World of Warcraft is doing mounts again. I've ridden tigers and raptors and drakes since 2004, but never have I ridden something that doesn't feel like I'm controlling a floating orb in the sky with WASD controls. In Dragonflight, the game's scale-strapped expansion due out later this year, you get a dragon and it transforms what traversal has meant in the MMO for the past 18 years.
Dragonriding doesn't replace the game's existing flying mount system. Dragonriding mounts are separate and you'll gather them as you explore the Dragon Isles. They're fueled by the Vigor resource that builds when you're grounded or running without a mount; it looks and works sort of like a mana bar does for spellcasters. If you run out, you drop down to the ground and have to wait to ascend again. When you have at least one Vigor built up (there are three in total), you can expend it to lift off from the ground. Once you're flying, you can tilt your dragon down to gain speed and up to even yourself out. It works exactly like you'd expect it to, but that's only half of it.
While you're on your dragonriding mount, you can use an additional point of Vigor to flap yourself upward, or you can essentially hit the dragon nitrous and propel yourself forward. These two abilities, combined with your ability to lengthen the time that you're on the mount by pitching your dragon's nose downward to build speed, give dragonriding the potential to be one of the smartest additions to WoW in a long time.
The early leveling experience of any new WoW expansion typically involves a lot of regular mount riding until you eventually hit max level or reach a point where you can hop onto your flying mount and leave the dirt roads behind. As the game has grown, the zones have gotten bigger and more dense with enemies and landmasses. It can be hard to get to where you want to go, especially as you spend hours and hours picking up quests and traveling to the marked locations on your map. For the longest time, this was accepted as the contract you sign for playing an MMO.
Dragonriding is the best argument for why you don't have to accept that anymore. Riding a dragon in Dragonflight reminds me a lot of the most recent example where I spent hundreds of hours on a mount that felt good to control: Elden Ring. Torrent isn't groundbreaking for a videogame horse, but the way you can shift him into a sprint and double-jump spam your way into areas you maybe weren't supposed to get to is why he works. Elden Ring has a massive, beautiful world and, naturally, you want to dig into it and see what you can nudge your way into.
In my few hours with the Dragonflight alpha this week, dragonriding feels like WoW's version of Torrent, its version of the kind of satisfying mount that you'd usually find in a singleplayer game; it feels malleable in a way that MMO systems usually have to iterate away. Dragonriding is a system that's sticky enough that you have to obey the rules of flight and use your Vigor wisely, while also loose enough that it won't be tedious over time.
It's a thrill to finish cleaning up some gnolls for a quest, survey the area for a cliff, and leap off of it to conserve Vigor for an uninterrupted glide back to town. There was a moment in the alpha where I fell off the top of a three-tiered circular platform and was able to mount up on the middle section, dive off the ledge, and pull myself back to where I was. It might be easy to see Dragonriding as a flying mount with drawbacks, but if you put in the effort, it can be a tool to save yourself time moving around in a world designed for you to do that 90% of the time.
My only worry with Dragonriding is that it might turn out to be one of the many systems that Dragonflight leaves behind when the next expansion comes out. A flying mount with specific mechanics like these changes the relationship you have with the environment. Mountains are no longer a chore to climb and spread out quest objectives don't feel like a drag to find. I imagine a lot of Dragonflight's world design had to incorporate the fact every player has the ability to soar through it. As a result, the zone I played, Azure Span, appears to be one of the game's biggest.
Dragonriding made it really hard to go back to riding a dragon that can't utilize the cliffs and cracks in Azeroth to get around. MMOs get a lot of criticism for how dull it is running from monster to monster hitting the same series of buttons over and over. Dragonriding is the first major system in WoW you can't harness and turn into a bullet point guide. It's unwieldy and dynamic in ways that the game rarely gets to play with and it has me thinking about what it could be like if WoW built on it in the future.