WoW: Warlords of Draenor Hands-On Preview – Old Tricks, Darker Tone
Much like 2010′s Cataclysm expansion, Warlords of Draenor seeks hope in the days of Warcraft past. Then as now, it’s a risky move. Even now, I recall how excited I grew at the thought of revisiting lands I loved when WoW was fresh, but Cataclysm had barely run half its course before Blizzard’s nostalgia started to seem like laziness. Yesterday afternoon, as I jumped into Blizzard’s new take on material originally featured in the Burning Crusade expansion, I worried that I’d find myself confronted with the same issues in different guise. By and large such worries seem unfounded, however, as the starter zones for level 90 players proved merely suggestive of their 2007 counterparts. Indeed, had I not been playing WoW for all that time, I’m not sure I would have recognized many similarities at all.
My forays into Draenor first took me to Karabor, a massive Draenei temple known in other times as the Black Temple. The Alliance takes its first steps into the new content here (although the whys and hows are still largely cloaked in mystery), assisting the Draenei in weathering a siege by the so-called Iron Legion. It’s intense. Enemy orcs run by so often that it’s all but impossible to jog 20 steps without fighting one, and fragments of the perimeter wall shatter from the force of mortars as you race to objectives. Cut the grappling hooks used by the orcs in one quest, and you’ll hear them screaming in their zug-zugging voices all the way to the ground.
Blizzard does a good job here of making the surrounding battle seem dynamic even in the absence of other players, and there’s a neat juggle of objectives as you attempt to convince Draenei leaders to regroup up the stairs. One officer merely asks a question, another asks you to tend to wounded soldiers, and still another asks you to repair a crystal that’s smack in the zone where Godzilla-sized Gronns are raining shells on the temple. It’s also in these moments when you learn that the orcs are a needlessly talkative bunch, as one quest involves listening to their boastful last words for clues as to the meaning for the assault. Apparently no one ever told these guys that silence is golden.
It was good to see the prophet Velen directing the defense, particularly since it’s one of the few times we’ve seen the Draenei faction leader doing something besides imitating furniture in the deserted Exodar. Not that I remember him doing much aside from issuing quests, but the design of the Karabor siege is such as that we get to see about as much of the personality of the space goat race in 20 minutes as we saw during the entirety of the Burning Crusade. Good thing, too, since so much of this expansion’s appeal depends on the strength of its convoluted time-traveling lore. It’s a credit to the strength of the sequence that it seemed to end too quickly, as I’d had little awareness that I was fighting the end boss until he leapt on a two-headed mount and flew away and dropped the siege.
The departure of this first orc among hundreds or thousands to follow allowed me to see the world beyond. Looking across the rolling hills of Shadowmoon Valley, I saw little to hint that this was the same wasteland of green lava and barren soil where I’d learned to fly my Netherwing Drake years ago. In the far distance, a peak reared up that could have been the old zone’s central volcano, but I could tell from the steps of Karabor that I’d find nothing but pleasure in riding through the perpetually moonlit landscape.
It’s as beautiful as the old zone was forbidding, especially on a ground mount, and it’s understandable that Blizzard wants to maintain that feeling for the duration of the expansion. I’d spoken with Ray Cobo, one of World of Warcraft’s senior game producers but an hour before, and he spoke about Blizzard’s desire to remove flying mounts even after reaching level 100. “We feel Draenor’s best experience in the sense that you interact with not only the beauty but also the danger of it.”
I won’t lie; I want this. I’ve long thought that winged mounts have robbed the aging MMO of the sense of exploration and immersion it possessed in its first two years, but I also know Blizzard has opened a Pandora’s box that can never again be shut. Players are too used to the convenience of flitting about the map as the proto-drake flies, and I suspect that stripping it entirely would trigger a blacklash, however unjust.