WoW's Warlords of Draenor beta: A disappointing start

Eliot Lefebvre
E. Lefebvre|07.18.14

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WoW's Warlords of Draenor beta: A disappointing start
Yeah, I know those feels, all right.
My time with the Draenor beta has been an overwhelming disappointment.

Warlords of Draenor is to World of Warcraft as Man of Steel is to the Superman mythos. It's an effort to collect classic elements with no regard for the setting in which they make sense, throwing them together like line items. It's aware of the history of the franchise only as a resource to mine, and it's just giving us all of the old familiar pieces without the parts that made those pieces memorable.

Imagine watching Harrison Ford pretending to be Indiana Jones despite being far too old for the role now, locked in a script with no sense of momentum or energy, going through the motions in a way that's not just lackluster but actively kind of shameful. Imagine Frank Miller writing Batman as a parody of what people thought his original versions of Batman were anyway without the slightest sense of irony. That should give you some idea of where I am when it comes to Warlords of Draenor. It's loads of classic ideas, stuff that I desperately want to like, but it's ultimately just not very good, and it certainly doesn't come together.

One of the nicknames I have for my wife is still based upon something that happened to her first character, when she was so proud of herself for unlocking bear form on a druid.  That was nine years ago.Before I go into details, I feel it's only fair to say where I'm coming from here, which is what I do basically every time I write one of these pieces. The fact is that World of Warcraft and I have history, dude.

I picked up a copy of the game when it launched in 2004 because at the time I worked at the only store in existence that apparently had copies. I didn't realize they were hard to come by or something; we had like a dozen on the shelf. Maybe I just missed the rush. I played it, and man, I was hooked. I loved it.

I dabbled elsewhere every so often, but World of Warcraft and I were tight from launch until shortly after the launch of Cataclsym. My wife and I got closer because of our chats in the game, and that's where she first learned about roleplaying. We still talk about things that took place there with fond memories.

The point I'm getting at here is that while the cool thing to do is toss on a pair of shades and proudly proclaim that you're a rebel and that you think Blizzard's game ruined MMOs forever, that's not where I'm coming from. The game has, for a very long time, been magnificently good. It deserves its status in the annals of history. I think Blizzard has really lost sight of what made the game reach its height, but after the Warlords of Draenor, announcement my wife and I went back to the game after clocking out for what we thought was the last time just during early Cataclysm.

And you know what? I was actually pretty impressed with a lot of Mists of Pandaria. I had expected something much worse than I got; what I got had issues, but it was keen enough. I was excited.

That excitement was tempered and reduced very steadily via announcement after announcement about the expansion, and it's been thoroughly stomped out now, but I wanted to give you your mountain of salt to munch on before the meat. If I haven't been clear enough, let me spell it out for you: This is an expansion that I really, really want to like.

Seriously. It's an alternate universe set on one of the best things that the franchise has, a world without humans or any of the standard fantasy tropes. It's got plenty of Draenei, my absolute favorite race, period. It has Blizzard's take on player housing. It's not revamping core systems again, so at least you don't have to re-learn the art of playing a Paladin again. How could it go wrong?

Apparently quite easily.

God only knows how much I'd love you if you'd let me.
My wife and I started off playing the beta together, going through the just-boosted-to-90 area that supposedly introduces what's happening on Draenor. Obviously, this is difficult to do at the best of times; the way it's actually handled involves throwing a whole lot of lore characters at you in quick succession with offhand mentions about what the implications of your actions are.

When you first get through the Dark Portal, you find out that the Shadow Council is being used to fuel the portal. Why? What does it mean? Who is the Shadow Council? Who is Gul'dan? What's the significance of all of this? No time for those questions! It's time to be whisked off to the next setpiece with another named lore figure.

I know who these people are, yes, but there's literally nothing that makes them stand out as this is set up. If Gul'dan were replaced by a Gnome named Pantsburner Yankhair, it would have the exact same actual emotional impact. The same is true for the other lore characters who show up momentarily and then vanish shortly thereafter. Yes, having Kellidan the Breaker in a questline is a cute callback to dungeons from The Burning Crusade, but nothing of note happens because of that callback.

Am I nitpicking? A bit. But in Mists of Pandaria, you were partnered with a group of NPCs you had never met before and immediately had a sense of their personalities. You got to know these people. Here, it's just names on a screen with no impact, so divorced from context that I half expected an excerpt from Ironside followed by a flashback sequence.

I liked Thrall at one point; now I just wish he'd fall down a hole and die.The actual quests are functional... mostly. My wife and I questing together ran into a remarkable number of quests that seemed to have some problem with the two of us grouping up, something that culminated when we were playing together and some phasing bugged out on me. (Long story short, being there with her kicked me into the next phase, even though I hadn't yet turned the quest in.) We dutifully submitted our bug reports, but it certainly created the sensation that the game didn't exactly want us questing together.

"Functional" isn't exactly high praise, though, and the quests didn't really feel engaging to me at any point. It took me a while to figure out why, since there's plenty of stuff happening all around, but I think there are several culprits:
  1. There's no reason to care. If you don't already know who Khadgar and Thrall and the rest are, these quests don't give you any motivation to care about finding out anything about them. Instead of feeling as if you're taking part in a charge facing incredible odds with heroes you know, you're charging against the Iron Horde with people you don't know from Adam. About the best thing you can say is that people like Khadgar are demonstrably strong, not that they're actually interesting or likable or anything like that.
  2. It's completely on rails. I'm not fond of how Star Wars: The Old Republic directed me from planet to planet in a very linear fashion, but even that felt less on-rails than this experience. World of Warcraft has long struggled with the split between being on rails and being more open, but WoD swings far, far into railroad territory. By contrast, Mists of Pandaria quickly gave you hubs to use as branching points and so forth.
  3. The tutorial is not at all good. It's entirely fair to say that this area is meant as a tutorial for people using a boosted level 90 character, but it fails at doing even that. What it provides is several very simple quests and regions that don't really challenge you to learn much, but there's no real sense of teaching the player about how the game works or what the various abilities do. For that matter, in this build, there's no event leading up to assaulting the Iron Horde in the jungle; you're just there, devoid of any sense of urgency or any reason to care.
There's no reason for any of it to be this way. We have seen how much games can do with the same pieces. We've seen how much WoW itself can do with these pieces. It's tedious, and it's marked with all of the worst stuff that the game has done with storytelling over the years -- not to mention a lot of placeholders.

But, hey, just an intro zone, right? Easily moved past. Unfortunately, once I moved in further, that was when my troubles truly began. And to hear about that, you'll have to wait until next week for the second part of this three-part adventure into the Draenor beta.

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