World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor hands-on

World of Warcraft is nine years old. If you want to take a moment to let that sink in, that's perfectly understandable. It has remained the biggest subscription-based MMO in the world throughout that period: it's still huge, even if the prevailing narrative surrounding it is of an empire in gradual decline. 7.6 million players doesn't really feel like decline: more like erosion, in the sense that a mountain erodes.

Warlords of Draenor is the first of a new kind of expansion for World of Warcraft. It's leaner, in some senses, than the expansions that have come before. It adds a new continent – the orc homeworld of Draenor, predestruction – and new features, plus tweaks to raids, the UI, and the game engine, but no new classes or races. On the surface, it appears more considered and modest than Cataclysm or Wrath of the Lich King – and, in returning the focus to the orcs, it's less of a tonal departure than Mists of Pandaria.

Blizzard are gearing up production on World of Warcraft with a view to putting out boxed expansions every year – rather than every 18 months-ish as it was before. They talk about having plans for the WoW expansion after this one, and the one after that, and the one after that: a salvo of erosion-slaying magic bullets loaded in a revolver, with Warlords of Draenor sitting ready in the first chamber.

At least, that's how Warcraft boss Chris Metzen put it, announcing the expansion at Blizzcon. I asked WoW producer John Lagrave about it later – how possible is it, in reality, to plan for the needs of a gaming community that far in advance?

“Let me continue the analogy,” he says. “First we have to build the bullet – and we're building a bullet for a gun we don't know the calibre of yet, so there's a lot of give and take. We have a plan for Warlords of Draenor – that's in the chamber and is being fired. For the next expansion, we're in talks about it. We focus, initially, on the story we're going to tell. Once we've got that, we try to figure out a sentence or two about what the 'vibe' is. What's going to be engaging? What's going to be fun? What is interesting about it?”

Warlords of Draenor is intended to recapture the feel of orcs-and-humans-era Warcraft, and to reintroduce the characters and conflicts that fans have followed for decades but that recent WoW acolytes might have missed among the panda warriors and world-consuming dragons. It's a time-travel story, and the Draenor it features is one that has been referenced but never actually presented in a Warcraft game. It's the same place as The Burning Crusade's Outland, but this isn't a Cataclysm-style overhaul: it's a full alternative take on the planet with entirely new zones to explore.

As players, our dimension-skipping adventure will be prompted by the escape of rogue horde warchief Garrosh Hellscream following his arrest at the conclusion of the 'Siege of Orgrimmar' update. Chasing his dream of an all-orc horde to a new extreme, he binds himself to a mysterious time-travelling ally and journeys to Draenor before the orcs became corrupted and invaded Azeroth. There, he stops the orcs from drinking demonic blood and, in its place, gives them loads of technology from the future and sets about building his own portal to Azeroth. So give a little, take a little, then.

Both factions have an interest in stopping Garrosh's 'Iron Horde', and that leads them to Draenor. An initial 'suicide mission' tutorial experience will take the Alliance and the Horde to Tanaan Jungle – formerly Hellfire Peninsula. After that, the Alliance will help defend a Draenei temple in Shadowmoon Valley, a temperate zone of rolling hills trapped in perpetual night. The Horde head to Frostfire Ridge – roughly where the Blade's Edge Mountains will eventually be – to help the Frostwolf Clan defeat some local ogres.

The Frostwolf Clan in this case is led by The ogre empire is in decline. You're slightly to blame. Orc architecture – 'orchitecture', if you will – hasn't changed. Thrall's dad, Durotan, and the sequence I played through involved helping both of them lay siege to an ogre fortress – at which point, through Pandaria-style phasing, it transitioned into being the Horde base of operations on Draenor. Blizzard have had a lot of experience bending and twisting the WoW engine into new shapes, and their work here displays the same inventiveness and attention to detail that marked out the best bits of Wrath of the Lich King. Post-conquest, the player is asked to free some orc scouts from a nearby ogre village. The path takes you back out of the ogre fortress, pushing through a crowd of Warcraft-style peons carrying stones and lumber back up the hill. It's a nice little nod to the past, and it made me smile.

You'll have to take the long way around, by the way: flying mounts are disabled in Draenor until some point post-launch. The journey to the new level cap of 100 will be made on foot.

In addition to seven new PvE zones, Warlords of Draenor will add seven dungeons – three at max level – as well as two raids with sixteen bosses between them. Blizzard are also taking a pass at Upper Blackrock Spire as part of their programme of classic dungeon reboots, and there'll be a new set of world bosses too. There will also be a full PvP zone on Draenor, called Ashran. It's intended to recapture the old days of World of Warcraft battlegrounds – the skirmishes over Alterac Valley that took days to resolve. Combatants will be drawn in from multiple servers using the cross-realm technology also used to fill out parties in the dungeon finder.

The current structure of WoW PvP is being revised. Blizzard regard the current system as too deterministic, leading players towards fixed rewards through a long grind – they want to shake it up, and they're approaching the problem from multiple angles. PvP matches will now grant random rewards on completion, from bind-on-equip items to rare PvP equipment and bonus Honor. The idea is to surprise players with rewards they weren't expecting, to lead people towards upgrade paths they might not have considered by adding a degree of chance.

The other approach to freshening Player vs Player is the exact opposite. Warlords of Draenor will introduce Trials of the Gladiator, new arena combat events where players use standard, balanced gear – creating a competition that is entirely about skill.

Chris Thursten

Joining in 2011, Chris made his start with PC Gamer turning beautiful trees into magazines, first as a writer and later as deputy editor. Once PCG's reluctant MMO champion , his discovery of Dota 2 in 2012 led him to much darker, stranger places. In 2015, Chris became the editor of PC Gamer Pro, overseeing our online coverage of competitive gaming and esports. He left in 2017, and can be now found making games and recording the Crate & Crowbar podcast.