Iron-branded; or, adventuring through the beautiful lands of Draenor in Warcraft’s latest knock-out expansion

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Ten years. Ten wonderful years of ups, downs, achievements, boss kills, epic story and the endless cycle of loot-hunting.

I’ve happily been a member of the World of Warcraft community in eight of those ten years having started in the second half of The Burning Crusade, the first full expansion to Blizzard Entertainment’s wildly successful MMO.

It goes without saying that because my birthday was two weeks ago, I spent every free waking moment when not working or studying delving into Warcraft’s fifth expansion, Warlords of Draenor, suffering through latency and douchebag-instigated DDoS-ing that caused the entirety of Blizzard’s Battle.net servers to shut down, preventing scores of players from accessing the game, not to mention the massive queues that riddled servers of even moderate to low player populations. A review of the game is challenging considering an MMO comes in parts or stages. And an MMO that’s ten years old definitely needs to be sliced into different equally delicious portions of the celebratory cake.

Questing opens up a story filled with triumph, heartache, loss and hopenagrandfinale

(NOTE: As a discussion of the story is necessary in this write-up, insert appropriate *Spoiler Alert* warning here…)

I had the joy of experiencing the game on both sides; Horde side during beta testing, and Alliance on live. For Lorewalkers such as myself, it’s the only way to play the game. Questing through old world Draenor in short was AMAZING. When the concept of Warlords was first revealed at BlizzCon 2013, acceptance at the direction came with slight hesitation not just by me, but by a vast majority of attendees as well as online enthusiasts of the game. “Time travel…how original.”

But I can see why such a concept was so controversial, because it would mean going back to a zone we had previously conquered to a time before it was necessary to conquer it. The immediate notion of reusing or rehashing old environments for new quests seemed rather lazy based solely off what we were shown.

But over time, we learned that Dreanor was NOT the Outlands as we knew it from The Burning Crusade expansion. The zone was entirely redone, from concept to art to environment. Even some of the wildlife (Talbuks, Clefthoof, etc…) saw some artistic updates.

So, story….

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The dark portal has changed. Something changed. Prior to go time, the color of the portal in the Blasted Lands changed from the eery booger-colored tinge of the fel green magic that had once powered it to the now seen red. Phasing technology took over the zone to show it had been taken over by an army of Iron Horde orcs and prior to launch, it was our job to assess the situation.

Into the portal we went with the help of Thrall (our usual hero), Maraad, Khadgar, and the armies of both the Horde and the Alliance. Our job: to stop the Iron Horde from coming to Azeroth who had usurped the Burning Legion that had previously used the portal to come into the world in its quest for domination.

Why the portal? Why the Iron Horde? What happened to the Burning Legion? What happened to Garrosh Hellscream, the royal douchebag who was the final boss of Mists of Pandaria?

All questions answered as one quests to the now current cap level of 100, with the exception of Garrosh’s escape. If one has neglected their assigned reading, they missed this story in Christie Golden’s illuminating War Crimes, which details the events of Garrosh’s trial post-Siege Of Orgrimmar and subsequent escape.

The short spoilerific skinny of it: Garrosh was in cahoots with a rogue bronze dragonflighter, who ultimately was a member of the Infinite dragonflight (the tea-party of the Bronze flight so to speak). During a commotion at the trial, the two escaped and traveled back in time and place where Garrosh was coerced into changing the destiny of the Orcs by convincing his father, Grommash, NOT to drink the blood of Mannoroth, the powerful Burning Legion pitlord, the blood of which consumed the Orc race turning them into a wild pack of Cujos killing everything in sight.

What we experience in questing is the result of the change that occurred by manipulating that one moment in time. What we also experience is the rise in new heroes and the sacrifices made by ones we’ve known or known about for awhile.

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I won’t go too much further into detail (play the game!), but I will note something of particular interest. The crafting and development of Yrel a female Draenei paladin who seems to be the hero the Alliance had been shouting for to fight alongside Thrall (something about the whole supporting a former Horde leader that Alliance players found jarring during both Cataclysm and Mists of Pandaria). Unlike Varian Wrynn, the official Alliance leader, Yrel’s rise is one of sacrifice (by her and for her by others), determination, and devotion to her people. She makes an excellent counterpart to Thrall who was once a leader, but stood down when the need arose for a champion to lead Azeroth’s combined forces against a global threat. What is most intriguing is the care and attention paid to her development and it’s really one of the best storylines I’ve seen in game in a long time if only for the fact that the game needed a really strong female character. Rather than just placating Jaina into that role (which they could have done excellently in Mists of Pandaria, but then fell completely flat), they decided a new character was needed and saw Yrel’s development through. There was a moment when the notable Avenger’s Wings, a paladin ability for which Yrel made excellent use, made an appearance during a battle and I was actually “Fuck yeah!”-ing in my chair. I think it’s safe to say that we’ll likely see an upsurge in the number of players opting for Draenei Paladins during questing.

Which leads me to the conclusion of the story. Props must be given to the designers, story developers and the cinematics team for expertly interweaving typical questing, scenario experiences, and cinematics to reveal some of the more major plotlines throughout the questing game, the pinnacle being the grand finale in Nagrand. This features a battle between Thrall and Garrosh that is haunting, stoic, epic, brutal, and ultimately satisfying in every way from the story itself to the music and the animation.

And this is just the start of the expansion. Where we go from here will be seen and experienced in the endgame raids currently open and set to open in future patches. Ultimately the timeline has changed and we’ll be spending the next few patches and later expansions trying to figure out the ramifications of that change because the implications are rather extensive (for example the Burning Legion is stopped by the Iron Horde, and without the influence of Mannoroth’s blood, who was killed in the game trailer, that won’t stop the Legion from finding other ways to Azeroth). As a bronze dragonflighter would say, only time will tell.

Exploration is just as equally lucrative as questing

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There are vast lands to explore on Draenor. Whether you’re a Horde member starting in the cold, snow-covered lands of Frostfire Ridge, or an Alliance member trekking through the darkglow of Shadowmoon Valley, there are rewards for actually taking the time to explore the map.

Expanding off the idea we saw at work on the Timeless Isle during the latter half of Mists of Pandaria, throughout each zone is an array of treasures and rare mobs (some of which are named after a few of Blizzard’s employees and prominent community members, like the photo above) to be found, killed, or simply discovered. Rewards range from simple gold to on-use toys and companion pets, to even rare quality gear. All one has to do is mount up and roam around. It’s easier and most effective to do this as you level, because often the gear rewards are at the level of that zone and would be useful for questing.

What’s also interesting to note is the randomness of the gear. Unlike previous expansions where a rare mob was often killed and on a particularly long respawn timer, rare mobs in Draenor respawn within a 2-3 minutes of their kill, AND everyone participating in its demise are rewarded (the exception being a few of the larger more powerful rares and world bosses). The randomness comes into the quality level of the gear. Where one person gets a rare level gear item (blue) someone else could get an epic level (purple) version of that same gear item from the same mob they defeated. And that randomness carries onto the quest rewards, which often were subject to an internal roll for the quality level and could be the rewarded level, or an upgraded version when actually obtained by the player. Ultimately, it makes for a more exciting reward experience, especially in the later questing zones of Spires of Arak and Nagrand where heroic/mythic raiders begin replacing their gear from the previous expansion. I made it to level 98 before I saw my first gear replacement (which is pretty cool as far as time investment goes on what it took to get that gear in Seige of Orgrimmar).

Garrisons bring the RTS resource management flair into the perpetual online realm

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I’ve always respected Blizzard for not giving in to the whims of the player base and doing what it feels is best for the game. When it comes to the subject of player housing, this is arguably among the most requested game features based on the offerings of Warcraft’s competitor MMOs like Rift, Star Wars the Old Republic, and Lord of the Rings Online. Players want it, Blizzard doesn’t want to devote precious resources to developing it, which is understandable because you’re asking the company to develop a player space for its VAST following (aforementioned games that offer player housing tend to have a smaller pool of subscribers where housing could be feasible). So the compromise is ultimately what we see in game now in the form of Garrisons.

As far as personal space goes, Blizzard dabbled in the idea in Mists of Pandaria with its respective version of Farmville over in Halfhill in Valley of the Four Winds. Where players simply had an instanced farm and tended to it for various in-game resources, garrisons expand on that notion by building an entire base complete with military forces, trade skill practitioners, and resource gatherers. What makes this work is Blizzard’s idea of exposing the player to the garrison concept early, as in, the first thing you do while questing is secure a foothold in this strange new world. Throughout questing, players are asked to keep attending to their garrison offering periodic upgrades and rewards. At cap level, players then work to fully expand their keep by building and upgrading various workshops to entertain profession progression and other useful trade skills. On top of that…in each zone, a player is asked to decide what type of structure should be constructed with each offering various zone-wide benefits (like being able to ride a Talbuk or Frostwolf in and out of combat in Nagrand, for example). That structure then becomes an access point for players to continue managing their followers at local command tables.

Followers also add to the garrison. Throughout the questing experience, a player gains followers they can use for follower missions as well as assigning them to their respective trade skill structure in the garrison. Other followers can be gained through achievements, reputation grinds and contract purchases, as well as other side quests and feats which includes the updated Brawler’s Guild (Meatball can be gained after defeating him at the end of Rank 4 in the Brawler’s Guild). Like gear, followers have a quality level that when upgraded, gain special abilities that enable them to do more and complete more challenging missions. Some followers can be gained at epic level (like gear, randomly selected upon actually obtaining said follower), which fully unlocks all their abilities, while others at uncommon and rare quality will have limited abilities. Followers need to be leveled like actual players and then upgraded from uncommon green to epic purple quality, all of which is completed by managing and tracking their missions at a command table. Various mission encounters lay out which type of follower will be needed and assesses their chance percentage at successfully completing it. Essentially, the quicker the mission timer, the lesser the reward, and the longer the timer, the more lucrative the reward.

Between follower missions, building construction, and daily quests offered by the NPCs within their respective areas, garrisons managed to pull off something magical, a full immersion of the story and a element of progression that extends beyond the simple gear-more-leet-gear cycle that was once a staple of progression in Warcraft. Players feel as if their influence in the game is increasing as you go from commander of a small party, to a full on general (Alliance side at least) when town hall hits tier three.

The 5-Man Dungeons step up their game in mechanics

 

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As with every new expansion a slew of new 5-man dungeons offer the first step in a journey toward boss-killin’ badassness in the larger raids (raids of which only one is currently available – Highmaul – but others are set to be out in the coming months). But as the story goes with every set of 5-mans, the heroic level ones remain a challenge in the beginning and then teeter off into mass-pull merry-go-rounds courtesy of better gear as the expansion moves along. The cool thing about the current dungeon bosses is the lifetime expectancy is extended somewhat by way of clever mechanics not only on trash mobs, but bosses as well. An experienced group will crowd-control certain mobs and kill others and move along quickly, while the Looking For Dungeon groups (which tends to be a painful experience) will be more challenging. Currently, my favorite dungeon is the Shadowmoon Burial Grounds, which has some familiar-style bosses and mechanics, not to mention the look and feel of the place, all purpley and shadowy. Iron Docks is also fun if only because players get to play engineer and launch some deadly iron stars!

Gear and Stats get the Diablo randomocity treatment

Yes, randomocity is a word. Because I say so.

What makes Diablo a great, repeatable dungeon crawler is the seemingly unending quest to obtain that PERFECT gear item. Stats are random, the quality is random, the cycle continues because there will always be the possibility to get a better piece. Upgrades often come in baby steps, but on occasion, one can see a huge leap with an amazing piece. As noted before, that starts with the questing process. Upon completing a quest, or killing a rare with a gear item drop, an internal roll occurs that determines the level of quality for the piece from uncommon to rare to epic. One can boost their chance at getting a rare or epic piece by constructing a Dwarven Bunker (Alliance side) or a War Mill (Horde side). Continuing from the regular to warforged quality randomization in the last tiers of Mists of Pandaria raiding, similar chances have been extended to the heroic 5-man dungeons.

The stat itemization was both simplified and rejiggered to increase the pool of possible loot drops as any combination of stats can exist on a piece (not to mention a chance at a gem socket for extra oomf). Prior to the launch of Warlords, players saw a much-needed simplification in stats that is now relegated to a core stat (i.e. strength for plate, agility for leather, intel for cloth and so on) and a combo of secondary, or tertiary, stats. My own observation saw myself getting a heroic warforged agility sword with crit and multistrike, while a guild member got a similar agility heroic warforged axe with haste and multistrike and a socket for a gem. The benefits of this system are two-fold. One that extends the shelf-life of raids in the neverending quest for a better gear piece, while the second is simultaneously rewarding players with minor upgrades or sidegrades for their effort should they not get exactly what they were shooting for. It’s likely that optimal stats won’t be fully assessed since the raids just opened up because beta testing was limited in the scope of testing such itemization and focused more on the functionality of the bosses and mechanics. As the adage goes, only time will tell.

Everything is just so preeeeettty……

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The completely redone Draenor environment was just the tip of the iceberg as far as visuals go. The above shot is one of my favorite zones, the forrest autumn-feeling Spires of Arak, which boasts some of the most realistic and authentic sceneries of any MMO.

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For months Blizzard had been teasing the revamped character model updates (some praised, some not). Personally I found most of the updates rather pleasing, especially the Orc model, which made them a bit more emotive, and the recently teased Blood Elf Model. As Alliance races go, I’m particularly fond of the Draenei updates which look softer and as equally emotive as the Orc model as well as the Dwarven models which no longer look as if they are constantly smelling a particularly odiferous pile of shit.

So where are we going from here?

Well, considering the normal timeline of releases for expansions, we’ll likely see this content for two years. So far, everything is shiny and new (but also really fun), and a lot of it has some longterm appeal. Really, garrisons though…incredibly addictive fun. Fun I hope translates into an equally immersive mobile experience via the WoW mobile app. I mean, c’mon – how cool would it be to manage follower missions and garrison upkeep from your phone?

And after ten wonderfully-Warcrafty years I have just one thing to say to you, Blizzard:

Thank you.

Here’s to another ten years — and in the spirit of that, a re-sharing of my personal experience with Warcraft.
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