World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor hands-on

On the PvE side, raid sizes are being reworked – again – to create a more accessible experience. Raids will be available in Raid Finder, Normal and Heroic difficulties for any number of players between 10 and 25, their encounters scaling on the fly to match the number of friends you bring. If someone drops out, you won't need to wait for a replacement. The best rewards, however, will be available to guilds who crack raid encounters on 'Mythic' difficulty, which will be balanced for – and require – 20 players. It seems like a smart compromise between the needs of the hardcore set and weekend warriors who just want a chance to see dungeons they'd previously been locked out of.

Blizzard walk a thin line between giving their community what they want and telling them what they need – but they seem to walk it confidently, at least in Warlords of Draenor's case.

“We want you to stay engaged in the game and not become dispassionate about it,” says John Lagrave. “We have our own internal testing sessions, and I'll tell you – the session for our Blizzcon build was brutal. We're very critical, and there's lots of things that we will be doing and changing from our own criticism – plus what we get from the community. It's a constant process.”

Some of the biggest cheers I heard at Blizzcon were for Warlords of Draenor features that seem innocuous from the outside. WoW's inventory is being updated, so that you'll be able to easily set filters for your bags and sort them quickly. Collectible items such as heirlooms, toys and tabards are becoming part of the collections system – as opposed to taking up bank space – and quest items will no longer go into your inventory at all. You'll be able to craft using materials that are in your bank, Guild Wars 2-style. These quality-of-life improvements will likely shave off millions of hours busywork across the breadth of WoW's audience.

No one feature received an outpouring of approval quite like the update to character models, however. Vanilla WoW's original races are all getting upgraded with more detailed models, high-res textures, and new animations that include facial expressions for emotes. Blizzard are recording new voice work, too, so expect to hear a bunch of new variations on “ungh!” and “I can't cast that now!” The Burning Crusade races are set to be updated shortly after the expansion launches.

World of Warcraft is also, at long last, getting a form of player housing. You'll be able to create and manage a garrison on Draenor that works a little bit like a base in the original strategy games. You'll pick from plots of land, and build and upgrade structures that provide game-wide benefits. You might build crafting buildings that give you limited access to professions that you don't otherwise have, or buffs that you take with you into the wider world.

Garrisons will also act as the basis for a new kind of daily quest. Through your town's inn you'll build up a party of NPC adventurers who can be sent on adventures that take hours of real time to complete. They'll have their own traits and levelling paths, and sending the right people on the right jobs will yield rewards such as exclusive items, mounts and randomised chests. It's a substantial extension of the Tillers' farm system from Mists of Pandaria, with much further-reaching implications for your daily life within the game – and for your free time. It's also equivalent to Pet Battling, in that it's an addition to an expansion that looks a bit like a nonsequitur on the surface, but which will probably end up being the most strikingly new-feeling addition for players who have had almost a decade to get used to the game it's attached to.

Your garrison will be a part of the open world, separated from those of other players using – again – seamless phasing. If you want to invite a friend over, that'll be Some parts of Draenor will be more familiar than others. ...even purple forests trapped in eternal darkness. Player-built garrisons can be set up anywhere... possible – but it's unclear at this stage whether or not it'll be possible to discover other people's towns or followers in a more informal manner.

Every purchase of Warlords of Draenor will, additionally, give you an accountbound token that lets you boost any character you like to level 90. It's a measure that Blizzard are taking to give new or returning players a chance to skip straight to the new stuff, but it's likely to be possible with veterans too. Haven't finished a full set of max-level alts yet? You just got one for free. These insta-90s will start with a set of equipment and some consumables appropriate to their level.

I imagine that some dedicated players will feel their investment has been cheapened by letting total newbies skip nine years' worth of content, but it's a pragmatic move by Blizzard and there's a good chance it'll be the last little push required by those of us who are at any point only a few clicks from resubscribing. Blizzard make changes like this from a position of authority: even after all this time, World of Warcraft is the game to beat – and even when a new contender improves on this or that system, its like can be replicated within WoW – and improved upon – in no time at all. This expansion modernises the game across the board.

Warlords of Draenor strikes me as an attempt to level the playing field in anticipation of the future. It's varied, certainly, but safe in the sense that it in no way reaches deep into the crust of the game to find something new. Even its narrative moves backwards rather than forwards to find something fresh to present to fans. At its most radical, the expansion rethinks systems like raiding without ultimately changing the purpose they've always served. Lapsed players and dedicated fans alike might have expected something a little more dramatic, this long into the game's life – but then again, perhaps it's not a surprise. Blizzard are still sitting at the top of the mountain, and they've got no reason to shake the foundations.