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World of Warcraft: Legion Review | Back in the habit

World of Warcraft: Legion Review | Back in the habit
Carl 'Malkaurai' Phillips

“MMORPGs are dying,” they said. “Nobody has time to play them,” they said. “WoW’s clearly going Free-To-Play next month,” they said.

These are just a few of the observations that have been floating around the internet for years, and in some ways it’s understandable. After all, World of Warcraft’s subscription numbers have been in decline for years, and its players have moved onto less time-intensive games as real life has set in. The less-than-stellar Warlords of Draenor expansion also didn’t help matters. Only something big – both in terms of gameplay and narrative – was going to bring back the disillusioned players of yesteryear.

While it’s not perfect, Legion manages to get the job done, and then some.

Before we kick things off, I want to quickly cover the gameplay changes, class revamps and cosmetic upgrades to the combat that arrived before Legion released. I won’t go into huge detail here like I did in my Pre-Legion impressions piece, but here’s the TL;DR version for those short on time – the streamlined classes feel great in action, the variation between specs offers more choice (hello, Survival Hunters!) and the upgraded animations & audio cues breathe new life into the combat. Yes, it still plays as the tab-targeting MMORPG of yesteryear, but the way it handles is the best the game has ever been.

Feel the nostalgia of 10,000 years…

Let’s kick things off quick overview just in case the title and key-art haven’t provided enough of a clue. The Burning Legion have returned to Azeroth with their infinite numbers, hoping that third invasion’s the charm. Setting up their base of operations in the Broken Isles, their aim is to open the Tomb of Sargeras and finally bring Armageddon to the world that keeps resisting demonic might. While the Alliance and Horde’s first attempt to end the invasion suffered from a slight case of crushing tragedy, both sides have rallied to the call of Khadgar and the Kirin Tor, who have moved the floating city of Dalaran to the front lines. With familiar faces and forgotten allies ready to fight back, it’s time for the heroes of Azeroth to put an end to the Burning Legion once and for all.

What’s obvious from the get-go is that the nostalgia is strong with Legion. The first moments of wandering Dalaran brought me right back to my time playing Wrath of the Lich King, especially when the rearranged music began to play. The same can be said of the five zones of the Broken Isles – the Vykrul-themed Stormheim, the Tauren-run Highmountain, the Emerald Dream-ed Val’sharah, the magical Azsuna, and the very-elvish Suramar. Each one has its own story that fits into saving Azeroth, with the nods to past events in the Warcraft universe that made my inner lore-hound rather happy.

The Burning Legion’s presence isn’t always front and centre, but their influence is felt even in the likes of Highmountain and Stormheim. It makes the pacing of the world seem a little off-balance depending on what order players do the zones in (more on that in a bit.) That said, I enjoyed the storylines for the most part. Highmountain’s gradual progression made great use of the phasing technology, Val’sharah’s fight against corruption played out unexpectedly well, and Azsuna’s front line fight against the Legion and Naga had a few surprises too.

The real highlight is Suramar, though, in which players help out the Nightfallen elves build up a resistance to their demonic occupation. It’s not just the storyline or quests that make it a winner, but the way the zone is designed with its portals system. Allowing fast travel around the zone, I got a very light Dark Souls tribute – fight your way to a specific position and unlock a shortcut. Yes, it’s not anywhere as punishing as From Software’s series, but the mixture of this and the search for hidden treasure chests did remind me of my time in Lordran and Drangleic.

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A touch of class

While the zones have familiar touches and nods to old content, the Class Halls – which replace the failed experiment of Garrisons – brings the nostalgia front and centre. Much like with Garrisons, the Class Hall acts as the main base of operations for your character, but the inclusion of others playing your class ensures it never feels anywhere as lonely thanks. It’s here that players decide which order to do the Broken Isle’s story in, but the Class Hall also provides an overarching campaign where players a bunch of familiar characters the ready to fight the Legion in the name of their Class Order. What makes it so enjoyable is that it doesn’t just restrict the action to the Broken Isles. In fact, a large number of these quests send the player to the like Northrend or Kalimdor, further building upon WoW’s extensive lore.

Sending companions out on missions works just as it used to, but the process is much more streamlined. The number of companions at your disposal is much smaller, and the removal of selecting buildings means players can just concentrate on deciding between what research to focus on or stockpiling resources. As a result, players spend less time managing and more time in the field. This is made even easier thanks to the WoW Legion app for iOS and Android which allows players to assign missions and collect resources while AFK (something that would have made Warlords of Draenor’s Garrisons tolerable.)

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I have the (artefact) power!

While character progression through levelling up and acquiring gear is still the same as ever, the main way to measure a player’s growth comes in the form of Artefact weapons. It’s for this reason that gaining one is the player’s first task upon reaching their class hall, providing an epic (and often nostalgic) introduction to the expansion. With each class having an Artefact weapon dedicated to every spec I’ve only sampled a handful of these missions, but the way Blizzard have entwined them with the existing lore is highly impressive. Getting one is just the start, though, as Artefacts require relics – special items found in mission rewards or loot drops – to supply Artefact Power. This is where a new form of horizontal progressions arrives with Legion, as unlocking and upgrading nodes on artefacts carries on way past level cap.

The rate at which new nodes are unlocked or upgraded slows down dramatically over time, but the way players are free to choose which paths and nodes to take in their artefact progression is something I highly approve of. Sure, there are optimal paths that have already been detailed (cheers, Icy Veins) but that sense of freedom makes it a compelling system. It also extends to cosmetics, with visual variations and colour accents becoming available when a character achieves certain milestones. Players can always transmogrify it to look like a classic weapon instead, adding yet another layer of choice (and the goal of being Azeroth’s ultimate fashionista.)

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Familiar freedom

In fact, freedom and choice are overarching themes throughout Legion. The scaling nature of the zones allows players to go through them in any order, ensuring Broken Isles remains relevant regardless of a character’s level. Then there’s the way quest chains guide zone progression, but there are plenty of distractions along the way. Area objectives similar to Guild Wars 2’s area events help break up the flow, and then there are the treasure chests. Ah, the humble treasure chests. I’ve already waxed lyrical about their ability to create personal stories, but it’s now over a month since launch and the joy of finding them is still there.

The scaling content also comes with scaling rewards, meaning there’s always a potential upgrade on the way. My favourite aspect of this is (of all things) the RNG, which gives rewards a chance to upgrade to a better version of itself. It’s incredibly handy during the levelling process, but there’s no better feeling than when a reward at max level turns into a potential Mythic upgrade. It provides extra motivation to complete everything you see or go for one more dungeon run because the next drop or quest reward might be more than worth the effort.

Around the world (quests)

This provides a handy segue to my next point. In past expansions, the road to level cap is always eventful, but fatigue usually sets in once all the quest lines are cleared and all that’s left are daily quests with reputation grind. While these activities are still there, the way they are handled in Legion is not only different but very much for the better. World Quests, as the are now called, are randomly spawned around the Broken Isles and offer varying degrees of scaling rewards.

What Blizzard have achieved with this is the sweet spot they’ve been after for years with the standard max level content. With World Quests refreshing every 12 hours, and a daily Emissary objective to do four missions for a specific faction, players can choose whether to do an hour’s worth of content or the whole shebang. This removes the never-ending feeling from having too much to do while making sure there’s always enough to keep you busy. Best of all, the lack of tagging for (most of the) important objectives means players can jump into World Quests objectives mid-fight, and the scaling of these mobs altering in real time ensures the challenge is appropriate to the number of players nearby in real time.

The inclusion of World Quests also means that zones never feel empty, which is great for latecomers to Legion. There is always someone around to assist with most quests, and while it’s not quite as community friendly as Guild Wars 2’s events or FF XIV’s Fate system there’s still this feeling of “we’re all in this together” that WoW hasn’t really had before. This is why Legion continues to be fun and engaging weeks after launch, and why subscription numbers remain high at the time of writing.

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Crafty & unexpected changes

Another aspect that has been overhauled is how crafting progresses throughout Legion. The three-star recipe system returns to give the reduced item lists some depth, but the most immediate change is that characters with skill level of 1 are still able to craft in the Broken Isles, allowing them to catch up (or more specifically give Demon Hunters a fighting chance.) However, it is the new quest chain for each profession, available as soon as players arrive in Dalaran, that really mixes things up for crafting.

No longer is it a case of stockpiling resources and then auto-crafting your way to success. Instead, players must travel to locations around the Broken Isles, completing objectives both of a crafting and combat variety, to gain access to new recipes and star upgrades. While this new system does make a crafter’s status feel earned and more involved, it does have a few issues. Firstly, progression can be halted if a crafting quest is located in zones players haven’t unlocked yet. I only state this because it happened to me twice (Tailor and Enchanter, here) meaning I had to wait before I could start getting new recipes.

Secondly – and this has been an issue raised by a number of players – many of the late crafting quests send you into normal and heroic dungeons for items. Repeatedly. And often to the one you’ve just done for a world or class hall quest. Personally, I found it annoying but doable because I was going to head into the dungeons anyway – there’s loot to be had, after all. However, I can appreciate that it will be a shock to solo players who just want to craft and play the economic game. You’ll have to resort to the dungeon finder and the pray that the luck of the draw gives you a decent PuG. In other words, your mileage may vary here without friends, but then again when hasn’t it with online games?

Anyway, this isn’t the only example of Legion unexpectedly forcing different gameplay aspects upon players. Specifically, there is one point in the main quest chain that places a PvE objective in the middle of the Dalaran Sewers, which is now a Free-For-All PvP zone. There are admittedly breaks in the carnage and ways to avoid fighting by hiring a bodyguard, but I found it an unnecessarily shoehorned introduction to the PvP area. Such aspects shouldn’t be mandatory and, in this case, ends up being a little too on the nose. It’s such a shame because everything else about Legion, such as its zone-specific abilities, is introduced in an informative and natural way.

Artistic value

One area that WoW continues to excel in with Legion is the art direction, especially with its aged game engine. Sure, its stylised cartoon nature can only do so much even with the engine updates over recent years, but Legion still manages to look fantastic when you stop and admire the view. Be it looking out from the highest peak of Highmountain, watching the bustling yet downtrodden streets of Suramar City, or simply hanging out in Dalaran’s vibrant hub – everything has that familiar level of polish Blizzard are known for. This is especially the case with the cutscenes, including the attractive hand-drawn style used for Illidan’s backstory that adds an appropriate rawness.

What completes it all is the soundtrack, which offers twists on familiar themes and original tracks that provide an excellent accompaniment to the visuals. I will admit that there isn’t anything truly memorable outside of its source material, but Russell Brower’s work matches the mood of its zones perfectly. For example, Stormheim’s Vrykul influence brings back fond memories of Wrath of the Lich King, while Suramar offers delicate aural storytelling of the fall of the Nightborne and their occupation by the Legion. Considering how apathetic I was towards most of Warlords of Draenor’s music I consider this a return to form for the game’s music, but I was honestly expecting something more. Perhaps we’ll need to wait for future content patched for the truly magical music to appear.

That said, WotLK remains the best OST. Seriously, I still get chills listening to the Culling of Stratholme theme

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♫ I believe I can glide ♫

I’ve spoken at length about Legion and yet there’s one rather large topic left to cover in Demon Hunters – the brand new hero class added for the expansion. The influence of WildStar’s combat systems runs deep here (yes, I’m looking at you, Stephan Frost) as it provides the slickest and most visceral class the game has ever had. Its ability to transform into a demonic creature looks amazing, and the way it can leap long distances or glide into action provides unparalleled mobility (sorry, Rogues – you’ve finally been outdone.) When I eventually went back to my main – a Death Knight – everything felt almost unbearably slower in comparison, but maybe that’s the point to reinforce the Demon Hunter’s identity.

Its start area provides wonderful nostalgia too, taking place right at the end of the Burning Crusade expansion and being given orders by none other than Illidan Stormrage himself. I won’t go into too much detail here for fear of spoilers, but the pacing of the setup is handled well as new abilities are introduced. While Demon Hunters only have two specs available – Havoc (DPS) and Vengeance (Tank) – the difference between them both in terms of gameplay and visuals offers distinctive feels in combat, despite both being melee-focused. If there is a complaint about the Demon Hunter right now it’s that it is seriously overpowered. I never once felt threatened in the Vengeance spec as I was able to top up my own health regularly and keep the damage going, even when fighting elites. I have no doubt Blizzard are aware of this, and will eventually unleash the nerfening.

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Life in the end-game

As with any MMORPG, the true test of its worth lies in the longevity. While time will ultimately tell if it continues for the long haul, I’ve managed to remain engaged since Legion’s launch over a month ago. World quests continue to provide quick bursts of gameplay with appropriate rewards, and the random chance of big upgrades offer a reason to keep going. I’ve even been surprised by World Quests for dungeons, sending me to previously hidden mini-bosses. Rep grind is still frustrating, but in the case of Suramar using it to pace the zone’s storyline, it again gives a reason to keep plucking away. Unfortunately, I still have yet to sample most of the Mystic dungeons or the Emerald Nightmare raid, but the increased challenges I have gone up against have been testing yet enjoyable.

And then there’s the World Bosses, some of which are pushovers and others are full of nasty surprises.

I’ve been fortunate, though – I’ve had friends to experience & enjoy the content with. More importantly, this may be the first expansion where levelling as a group hasn’t felt stunted in any way. Yes, playing solo is absolutely viable, but we’ve been able to do things together despite being at different levels, XP hasn’t been reduced, and open world rare bosses have been exhilarating to come across & fight. As I’ve mentioned before, if any of my other friends decide to return to WoW in the future we’ll be able to help them out from the get-go.

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In conclusion…

So is Legion perfect? No, but the sum of its parts outweighs any issues that rear their head. Have Blizzard over-relied on nostalgia for success? Possibly, but plaything though something that offers familiar tones feels much better than the sideways-alternate-timeline confusion of Warlords. Even the gameplay, refined at it is, has clear inspirations from the likes of Guild Wars 2, Final Fantasy XIV, and even WildStar, but the end result feels fun, which is surely the important thing.

The hard work isn’t over for Blizzard, though. They’ve pulled out all the stops to put World of Warcraft back on top of the MMORPG genre, but to stay there the content must keep flowing. The Emerald Nightmare raid is one thing, but Karazhan’s return must capture the magical and ludicrous feel of its original state to keep players invested. At this point, though, I’m still playing Legion and I’m still having fun, which is a hugely positive sign of things to come.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s a World Quest that has a chance at an epic trinket reward, and I’ll be damned if I’m missing out on it.

Pros:

  • The refined gameplay makes it the most fun WoW has ever been.
  • The highly mobile & visceral Demon Hunter class is fantastic (if overpowered at launch!)
  • With World Quests, the perfect balance between too little / too much daily content has been reached.

Cons:

  • Some forced gameplay progression – like PvE objectives in PvP areas – are ill-thought.
  • Despite fitting the visual action, a lack of memorable soundtrack (so far) is disappointing.
  • The pressure is now on Blizzard to keep the fresh and interesting content coming regularly.
The Short Version:

A lot of its new features & systems aren’t revolutionary, but what Blizzard have done is expertly refine them to work with their online game. With a visceral new hero class and an expansive end-game, the end result not only makes Legion the best expansion the game has seen since Wrath of the Lich King, but it reaffirms World of Warcraft’s place as the king of the genre.

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Platform: PC

Developer: Blizard Entertainment

Publisher: Activision Blizzard