A few weeks ago I returned to World of Warcraft for the first time in over 18 months, which on paper was a bad idea for a few reasons. Firstly, I didn’t enjoy Warlords of Draenor overall, cancelling my subscription after a month in what was my shortest spell with the game. Secondly, I didn’t have anyone to group up with as my guild mates had since moved on from WoW (or MMOGs in general) leaving me to the mercy of the group finder. Still, with the release of Legion imminent and the pre-expansion patch now deployed, my curiosity got the better of me. I signed back up to see exactly how the latest gameplay changes have affected Blizzard’s online title, before deciding if I really wanted to return to fight the Burning Legion once more.

Having played through Warlords’ launch as an Alliance Warrior, I decided to bring my old Horde Death Knight – the ever-dependable Stinson – back out of retirement. This wasn’t just for nostalgic reasons, either, as the Death Knight has seen some fundamental changes in the latest patch, such as how its Rune resource works in combat. Admittedly it’s not as drastic as the overhauls Rogues and Hunters have faced (with new ways to play in Outlaw and Survival specs respectively) but there is enough for me and my Death Knight to deal with as someone returning to the game. In a way, the changes make every spec feel more unique.

While getting to grips with revamped skills and learning new rotations took some time, I ultimately felt the leaner systems are the best I’ve seen from WoW. There’s still plenty of depth in how to approach a fight (so those regular visits to WoWHead and Icy Veins will be needed) but the simpler mechanics mean casual or lapsed players can rejoin the fray much more easily. It helps that changing talents can be done in any area that grants rest XP, and specs can be switched whilst out of combat (with the right item.)

That said, I am impressed by how players can now quest as one spec whilst queuing for a raid as another at no cost. This was always a bugbear of mine, as it previously forced players to always be a tank or healer if they wanted to raid in that role. It’s a freedom to experiment that has been implemented in various forms in other MMOGs for some time, so I’m happy Blizzard have finally added it to WoW.

wow-legion-01

While we’re on the subject of combat, the new animations for each melee weapon type gives the combat a new visual flair. Polearms now look like their own weapon type instead of yet another 2-handed sword. It’s the little things like this that breathe new life into what is admittedly a rather archaic combat mechanics. The polish to the animations will do little to convince those who can’t get used to tab-targeting, but I found it refreshing along with the new audio cues auto-attacks (which a subtle, but make all the difference to audiophiles like myself.)

It’s not just the combat that has been revamped, as the new menu systems for Achievements and Collections are much more user-friendly. Account-wide Collections for pets and mounts have been a thing since Warlords’ release, but it now extends to costume pieces in the revamped Transmogrification. While the new costume system isn’t as robust as those found in WildStar or Guild Wars 2 (which allows for individual colour options), it ultimately makes being an Azerothian fashionista easier than ever. My greatest relief with the new system was finally clearing out all of my old gear from bags and banks kept specifically for Transmorg purposes.

The same can be said for toys, which I assure you caused me to rejoice with great glee.

wow-legion-02

Having replayed the Warlords campaign and raids on the Horde side this time, I was thankful for how the revamped systems improved the experience overall. That’s not to say it swayed my overall apathy towards the expansion (especially the story, which felt more like a side-step instead of a step forward) but I could push myself to play through it again with an alt. That in itself should be seen as a victory for Blizzard.

Of course, this week saw Legion’s prologue content hitting servers. Along with unleashing Demon Hunters on Azeroth (for those who have pre-ordered) it unlocked a quest chain that set up the story arc for the next expansion. I’m glad to say that Blizzard have learned their lesson from the lacklustre effort players were given pre-Warlords, as I really enjoyed how the quest chain played out both mechanically and narratively. Well, for the most part, anyway, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

wow-legion-03

The use of phasing technology with mission structure from scenarios worked well as other players and I assaulted the Broken Shore. Cutscenes kept the narrative flowing without outstaying their welcome, but I did smile over the newly added dialogue boxes. Their presentation with talking portraits reminded me of how the dialogue was delivered in the Warcraft and Starcraft strategy titles of yesteryear. It gives it a classic Warcraft vibe, which in my mind is the right way to go. However, my favourite moment was when the Horde players worked in tandem with Alliance players. I seriously hope there are more moments like it in Legion, even if each side is ultimately at odds from time to time.

The random invasions across Azeroth helped introduce open world objectives to players as well. I was particularly impressed by the way invasion structures spawned and crumpled once defeated, giving the world a more dynamic feel. I also appreciate how the final bosses for each invasion are no pushover, making me re-evaluate my approach instead of just following the zerg. The one in Azshara is particularly ruthless with its flaming orbs of indiscriminate murder.

Oh god, I can still hear the screaming.

wow-legion-04

As for the story, well, to discuss that I need to briefly venture into spoiler territory. Skip the next section to avoid ruining the experience for yourself if you’ve yet to play the quest chain.

[WARNING – SPOILERS]

Wow. There were significant moves across the board by the end of the Broken Shores quest. Both faction leaders were (eventually) slain, replacements were crowned, and the Burning Legion set themselves up to be the recipient of some rather explosive vengeance. While Vol’jin was never my favourite leader his death was sad to witness, but it was King Varian’s sacrifice that really got me in the feels. Again, he isn’t my favourite Alliance hero (that honour belongs to Bolvar Fordragon) but the way he has been built up over the years made his final moments quite powerful.

One aspect that did annoy me was the fate of Tirion Fordring. There was no mention of the Argent Crusade being there until we starting bumping into their soldiers, and his sudden appearance meant one of Warcraft’s most prominent characters was there one second and at the bottom of a green lake the next. This could be a setup for an expected return (be it he was saved by the light somehow or in a “Deathbringer Saurfang” way) but it felt too rushed to me.

wow-legion-05

I’m certainly looking forward to seeing how the increased tensions between the Alliance and Horde play out. Newly crowned King Anduin will struggle to contain Jaina’s growing hatred for the Horde (and possibly Greymane’s too) while Sylvannas will need to prove her worth as the new Warchief – about damn time, by the way – as the races of Azeroth must band together to avoid annihilation. At least the Illidari’s introduction was handled well considering their sudden appearance. It had a hint of “You know nothing / You are not prepared” about it before the fel hit the fan.

[SPOILERS END]

So the question remaining is if I would be picking up Legion at launch. I had been undecided for most of my time over the last few week, and with good reason. The leaner gameplay mechanics and cosmetic options make it the most playable and alt friendly Blizzard’s MMORPG has ever been, but it’s still WoW. What is there is still the quest-chain driven item grind we’ve been playing for twelve years, and we’ve already done it all before to an extent.

No, what really won me over was the Broken Shore quest and Invasion events.

wow-legion-06

If they are an accurate reflection of the kind of content we can expect throughout the Broken Isles, along with the fact all zones will scale so you can do them in any order, then I’m sold. However, if the reports of regular updates and story progression are true then I’ll be around for the long haul. After all, the item grind really isn’t why I play WoW – it’s experiencing the story in an incredibly rich (if meme-filled) online world. Hell, if they go about the story arc in the same manner as Wrath of the Lich King (which was the best expansion to date, and I will fight you if you say otherwise) I will very gladly keep that subscription ticking.

The short of it is that the Pre-Legion content as a whole has done its job in restoring my faith in WoW again. Let’s just hope that Blizzard delivers the goods over the coming months.

World of Warcraft: Legion releases for PC on August 30th. For more details head over to the official World of Warcraft website.