The latest World of Warcraft expansion finally, after 10 long years, makes you the star.

The Warlords of Draenor expansion pack for the megapopular massively multiplayer online role-playing game launched last week, offering players a new take on the decade-old game. Already, subscribers have jumped by a third to more than 10 million as a result of the launch, which adds a pile of new content and a maximum level of 100.

Draenor gives players a chance to return to WOW’s roots: Stirring storylines involving some of the series’ best characters, a world at war, and a new setting that centers on one of the game’s first races, the Orcs. Even more important, it’s the first expansion in the game to put you in the position of not a lowly adventurer or hero but a leading commander of your faction’s forces.

Despite some technical woes and quirky systems, this is the expansion that pulls Warcraft into the modern gaming world, with graphics and gameplay that compete with new titles.

Large group raid dungeons and the new competitive player-vs.-player (PvP) season won’t open until December; we’ll have another story on those then.

World of Warcraft Warlords of Draenor

Above: Me and my new bestie, Archmage Khadgar.

Image Credit: Heather Newman

What you’ll like

You, the conquering hero

In previous chapters, you were a lowly adventurer (or later, a generic “hero”) when you interacted with NPCs. This time around, they call you the leading commander of your faction’s forces, snap to salute when you enter town, and offer you respect when you talk with them.

Khadgar, a hugely powerful archmage who plays a central role in the expansion and the WoW storyline, at one point told me in the new questline for a legendary item that I was possibly the most impressive paladin he had ever worked with. (Sharp-eyed readers will note the picture above is of a druid. I leveled both to 100 in doing this review.) It sounds goofy, but I’ve interacted with this character for a decade now, and he’s been featured in storylines that included some of the most overpowered, impressive characters in Azeroth.

The result is surprisingly affecting, even for someone not that into the lore. Players who have been in the game for a long time will feel like they’re finally getting their reward for years of destroying the world’s greatest villains. New players will feel like the world rotates around them.

World of Warcraft Warlords of Draenor

Above: Former Horde Warchief Thrall and Frostwolf Chieftan Durotan — both important figures in WOW lore — hang out by the fire in your Horde garrison.

Image Credit: Heather Newman

An expansion based on 20 years of Warcraft lore

Warcraft is known for terrific stories, and all of them are on display in this expansion. It’s a time-travel/multiverse plot (groan), but WoD manages to avoid making it cheesy, instead reveling in the opportunity to put you in the middle of some of Warcraft’s most dramatic moments — and change them, since you’re in a parallel world.

Garrosh Hellscream, the villain of the Mists of Panderia expansion, escapes and uses newfound power to pull open a portal to an earlier time in the Orcs’ history. He saves his father from death and unites the tribes on a mission of domination.

As a player in the Horde faction, you work with the Orcs who have turned Garrosh down, along with other neutral factions, to put an end to his Iron Horde invasion. As an Alliance player, it’s another opportunity to battle your hated enemies.

Quests lead you through the stories of the expansions through the different zones, and virtually every one involves a prominent figure from Warcraft’s past — and your past, if you’ve been playing WOW for a while.

It feels epic and important, and Azeroth reflects the changes you make — and these are permanent. Each zone ends in a climactic battle, a minimovie of cutscenes, that tie together what you’ve done so far. In some cases, they brought me to tears.

Warcraft Horde garrison in Warlords of Draenor

Above: A fully upgraded Horde garrison is a beautiful thing.

Image Credit: Blizzard Entertainment

This is my town, scrub

Within the first couple of hours of play, you found your garrison, a small city that acts as the hub for the rest of your Draenor adventure. You can choose which buildings go into the limited plots, upgrade your city and its contents, and work on tradeskills, getting mounts, gathering, and a host of other activities.

In each zone, you choose an outpost building to construct there, adding to the perks you get. It feels a lot like the classic Warcraft III real-time strategy game — right down to what the NPCs say to you when you click on them. Outpost buildings are constructed in the zones themselves, rather than in your garrison, and offer you benefits specific to that area. So in the Spires of Arak, for instance, if you choose to build the Brewery — our recommendation, at least while leveling — you’ll get a 20 percent boost to experience points you earn in the area and a free, second hearthstone to port back to that outpost from anywhere in the zone.

Each zone offers two outpost options, with different benefits.

As you quest through the zones, you earn the loyalty of followers, NPCs who will come to live in your garrison. You can send them out on missions that earn everything from gold to gear — even legendary quest items. They rise in level and power as you use them, and you can get them better gear to wear.

Depending on the buildings you choose, you can assign followers to them for extra perks. Assigning a follower to the Forge, the blacksmithing building, makes it so that your character doesn’t have to pay for durability damage as you adventure, for example, and increases the production of rare crafting materials.

I did an extensive preview of garrisons during the expansion’s beta test. I didn’t know then just how fun managing my horde of followers and building work orders would become. I’m not the only player hoping that Blizzard will include follower missions in the mobile app.

World of Warcraft Warlords of Draenor

Above: New character models make everything look good, including this tiny spectral wolf you can create using archaeology skill.

Image Credit: Heather Newman

Graphical updates that also make it easier to play

Draenor brought with it a massive graphical overhaul; WoW no longer feels like a decade-old game. It’s still slightly brightly colored and cartoony — that’s Blizzard’s style — but the characters, monsters, and NPCs are much more detailed, and the landscapes are gorgeous. Small changes also make things more usable: Mousing over something you can interact with highlights it, for example.

The result is a much more immersive, beautiful experience.

World of Warcraft Warlords of Draenor

Above: This is just a tease: Players can’t fly their own mounts in Draenor zones (but plan ahead so you take good-looking automated flights like this one).

Image Credit: Heather Newman

Wide-open dungeons

I played through the eight new dungeons as a damage dealer, as a healer, and as a tank. All featured more fighting and less talking than Mists of Pandaria expansion versions. Some are innovative: The level 100 Grimrail Depot takes place almost entirely on a moving train. In Iron Docks, you send giant iron stars, rumbling wheels of fiery death, through hundreds of enemies.

Many dungeons feel bigger than they ever have before, taking place outside, with wide landscapes, things that feel surprisingly rare in WoW’s history.

I found myself wishing as I worked on my character that more of those areas were available to lower-level players. You can only play half of these eight before level 100, so you can go several levels without seeing a new dungeon. It does encourage players to spend their time in the excellent questlines, instead of running dungeons over and over again to level, and those you do get to see are generally top-notch.

Warlords of Draenor treasure cache

Above: This treasure is in a cave, and it requires navigating laser beams, turrets that slow you, and items that zap you if you get too close.

Image Credit: Heather Newman

Treasures for the taking

The Mists of Pandaria expansion pack introduced the concept of treasures, objects you could snag on the ground, and the Warlords expansion takes this much further. Every zone has dozens of these items, and getting to some of them is a minigame in itself, with jumping puzzles and the like.

One memorable cave [above] forces you to navigate deadly lasers and turrets and totems that slow you down. It’s a ton of fun, gives a lot of experience points to players that are still leveling, and provides a pile of useful and lighthearted items. The treasure challenge in that cave rewards a mechanical pet.

Rare-quality enemies also spawn throughout the zones, offering similarly high-end rewards. Even solo players can kill these.

What you won’t like

Bugs and server instability

World of Warcraft

Above: Draenor players were stuck with this far too often the first few days: A nonfunctional login screen.

Image Credit: Heather Newman

Blizzard recently offered players five days of free play time (and an apology) for the issues that have made it difficult for people to fully experience the expansion. It’s hard to get settled into the groove of Draenor when the servers are hanging up every hour or two or bugged questlines fail to complete, standing in the way of progress through a zone.

Some of that is beyond the company’s control; at launch, servers were the target of a dedicated denial of service (DDoS) attack. But some of it was poor design, bottlenecking millions of players at the same points in the same zones at the same time. This is WoW’s fifth expansion; at this point, the company knows what launch day looks like. Queues aren’t fun, but they’re reasonable. Players having issues once they’re in is something else altogether.

Those issues have been gradually settling out, and a massive change to the way realms are run helped smooth things considerably over the weekend. But even last night, servers were still having some lags and delays, and lines for dungeons were up to an hour long for players of damage classes due in part to the reduced number of people allowed on per server.

World of Warcraft Warlords of Draenor

Above: Snow, rocks, lava, and more snow: Welcome to Frostfire Ridge.

Image Credit: Heather Newman

A few zones you’ll swear you’ve seen before

The bones of the Draenor zones are based on the continent of Outland from The Burning Crusade, WoW’s second expansion pack. Outland was the exploded-in-space version of Draenor, a wasteland that had been created from Draenor’s lush landscapes, so it’s fun to occasionally have a moment of déjà vu when you realize what you’re looking at is something you once played across in a very different form.

Some of the eight zones are quite lovely. Gorgrond’s jungles and deserts are particularly striking, and the dark, gloomy forest-and-swamp ambiance of Spires of Arak is a nice contrast. Ashran is an island home to both the current player hubs (where characters do their banking, or change the look of their gear) and an outdoor, always-on player versus player zone.

World of Warcraft Warlords of Draenor

Above: Pausing for a moment (with the Forge Guardian players can get from a second-level Forge garrison building) in the trees of Gorgrond.

But some landscapes just feel … old. I’m extremely envious of the beautiful Shadowmoon Valley, the lush starlit landscape that Alliance players start with (see GamesBeat community manager Mike Minotti’s take on that at the end of this review).

The Horde gets Frostfire Ridge, a hash, unforgiving landscape composed entirely of snow, black rock, and magma. Sigh. Suitable for the faction, I suppose, but we’ve had just this look in other snowy zones, including Storm Peaks in The Wrath of the Lich King expansion. And Talador feels like just another grass-and-stone Elwynn Forest, the Alliance zone for level 1-10 characters.

World of Warcraft Warlords of Draenor

Above: The Alchemy building in your garrison: almost as rewarding as actually having the alchemy tradeskill, with little of the work.

Image Credit: Heather Newman

Tradeskill changes that make them feel less rewarding

Blacksmithing, leatherworking, tailoring, and the like — tradeskills — got a dramatic revamp for Warlords, with all activity now centering on the profession buildings in the garrison. That’s where you’ll get your new patterns, where you’ll create the rare crafting materials you need to make them, and where you’ll place followers to help you.

But at this point, all patterns are available to anyone of any skill. The only incentive to level a tradeskill higher is that you’ll get more of the materials you need to make things. Useful, to be sure, but not exciting.

Cooking creates great food; but the very best food for adding character power for raid dungeons comes from a different garrison building, not a profession. All but the best patterns are available to players if they build the proper building, regardless of their tradeskills. This is the first expansion where I haven’t been working on maxing out skills right away.

Conclusion

Warlords of Draenor is, simply put, the biggest change to World of Warcraft since it debuted in 2004. Player abilities, tradeskills, questing, dungeons, graphics — all have received a dramatic overhaul, with your character plopped down in the center of it. Not all the changes were perfectly executed, and lingering problems mar the play experience. But this is a tremendous start to the new expansion, and just the kick in the pants this game needed after 10 years on the streets.

Warcraft Alliance garrison in Warlords of Draenor

Above: A fully upgraded Alliance garrison — where the high and mighty hang out.

Image Credit: Blizzard Entertainment

A second opinion (from an Alliance player)

By Mike Minotti

Thank you, representative of the master Horde race, for permitting me to express my opinion as well. As an Alliance player (I was levelling a Death Knight Draenei), my experience was pretty similar to Heather’s, although my quests were a bit different and featured a separate cast of characters. Instead of focusing on the Orcs who didn’t join the Iron Horde, I fought alongside the Draenei, the other powerful race native to Draenor.

The quest lines I completed were fun and engaging, and they were certainly more memorable than the ones I experienced in Mists of Pandaria. Warlords of Draenor does a great job of establishing its villains, and everything you do revolves around your battle to stop them. Completing quests is just as much about about progressing the expansion’s story as it is a means to earn experience points.

Besides that, I pretty much agree with Heather regarding the expansion’s quality. The garrison mechanic really is great, and it brings back a little bit of that city-building quality that I loved in the original Warcraft games. I also enjoyed some of the changes made to my class. Extraneous skills are gone or combined with others, so my action bar is a bit less cluttered. Also, I’m playing on a relatively small realm, so those staggering server issues haven’t bothered me too much.

So, assuming you can get in, this is definitely one of World of Warcraft’s better expansions.

Score: 85/100

World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor is available now for PC and Mac, and it requires the base World of Warcraft game to run. The publisher provided download codes to GamesBeat for the purposes of this review.


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