I didn't expect to be blown away by the look of the World of Warcraft: Dragonflight alpha but the Azure Span and Forbidden Reach zones have prompted me to take more screenshots than I have in the last year of playing WoW.
Maybe I'm just tired of the other-worldliness of the Shadowlands, but the Azure Span certainly delivers us the relative normality of Azeroth—and I mean that in a good way. From the moment I was ported into the area at level 65, I was reminded of a more colourful Mount Hyjal.
Most of the quests that I encountered in this zone are fairly unremarkable, and honestly, that's fine. After saving the world (afterlife?) for the last couple of years, I'm happy to return to killing boars, figuratively speaking.
Having said that, there are a couple of quests that have neat touches and reminded me that World of Warcraft has come a long way in the last few years: There's one where you need to deliver packages, for example, and you have letters swirling around your character. Or another where you need to create a Hearthstone card, and then watch the game play out in one of the inns.
Some enemies and creatures have had notable glow-ups, too. The ice elementals you encounter here leave behind icy statues when killed and Revenants also have shiny new models. But I can't possibly talk about Azure Span without mentioning the Otteruk—I mean, look at those faces!
One of the biggest changes coming in Dragonflight is the ability to take to the air right at the beginning of the expansion. Historically, flying wouldn't be made available until quite a way in, and even then, it would be locked behind reputation levels and other requirements. This time around though, we have dragon riding.
I really wasn't expecting dragon riding to be as fun as it is, and the Azure Span gives you plenty of opportunities to try it out, with numerous quests ending on elevated spots. Naturally, you'll also need to pick up the next quest across the other side of the map. This gives you the perfect opportunity to get to grips with the mechanics of spending and regaining vitality but also gives you lots of scope for exploring if riding everywhere on a ground mount is offputting.
The Azure Span isn't all lush forests and pleasant pastures though. There are a couple of snowy regions, a large, lava-filled cavern, and there's even an area that practically screams Coldarra, if you're familiar with that place in Northrend, which makes total sense considering who we meet in the Azure Span.
Forbidden Reach is the dracthyr evoker starting zone and you'll arrive here at level 58, once you've finished creating your new dragon-themed character and load into the game for the first time.
The first few quests take place indoors and you'll need to free fellow dracthyr, collect items, and kill enemies—nothing particularly new here. In fact, it kind of reminds me of the demon hunter starting area. Thankfully, you get to venture outside pretty quickly and that's when you really start to appreciate how far World of Warcraft has come in the last 18 years.
I'm not sure what I was expecting the Forbidden Reach to look like. Maybe something quite grim and broken, something that the new race is desperate to escape from, but it's actually far different to that—on the surface, at least.
The minute you step outside you'll see a verdant landscape of trees and other vegetation, complete with a mountainous backdrop. I don't often feel the need to take screenshots in WoW but I had to snap several when I first stepped outside here. Even the wildlife is striking, with large, colourful wasp-type creatures and brightly coloured beetles going about their business. Perhaps these are present in the Azure Span too, but I was too busy dragon riding everywhere and may have missed them.
The questing in the Forbidden Reach is what you'd expect from a starting zone. You are gradually introduced to different dracthyr abilities and get to test them out. One of my favourite quests was having to use the Emerald Blossom spell to heal groups of NPCs—there is just something very satisfying about that ability and seeing the green healing numbers pop up.
It's here that you'll get to learn the dracthyr racial "Soar" ability, which is essentially the same as dragon riding, only without a mount. You're presented with a tall cliff and rings to fly through so you can get a feel for it, and the zone offers plenty of high spots and opportunities to use it to traverse to your next destination.
One of the more fun—and slightly thought-provoking—parts of the dracthyr introductory questline is when you finally reach Orgrimmar, and I'd assume it's the same for Stormwind City as alliance. The capital's residents have varying reactions to your appearance among them, calling out things like "I'm not afraid of you, dragon!" and "Do you know Alexstrasza?". There's even a Game of Thrones reference with "What do dragons eat, anyway?".
Dungeons and dragons
There are currently two new dungeons available for testing in the alpha: Neltharus and Uldaman: Legacy of Tyr, a revamp of the original, vanilla dungeon.
Neltharus is a relatively quick dungeon with lots of trash packs scattered along corridors and inside the different rooms. The four bosses range from a large, fiery mammoth, complete with tentacles, to a boss that can chain you to the floor and cause fire to erupt beneath you. Speaking of which, this is definitely a dungeon where you'll want to be especially aware of ground effects as you're gonna need to do a lot of dodging if you want to avoid standing in fire. Should be interesting with a few Mythic Plus affixes thrown in.
Uldaman, on the other hand, feels quite a bit tougher. The entire place has been revamped with updated visuals and it's a lot more linear than the original. A couple of the bosses might cause issues on higher difficulties, especially with the Tyrannical affix, but they're a lot of fun once you figure out the mechanics.
Interestingly, there's a wall in Uldaman that requires Dragon Isles Mining to break (though apparently, it can currently be destroyed by attacking it) which reveals a mole machine, letting you travel from the entrance of the dungeon to that point or vice versa. It will be interesting to see if other professions play a role in opening up shortcuts or maybe optional boss rooms in the other Dragonflight dungeons.
There has been some speculation that the expansion is being rushed, but while the alpha might seem quite late compared to previous expansions, this time around it's a lot more focused, only giving testers access to certain areas or instances in each build.
We've only seen two zones and two new dungeons so far, so it's entirely too early to say whether it will be worth returning for Dragonflight. That said, I'm cautiously excited about the new expansion and I can't wait to see what the other zones offer.
And to do more dragon riding, obviously.