I just hit the new level cap in World of Warcraft. I think WoW has become an interesting game as a way to see a decade of evolving game design on display. There are a few things I want to look at.
In the beginning, quests were repetitive tasks where you start at point A, go to point B, kill/take/harvest something, and either return to point A or move on to point C. This structure is still what WoW, and every other game uses, but a few things have been updated. WoW is sliding ever closer to a mobile quest system. In modern and sci-fi games, this is easy, you just use a communicator of some sort to tell the quest giver you did what was required. A great example of this is Wildstar. In practice, a mobile quest system reduces the zone ping pong effect of running each path twice. I think it is a much better method of questing than the quest hub model. However, WoW generally doesn’t have cell phones, so there must be a magical or mechanical item to do this. Blizzard is in a bind if they want to keep immersion going, so mobile quests have generally been rare.
Warlords of Draenor uses two workarounds to achieve semi-mobility in questing. First, quest givers often travel with you or send you along the path in a much more fluid manner. Yay! Second, there are many area challenges that just give a flat XP and gold reward. It makes no sense, but it creates a mechanical system that rewards exploring the filler areas. In some cases this provides a rare situation where the game shows you the side stories instead of telling you about them. I like it. I have used these area challenges to gain nice experience bumps now and then.
At this point, having quested through most of WoD, I think any future expansion will need to go further and somehow address the decade old questing architecture underlying WoW. Even with some new wallpaper and tweaks, the questing system is showing its’ age. The system is not bad, there are just better ways to make the gameplay experience more interesting. The need to constantly return to a quest hub (especially without flight) is rather onerous after playing games that have dispensed with that sort of design.
Reputation, Dailies and the Grind
Blizzard was huge on saying there were no dailies in WoD and that reputation grinds would be completely different. These claims are both technically true and spiritually wrong. Reputations no longer have daily quest grinds, but they do have level 100 mob grinds if you want to finish things off in a zone. Each zone has roughly one faction/reputation, and a corresponding max level area to farm said rep. That said, just questing appears to get you to revered with just about every faction. We’ll see how the 100 grind goes.
Dailies are not gone, they are just presented differently. Instead of a pile of quests you can get each day, you have a garrison, and based on your professions and building choices, you have various work orders. These work orders are exactly like dailies. You can only do so many at a time. You have to go mine/fish/gather to get the mats. The change is that instead of gating your reputation rewards, completion of daily work orders gates you garrison and profession progression. They may be on a 3 hour timer, but work orders are still the same thing as dailies, just with a new coat of paint. True, they are all in one place and if you spend half a brain cycle, you can do them all within your garrison, but they are still dailies.
The time-gated doling out of rewards seems to be generally accepted way of getting players to log in and continue to engage with a game. I don’t have major faults with it. However, the gating of professions this way really seems an odd move. I can only learn recipes at a certain speed now, and it enforces a very artificial barrier to my gear progression through engineering (for example). I don’t like that.
I think the garrison system is the most interesting aspect of Warlords. In a nutshell, shortly after completing the introductory sequence of Warlords you are prompted to start building a garrison for your faction. It is for your faction, but you are the commander. In effect, you are the commander of your faction in Draenor. After the initial few buildings are built you continue to unlock buildings via quest completion and leveling. At this point you start to realize that garrisons are the hub of Warlords.
The various buildings unlock the work orders I mentioned earlier. Some buildings allow you to progress on your own professions, or gain access to others, at a lesser tier and rate. Followers join your garrison as you travel through Draenor and you can send these followers on missions to increase their levels and win supplies, loot, gold, and personal xp bonuses. As someone who did not pay much attention to the beta, I was surprised that many story quests start and end at your faction. You may be able to play through Warlords without expanding your garrison, but you will be intentionally hamstringing your ability to improve gear and professions if you chose not to engage with the garrison.
I find this interesting, because I got the strong impression from Blizzard before the expansion hit that garrisons were a largely optional part of the content. That does not seem in any way true. Not that I am complaining, I actually enjoy most of the aspects of garrisons. The one thing I do not like is how much is locked away past the level cap. It seems arbitrary and tedious to lock up so much content behind the level 100 wall.
On a more philosophical level, I find the garrison a fascinating thing, especially when viewed from the history of Blizzard’s games. The first Warcraft games were straight RTS classics. Harvest, build, kill, repeat. Base building was a serious thing, and I recall endless hours spent designing basses and build orders in a variety of RTS games through much of my adolescence. Warcraft III added hero units, and a more cinematic approach to the series. Looking at a closely zoomed WCIII screen is eerily similar to looking at Diablo 2, if you excuse the different graphical styles. WoW came out, and all of a sudden you were just the hero unit, joining in with dozens of other heroes to fight Onyxia or conquer Alterac Valley.
The progression of player control was from commander, then to a commander following the heroes, then to being a lesser hero and eventually as a soldier in the elite vanguard of your faction. Now we come full circle, the player is the commander once again. My orc started as a peon years ago, and now my orc commands the forces of the Horde on Draenor. I set the base build order, I order my units on various missions. Hell, I even gather the resources to build the base. It feels like I have lived through some decades-long art installation about the experience of being a player of games. I can’t quite express the feeling, but it is a pleasant mix of nostalgia, and sometimes I think I am getting a sly wink and nod from Blizzard.
Overall, I am enjoying Warlords, even if I have no damn clue why I am on Draenor besides “ORCS! KILL THEM ALL!”. I have a free 90 I still need to use at some point. The lansdscapes are beautiful, if you like WoW landscapes. The music is great. The quests are still half cheesy winks and half fun fantasy melodrama, which I think is about right. Overall, I’d put this squarely in the middle of the road for WoW expansions: Better that Cataclysm, about on par with Mists (which I thought aged better than any other expansion), and a little behind WotLK.
Just one thing: They better bring flying back, or I am going to start tossing Iron Stars at Anaheim.