With the Legion expansion, World of Warcraft enters its endgame

WoW Legion art

The most interesting thing about Legion, World of Warcraft’s sixth expansion pack, isn’t its new features or its new hero class or its new landmass. It’s how much is coming to an end, for both the world and its characters. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have many years left in it, as even its subscription low of 5.6 million subscribers makes it a money-making machine, just that Blizzard appears to have finally decided that it’s time to start wrapping up at least the main plot threads.

Already we’ve seen the first steps to that. The Alliance and the Horde have more or less settled their differences for the moment, with the Horde having deposed its jerkass warchief Garrosh, and even xenophobe King Varian Wrynn finally acknowledging their honour and declaring a temporary truce until they do something else. There’s never really been much of a war between the two sides anyway, but that really confirmed that it just wasn’t ever really going to happen.

A burning rematch

Even as that final fight was going on in Pandaria though, there were hints of the real threat that’s been hanging over the game since Warcraft III—The Burning Legion, an army of demons still pissed at having been defeated before. Warlords of Draenor then set them up for new players. Now, they’re back for the rematch, with Wrathion no doubt sitting back going “See? Told you so! Please continue not being worried by my name. Or any of the crap I did in the novels you’ve not read.”

It seems unlikely that the Legion will be dealt with in a single expansion. They’re very much the Big Bad of the Warcraft universe, as well as a keystone in much of its story so far—the corruption of the Orcs, the creation of the Lich King, and their leader one of Azeroth’s fallen Titans. It seems very likely that this one will end with their portal simply being closed and a warning that they’re going to arrive in force in a couple of packs time—ideally with another Cataclysm style reboot of at least some of the old world, where their attack would actually have resonance to Warcraft players. They badly need to be out in force, burning the fields of Westfall, sacking Orgrimmar, and openly warring against all—not simply sticking their leaders in a dungeon and waiting for the first raid group.

illidan stormrage

Illidan Stormrage4 Full

Even as a prelude though, their arrival is end of an era stuff, and Blizzard looks to be embracing that across the board as it moves its pieces into place. Not only in-game have we been told that both the Horde and Alliance will need to unite against the foe, as has more or less happened now despite much lingering resentment and a lot of fighting in places like Alterac Valley, Blizzard is actively tying up its loose ends. The biggest of those is Illidan Stormrage, the “You are not prepared!” guy. In lore, he’s one of Warcraft’s more interesting characters—right on the border of hero and villain. In The Burning Crusade, he just got turned into a snarling baddie solely for the sake of having a cool boss.

Blizzard has long regretted that and promised to try and fix it. In Legion, they’re bringing him back, most likely for redemption, starting by turning his original sin into a new Hero Class—Demon Hunters, complete with the kind of transforming powers and extra mobility that seem custom designed to make poor Worgen players feel even more sidelined than ever before. On top of that, they’re also answering at least one long-held player request by setting a raid in the Emerald Dream—essentially, the template for Azeroth before people came along. It’s been a strong contender for a whole expansion pack since the game started, little dips into it now and then notwithstanding.

Demon hunters.

Demon hunters.

In the realm of possibilities, Legion also offers a few tantalising ones for what’s coming next. Having shown everyone what the Emerald Dream is, it’s an even stronger contender for an intermediate adventure between dealing with the Legion. The cast page also promises a big role for Forsaken leader Sylvanas Windrunner, Warcraft’s current top candidate for Most Likely To Backstab Literally Everyone, and the servants of Queen Azshara of the naga—one of the few Warcraft villains yet to take her turn being beaten up by several million people until loot falls out of her bottom. At least, not in the modern day setting—the time travelling Well of Eternity fight doesn’t count. That’s very likely to change soon, thanks to her long affiliations with both Illidan and the Burning Legion.

New features, mild excitement

The Broken Isles

Broken Isles

As far as the other features go, there’s lots to look forward to, though not much worth screaming in excitement over just yet. The new continent of The Broken Isles will almost certainly be a great place to explore. Blizzard is in a class of its own when it comes to PvE content. The new loot looks pleasantly shiny, particularly the legendary weapons intended to be kept and customised with new powers and looks rather than thrown away in favour of every shiny new thing that comes along. You get to wield Doomhammer. That’s something that should define a character’s career, not 10 levels.

A new currency called Artifact Power will offer upgrades, both visually and in terms of abilities—a trait tree to unlock. Blizzard showed off a couple already. The Paladin’s Ashbringer doesn’t look to offer many alternatives on its very linear unlock tree, but having a new progression system should make it more interesting to keep around than if it was just about whacking things harder. Ashbringer for instance will mimic Templar’s Verdict or Divine Storm after two seconds. The Frost Death Knight meanwhile, wielding twin rune-blades Icebringer and Soulreaper, looks to offer more choice, as well as showcasing the very powerful ability to raise allies with full health and mana, and perform a self-resurrection after death. Weapons also have variants and Heroes of the Storm style skins so that not everyone is wielding the exact same weapon—Purified Ashbringer, Flaming Ashbringer, Corrupted Ashbringer and Shattered Ashbringer, complete with a choice of colours. Even druids get to take part in the customisation, with their Artifact weapons altering their beast forms too.

One of the new Ashbringer variants.

One of the new Ashbringer variants.

This feels like a great idea, albeit a little diminished by the fact that most of Blizzard’s big changes each expansion only last until the next one. It’s particularly hard to get excited about the class-specific Order Halls, which both replace the Garrisons from Draenor and throw them onto the pile of Scryer rep points and other abandoned mechanics. Even so, there’s some interesting stuff on offer.

I’m particularly glad to see the return of class-based quests, which were phased out of the main game long ago but added a real spark to the adventuring. Going out to unlock druid forms was an adventure in itself, as was the warlock’s need to defeat and impress various Fel horrors instead of just being given their pager numbers. The first for each new class and spec involves tracking down the Artifact weapon, and that’s a great idea—retrieving shards of Frostmourne from Icecrown, Monks returning to Pandaria, going to gather some fallen scales from Deathwing, and so on.

Is this the expansion that will revive World of Warcraft’s fortunes? No. It’ll help the numbers, but it feels like the last big push for fresh blood was Pandaria, with both this and Draenor far more about pandering to the base. The return of old characters, the focus on famous weapons, the war that we’ve been waiting for ten years to see properly ignite are all there for players who are already invested in their characters and, honestly, are willing to tolerate WoW’s modern clunkiness.

And that’s fine. There are enough players for that to sustain itself, and it seems only fair that Blizzard finally finishes the story it began all those years ago. It’s not as if there won’t be many more left to tell if the audience sticks around. World of Warcraft has a whole expanded universe of other worlds to explore, with much of Azeroth itself still uncharted—never mind unvisited. The glory days are over, but the adventure continues, and probably will for many more years. After all, if World of Warcraft were to draw to a close, where would Blizzard get its new Hearthstone cards?