World of Warcraft is nine years old. If you want to take a moment to let that sink in, that's perfectly understandable. It has remained the biggest subscription-based MMO in the world throughout that period: it's still huge, even if the prevailing narrative surrounding it is of an empire in gradual decline. 7.6 million players doesn't really feel like decline: more like erosion, in the sense that a mountain erodes.
Warlords of Draenor is the first of a new kind of expansion for World of Warcraft. It's leaner, in some senses, than the expansions that have come before. It adds a new continent – the orc homeworld of Draenor, predestruction – and new features, plus tweaks to raids, the UI, and the game engine, but no new classes or races. On the surface, it appears more considered and modest than Cataclysm or Wrath of the Lich King – and, in returning the focus to the orcs, it's less of a tonal departure than Mists of Pandaria.
Blizzard are gearing up production on World of Warcraft with a view to putting out boxed expansions every year – rather than every 18 months-ish as it was before. They talk about having plans for the WoW expansion after this one, and the one after that, and the one after that: a salvo of erosion-slaying magic bullets loaded in a revolver, with Warlords of Draenor sitting ready in the first chamber.
At least, that's how Warcraft boss Chris Metzen put it, announcing the expansion at Blizzcon. I asked WoW producer John Lagrave about it later – how possible is it, in reality, to plan for the needs of a gaming community that far in advance?
“Let me continue the analogy,” he says. “First we have to build the bullet – and we're building a bullet for a gun we don't know the calibre of yet, so there's a lot of give and take. We have a plan for Warlords of Draenor – that's in the chamber and is being fired. For the next expansion, we're in talks about it. We focus, initially, on the story we're going to tell. Once we've got that, we try to figure out a sentence or two about what the 'vibe' is. What's going to be engaging? What's going to be fun? What is interesting about it?”
Warlords of Draenor is intended to recapture the feel of orcs-and-humans-era Warcraft, and to reintroduce the characters and conflicts that fans have followed for decades but that recent WoW acolytes might have missed among the panda warriors and world-consuming dragons. It's a time-travel story, and the Draenor it features is one that has been referenced but never actually presented in a Warcraft game. It's the same place as The Burning Crusade's Outland, but this isn't a Cataclysm-style overhaul: it's a full alternative take on the planet with entirely new zones to explore.
As players, our dimension-skipping adventure will be prompted by the escape of rogue horde warchief Garrosh Hellscream following his arrest at the conclusion of the 'Siege of Orgrimmar' update. Chasing his dream of an all-orc horde to a new extreme, he binds himself to a mysterious time-travelling ally and journeys to Draenor before the orcs became corrupted and invaded Azeroth. There, he stops the orcs from drinking demonic blood and, in its place, gives them loads of technology from the future and sets about building his own portal to Azeroth. So give a little, take a little, then.
Both factions have an interest in stopping Garrosh's 'Iron Horde', and that leads them to Draenor. An initial 'suicide mission' tutorial experience will take the Alliance and the Horde to Tanaan Jungle – formerly Hellfire Peninsula. After that, the Alliance will help defend a Draenei temple in Shadowmoon Valley, a temperate zone of rolling hills trapped in perpetual night. The Horde head to Frostfire Ridge – roughly where the Blade's Edge Mountains will eventually be – to help the Frostwolf Clan defeat some local ogres.
The Frostwolf Clan in this case is led by The ogre empire is in decline. You're slightly to blame. Orc architecture – 'orchitecture', if you will – hasn't changed. Thrall's dad, Durotan, and the sequence I played through involved helping both of them lay siege to an ogre fortress – at which point, through Pandaria-style phasing, it transitioned into being the Horde base of operations on Draenor. Blizzard have had a lot of experience bending and twisting the WoW engine into new shapes, and their work here displays the same inventiveness and attention to detail that marked out the best bits of Wrath of the Lich King. Post-conquest, the player is asked to free some orc scouts from a nearby ogre village. The path takes you back out of the ogre fortress, pushing through a crowd of Warcraft-style peons carrying stones and lumber back up the hill. It's a nice little nod to the past, and it made me smile.
You'll have to take the long way around, by the way: flying mounts are disabled in Draenor until some point post-launch. The journey to the new level cap of 100 will be made on foot.
In addition to seven new PvE zones, Warlords of Draenor will add seven dungeons – three at max level – as well as two raids with sixteen bosses between them. Blizzard are also taking a pass at Upper Blackrock Spire as part of their programme of classic dungeon reboots, and there'll be a new set of world bosses too. There will also be a full PvP zone on Draenor, called Ashran. It's intended to recapture the old days of World of Warcraft battlegrounds – the skirmishes over Alterac Valley that took days to resolve. Combatants will be drawn in from multiple servers using the cross-realm technology also used to fill out parties in the dungeon finder.
The current structure of WoW PvP is being revised. Blizzard regard the current system as too deterministic, leading players towards fixed rewards through a long grind – they want to shake it up, and they're approaching the problem from multiple angles. PvP matches will now grant random rewards on completion, from bind-on-equip items to rare PvP equipment and bonus Honor. The idea is to surprise players with rewards they weren't expecting, to lead people towards upgrade paths they might not have considered by adding a degree of chance.
The other approach to freshening Player vs Player is the exact opposite. Warlords of Draenor will introduce Trials of the Gladiator, new arena combat events where players use standard, balanced gear – creating a competition that is entirely about skill.
On the PvE side, raid sizes are being reworked – again – to create a more accessible experience. Raids will be available in Raid Finder, Normal and Heroic difficulties for any number of players between 10 and 25, their encounters scaling on the fly to match the number of friends you bring. If someone drops out, you won't need to wait for a replacement. The best rewards, however, will be available to guilds who crack raid encounters on 'Mythic' difficulty, which will be balanced for – and require – 20 players. It seems like a smart compromise between the needs of the hardcore set and weekend warriors who just want a chance to see dungeons they'd previously been locked out of.
Blizzard walk a thin line between giving their community what they want and telling them what they need – but they seem to walk it confidently, at least in Warlords of Draenor's case.
“We want you to stay engaged in the game and not become dispassionate about it,” says John Lagrave. “We have our own internal testing sessions, and I'll tell you – the session for our Blizzcon build was brutal. We're very critical, and there's lots of things that we will be doing and changing from our own criticism – plus what we get from the community. It's a constant process.”
Some of the biggest cheers I heard at Blizzcon were for Warlords of Draenor features that seem innocuous from the outside. WoW's inventory is being updated, so that you'll be able to easily set filters for your bags and sort them quickly. Collectible items such as heirlooms, toys and tabards are becoming part of the collections system – as opposed to taking up bank space – and quest items will no longer go into your inventory at all. You'll be able to craft using materials that are in your bank, Guild Wars 2-style. These quality-of-life improvements will likely shave off millions of hours busywork across the breadth of WoW's audience.
No one feature received an outpouring of approval quite like the update to character models, however. Vanilla WoW's original races are all getting upgraded with more detailed models, high-res textures, and new animations that include facial expressions for emotes. Blizzard are recording new voice work, too, so expect to hear a bunch of new variations on “ungh!” and “I can't cast that now!” The Burning Crusade races are set to be updated shortly after the expansion launches.
World of Warcraft is also, at long last, getting a form of player housing. You'll be able to create and manage a garrison on Draenor that works a little bit like a base in the original strategy games. You'll pick from plots of land, and build and upgrade structures that provide game-wide benefits. You might build crafting buildings that give you limited access to professions that you don't otherwise have, or buffs that you take with you into the wider world.
Garrisons will also act as the basis for a new kind of daily quest. Through your town's inn you'll build up a party of NPC adventurers who can be sent on adventures that take hours of real time to complete. They'll have their own traits and levelling paths, and sending the right people on the right jobs will yield rewards such as exclusive items, mounts and randomised chests. It's a substantial extension of the Tillers' farm system from Mists of Pandaria, with much further-reaching implications for your daily life within the game – and for your free time. It's also equivalent to Pet Battling, in that it's an addition to an expansion that looks a bit like a nonsequitur on the surface, but which will probably end up being the most strikingly new-feeling addition for players who have had almost a decade to get used to the game it's attached to.
Your garrison will be a part of the open world, separated from those of other players using – again – seamless phasing. If you want to invite a friend over, that'll be Some parts of Draenor will be more familiar than others. ...even purple forests trapped in eternal darkness. Player-built garrisons can be set up anywhere... possible – but it's unclear at this stage whether or not it'll be possible to discover other people's towns or followers in a more informal manner.
Every purchase of Warlords of Draenor will, additionally, give you an accountbound token that lets you boost any character you like to level 90. It's a measure that Blizzard are taking to give new or returning players a chance to skip straight to the new stuff, but it's likely to be possible with veterans too. Haven't finished a full set of max-level alts yet? You just got one for free. These insta-90s will start with a set of equipment and some consumables appropriate to their level.
I imagine that some dedicated players will feel their investment has been cheapened by letting total newbies skip nine years' worth of content, but it's a pragmatic move by Blizzard and there's a good chance it'll be the last little push required by those of us who are at any point only a few clicks from resubscribing. Blizzard make changes like this from a position of authority: even after all this time, World of Warcraft is the game to beat – and even when a new contender improves on this or that system, its like can be replicated within WoW – and improved upon – in no time at all. This expansion modernises the game across the board.
Warlords of Draenor strikes me as an attempt to level the playing field in anticipation of the future. It's varied, certainly, but safe in the sense that it in no way reaches deep into the crust of the game to find something new. Even its narrative moves backwards rather than forwards to find something fresh to present to fans. At its most radical, the expansion rethinks systems like raiding without ultimately changing the purpose they've always served. Lapsed players and dedicated fans alike might have expected something a little more dramatic, this long into the game's life – but then again, perhaps it's not a surprise. Blizzard are still sitting at the top of the mountain, and they've got no reason to shake the foundations.