The quest for question marks continues.
If you’ve played World of Warcraft, you know what I’m talking about. As you wander through the game, you find characters with exclamation points hovering over their heads, dispensing quests that, when completed, turn the exclamation points into question marks. The yellow “?” is one of the stars WoW players steer by, promising a brief dopamine rush as each quest is turned in for some quantity of gold and experience points and, if you’re lucky, a Cool Item to equip.
Alongside the Quest for Question Marks is the Battle of the Hotbar. That’s the one where, in the midst of fierce combat, you stare at the bottom eighth of your screen, a bar crammed with buttons representing your character’s skills, attacks, and spells. Occasionally you’ll look at the meticulously animated monster you’re fighting, but that’s only when your abilities are on cooldown (i.e., unavailable).
I should interject here that I adore World of Warcraft. It’s one of my three favorite games of all time, and for me “all time” stretches back to about 1977. So, as a feral druid named Powhatan, I willingly Shredded and Ripped and Ferociously Bit my way through all the quests and enemies in the newly released Warlords of Draenor expansion. But it all felt a bit dated — clunky, even. At its core this is a game from 2004, reflecting the state of the massively multipayer genre at that time. Despite the fresh coat of paint, it’s still that game.
As with every expansion, there’s a sizeable chunk of WoW players for whom the purchase of Warlords of Draenor is a foregone conclusion: They’ll buy it, play the heck out of it, and complain about the things they dislike. But if you’ve been out of Azeroth for a while, is there enough here to bring you back?
If you enjoy the core gameplay of WoW and its expansions, you’ll get plenty of it here: 10 new levels (to a cap of 100), seven new zones (not counting the as-yet-unlocked Tanaan Jungle), hundreds of quests, and eight new dungeons. If you’re expecting something fresh, though, you may be disappointed. You’ve been here, and you’ve done this.
The storyline propels your character into an alternate version of Draenor, the Orc homeworld. WoW players last saw Draenor — or what was left of it — in the 2006 expansion The Burning Crusade, where it was blasted into fragments and renamed Outland. In the new parallel timeline, though, the old Draenor is still intact, and populated with legendary Warcraft heroes such as Gul’dan, Durotan, and Archmage Khadgar. You’ll fight alongside (or against) them as you unfold a complicated storyline involving the Iron Horde, a united orc army that threatens to sweep over Draenor and beyond.
To be honest, it’s hard to get too excited by the plot. For all of Blizzard’s deservedly great reputation for making quality cinematics, they’re not the best storytellers around. The narratives in WoW have always worked best when viewed peripherally, as a colorful backdrop to all that button-mashing and quest-gobbling.
And the visuals here, as always, are excellent, from the newly updated models to the gorgeous backdrops featuring enormous mushrooms, windswept tundras, and fecund jungles. This is a Technicolor fantasy world drawn with dreamlike vividness. Subtlety isn’t in the playbook. Thumbs up, also, to the score by Russell Brower, which at times catches you off-guard with moments of beauty that make you want to stop playing and just listen.
Many of the previous expansions’ refinements are still here, for better and for worse. The streamlined talent system from 2012’s Mists of Pandaria is present, and it feels too cookie-cutter in the character customization it offers. The dungeon-finder tool lets you find a party in a matter of minutes, but your new buddies will rush through content like they’ve double-parked their kodos outside. You might as well be playing with bots.
The big new gameplay gambit is your character’s ability to build a stronghold on Draenor. Through rudimentary “command table” and “drafting board” interfaces that self-consciously echo the Warcraft series of real-time strategy games, you’ll be able to place buildings in your base, upgrade them, and send recruited heroes on various quests to acquire resources and gold. (These missions, mind you, take place offscreen — you wait around for hours and then are told of the result.)
It’s one of the bigger changes we’ve yet seen to core gameplay, and there’s a strong novelty factor. Waiting for missions to complete adds yet another hook to get you logging back in, but the whole time-elapse mechanism is eerily reminiscent of penny-pinching free-to-play titles, and you wonder whether Blizzard is planning to introduce some “reasonably priced” speed boosts down the line.
A problem with the Garrison system is that you don’t have enough control over what goes on in your base. The buildup process is painfully slow at first. The follower missions aren’t playable, and there’s a very limited number of spaces in which to place your garrison’s buildings. And the game isn’t great at teaching you how it all works — where to get plans for new buildings, how one type of plan differs from another, and what the benefits of each building are. The confusion engenders hesitancy, and it’s deflating that when your character is nearing Level 100, her stronghold is still a pretty rudimentary affair.
Perhaps in the endgame, a fully unlocked garrison allows a genuinely deep and rewarding experience. But it’s hard to get too excited about something that barely shows its potential in the first 25 hours of gameplay.
Quest design is a mixed bag. A few are inspired, such as one involving the Raven hero Terokk, in which you explore ancient myths by reliving them through Terokk’s eyes. There are also some nice setpiece battles that flow seamlessly into cutscenes to advance the main storyline. But most zones dole out the usual mix of quests: Go find X of some object and click on them while also killing Y creatures that happen to be wandering in that area. Granted, it would take almost superhuman skill to come up with hundreds of equally fresh, entertaining quests.
Draenor also includes a dedicated new player-vs.-player zone called Ashran, which features a never-ending battle between Horde and Alliance. So far it’s a disappointment: Population imbalances on many realms make it practically unplayable for one side or another, and cross-realm instancing, which might fix this, has yet to be implemented. In time, it might work well enough, but for now it feels a little broken.
The deeper issue with Warlords of Draenor is that this is a 10-year-old game with 10-year-old gameplay, albeit dressed up with better graphics and a smoother interface. It’s just not as engaging as it used to be. For those with a deep investment in the game — particularly a social one — most of Draenor’s level 90-100 content is just a brief rite of passage before the months-long endgame of PvP and/or raiding. For the rest of us, it’s a bittersweet experience, evoking old pleasures, delivering the reliable Blizzard polish that’s easy to take for granted, yet reminding us that maybe there’s a reason we’ve moved on.