I've been hanging out in Azeroth (and beyond) since Blizzard first pushed out its unexpected segue into MMOs, and even now, with Shadowlands launching this month, when I think about World of Warcraft I go back to the early days. Not the time that Classic has captured, but those first expansions. Burning Crusade. Wrath of the Lich King. Those were the best days. And now they're in a museum, along with every other expansion, where they can get the attention they deserve.
World of Warcraft's expansions always end up in a weird position when they're in the rear view mirror, especially since the launch of Cataclysm in 2010. Cataclysm effectively rebuilt Azeroth, dramatically changing every area and pushing forward the story of WoW with an almost reckless gusto. I loved it, but it made returning to the previous expansions very strange.
See, Cataclysm completely transformed the status quo and, as well as adding new high-level areas, it added plenty of new characters, quests and storylines to the existing areas, which players experienced as they journeyed from level one to 60. But the moment you left Azeroth and travelled the Outlands, you were effectively hurled back in time. A trip to Northrend would result in the same dissonance. Back in Orgrimmar, there was a new warchief, but you could still find that same character hanging out in WotLK, working for Thrall's version of the Horde.
With every new expansion, the older ones became less relevant and more out of place. The result was that the massive middle chunk of WoW became something you rushed through to get to the flashy new stuff. My favourite locations became chores, and while the levelling experience was brisk, that also meant I never really had to engage with their unique hooks. With Shadowlands, that way of doing things has gone in the bin.
The Shadowlands pre-patch brought about a massive level squish, setting the maximum level to 50, with Shadowlands bumping it up to 60 when it arrives. Naturally, this has been accompanied by a significant change to the levelling cadence. Spreading out this comparatively meagre number of levels across all of these expansions would have been disastrous for the sense of progression, so Blizzard's solution has been to let players simply pick an expansion they want to spend time in, with some help from a time-travelling dragon.
Here's how it works: You create a new character, spend ten levels in a new area that serves as a tutorial (unless you're playing as an allied race, in which case you'll start at ten straight away) and then you get a choice about where you'll continue levelling up. You simply visit a noticeboard or Chromie, the aforementioned dragon, and choose one expansion. That's where you'll spend all your time before reaching Shadowlands.
WoW acknowledges that all of these expansions take place in the past, and now they serve as a way to prepare you for the main course. Each expansion is like this discrete wing of a museum that lets you soak up a slice of Azeroth's history before heading to Shadowlands. New players will still be directed towards Battle for Azeroth, which provides the greatest context for Shadowlands, but if you're a returning player you might be a bit sick of the last expansion—especially since it was a pretty divisive one—and maybe you'd prefer revisiting some older haunts.
The levelling experience is now so fast that you still won't be spending that long in whichever older expansion you choose, but it actually feels less like you're rushing than it did when the process was longer and spread out across multiple expansions. You don't have days or weeks of grinding through old content to get through, which will hopefully be a weight off your shoulders. It certainly has been for me, which has allowed me to finally enjoy the levelling process again. I'm reading quest text, I'm not instantly muting the audio and I'm being constantly reminded about all the things I enjoyed about these locations and quests before they became part of WoW's flabby midsection.
It's a fantastic solution that fixes several issues, even if it seems like an odd one on paper. It gives the expansions room to show off, respects the player's time and actually offers way more control over the journey from one to 50. Picking an expansion doesn't mean you're locked into it, either, so if it ends up not being your cup of tea, you can just head to another wing of the museum.
Since the change, I've found myself doing more nostalgic sightseeing. There's time to focus, to explore. It makes such a difference to be able to just pick a destination and make that your temporary home, regardless of your level, and then only leave when you're ready to hit up whatever's new and hot. I've visited these places countless times since my first adventures, but it's been an incredibly long time since I've actually wanted to spend time in them. It's not just a great way to revisit beloved destinations; for me these expansions are also portals to the eras in which I first played them, reminding me who I was a decade ago.
The Burning Crusade feels like a cosy blanket that once helped me get through a break-up when I was 21. I remember spending days just sitting at my desk behind the sofa, levelling up my blood elf warlock with my flatmate. I'd played a fair amount of WoW before that, but this was when it really got its claws in me. Revisiting it is a slightly bittersweet experience, though. WotLK, meanwhile, is all good memories. Coming out of my shell and actually making friends in my guild, finally venturing into intimidating raids, spending hours just helping my new buds get cool mounts—Northrend is where I feel at my most sociable. I bet I could even come up with fond memories of Mists of Pandaria if I thought long and hard.
So it's a positive change, but it comes with a cost for anyone who still cares about their character's personal arcs. Any new characters you make now won't be forging their legacy across countless crises and conflicts. Instead they'll be jumping into Shadowlands as pretty new recruits who were never part of these massive historical events. Does it really matter? Probably not, but I'm still a bit sad that my alts will only ever be witnesses, technically, to a repeat of history, rather than being genuinely involved with it.
If you're thinking of returning to WoW for Shadowlands and you're wondering what expansion to devote 40 levels to, check out our World of Warcraft expansion rankings. Steven is, of course, completely wrong to put WotLK so far down, though I can't deny that it's very dated now. Old stuff is great though. I'm old and still wonderful. Look, just let me have this.