PAX East 2014: First impressions of Warlords of Draenor

One thing I'll definitely give Blizzard, they do a great job of modeling slope-browed drooling ogres.  I don't know if that is exactly a compliment.
The biggest problem that Warlords of Draenor is facing right now is one of first impressions.

This isn't a mark against World of Warcraft so much as it's the nature of the beast. I wrote a while back about how World of Warcraft can't really be back, all things considered; it's too firmly a part of the establishment to ever shake the image that it's created over the past several years. You know what it is. You know how it plays. Odds are good that you've played it.

Warlords of Draenor also features no new races, no new classes, no overhaul of the talent system, and in the build I got to play, very few of the new models. That's where the first impression problem crops up. A lot of the things that are being baked into the expansion just don't show up at first glance. That isn't to say that the first glance is bad, just that it overwhelmingly sends the message of "this is still World of Warcraft; no need for elaboration."

GET TO DA TOWAH!  Er, UP DA TOWAH!  DO STUFFS IN DA TOWAH!When I started my demo, I was given my choice of race and class. On a hunch that this would be the most orcish expansion in a series of ever-orcier expansions, I rolled a lady orc Shaman. I had vague hopes that the updated model would be in for the girl, but alas, it was the same old song and dance. But I figured that since I'm most familiar with playing an enhancement Shaman and a retribution Paladin, a familiar footing would be a good way to see how much had changed.

The bright side is that what has changed are some of the ridiculous numbers. The stat squish is in full effect, and while I felt a bit squishier as a fresh 90 in greens than on my main, I didn't feel as if my abilities were vastly scaled up or down compared to how things used to be. Helpfully, armor stats now shift with spec, meaning that I had only to fiddle with my accessories and weapons rather than swap to a whole new set of gear when I picked enhancement.

So how did it play? Pretty much exactly as it plays on live, honestly.

Sure, there were differences, some of which simply came from the fact that I was not fully glyphed up on my home setup and so forth. (I had to keep reminding myself about things that weren't on my bar, which was kind of shameful.) But it was a very familiar experience in every way, shape, and form. I was thrown into an orc assault on ogres, a quest line that I swear I have taken part in roughly a million times before, using more or less the same rotation that I've used for my Shaman all through Mists of Pandaria.

On the one hand, this is good. I am tired of being told to relearn how to play my class with every new expansion; the idea of being able to just load up the expansion and play is kind of heady. On the other hand, it certainly didn't send me the message that this was an entirely new experience. If anything, it felt familiar.

Baby it's cold outside.  Forever.Some of that might just be the particular zone in question. After a whole lot of orctacular expansions, these quests were again all about orcs, to the point that I believe the game may be approaching critical levels of orc. And fighting through a group of ogres with a bunch of orcs is kind of the prototypical experience in this case. There's a sense of a return to roots, of familiarity.

But there's also a strong sense that this is less a matter of stepping up the game and more a matter of adding more on to the existing game. I killed the things I had to kill, I moved forward, I watched Thrall do his Shaman thing alongside Durotan and a bunch of other Frostwolves who were kicking it old-school. There was nothing on display that you haven't seen if you've played WoW prior to this. Go forward, watch the NPCs talk, fulfill your quest objectives.

The addition of markers that signal the main story thrust is welcome, and let's be fair here: The directed questing experience is still good and has only been refined here. Quests flow into one another in a logical fashion, tasking you to take on a steady stream of threats with the feel of ascending and improving over time. The main quest also popped up bonus objectives at one point, although (possibly by mistake) I didn't get a chance to really go and explore those. There's nothing wrong here barring the glitches that you'd expect from at this point in development.

We're also suffering slightly because some of the big new features aren't really on display in this demo. You don't get to experience the fact that armor stats shift based on your character spec, really; it happens, but it does so transparently, so it's easy to miss. Garrisons are not on display, or at least they weren't on display at any point during the hour or so that I played. And the whole experience is polished, carefully delivered, and clearly refined. I ran into a couple of bugs, a few points of annoyance, places where indicators were unclear, yet nothing fundamentally broken.

But it feels very much like more of the same. As someone who's long enjoyed World of Warcraft on and off, I had the feeling from my brief playtime was that this expansion is a far cry from ambitious. It's more content without really rewriting or shaking anything up.

Maybe there's more to be found in Garrisons, and maybe part of the issue is just that there's only so much you can show off in a short demo. Perhaps later things branch out a little more. But far from being a show-stopper, the experience I had just seemed perfunctory. It felt by-the-numbers, and it recycled old concepts if not necessarily old models along the way.

Will the expansion be good? I don't know; I haven't played it enough yet to be sure. I'm sure it'll continue the standards of questing that the game has set up over the past few years. But I went in very excited and walked away feeling that it was pretty much the same old story, same old song and dance. It's a good dance, but it's a bit conservative.

And considering how long people have been waiting for these particular dance steps, one would hope for a bit more flourish.

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This article was originally published on Massively.