World of Warcraft: Legion just gave the world’s leading paid-subscription massively multiplayer online role-playing game a massive boost in the right direction. And the expansion pack’s enormous scope and nearly endless run of things to do, combined with an unbelievably smooth launch — oh, and a new mobile app — make it the best expansion ever written for World of Warcraft.

Blizzard Entertainment released World of Warcraft: Legion August 30 for PC and Mac for $50. A companion app for iOS and Android is free. Legion requires the base game and earlier expansions to play, all of which are packaged now for $20; monthly subscription fees average $15. It comes with a free boost for one character to level 100, in case you’re just starting or need to catch a character up to speed.

I played on both platforms, leveling several characters (though only one to max — see below). I earned the Loremaster achievement for questing in all possible zones; completed more than 200 world quests; completed every dungeon on normal, heroic, and mythic difficulties; capped three tradeskills; and fished up a rare shark. We’re not going to discuss how many hours I played.

And I haven’t run out of things to do yet.

World of Warcraft: Legion

Above: A group of 40 works toward getting their sharks. That’s a lot of fishing bobbers.

Image Credit: Heather Newman

What you’ll like

Welcome back to having one main character

I’m an alt-o-holic. I have a second WoW account because I’ve capped out on high level characters on all servers (that’s 50 of them, for anyone counting), and every expansion to date has gone like this for me: Gun to the level cap, either ripping through quests without reading them or running endless repetitions of dungeons to get there. Start working on preparation for large-group raid dungeons. Get bored. Start the treadmill of alts. Either raid or start to disengage.

I took four days off from other projects to level up this time in Legion, expecting to burn through my customary two starter characters in that time and get a good concept of the expansion for this review. A week later, I was still working on the same character. Sure, she was 110 (the new level cap) by that time. But I hadn’t run out of things to do, and it was so much fun playing the end-game content with her, and playing with new friends, that each time I turned to an alt I quickly returned to my main character.

This is the first Warcraft expansion where you literally have more to do at cap than you do while working through the robust leveling content.

Loads of max-level quests will tempt you: for your crafting professions, new fancy artifact weapon, new class order hall (where all the other druids or paladins or warlocks or what have you hang out), and world quests that offer nearly guaranteed gear upgrades or recipes or PvP honor or artifact weapon power. A new zone to explore with quests and content designed specifically for max-level players to cavort in. Dungeons with gear that scales to you so you’re never without an upgrade. New dungeon modes that allow you to play over and over again, getting more challenge out of them each time.

The result is near-paralysis from so many interesting, engaging, fun things to do. That’s a feeling I absolutely haven’t had since 2004 in this game, and I’ve been reveling in it for the past couple of weeks. Incredible.

World of Warcraft: Legion

Above: A world quest screen shows the remaining quests in one zone, after I’d cleared out a pile.

Image Credit: Heather Newman

High quality content and a new scaling mechanic add to the story — and your friends list

Other odd things happened along the way while leveling. The writing on quests is the best it’s ever been, and almost all of them included some kind of voiceover. The result was that I started reading quests and caring about storyline for the first time in years. They made me laugh, at least one made me cry (no! not … her), and every line of dialogue resonated with thought, editing, and echoes of people who cared about and were enthusiastic for what they were doing.

One of the key mechanics is that every encounter, quest, and reward scales to the level and power of your character. This means you can start with almost any zone in the new Broken Isles continent, regardless of your level, and you’ll see all the quests and angry monsters as being a manageable challenge.

You can group up with people who are different levels than you and quest together. If you’re level 101 and join someone who is level 107, you will see the monster as 101 and they will see it as 107, and it will damage you — and take damage from you — accordingly.

Scaling dramatically impacted my investment in story, because I never outleveled a zone before I was done with the stories there. It also allowed me to join up with a much wider array of players than I had before. I haven’t met and befriended so many random people since WoW originally launched, and nearly all of them were different levels than I was.

World of Warcraft: Legion

Above: Every zone is lovingly designed, but the graphic improvements are just part of the overall polish of Legion.

Image Credit: Heather Newman

Every system, redesigned

Legion brought massive changes to every player system in the game. Talents are streamlined, spell-improving glyphs are largely gone, professions work on a rank system fueled by quests, player-versus-player is all but unrecognizable with talents and PvE-style gear, and artifact weapons offer both the power to change the game and an alternate talent system.

World quests pop up throughout the landscape every few hours, offering max-level players more than 400 different things to do involving reputations, gear, professions, and PvP. Ten dungeons offer unique encounters — including one that truly feels like an open outdoor landscape from the game world itself — and, for those ready for more, ratings that let you run them faster or with more difficulty each time.

Not everything was perfectly balanced (more on that in a bit), but the overall result offers a challenging list of things to do and mechanics with which to do them. It still feels like Warcraft, and if you hated the game in 2004 (or 2006, or 2008), you probably won’t like it today, either.

But if you’re one of the many that’s lost interest since those peak years … welcome back. WoW feels more efficient, but it’s not dumbed down. If you’re a high level player, you have more challenging things to do. If you’re a beginning player or have less time to spend, you’ll have an easier time getting into the swing of things. Plus, raiding is no longer required.

World of Warcraft: Legion

Above: The Dalaran Sewers are an open free-for-all PvP zone right in the middle of town. They’re always hopping. (Shown in black and white because I was so very dead.)

Image Credit: Heather Newman

Those little thoughtful touches

Every time I turn around in this game, something surprises or delights me. A flight whistle, once you reach Friendly reputation status with all the new factions in the world and open up your world quests, summons a ride from anywhere in the world to the nearest flight point. It’s unbelievably convenient, and means I haven’t missed flying too much (flying will be back later, and of course I’m working on it — one of the millions of things to do).

The tool tips on items this time around are frequently hilarious, so I’ve started reading them again. Quests have little twists and turns you wouldn’t expect, and even straightforward adventures offer some knowing winks and fun asides. Complete a particularly dramatic step in one quest, for example, and you’ll find yourself in the first aid headquarters in the capital city of Dalaran — sharing bunk space with a sea lion, who turns out to be a druid who can’t figure out how to shapeshift back.

Characters from previous expansions reappear, in some cases all grown up now, to lend you a hand. As you work your way through your class quest, you take on titles previously only available to the most powerful NPCs — and get the respect you deserve. In my all-flowers-and-trees druidic Dreamgrove, for example, bouncing Laughing Sister dryads say “Everything’s fine in the forest, Archdruid!” as I run by, surrounded by the other über-druids on my server. One of the bosses in one of the dungeons, also a druid, tells the whole party as we fight that even the “great and powerful druid” they brought with the “amazing restorative powers” won’t help them win.

World of Warcraft: Legion

Above: Yeah, this new Archdruid sounds great! Oh … that’s me.

Image Credit: Heather Newman

Class questlines and the class halls vary in how epic they feel — my druid’s was amazing, despite the relatively obscure artifact weapons I’ve been given to wield, as were my hunter’s and death knight’s; the mage and shaman (surprisingly, given that she earned the lore-heavy Doomhammer), not so much. But all the stories offer detail and a wide variety of objectives that will take you all over the game world, not just the Broken Isles.

PvPers will notice the many facets of the new free-for-all area in Dalaran’s sewers; they have become hugely popular with players. Not only do they offer terrific drop-in battles, but they also have rare monsters and player-spawned creatures and buffs that change the tide of combat.

Legion doesn’t succeed just because it offers an incredibly deep well of content. It succeeds because of the high polish on everything, from character design down to the humblest textures and dialogue lines. Legion feels like Blizzard gathered a huge group of developers and instructed each of them to take a small snippet of the game and make it perfect. It’s that good.

World of Warcraft: Legion

Above: I’m on a boat! This dungeon ends with a fight on deck of what feels like a storm-tossed ship.

Image Credit: Heather Newman

Demon hunters offer fast-moving fun

Normally on a new Warcraft expansion I’d spend most of my time chatting about the new class available; this time, they’re just one strong facet of a complex Legion gem.

Demon hunters launched as the new leather-wearing melee-class darlings this expansion, and I found them a hoot to play. Highly mobile, they offer a unique double-jump-and-glide movement style that rapidly becomes addicting. Demon hunter damage-dealers even zip in and out of the melee combat area during their rotation, making them fun to watch, and they’re beasts to play (or to stack up against in PvP).

As tanks, they’re overpowered, with what feels like a million ways to self-heal and abilities that make it easy to get around a dungeon room. If you were playing when Blizzard released death knights at the beginning of the Wrath of the Lich King expansion and remember how good that class felt then, demon hunters will evoke some fond memories. Just add wings.

World of Warcraft demon hunter glide

Above: Zoom: This is what the wings look like that pop out when you glide.

Image Credit: Blizzard Entertainment

What you won’t like

Let’s talk balance

Legion stumbles just a bit on class damage. While dungeon bosses feel remarkably well-balanced (I’ve run across only one that made me throw up my hands in frustration over what felt like unfair mechanics, and that was with a group that perhaps wasn’t ideally composed), the balance of how much damage one class does versus another, or how much healing one tank type needs versus another, still could use a bit of work.

No one class feels terrible, and nearly all offer some kind of character setup (known as a spec, which is how your spend your skill points and what gear you use) that does respectably. But the differences between a balance druid versus a feral druid on a single target, or a windwalker monk versus a fire mage on a group, quickly become noticeable. The new demon hunters naturally rank at the top of the list for everything (damage and tanking). But comparing the overall healing needed for a well-played DH tank versus a well-played paladin, for example, reveals a gulf that needs adjusting.

Developers have made some changes already, but more are needed.

Some classes have more interesting spell rotations, or more interesting class quests, than others. That’s always been the case, but Legion makes it a bit more obvious, since so many classes and specs have gotten such a fine tune.

World of Warcraft: Legion

Above: My class quests: epic. Yours, perhaps not so much.

Image Credit: Heather Newman

People, people everywhere

Blizzard doesn’t release player stats any more, but the server I play on obviously exploded in population. Tons of people run around every quest area, they’re seven layers deep in the auction house … you get the idea. If you think you’re going to be able to quietly ride around some high level zone to collect herbs or mine without interference, you’re out of luck. On PvP realms, a rogue will always be around the corner to gank you.

On the bright side, the removal of obvious questing bottlenecks and the “choose your zone” mechanics of leveling mean that this release launched without noticeable lag or bugs related to population. On the down side … well, it’s a very minor nit, but if you don’t like company, just be aware that WoW is back to feeling like a truly massive MMO.

Missions are still around

You earn a few followers (truly a few, less than 10 in all) during your class order campaign, and you can send those followers on missions, much as you could in the last Warlords of Draenor expansion. You can manage those missions and the other kinds of research you can do in your hall via the new mobile Legion Companion app, which highlights what a minigame they truly are.

The missions feel less annoying than they did in the Warlords of Draenor expansion, because there are fewer of them and you’re more invested in the heroes you send. They don’t take over the game as garrisons did in WoD. But compared to all the other sparkling-fresh facets of Legion, they feel a little tired.

World of Warcraft: Legion

Above: Taking a break after one more much-too-late night of questing.

Image Credit: Heather Newman

Conclusion

When a game hits almost a dozen years old, you start to expect that developers will kick back and rest on their laurels.

It certainly felt that way during WoW’s last expansion. WoD started strong and then dropped off quickly, both in player population and in things to do. I started playing WoW about half a year before it launched in 2004, and even I looked at the Legion expansion pack skeptically. I’d largely checked out of WoD months before, and it felt like the developers had too.

Could the new expansion, based so obviously on the “demons invade!” storylines of Warcraft’s heyday as both a strategy game and a massively multiplayer online RPG, really offer me anything worth sticking around for? I picked at the beta, trying a few different quests for different character classes’ artifact weapons and doing a bit of leveling, but I wasn’t sure I’d be around long after launch.

Good news, Warcraft players: I found out where the devs have been.This expansion changed the way I play the game, and offers some moments of absolute wonder that harken back to when WoW first launched so long ago. If this expansion doesn’t shore up the slowly declining numbers of WoW players, then nothing will.

Legion is the best work ever done on WoW, and I say that as someone who remembers the original development process from alpha to the launch of the original “vanilla” box. I’m not known for giving high review scores. Legion earns one.

Score: 98/100

World of Warcraft: Legion is available for PC and Mac for $50, and it requires the base game to run. Blizzard Entertainment provided GamesBeat with download codes for purposes of this review.