Once again, it’s time for the World of Warcraft experience to take in another injection of fresh content in the form of an expansion pack – and this time around, Legion is the name of the game. Azeroth’s intergalactic demon-forces have decided to make a dramatic re-entry into the world, causing chaos and carnage – and giving a whole lot of adventurers ample reason and ways to kick their asses. But does this new infusion of lore and gameplay really deserve the cash and time a seasoned WoW player has to offer? The answer is yes, and both Victor Grunn and James Valentine are here to explain why.
World of Warcraft is a game of many acts. You could ask five people what draws them to the game and get five different answers. Some players enjoy leveling up characters and exploring the world, some prefer the challenge of endgame content like raiding or player-vs-player arenas, some may enjoy collecting battle pets (WoW’s version of Pokemon), and some are in it for the lore. Asking one person to review a game with WoW’s depth is sure to lead to an incomplete picture, so to help widen the scope we’ll be assigning two editors who have been playing Legion to determine how the latest expansion rates.
James Valentine’s Experiences with Legion
My journey with World of Warcraft began twelve years ago with the original game’s launch – even earlier than that if I count the small amount of time I spent playing the beta. It’s been a long ride filled with ups and downs; at various points I’ve loved the game and others I’ve hated it for the sheer magnitude of its addictiveness. Each expansion has offered something new and unique to the experience, but it’s been awhile since the game has felt fresh or innovative. The last five years have felt stagnant, simply put, despite the incremental improvements. Legion, on the other hand, feels like the ultimate realization of Blizzard’s vision for their MMO.
Before I get into the more granular details, I think it’s important to praise the broader quality of life improvements here. While all of the sprawling, intertwining systems don’t always get along as well as one might hope, at the end of the day it’s plain to see that Legion is a masterfully planned and executed endeavor. The challenge facing Blizzard here was to create something approachable to new and casual players (this has always been the case but with the Warcraft movie there was a big push to attract new players) while still being dense and challenging enough to satiate the hardcore audience – it’s an explicit part of Blizzard’s design philosophy. This time around my play style lands somewhere in the middle: not so casual that I don’t participate in the endgame content, but not so hardcore as to commit to grinding daily quests or a raid schedule.
I know what it’s like to be at the far ends of the spectrum: In the earlier days I used to raid 4-5 nights a week and I spent an enormous amount of time in the game, such was the life of college student with long summer vacations. It felt like I waited forever each raid patch to be released, and the content drought between the last big patch and the new expansion was excruciating. On the other hand, there have been expansions where all I did was level a few characters up just to see the content. Regardless of where on the spectrum I or anyone else may fall, it’s plain to see that Legion is ready to serve up a satisfying experience. I plan to participate casually in the endgame stuff, conquering dungeons and perhap even raiding on occasion, but if I just wanted to level up characters and see the content at a snail’s pace, there’s a copious amount of story and lore to make the effort worthwhile.
Blizzard aimed to make each class feel unique again by tuning up their play styles and abilities, so even between different heavy melee classes, like the Paladin and the Warrior, you’re going to feel like you’re playing two entirely unique types of characters. The class tuning includes updated combat animations, new spell effects, and even better sound effects for many abilities. And that’s not all, each class has a unique headquarters, called an Order Hall, which comes with class quests that have you interacting with major story characters, like Uther for the Paladins. I should point out that the bulk of the tuning went into the melee classes, while casters like the Mage and Warlock have been improved, just not as dramatically. And let’s not forget to mention the new Demon Hunter class, which takes combat and movement to a new level with the ability to glide and dash around, and truly embodies the concept of “class fantasy” like no other.
Staying on the subject of story, Legion is by far the most comprehensive expansion when it comes to driving the primary Warcraft narrative, especially compared to Warlord of Draenor’s alternate timeline detour. I’ve personally invested a ridiculous amount of time in learning the universe’s lore, reading around a dozen books and even more short stories on the WoW website. I embarked on this mission to learn the lore during the last expansion, after I ran out of things to do and decided I was sick of not knowing what the hell was going on in the story, because the game is really bad at explaining it. Thankfully, Legion is a huge payoff for lore nuts, as just about every main character makes a significant appearance, such as Illidan (of course, he’s the focus of the box cover art!), Malfurion, Tyrande, Khadgar, Jaina, Sylvanas, Genn, and more. It makes sense that so many high-profile people would show up, considering the stakes are at a critical point with the Burning Legion invasion.
The leveling experience is now much more fluid than ever before thanks to the new scaling system that’s been implemented. Now it doesn’t matter what level your character is, as enemies in each zone will scale to you or your group’s experience level. There are multiple benefits to this, one of which is that you can level with people who aren’t the same level as you, but more importantly it’s nice that you can tackle each zone in any order you want. I liked that my friends were experiencing different first zones than me – note: I never level up with friends, since I like to go slow and absorb the story and the world – and having a different perspective than me upon arriving on the Broken Isles, the chain of islands where the new zones exist on. This scaling flexibility extends to dungeons as well.
Once you reach the level cap you will likely be overwhelmed with the breadth of content at your doorstep. I literally didn’t know where to start once I hit 110. I had a million quests to do that progressed different aspects of my character – professions quests, class quests, reputation quests (attaining varying levels of reputation with different factions within the game unlocks rewards), world quests, a new endgame zone with its own host of quests, new dungeons, PVP, and the temptation to start leveling up a new character right away.
To be honest, while I’m glad Blizzard is taking the issue of lack of content seriously, I was initially frustrated at the number of activities where I wasn’t clear what the payoff was. With the first raid unlocking a couple of weeks after launch (it will have unlocked by the time this review goes up), everyone was in a race to gear up in preparation, and I felt like I wasn’t finding a clear path to attaining better gear with my limited amount of time to play. There were multiple nights where I would play for 2-3 hours at a time and not gain a single gear upgrade. This is likely only an issue for the casual end game player, as everyone else seemed to be burning through the new content and nabbing upgrades along the way, but for me it was a very tedious process.
In terms of the quality of the content itself, Legion knocks it out of the part. Every zone is gorgeous in its own way, and the nature of their design feels much more organic than ever before. It’s not unusual in WoW to think of a zone by its dominant color: this zone is green, this zone is purple, this zone is red, etc. And it’s also not unusual to feel like each zone is its own self-contained world. But in Legion, these variations blend together much better and the zones feel as though they intertwine naturally. It also helps that the floating city of Dalaran, which is our primary capital city now, is always looming above you in the distance. The dungeons all look cool as well, taking you into famous locations like Black Rook Hold, which reminds me of the Haunted Mansion in Disneyland, and Maw of the Souls which puts you on the deck of a massive ship in the ocean during a storm.
Graphically, WoW has never looked better. It’s not unusual to hear people in gaming forums, who don’t actually play the game, mock it for looking dated because the “graphics engine is a decade old”, but that’s simply not true. I game on a high-end, Nvidia 980ti equipped machine with a 1440p resolution monitor, and I play games like The Witcher 3 and Doom with max settings. Given that context, not only does WoW still look good to me, but I think it looks better in some cases. If you crank all the settings up you will get fantastic lighting and shadows, and coupled with Blizzard’s unparalleled art direction you are talking about an absolute visual feast.
One aspect of WoW that I’m simply not qualified to talk to is mechanics and balancing, that discussion tends to stay within the more hardcore circles. I couldn’t tell you if the dungeon and raid mechanics are finely tuned or not, or whether or not each class is perfectly balanced. I can tell you that so far I love each class I’ve tried, which is the Paladin, Demon Hunter, and a Shadow Priest, and the dungeons are really fun and challenging (the challenge comes at the higher difficulty levels). The difficulty level is never unmanageable and a lot of that comes down to finding the right group. For instance, some of the world quests will require you take down an elite enemy which you won’t be able to do alone. But if you hang out in the area and ask around, you’ll likely find people to team up with. And, of course, if you have a guild you can always recruit from that bunch.
The WoW community appears to be happy with Legion and there’s no wondering why. In just about every regard, Blizzard has either completely overhauled the experience, like PVP, or tuned it up and added a thick layer of polish. The game is still fundamentally the same as its ever been, so if you didn’t like it before, you probably won’t like it now. But to anyone who still enjoys MMOs, or who has become disengaged with WoW during its stagnant years, this is definitely the time to jump back in.
Victor Grunn on the Game Mechanics of Legion
The most shiny and eye-catching change to WoW’s character progression is the introduction of artifacts. Every class is able to unlock a total of three different artifact weapons – each with their own unique lore-filled quest, and each locked to one of the class’ three talent specializations. Artifacts are able to be upgraded with a linked skill point system, roughly similar to how talent trees themselves used to function back in the day – players will accrue artifact experience, getting points to spend on their weapon at certain (and ever increasing) target experience amounts. Spending these points can both passively enhance the power of existing abilities, or even add whole new (and usually flashy!) powers. For example, the Death Knight artifact “Armageddon” for the Unholy specialization immediately grants an ability to summon skeleton pets to attack the player’s targets. That made me excited to play a Death Knight again, making it feel as if I were experiencing some massive upgrade in power immediately, rather than looking forward to more incremental improvements throughout the course of leveling.
Ultimately, every ability on each of the three artifact weapons can be unlocked – though prepare for a rather long experience grind to manage this, especially as the required amount of artifact experience increases with each point gained. Note that gaining artifact experience isn’t as simple as grinding mobs or doing quests – instead, special item drops (commonly rewarded from quests, or from rare mob kills) grant experience when used. In practice, this isn’t terribly different from straight-up old-fashioned grinding – it’s just a bit more ‘streaky’ since it’s drop dependant. For those wondering if artifact weapons means an end to getting new, more exciting weapons – the answer seems to be a partial yes. No, even the biggest Murloc isn’t about to drop a replacement for Armageddon, but there are three ‘equipment slots’ each artifact has, allowing particular skills to be enhanced above and beyond their norm. Armor, however, still drops – and legendary pieces can contain further modifiers for the artifact weapon, putting a new spin on the power-up process.
While all of this sounds and feels neat, there’s a tradeoff involved: despite being able to reach level 110, there’s little in the way of class skills and talents that come from the normal levelling experience. Most – in fact, nearly all – of the cool new powers are locked away inside of the artifacts. Once the justified excitement of the initial artifact system wears off, the reality becomes clear: the artifact weapon has taken the place of the standard ‘leveling up unlocks powers’ process. It’s now just a little less linear, and much more time consuming. It’s easy to take that as a complaint, and from a pure standpoint of time-invested-versus-payoff, it would be. But analyzing game mechanics in terms of brutal efficiency misses the point. The artifact system makes accruing new powers feel a lot more cool and rewarding, and that’s a straight-up improvement over the old system of getting powers immediately upon leveling up.
The Warlords of Draenor experience of running your own personal fiefdom makes a return in Legion. Instead of allowing you to build and develop your own private martial-law-imposed city, the focus in Legion is on class halls. That’s right: this time around you become the effective boss of your entire class, marshalling the specific talents of death knights, rogues, druids and every other class in WoW. Right off the bat, there’s a good share of content here: each class gets their own headquarters, complete with their own NPCs to recruit, quests to do, and storyline to follow. The Warlord experience in the previous expansion was positive, but slightly marred by the fact that going through the whole experience on an alt felt entirely ‘same’-y, despite the ability to slightly differentiate build layouts of your personal kingdom. This time around, the content differences between classes promise to be very distinct.
Other than the considerable changes to presentation, the core mechanics remain similar to what they were in Warlords of Draenor. Individual NPCs are recruited and assigned to quests. These quests take hours to complete, and have a percentage-based success which is calculated based on the appropriateness of your NPCs to the task. The real focus is on the abilities of quest bosses versus NPC abilities: in short, bosses have abilities that hinder success, but they can be countered by specific abilities that NPCs have. The goal is to assign the right mix of allies to the right threats, thus raising the odds of success as high as possible – including well over 100%. Then you simply wait for the quest to complete, and eventually you’ll be informed of the success or failure of your subordinates’ efforts. Doing all this rewards gold, experience and other toys for the player, all with a relative minimum of interaction. On the whole, it’s nice to login to the game each day and receive instant notification of some progress you’ve made, even while you were off doing other things like ‘going to work’ or ‘having a family’.
Of course, ‘not playing World of Warcraft’ isn’t a pleasant experience for some people. Those of you whose addiction runs deep are in luck: Blizzard has released a mobile app for WoW which allows you to micromanage these Order Hall quests entirely through your phone. You can be notified of quest completions, recruit allies and start new quests, all without having to login to the desktop version of the game. Personally, I’m starting to prefer the bliss of simply not thinking about WoW while I go throughout my day, and then logging in to some typically pleasant surprises once I actually sit down for a bit of dungeon crawling. Others will more likely enjoy the ability to micro-manage things in quick minute-long sessions while they’re off doing more productive things.
Beyond the cosmetic, storyline, and app-convenience changes, there’s a few other changes from what Warlords of Draenor originally introduced. For one thing, there’s now a kind of ‘overkill’ bonus for missions: while getting to 100% ‘odds of success’ of course guarantees that a given mission will complete, it’s now possible to go over 100% – and have a chance at unlocking bonus rewards. Typically the bonuses are more straightforward and marginal payoffs rather than truly exciting things – count on ‘more artifact experience and gold’ being standard – but it helps maintain some of the thrill of gambling, even when you’re otherwise guaranteed to succeed on a given mission. Class hall upgrades are a bit more linear now, and instead of choosing what particular buildings to construct a la Warlords, you now choose between one of two different upgrade possibilities at certain points of progress. This maintains the difference between halls, even among those of the same class, while making it much easier to understand just what the ultimate choices on offer really are.
There’s more to the new mechanics of Legion than all this – including a whole new class (the Demon Hunter), new PVP abilities and ways to acquire them, and more. But by now it’s clear that the abundance and general quality of the content Legion brings to the World of Warcraft universe is considerable in every way.