World of Warcraft, like most MMOs, is obsessed with everything that happens after you reach the level cap. It's there, as the old joke goes, that the real game begins. But with Patch 7.3.5, Blizzard has given players a good reason to go back and start a new level one character and level them all the way up to 110. Not only are there the new Allied Races—cool remixes on existing races like the Void Elves that each have their own unique armor set—but new level-scaling has given old zones the biggest update since Cataclysm launched in 2010. What's old in World of Warcraft is feeling new again.
"We've been really happy with the response," senior game designer Paul Kubit tells me. "Over the past couple of weeks, people have been going back and leveling new characters or picking up old alts that they had abandoned somewhere mid-trip. We're happy to see people able to do things that they weren't able to do in the past, like playing through an entire zone's storyline without feeling like they're sacrificing efficiency or rewards to be able to do so."
The idea is simple: Instead of older zones having a set level for each quest and monster, everything automatically scales to your level like it does in Legion's questing zones. With each of the vanilla zones scaling all the way to 60, you're no longer bound to complete zones in a specific order. Even better, expansions like Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King both scale from 60 to 80, letting you do them in whatever order you like. Combat has also been re-tuned, making monsters hit harder and have more health so that players no longer cut through them in swathes.
I'm one of those people going back to level a new character. While I have a newfound appreciation for World of Warcraft's older quests and Blizzard's witty writing, level-scaling also showcases just how poorly parts of World of Warcraft have aged.
Back to the beginning
It's been quite a while since I've leveled a character all the way from level one. In most cases, I'd either get bored and abandon them or pay for a level boost to skip the grind. In that regard, level-scaling is a huge win for Blizzard. While it doesn't fix all of the problems that Warcraft's older zones have, leveling a new character is much more fun.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of the new system is the way it more naturally casts the spotlight back on World of Warcraft's story. Before, leveling an alternate character was more akin to buying groceries—the objective is to get in there and get it done in as little time as possible. But 7.3.5's level-scaling encourages me to slow down and enjoy the journey. For the first time in World of Warcraft history, I'm actually taking the time to read the paragraphs of dialogue that accompany each quest. Yes, reading quest text feels antiquated compared to The Elder Scrolls Online's excellent voice acting, but Blizzard's hilarious writing more than makes up for it.
World of Warcraft has always been a little goofy, but in reading the quest text I'm discovering a much sillier side that I never realized was there. In Azshara, I helped a sentient raptor—the product of a mad scientist—free her babies and fix a stolen rocket ship that she intended to use to escape her captors for good. Moments later, I was trying to get my hands on a rare crystal by giving laxatives to a stone giant and then trying to scare the literal shit out of it. While more serious fantasy fans might read those sentences and roll their eyes, I love the contrast it strikes to Warcraft's more dramatic expansions. It's good to remember that this was a series that once relied on its own game designers recording voice over lines like "zug-zug."
Level-scaling has also given me an appreciation for just how massive World of Warcraft truly is. When max level, I too often spend my time in only a handful of areas, rarely venturing out beyond the view of Dalaran. It's so easy to forget that, at one time, Azeroth was a place that I liked to simply exist in, like a humble villager instead of a world-saving paragon of heroism. There's so much history and lore that is too easy to overlook in pursuit of that next level or item.
Because quests and monsters always scale to my level, I'm never forced to abandon a zone's questline prematurely because I've outleveled it. I no longer have to ignore monsters because they're too low (or high) level, leaving me to just enjoy the experience and not sweat the small stuff.
But not everything about level-scaling is a smash hit because, while I enjoy immersing myself in the story of each zone, World of Warcraft's leveling is still boring. The reason people rush through it is because, like getting groceries, it's time much better spent elsewhere. You want to get to level 110 as fast as possible so you can sink your teeth into a more challenging kind of grind. For new players, the pace of the starting zones feels awfully outdated compared to other MMOs. Warcraft's early zones could use a much more exciting and fast-paced overhaul.
For veterans, the combat tuning that came with level-scaling doesn't do anything to make it more exciting. Sure, monsters have more HP and don't keel over from a strong breeze, but what good is that larger health pool if you still only have three or four abilities to take it away with?
After the update, many players also found dungeons and zones that were far too difficult. But Blizzard has been keeping a close eye on the community and hotfixing issues where they find them. "We did a couple of touch ups there, for example, to make sure that the game didn't feel overly punishing," Kubit says. "Stepping back, there was an effort to make sure we addressed our combat tuning and make sure that your combat time felt satisfying enough that you were able to respond to enemy abilities and use all of your abilities instead of getting lucky with a Chaos Bolt [critical hit] and one-shotting the enemy."
One area where the combat tuning feels great, at least, is in dungeons. Before the update, low-level dungeons were a great way to earn experience but were so easy you could almost play them blindfolded. Most bosses fell over dead before they could even cast their first spell. With level-scaling, all dungeons are available up to level 60 and each boss has significantly more health, making them feel like proper boss fights. It's a lot of fun to revisit the dungeons that haunted me as a teenager and relive that struggle.
I suspect that your experience with Warcraft's new leveling process will depend on just how much nostalgia you have for those old zones and dungeons. It's a shame that new players are still expected to put up with outdated designs that were fixed in Warcraft's excellent expansions. Normal players, however, will probably enjoy the newfound freedom level-scaling offers, even if it is still ultimately a chore.