World of Warcraft: Legion bears a terrible weight. In some ways, it feels like an apology for the mistakes made during the previous WoW expansion, Warlords of Draenor. Those mistakes also led many to believe World of Warcraft's days were numbered, and now Legion is tasked with not only making up for lost time, but also proving that World of Warcraft still has time left. Despite all that, Legion is the most confident expansion Blizzard has ever made.
The Burning Legion's invasion of Azeroth might be one of the most dire conflicts explored in World of Warcraft, an impression driven home by the Broken Shore intro that pulls a few pages from Game of Thrones by nonchalantly killing off important characters. But that confidence I see in Legion doesn't just come from going all in on the story—it comes from understanding that this is Blizzard's sixth time releasing an expansion. As I imagine the Lord Illidan would say, they are prepared.
Above: Stormheim is a bleak coastal zone populated by a race of totally-not-vikings, the Vrykul.
On the broken shore
The pre-expansion introduction to Legion starts and, if you're with the Alliance, ends with a bang, but I was a little disappointed that it doesn't keep up that D-Day-style tension beyond its opening chapter. Where Warlords of Draenor captured the feeling of invading a hostile land and establishing a tenuous foothold, the first few hours of Legion feel safe and not nearly as dramatic. I was let down at first, but as I ventured out into the new zones and began digging into their respective questlines, I hardly cared.
Each of the new zones demonstrates Blizzard's experience in storytelling and world design at its best. The new zones are gorgeous, and effortlessly funnel me from one quest to the next. The rainy coastline of Azsuna is my favorite. The crumbling elven ruins that dot its sombre landscape evoke a sad beauty, like a classical painting weathered and broken by time. The quest about the ghost of a prince seeking redemption is just as tragic. A generous sprinkling of voice acting and cutscenes throughout these quests help me sympathize with the characters I fight alongside.
It's almost odd that things seem so bleak when, at the same time, I'm having so much damn fun. At their heart, the quests in Legion remain focused on collecting and killing, but each one takes a chore and turns it into a game of charades where you'll never know what you're expected to do next. Where there isn't a unique wrinkle, like using a squadron of drakelings to destroy defensive towers while an insane mage rains magic missiles on my head, there's always some oddball character stuck in some bizarre predicament, like a pack of stranded sailors being used in Pokémon battles by giants. Even a simple escort quest became delightful when the scheming, mana-addicted elf I rode alongside had to frequently stop to feed his cravings.
Above: A slight update to WoW's lighting does wonders in some areas.
There are times when Legion is outright silly despite its apocalyptic main story, injecting a wonderful sense of personality into the characters I meet. Because of that, Legion achieves something kind of remarkable for an MMO: I don't see a question mark on my map and consider it some chore to be completed on my quest to level 110, but an invitation for fun.
The meat of Legion's endgame raids won't be available for a few weeks, but the world quest system is a smart revamp of daily quests that won't supplant the need for new updates down the road, but should keep Legion from feeling stale during the months in between. World quests are essentially Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls' adventure mode stitched wholesale onto Warcraft, and turns the entirety of the Broken Isles into an endgame zone at 110—meaning I'm not stuck in the same area repeating the same quests over and over, but rather jumping around the Broken Isles day to day completing a variety of objectives for better loot drops. Once I've had some time with the full endgame experience, I hope to have a better idea of whether or not Legion will become stale months down the road. For now, I'm optimistic that as long as Blizzard can keep pace, Legion's endgame will be more accessible and satisfying than Warlords of Draenor ever was.
Still, questing for hours on end can be a grind no matter how inventive the quests are, so I'm always relieved when Legion gives me an excuse to take a quick break. Tending to the new 'order halls' that serve as my headquarters breaks up the questing every few hours. In the most reductive sense, order halls are the garrisons of Warlords of Draenor. While I still have followers that I send out on missions that can take days to complete, there's only five to manage instead of dozens. I like not having to worry about erecting and leveling up buildings, instead focusing on a simple, more focused system of researching new upgrades to my base. Best of all, I'm no longer alone when I'm in my order hall like I was with garrisons. It's fun to return home and see all my druid brethren hanging out together.
While the functionality of order halls is great at establishing some longer term goals, my favorite aspect represents something that World of Warcraft has been lacking for years: class identity. Each order hall is unique to each class, and they all evoke the associated mythos and personality in powerful ways. The Dreamgrove, where druid players call home, is an enchanting meadow that feels heavy with ancient mysticism. By comparison, The Fel Hammer, the demonic spaceship where demon hunters kick back after a day of murder, is burning with nefarious green energy amid the gnashing of the demon prisoners chained to its walls.
There's a generous helping of quests associated with each class that further help establish this renewed sense of identity. I love digging deeper into the lore of my druid, and many quests require using abilities unique to my class, even ones I would never use in any other context. It's a great feeling to dust off an old spell for some clever use in a quest, but, more importantly, there's a selfish satisfaction in knowing that I'm doing something not every class can do.
Above: Some order halls also have extra perks, like the Dreamgrove having portals to various locations in Azeroth.
That sense of affection I'm beginning to feel for my character might just be the most rewarding part of Legion for me. For the first time, I don't just feel like I'm playing a druid—I am a druid. Not that I'm frolicking around in the forest behind my house and trying to commune with trees, but Legion has me more curious about roleplaying in World of Warcraft than I've ever been.
There's no better way to see Warcraft's improved class identity than to take the new demon hunters for a spin. They are, without a doubt, the most well-realized class that Blizzard has ever created. I'm not fond of their dour emo nature, but that's easy to ignore as my demon hunter transforms into a savage monstrosity and obliterates a pack of murlocs with laser beams that shoot out of his damn eyeballs. While I don't find them quite alluring enough to consider switching from my druid, demon hunters are badasses of the highest order.
What makes demon hunters so fun, especially their damage-dealing specialization, is how agile they feel in and out of combat. Whether I'm dashing through a pack of monsters, backflipping away from an attack, or just using their bat-like wings to glide through the air, I always feel like the coolest thing to walk Azeroth since the Arthas first took hold of Frostmourne.
Above: Step aside Cyclops, there's a way cooler hero who shoots lasers from his eyes.
Legacy and lore
If there's one element of Legion that attempts to contribute to that fantasy but falls short, it's the new artifact weapons. Each class specialization now has its own unique weapon that will stay with them until the next expansion, growing in strength alongside the character that wields it. I'm somewhat indifferent to the way artifact weapons work, however. On one hand, I like that they earn their own form of experience points that I can use to unlock nodes in a talent tree, augmenting my abilities. On the other, I resent the way they attempt to appear so legendary and one of a kind when every other player of the same specialization shares the same weapon.
There are cosmetic options to alter the appearance of the weapon to try and make it more unique, but I'm not convinced it's a better system than the traditional method of farming better weapons from dungeons and raids. Fortunately, the weird disconnect that artifact weapons create isn't powerful enough to detract from the enthusiasm I have for what Legion accomplishes.
Above: Druids are extra cool because their artifact weapon also alters their shapeshifted forms.
When it comes to that enthusiasm and those accomplishments, however, there's one massive caveat that hangs above them: Warlords of Draenor had me just as excited at launch before Blizzard ignored it for over a year, leading to one of the darkest times in Warcraft's history. With the quality of questing, order halls, and restored class identity, I feel optimistic that Blizzard is keen to win back my lost faith, but an expansion isn't wholly defined by its opening chapter—the updates that follow will ultimately determine how we remember Legion.
But while much of the endgame, like raids and 'Mythic+' dungeons aren't available yet, Legion already represents World of Warcraft at its all-time best. Even after the weeks spent in the beta and now with the official release, its weakest elements, like artifact weapons, can't get in the way of how much fun I'm having exploring the Broken Isles. Legion's ultimate legacy may depend on what’s to come, but what's available now has me excited about World of Warcraft in a way I haven't felt since my dwarf hunter took his first steps into Dun Morogh a decade ago.