WoW's Warlords of Draenor beta: Questing, mechanics, and concerns

Eliot Lefebvre
E. Lefebvre|07.23.14

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WoW's Warlords of Draenor beta: Questing, mechanics, and concerns
The past is haunting you.
Tell me if this sounds familiar if you've played World of Warcraft: Your faction's forces are unexpectedly trapped in a strange new world with some familiar elements but a large number of unfamiliar ones. You are facing both the other faction and a new almost unknown foe, forcing you to seek allies immediately. Unfortunately for you, the local inhabitants have their own customs and lives, and you're going to need to start forging alliances to deal with this largely alien region.

Yes, that's the Warlords of Draenor starting experience as well as the Mists of Pandaria starting experience. What sets the two apart, aside from MoP's clever use of mini-hubs moving out in a sort of spiderweb fashion, is that MoP approached its story by easing up on the pressure early in the plot. You start settling into a rhythm, putting down the conflict with the enemy a little more, dealing with the inhabitants on their terms. The overarching conflict was there, but it had time to fade into the background. Not so here; the conflict with the Iron Horde squats on your shoulder and screams at you, crow-like, preventing you from thinking even for a second that you might want to explore this strange fantasy world.

It's a miracle any of you survive infancy, I guess.Your first several quests in your new zone are focused around recruiting followers, acquiring materials, and generally establishing the Garrison as a base of operations. This is something we've done before, of course, but there is a bit more sense of taking a personal hand in the proceedings, which I do like. And it's a logical set of first few steps in the world.

Unfortunately, we've barely finished scavenging supplies (with more Iron Horde attacks) before we're asked to go off and help a Draenei village. So rushing off to rescue the inhabitants, we...

Wait, what? We're still rescuing them? So in this expansion in which we finally get to see more Draenei in a reasonable story role for the first time since The Burning Crusade, we're still seeing the race used as a chew toy for every force available? It's minor nitpicking, I know, but I'm tired of seeing the Draenei as incapable of defending themselves against the spiders that moved into a barn last week.

I can't be too mad about this, though, as seeing the Draenei as an actual society always makes me happy. And they're presented decently, although I would prefer to just be blasted with more stuff about Draenei until it's coming out of my ears. Yrel, who's been talked up quite a bit elsewhere, is an interesting figure in her own right, although her characterization is kind of hastily assembled through Shadowmoon Valley as Designated Hero. She wears it well enough that it's not too galling.

The quests in this area are meant to place a higher emphasis on exploration, bonus objectives, and the like. In theory, this is a good thing; in practice, I found it mostly meant wandering about a bit in order to find when the next quest triggered. In one build, a series of map icons were added to specifically point out bonus objectives, thereby eliminating exploration altogether. It's a cool idea, definitely, but I wonder if in practice it'll just turn questing from "move from hub to hub" to "sweep around in a circle to get all the quests," which was the style of play that hubs were specifically created to avoid.

You might think that it's a law that every mention of Yrel has to include this picture, but that's not true.  It's simply a matter of knowing nothing else about her and having no better concepts to hang about.
Quests are also phased in high quantities, making the phasing of The Elder Scrolls Online look almost nonexistent. This, as I mentioned in the first part this series, is where my wife and I were functionally blocked from progressing together, which was also around the time that she clocked out entirely because she just wasn't having fun. (I wasn't either, but I wanted to be fair.)

Overall, the story works, but it never seems clear whether it wants to be an homage to the past, a throwback, or just a new story altogether. You meet an unbroken Akama, who grabs a pair of sickles to fight off the Iron Horde, and it's all meant as a visual nod to his weapon of choice in The Burning Crusade. But it doesn't have any bearing on the character. It doesn't tie into what we know of Akama, all of which was based upon his life in Outland. Is he like the old Akama? Totally distinct? Does it matter?

It's also far more one-note than stories usually are. Every single problem comes back to the Iron Horde doing something nasty. The Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King were also about exploring someplace completely new with an obvious threat in the background, but neither was constantly reminding you that doom is around the corner the way WoD does. It feels harried and single-minded.

Visually, the game looks very good. The new models that are in feel very nice and suitably improved; oddly, the new female Draenei isn't in, but the new male Draenei is. I would have preferred if the model upgrade brought with it more choices of body type or any other update to the primitive and weak character creator, but I knew going in that Blizzard was not taking on that task. The landscapes are quite satisfyingly vast, and the design of Draenei towns is both consistent from the handful of outposts we've seen and much more fitting for a culture not clinging to scraps. Armor, unfortunately, is remarkably bland and uninventive, shades of brown with lots of pointy bits strapped to jagged metal.

And here, I believe, we can pinpoint the moment when World of Warcraft's actual art started to look like fanart by enthusiastic amateurs.The other big features that the expansion is supposed to provide are pretty transparent. The number squish is... irrelevant, frankly, while you're in the midst of playing. Ability squish works, but it doesn't exactly make the game feel any more engaging than it did before. When it's working right, the abilities you lose are the ones you barely ever used anyway. I lost one ability on my Retribution Paladin, which technically made my rotation easier, but only slightly. It was bland on live, and it's bland now; I just have fewer burst cooldowns to hit.

I'm also left staring around blankly wondering what, exactly, this expansion has to offer. Honestly, at this point, it might even be worse than Cataclysm. That was a majorly flawed expansion that missed its mark thoroughly but at least had high targets: It tried to revamp the entire 1-60 leveling experience and add new content, two new races, a new talent system, and so forth. Warlords of Draenor, by contrast, aims very low and succeeds only in shooting itself in the foot.

As I write this, we're rapidly moving through the second half of July, and the test still isn't allowing players into areas past the starting regions. (I fully expect that by the time you read this it will have opened up because irony.) The updated models are only half in. It would take an insanely aggressive test schedule for the expansion to be fully tested and released in September; November or December seems far more likely. Yes, that means more than a year since the last major content patch. And honestly, barring some large and heretofore unannounced change or reworks that would push the expansion back even further, the expansion is just not very good.

I said to my wife as I rode through Shadowmoon Valley that the expansion is made poorer by the number of other games available to play. This makes me sad because I would love to love this expansion, to really surround myself with Draenor, but the fact of the matter is that the games I'm already playing offer me a bigger and more compelling experience than anything on display in WoD. There are so many magnificent MMORPGs on the market right now, all of which see major content updates a great deal more frequently than this.

That's not even touching on tone-deaf updates like the changes to raid functionality, sticking the expansion cities adjacent to a world PvP zone, and the ongoing debate over the removal of flying. (I agree with it, but the communication about it was horrible.)

If you are absolutely dead set on playing World of Warcraft, then you were going to buy the expansion anyway. But if you're thinking of going back for the expansion, my advice is that there's no reason to bother. Wait until the next year-long gap between expansions, if at all. There's so much else out there and such weak development of ideas and mechanics that it doesn't just fail to be a return to glory -- it fails at everything beyond the most basic functionality.

For the amount of time players have been waiting, it's a huge disappointment. And I don't see that changing.

Don't miss the earlier articles in this series examining the Draenor beta:
WoW's Warlords of Draenor beta: A disappointing start
WoW's Warlords of Draenor beta: The disappointment of garrisons
WoW's Warlords of Draenor beta: Questing, mechanics, and concerns

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