There’s an unfortunate trend in the bigger end of the gaming town to make games that are, for want of a better term, a second job. These are designed to capture your attention wholly for long periods of time, usually in the hopes of getting you to spend more money on cosmetics, season passes and other things. To be sure this is a great market to be in, the faithful often spending barely anytime on other titles before coming home to roost with you again. In my past these games were great, often filling in that void of wanting to play something but not wanting to start a new game just yet. However finding myself ever more short on time these days all I start to feel with these games is a sense of dread, knowing that there’s no way I can fully explore them without forsaking everything else out there. So I’ve become comfortable with getting my fill with these games and leaving them there, knowing that I’ll never become what that game wants me to be.
It feels weird saying that to a game that I’ve been playing for over 18 years at this point.
The Dragon Isles, long since hidden due to the War of Anicents, have now revealed themselves to the world of Azeroth. This isle is the home of the dragon aspects and all of their kin, including the Dracthyr who are a race of dragon warriors who were sealed away by their master, Neltharion, when he fell under the corruption of the old gods. Dazed from thousands of years in stasis the Dracthyr awaken to see that their old enemies, the elemental proto-dragons, have risen up to lay siege to Azeroth and their jailers: the Dragon Aspects. The aspects call for aid from the Horde and Alliance in pushing back on the elementalist threat and securing the home for the Dracthyr in the process.
I get the feeling that every expansion deliberately sends you back to Stormwind in order to set your expectations low for the graphics before they shoot you off to the new area. Because at this point Stormwind looks worse than most developer art whilst the new regions, still working within the limitations of the old engine, look far more serviceable. Whilst there’s definitely been some improvements under the hood it’s still at game that’s unable to make good use of modern hardware, optimisations or any other tricks that could uplift it’s graphical experience. Don’t get me wrong, the devs are making the absolute most of what they can here, but you’ll never forget you’re playing a game that’s now old enough to vote.
Dragonflight follows the same, slightly unfortunate, formula as its predecessor did: locking you into a campaign that you must complete before you can begin on the real game. Thankfully this time around things are a little bit more interesting story wise, so there’s a bit more to carry you on to the end. There’s also been a massive revamp of professions, the talent trees and a new form of transport called Dragonriding which adds a lot more interest to the level design and its traversal. All the stuff we’ve come to expect in the base game is still there, meaning that the ground level experience is still very much the same WoW that we’ve come to love (or hate).
Feeling that most of my impressions of recent WoW expansions have been due to me playing the same character for all of them. So I figured I’d give the new hero class, the Evoker, a go. This meant I logged in a bit earlier than the release to get myself to 60, something which only took a couple of hours and was a largely enjoyable experience. The playstyle initially just felt like a rebadged Mage however after playing it for a good 15 hours past getting to 60 I can safely say it’s far more varied and is a somewhat fresh take on what the ranged DPS/healer hybrid can be. Did it strongly impact my impression of this expansion? Not in the slightest! It was good to have some variety, to be sure, but I think I’d probably be in much the same place had I just kept with my same character.
The strict levelling structure still feels pretty restrictive as should you do a lot of side quests, or a few dungeons here or there, you’ll quickly find yourself out-levelling the area. Similarly, unlike other expansions, where gathering every quest was a necessity in order to make sure you’ve cleared out an area properly before moving on, in Dragonflight this will just lead to a full quest log. Most of those side quests will lead to other, secondary quest hubs that have their own non-campaign narrative attached to them. Great for completionist players or those just wanting a slightly more guided exploration experience, but a right pain in the ass for those wanting to push through the campaign to see some end-game content. I mean, I know that the campaign missions are clearly marked, but in expansions past grabbing all the missions usually meant getting a good chunk of them all done in one hit. Now though? They’re just more on your to-do list that’ll never get done.
Dragonriding is a bit of a standout feature though, both in the way that it freshens up the exploration experience but also in how it gave the developers a lot more freedom in designing the levels. To be sure I was hoping for the Dracthyr’s race bonuses to play a bit more of a part here (which they don’t) but once I got a few upgrades under my belt and a feel for the flight mechanics it actually became a lot of fun to traverse the landscape at great speeds. Indeed once you’ve got maybe half the upgrades getting to places on dragonback is usually quicker than taking a griffon, something that wasn’t always true in the past. Of course not all areas make full use of the dragonriding in their design, but for those that do it certainly makes for a much more diverse and interesting landscape.
At this point it should be no surprise that an ancient engine such as the one WoW is built on has issues, but I think it bears pointing out just so your expectations are in-line with reality. WoW still struggles to make full use of mulit-core setups and even with the graphics settings turned up to maximum on everything my RTX3070 barely saw above 30% usage. There were some times where it started to bog down but it was clear that was due to poor optimisation when large numbers of players were on-screen, again an issue with multi-thread utilisation. There was also the usual launch day issues, which are to be expected, and are likely far gone by now.
I did manage to make it all the way through the campaign this time, mostly due to my interest in the Dragon Aspects and their associated lore. To be sure whilst the story is better than what Shadowlands put forward that was a really low bar to jump over. Talking this over with my mate while we were playing we were caught by the absurdity of the situation our character, notionally having gone through all the previous threats to Azeroth, finds themselves in. At this point the next big bad really isn’t all that in comparison to the old gods, titans and other reality ending characters that we’ve faced and defeated. This is definitely the weight of the Warcraft legacy at play here, with almost 2 decades of raising the stakes we’re starting to run out of places to go. Or at least ones that feel narratively interesting.
Overall World of Warcraft: Dragonflight hits all the right spots for the faithful, revamping where it needs to and keeping the core the same. Coming back to it after leaving it sit since the last expansion, playing a new character and getting to end game all felt largely the same as it always did. I have no real complaints, but also nothing truly great to point towards and say “This is why you should come back to WoW now”. Will I ever though? At this point WoW knows it’s place in the world and I don’t think it’s eager to radically change it.
World of Warcraft: Dragonflight is available on PC right now for $59.95. Total playtime was approximately 17 hours, finishing the campaign and levelling up to 70.