the eve of the their 10th anniversery, Blizzard has returned to try to reinvent their game, as they constantly have.
The Story So Far
If you're not up on the WoW story, here's the quick and dirty version. In the last expansion, there was playable pandas, called Panderan. There was this real nasty guy who ran the Horde, his name was Garrosh Hellscream, and he winds up being the expansions Big Bad. Eventually you, the hero, took him down, with about 6.8 million other heroes, and replaced him with a super chill troll named Vol'jin.
Unfortunately, before the Horde and Alliance were able to try him for his war cries, he escaped with the assitance of a time traveling dragon, and traveled about 30 years back in time.
Oh, wait, they didn't just travel back in time, they traveled to an alternate dimension. He industrializes this alternate dimensions, and attempts to conquer modern day Azeroth. Also, the the world he traveled to is an alternate version of the world he's from, but now it's called Draenor, but it was an alternate version of the new continent, Outland, of the second expansion, the Burning crusade. Except it wasn't called that, until after the events of the 1996 PC game Warcaft II: Beyond the Dark Portal, but some people argue....
I digress. We'll get to the epic shitstorm that is setting continuity later.
The point is there's a new continent, new bad guys, new dungeons, and the level cap has been raised to 100. Let's take a look.
I was initially very skeptical of this expansion, but it's had some pretty serious homeruns.
The Garrison is the standout feature of this expansion, at least for me.
Fromt he start of the game, you play an integral roll in the story of your faction, for me it was the Horde, establishing themselves in this primordial world. Once you're through the expansions introduction content, you find yourself founding a settlement in Frostfire Ridge called the Garrison.
For years, fans have asked Blizzard for something like player housing, and in Mists of Pandaria, they delivered a tease of what that would like in the form of Sunsong Ranch. The Ranch was an instanced player area where you could build a farm and grow materials for the individual professions. The Ranch was small, but it was a success that Blizzard clearly used as a launchpad for the Garrison.
Your Garrison grows with you as you explore Draenor and level through the content, but it does so under your control. Initially, the Garrison is small but it becomes increasingly a larger hub, as you upgrade it with resources you find around Draenor, customize it to meet your characters needs and professions.
As you explore new zones, you eventually grow your influence in this new primordial world by establishing an outpost per zone that becomes a sort of activity hub for you, that you customize with a building of your choice. These outposts really add to the immersive experience of the expansion.
In addition to the simulated city building experience of the Garrison, you also bring the story of Warlords alive by recruiting people you find along the way to come and join you in your Garrison. You can send your followers on missions, deploy them to work in certain buildings, or command them to follow you on your adventuring in this new primordial world.
For this expansion, Blizzard updated a number of character models, some of which are as old as the game itself.
Everything seems to be updated for this expansion, and the results are beautiful. This expansive world is colored with new buildings, novel building templates, creatively designed creatures, and landscapes that are familiar but different.
Thought not as serious in its visual tone as games like Final Fantasy XVI or Elder Scrolls Online, neither is the style unique in the genre. It's a sort of action cartoon that Wildstar trying to plunder, and failed to do, because it's not WoW. Since this is WoW, it's a style that makes a ton of sense, and really speaks to the series.
The Usual Suspects
Ugh. The feels.
Durotan how dare you.
Alternate reality, shmalternate reality. Leave the dead alone, I should feel like I want to hug all of these characters.
I can't even talk about Vindicator Maraad. I've written fanfics about you, and now I'm supposed to look you in the face?
You can't expect everything about an expension to be received well. Definitely, not by gamers.
Typically, I imagine game developers have a pretty good time at their job. Except during product launches, in which case it's probably worse than telling Elaine Stritch that she missed last call.
Everything that possibly went wrong went wrong. Physical products people pre-ordered didn't arrive when they were supposed. Realms crashed when the game went live. Starting zones were completely bugged, making it impossible to even play. Dungeons suddenly kicked everyone out, and logged them out of the game. Hackers attacked the servers, crashing nearly everyone experience.
Fortunately, the Blizzard developers were hard at work, but not all of their decisions made everyone happy. To deal with server crashes, they restricted access to login servers, creating login queues that may have taken hours to get through. To deal with zone crashing due to the overwhelming amount of players, certain zones were throttled down in population, making the new content that you were waiting in a queue to play inaccessible from inside the game. To deal with hackers DDoSing realms, server maintenance was added late Friday and Saturday night, making the hole game inaccessible to large numbers of players.
It wasn't pretty, and it may have been handled better.
The game didn't launch with a lot of new content, in terms of dungeon content. At level 90-95, you have access to one dungeon, Bloodmaul Slagmines, with another added around level 94, the Blackrock Depot.
Aside from the gear you got, they where a bit lackluster. They seemed boring, and small. They didn't have the sense of scale the Mists of Pandaria or Cataclysm dungeons did. They were definitely no Temple of the Jade Serpent or Throne of the Tides.
Even the later dungeons, Skyreach and Auchindoun, aren't that much better. They were more inspired, and seemed to convey more story, but not in the same way previous expansions did.
Lack of Diversity
Let's be honest. Blizzard has a diversity problem.
Anything resembling a human is white. Trolls speak with Rastah accents and practice voodoo, pandaren where fu manchu moustaches, and there is zero queer representation.
It's sad. Very sad Blizzard.
The Weird (craft)
There never fails to be loose ends or thought that pop up when reviewing a game as big as this, and this is where they land.
Dragon Age Inquisition
With the Christmas season coming, it's no surprises that a lot of companies are dropping heavy hitting games, and Bioware dropped one of their heaviest of heavies, Dragon Age: Inquisition, on Tuesday, November, 18. Aside from the similar launch window, these games have a number of other eerie similarities.
Inquisition also boasts a city building system, based around the Keep system, supplemented by in field Camp system, that is earily similar to Warcraft Garrison/Outpost system. In your Keep or Camp, you can send out special agents on missions, very similar to Warcraft's follower quest system.
Additionally, Inquisition has a multiplayer format, which is new for the game, a notoriously solitary game. In contrast, WoW's Garrison system, with instanced content, seems to be a trend towards creating a single player experience in an MMO.
I'm not pointing out anything insidious, these might just be trends in gaming.
The lore for this expansion is nuts.
I'd explain it to you, but I don't really have the time. Go read the wiki.
Blizzard's future, and Warcraft's future, is uncertain. They're still at the top of their game, with nearly 7 million subscriptions, nearly four times as big as it's nearest competitor, but trouble is in the water. The game experienced it's high point with 12 million subscribers in 2014, with Wrath of the Lich King, nearly twice it's current numbers.
Blizzard has moved a lot of developers around internally to work on other revenues streams, with the just released Overwatch, and last year's Hearthstone.
To underscore this point, this expansion does feel a bit unfinished, at least to this reviewer. The number of still existing bugs, plus the launch debacle, showed lack of foresight on Blizzard's part. No raids were released with the expansion launch, as has been the case in every Warcraft launch in recent memory. An entire zone is still unaccessible, with no update as to when it will be released.
The expansion itself came under fire even before its release for what a number of people treated as a rip-off. Each previous expansion has either introduced new races or classes, in addition to what has been assumed as core expansion content, i.e. new monsters, gear, dungeons, story, and raid content. Instead of new characters, Blizzard explained that it would be updating the character models, and that was received poorly.
To be fair, Warcraft is a ten year old game, and its definitely time for a face left as well as some overhaul backend maintenance, but whether that really should be part of an expansions is a very serious question. I would say no, and moving forward with this action despite the vociferous dissent of the players speaks to a dismissal of the player base on the part of Blizzard.
Look, Blizzard doesn't owe me anything. I don't have to buy their products. They make a reasonably good game, that's fun and familiar, and I'll continute to subscribe.
It might not be the best game, but it's definitely been a ton of fun to play so far, and I'm not even done! Despite it's failings, it did succeed in a number of places I'm really digging.
Anyway, I've wasted too much time at work writing this. I need to go home and check on my Garrison.