And not a Panda in sight...
For all its dominance of massively multiplayer online gaming, Blizzards World Of Warcraft had been in gradual decline for a few years, its subscriptions slowly bleeding away as the once-faithful millions lost interest and migrated back to RL (aka real-life). The bouncy pandas of the games last expansion, Mists Of Pandaria, hardly help reverse the downward trend. Novelty, it turned out, was not the answer. Instead, all it took was going back to basics.
Within a few weeks of this latest expansion, the fifth in a decade, the World Of Warcraft is officially in recovery; its subscription numbers have bumped back up to more than 10 million. And its all thanks to Warlords Of Draenor, whose popularity took even Blizzard by surprise (as anyone who suffered being locked out of its overcrowded servers during the week of release will attest).
There are no new player races; rather the existing ones have been given a welcome design polish (except the blood elves, frustratingly, though their makeover will be coming). There are no new player classes, either; just some retooling and an increased level cap (now you can go all the way to 100). And the new continent, crammed with quests, dungeons and XP-rich foes, is really an old one: the orc homeworld Draenor, last revisited in devastated, demon-drenched form as Outland (in first expansion The Burning Crusade), but now presented in its uncorrupted form via some lets-not-get-into-it time-travel chicanery.
Its all reassuringly familiar lore, featuring names and faces that Blizzard old-timers will appreciate. (Its also highly relevant to the upcoming Warcraft movie, which concerns the original version of roughly the same events Not that we want to encourage any spoilers.) And, in terms of both execution and design, it is arguably the strongest expansion yet.
From an ogre-slaver mine to the thrilling Grimrail Depot (a dungeon on a moving train!), the five-man instances are once again enjoyably challenging, really testing the team dynamics, rather than those uninspiring, chase-the-tank cake-walks of recent years. Plus a loot system overhaul means theres a better return on your time and effort. No longer is it a case of need-or-greed, a system too-often abused by unscrupulous players, but a far superior personal looting system that vastly increases your chances of picking up something sartorially pleasing off the corpse of each boss. The quests, meanwhile, are more sensitively paced, laid out in such a way that you can move on from a zone without feeling forced to finish off every last task.
Yet Warlords isnt entirely without novelty. Its big new gimmick is the Garrison system. After an introductory quest-chain (which should really be skippable for your alternate characters, but you cant have everything), youre given your own personal fort, to fill with recruits. Part of the system involves collecting resources and building up your fort, plonking new buildings here and there; and part involves sending followers out on missions, which they complete while youre off doing your own quests. Its a simple and enjoyable dynamic, whereby you match a followers abilities to the task in hand, aiming for a promised 100 per cent chance of success. And when that occurs, you can be rewarded experience points, items or gold, so it does feel worthwhile, as opposed to a pointless sub-game.
Its a shame Blizzard left the tooltips so vague failing, for example, to lay out what bonuses you receive for assigning the appropriate followers to each of your garrison building projects. Given the time and gold investment required, it would be good to be clear on what you earn as a result. Also, were still stumped as to why it is that when you send a follower on a mission thats above their level, you are penalised rather than rewarded extra when they earn experience. It just seems crazy.
All minor quibbles, though. And easily patchable. Theres a hoary gamer gag that the experience is so addictive, it might as well be called World Of Warcrack. Well, Blizzards cooked up a new batch so pure, youll be hooked all over again.