Two months with World of Warcraft: Legion prove it’s Blizzard’s strongest expansion yet

Note: Because I didn’t play through the majority of Mists of Pandaria or Warlords of Draenor, this review is best treated as a comprehensive update on how WoW has evolved over the past four years rather than a strict list of changes introduced solely in Legion.

World of Warcraft launched almost exactly 12 years ago, on November 23, 2004. I played World of Warcraft for roughly seven months before it launched, as part of the closed beta program, and then from its 2004 debut until 2012. I quit not long after the Mists of Pandaria expansion shipped and was gone until August, 2016 (I wrote a separate story detailing what it was like to come back to the game after so long away). World of Warcraft: Legion is proof that a 12-year-old game can still find ways to innovate and improve itself, and it’s got the strongest storyline of any previous entry.

WoW has always told a story, but the plot has never been particularly solid, and it’s typically played out in a handful of short cutscenes. Legion, in contrast, weaves its story through specific quest lines of the campaign, and it ties together major themes and heroes from WoW’s entire history. World of Warcraft: Legion tasks players with defending their homeworld of Azeroth against the extra-dimensional Burning Legion, and the titular Legion plays for keeps. Heroes die in this expansion, and they aren’t comic-book deaths. You’re playing defense from the beginning, struggling to hold back the tide of an invasion already well underway.

One major mechanic introduced this expansion is that of Artifact weapons — the most powerful weapons ever created on Azeroth, and entrusted to your character in a desperate attempt to even the odds. Blizzard created many of these items specifically for Legion, but longstanding weapons of lore, like Ashbringer and Doomhammer also make appearances. Leveling up your artifact weapon is one of the major ways that heroes gain power in Legion, over and above hitting the increased level cap.

Each specialization within each class gets a custom quest chain for their artifact weapon (three per class, in every case but Demon Hunters, which have two specializations). The Retribution Paladin quest chain begins at the tomb of Uther the Lightbringer, a hero from Warcraft 3.

Each specialization within each class gets a custom quest chain for their artifact weapon. The Retribution Paladin quest chain begins at the tomb of Uther the Lightbringer, a hero from Warcraft 3.

With Legion, Blizzard took another step towards making your hero feel more powerful than they ever have before. As part of the introduction to the expansion, you are declared the leader of your respective class or group. While this is somewhat undermined by seeing a bunch of Paladins or Warriors running around with the same title as you, it’s actually a smart move that makes a great deal of sense. For most of the past 12 years, WoW players have been positioned as fundamentally weaker than the NPC bosses or allies they interact with. This explanation has made less and less sense as time goes on. If you’ve beaten most of the raids ever released in World of Warcraft, you’ve killed three Old Gods, battled extra-dimensional fiends, defeated the undead Lich King and his relentless Scourge, crushed the Legion’s efforts to invade Outland, broken the Throne of Thunder, thwarted the mad dragon Deathwing’s quest to end all life on Azeroth, and prevented the invasion of your homeworld by an army from another timeline.

We are, as they say, Kind of a Big Deal, and it’s nice to see Blizzard incorporate some nods to this as part of Legion’s campaign. It’s a testament to how well the game’s narrative arc works that these promotions and weapons feel like necessary steps, not meaningless awards. In Legion, anyone is on the chopping block, including faction leaders and NPC heroes that have assisted you through multiple games.

Paladin-Order

The Paladin Order Hall.

If I had to summarize Legion’s gameplay in one sentence, it’d be this: World of Warcraft Legion is better than any previous iteration of the game at getting out of its own way.

In the past, World of Warcraft relied heavily on the idea of physicality. If you wanted to craft an item, you had to have the materials to do so on your character. If you wanted to queue for a PvP battleground, you needed to visit a battlemaster. If you wanted to find other people to group with, you had to either belong to a guild or travel to one of the capital cities and hang out in chat, hoping to find people who wanted to run the same dungeon you did. Many of these constraints had begun to loosen before I quit playing, but Blizzard has continued improving the game in the intervening four years.

The result is an MMO that’s been vastly expanded and streamlined compared with the game I left, and many of the elements of the game that I disliked have been ameliorated. Corpse runs — the practice of running back from a nearby graveyard after you die in a dungeon or raid instance have been largely eliminated from group content. The LFG (Looking for Group) finder has been expanded and now covers PvP, a wider range of normal and heroic dungeons, and offers the option to create your own custom groups for specific instances (5-man dungeons) or even raids (10-man+ dungeons). It’s never been easier to find people to play with or to see which quests and areas you haven’t completed.

This flexibility has been extended to the Broken Isles (that’s the new area) itself. Instead of progressing from less-difficult to more-difficult zones, you choose where you want to travel and the game adjusts the level of the enemies you encounter to match your own. The default UI now includes the option to search your bags for specific gear, and bags can be tagged to hold specific items when you find them. The adventure and journal guides offer tips and advice on what to do next, items in your bank are automatically counted as being in your inventory when crafting gear, and certain collectibles, like mounts and pets, are now shared account-wide rather than being locked to specific characters.

Maiden

Venture back to Karazhan if you dare — the Maiden of Virtue still awaits you.

In the past, monsters (“mobs” in MMO parlance) could only be struck by one player; now up to five players can receive quest or kill credit for any given mob. The Auction House has been unified across servers, making it easier to find rare items, and loot in five-man dungeons and raids doesn’t have to be distributed by random rolls or through guild-specific loot distribution methods like Dragon Kill Points (DKP). There’s a new personal loot system that awards gear to individuals rather than forcing people to roll against each other, and it’s available for all dungeons and raids if raid leaders wish to use it. Players can purchase up to three Seals of Broken Fate per week and spend them on additional loot rolls from specific bosses if a particular item you want to acquire doesn’t drop for you the first time around. If you delete items or are hacked, there are now tools for restoring lost items or characters that you can use yourself, rather than relying on a customer service representative to help you out, and cross-server groups and raids make it easier to find people to team up with.

Just prior to Legion, Blizzard aggressively pruned class abilities, focusing each talent specialization within a class around a handful of key abilities and aggressively pruning a number of powers. Exactly what changed varied from class to class, and some classes were reworked more drastically than others. Some of these changes remain controversial within the community and it’s entirely possible that you may not like a former main class if you come back to the game after years away. It took a few weeks before I truly felt at home playing a Paladin again, and my Demonology warlock still feels very strange compared with the character I played back in Cataclysm and Wrath of the Lich King.

Experiencing the expansion

The only reason to take several months to play an MMO before reporting back on it is to experience the content, so that’s what I’ve done. I’ve leveled a character from 87 (pre-Legion) to level 110 and then run the dungeons and raids currently in-game, up to and including the recent Return to Karazhan patch that took a 2007-era raid dungeon and retuned it for Legion and five-man groups. I’ve run normal, heroic, and mythic dungeons, and I’ve participated in several larger raids.

Gear and level progression is vastly smoother than it used to be, even compared with expansions like Wrath of the Lich King, and Legion gives players multiple ways to gain better gear. First, it offers a sustained progression through five-man dungeon content. Normal dungeons are used to introduce basic mechanics and encounters, and are suitable for players of any skill level. Heroic difficulty introduces new mechanics and a modest difficulty increase, and rewards higher-level gear. Mythic difficulty makes the dungeon significantly harder (with a commensurate improvement to gear drops). Beat a mythic dungeon, and you’ll earn a keystone that allows you access to a more difficult version of a dungeon that drops yet better gear. Mythic dungeons above the first difficulty level have their own distinct mechanics and time limits and the gear you earn rivals raid-dropped gear once your mythic difficulty level is high enough.

Second, raids themselves are accessible via LFR, or Looking For Raid. LFR raids are significantly easier than their normal or heroic counterparts, but they also give you a chance to get your feet wet on basic versions of the content and to familiarize yourself with some aspects of the fight. Some raids are also subdivided, so you can join a group that’s going to tackle specific bosses rather than trying to complete the entire instance in one go.

Third, there are new World Quests. These are daily quests offered in every zone, although you’ll receive a bonus for completing four WQ’s per day for a specific random faction. These tend to reward gold, artifact power, or order resources for completing class hall missions, and the gear you can earn from them is comparable to some mythic gear and better than early raiding gear. Blizzard has also committed to increasing the quality of the gear you can get from these quests as time passes, to ensure that new players can still gear up effectively and play through endgame content. Players who don’t want to run instances, period, can therefore still earn new equipment. Put all three options together, and you’ve got a flexible, friendly MMO that doesn’t ask you to spend a mandatory 3-5 hours running dungeons or raids. The slideshow below steps through some of the new content — you can click on any slide to open a larger version of it in a new window.


After Blizzard took hedge-clippers to the talent trees of various character classes and subdivided the iconic abilities that were left, plenty of people were afraid that the game would feel fundamentally dumbed-down as a result. I was initially concerned about this myself, since Normal and Heroic dungeons presented so little in the way of challenge. In hindsight, I needn’t have worried. Mythic dungeons are more than difficult enough to present a challenge, and raid bosses often have mechanics that keep the entire group moving to address additional creatures that spawn during the fight, avoid hazards, or respond to various boss abilities. I still miss certain Paladin abilities, like Hammer of Wrath and Exorcism, but I also see what Blizzard wanted to accomplish by aggressively pruning abilities away — it gives them the freedom to add complexity in other areas.

On the whole, these changes have made Legion the best expansion Blizzard has ever built.

Conclusion

Twelve years. Twelve years ago, a new Paladin named Tovah took her first steps across the courtyard of the rebuilt Northshire Abbey. What a long, strange trip it’s been, even with four years carved out of it. The World of Warcraft that boots up today is a far cry from the game I started playing way back then, and I won’t lie — sometimes I’m nostalgic for the guildmates or battles of yesteryear. I might not want to return to the world of vanilla WoW, but I understand why there’s a movement in WoW calling for legacy servers that are tuned to previous versions of the game. Most of the time, however, I’ve been too busy having fun to notice.

Should you play World of Warcraft: Legion? That depends. Despite reinventing many aspects of itself, WoW still has a particular design that revolves around races and classes, and there are other games, like Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, that implement these ideas rather differently. It’s difficult to predict if any given MMO will be one person’s cup of tea. This is the prettiest version of WoW I’ve ever played, but the original code base is now 12 years old, and despite the ongoing efforts of the tech team, you sometimes see evidence of that. But as far as polish, the boss encounters and raid fights I’ve seen have been excellent, even if I’d still like to see a few more old abilities return. World of Warcraft today is more fun than the game I started playing 12 years ago, and it’s better than the game I quit four years ago — so good, in fact, that I’ve got no plans to quit again.

If you’ve never tried an MMO, WoW is a great place to start. If you left years ago but have been thinking about trying it again, you may be surprised at how much the game has changed for the better. It may never return to the 12-million subscribers of its peak in 2010, but the world of Warcraft is still evolving and improving.

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