Pretty soon, leveling a new World of Warcraft character won't suck

(Image credit: Blizzard)

Starting a new character in World of Warcraft sucks, especially if you're a new player. Back when the Cataclysm expansion launched in 2010, Blizzard overhauled much of Azeroth's original leveling experience to reflect all the improvements it had made to quest design and graphics. But that was 10 years ago, and now Cataclysm is almost twice as old as the original World of Warcraft was when it came out. It shows.

Instead of jumping into the good stuff right away, new characters are forced to grind through a brutal marathon of 110 levels, with the occasional new class ability drip-fed along the way. It's a boring slog that gets better as you reach more recent expansions like Legion, but the whole thing might take you anywhere from 20 to 60 hours depending on how efficiently you race through each zone. It's one of WoW's biggest problems today. How Blizzard let this become the first impression its beloved MMO makes on new players is baffling, but thankfully that's all going to change very soon.

For the first time in WoW's history, Blizzard is adding an entirely new zone exclusively aimed at level 1 players. Along with some massive changes to how levels work, it's a huge improvement. For the first time in forever, I'm excited about starting a new character in World of Warcraft.

Welcome to Exile's Reach 

Two years ago I wrote about what a nightmare it was to get my friend into World of Warcraft for the first time. Enticed by my enthusiasm for WoW's endgame, he jumped into the free trial that lets anyone play a character up to level 20 without having to buy the game or subscribe. But the first 20 levels of World of Warcraft are awful. No matter which race you choose (which determines your starting zone), you're going to spend a lot of time reading heaps of quest text that is no longer relevant to the main plot, while doing what effectively amounts to chores.

These starting zones do an okay job of establishing the flavor of Warcraft's growing number of playable races, but compared to the world-ending stakes of the last few expansions, they feel rote and dull, showcasing little of what makes WoW actually worth playing.

Exile's Reach, the new zone that is now available in the alpha test of WoW's upcoming Shadowlands expansion, changes all of that. It's a brand new start for Warcraft. Instead of an endless stream of "go here, kill X" style of quests, Exile's Reach showcases a lot of the diversity and improvements that make more recent expansions so much fun. 

The story is relatively the same for both Horde and Alliance characters: An expedition for your faction has gone missing on the shores of this uncharted isle, and it's up to you to rescue them. What unfolds next reminds me a lot of Dungeons and Dragons' iconic Red Box beginner kit; a fun little adventure that touches on all the core pillars of Warcraft.

(Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

For a brand new player, Exile's Reach is going to be a much warmer welcome than the old leveling system. Early quests will teach you the basics of combat and even help you understand some of the nuances of your given class. Playing as a druid, I was given one quick quest that explained how my shapeshifting works and what each of my different animals forms are useful for. It's more explanation of a fundamental class feature than WoW has ever given me before. Voice-acted dialogue also does a much better job of telling a story and building drama than reams of written quest text, and I really like the goofy little touches that make no two quests feel the same.

To save my captain's son from being turned into a sacrifice in a ritual to revive an undead dragon, for example, I had to use a gnomish invention to enlarge a nearby boar that I could then use to trample an army of undead soldiers. And like most of WoW's newer zones, Exile's Reach is gorgeous and teeming with hidden treasure and special monsters to kill. None of Azeroth's older zones have that kind of richness.

Fixing what's broken 

The fun isn't over once I reach level 10 and finish Exile's Reach, though. One of the biggest changes in Shadowlands is that Blizzard is refactoring player levels, squishing them down to the original max of level 60. When this change is implemented on live servers, this will effectively shave off half of the unnecessary bloat of the current leveling experience. What's great about this change is that it also makes leveling a much more consistent and rewarding process. New abilities aren't sprinkled over 120 levels, so each time I level up I have some spell or customization option to play with.

Blizzard isn't just fudging the numbers, either. Though I've only just finished Exile's Reach in the alpha test, other players have completely leveled a new character up to 60 and say it takes significantly less time. Instead of maybe 50 hours, normal players might reach level 60 in as little as 15, with some players predicting speedruns taking as little as seven hours.

(Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

You also won't be forced to play through Cataclysm's outdated zones anymore. Once you reach level 10 in Exile's Reach, new players will be whisked off to start the Battle for Azeroth expansion, since its story leads into Shadowlands. Veteran players, however, can choose which expansion they'd prefer to level through.

It's a little confusing, so here's a comparison:

 The old way of leveling: 

  • Old starting zone (level 1 to 10)
  • Old leveling zone (level 10 to 58)
  • Burning Crusade or Wrath of the Lich King (level 58 to 80)
  • Mists of Pandaria or Cataclysm (level 80 to 90)
  • Warlords of Draenor (level 90 to 100)
  • Legion (level 100 to 110)
  • Battle for Azeroth (level 110 to 120)

The new way of leveling: 

  • Exile's Reach (level 1 to 10)
  • Your choice of the eight expansions (level 10 to 50)
  • Shadowlands (level 50 to 60)

Alongside the new Exile's Reach starter zone, World of Warcraft is feeling more beginner-friendly than it ever has. And I like that instead of having to play through the entirety of Warcraft's old expansions, I choose just one. Sure, it makes my whole journey a little shorter, but do I really need to suffer through The Burning Crusade's enormous and empty hellscape again? The worst part now is having to wait a few months until this new system is released on live servers so I can actually start a new character.

For over a decade, World of Warcraft opened with an awful first impression that relied on the old adage "the game doesn't start until you reach max level." But that sentiment has always been an excuse for the fact that players have to endure an unnecessary grind. This new system strikes a nice balance between preserving World of Warcraft's long legacy, and not forcing us to suffer through its most boring parts.

Steven Messner

With over 7 years of experience with in-depth feature reporting, Steven's mission is to chronicle the fascinating ways that games intersect our lives. Whether it's colossal in-game wars in an MMO, or long-haul truckers who turn to games to protect them from the loneliness of the open road, Steven tries to unearth PC gaming's greatest untold stories. His love of PC gaming started extremely early. Without money to spend, he spent an entire day watching the progress bar on a 25mb download of the Heroes of Might and Magic 2 demo that he then played for at least a hundred hours. It was a good demo.