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World of Warcraft Dragonflight preview: A new beginning for the aging MMO?

World of Warcraft Dragonflight Alpha
(Image credit: Windows Central)

World of Warcraft: Dragonflight is set to launch by the end of the year, and it comes at something of a tumultuous time for legendary studio Blizzard. 

The company and its parent corporation, Activision, have essentially spent investor call after investor call reporting to shareholders about declining market share, faced with intense competition from free-to-play online games and innovating MMOs like Final Fantasy XIV. 

Blizzard has had a tough few years, with declining monthly active users across all of its properties. This includes World of Warcraft, which enters its 20th year of operation in 2023. Indeed, WoW marches on despite everything, with its latest massive content drop coming towards the end of this year for Windows PC. 

World of Warcraft: Dragonflight represents something of a soft reset in some ways for the game's story and, in some ways, its very design philosophy. After two expansions with relatively lukewarm receptions, could Dragonflight be the one to put WoW back on track?

It should be noted that everything here is subject to change, given that we're still in early alpha as of August 2022. 

Playing as the new Dracthyr Evoker

World of Warcraft Dragonflight Alpha

(Image credit: Windows Central)

For WoW: Dragonflight, Blizzard is adding another new class, making it the first new addition to the lineup since Legion a few years ago. The new class is called the Evoker, and is exclusive to a new draconic race called the Dracthyr. I played through an early version of the Dracthyr new player experience this past week, dabbling in the class' unique toolkit, which includes a variety of new mechanics and systems exclusive to the expansion. 

The Dracthyr are a race of magically engineered draconic warriors designed and created by Neltharion, better known as Deathwing. Created thousands of years ago and then put into stasis, the story of the Dracthyr will unravel throughout the Dragonflight expansion, which revolves around a new landmass known as the Dragon Isles. 

The dragons of Azeroth were empowered by a race of god-like beings called the Titans to watch over the planet and its mortal races. Deathwing notoriously betrayed his brethren, corrupted by the Titans ancient enemies. It's unclear to me right now what Neltharion's plans were for his unique reptilian creations, but it seems that at least some of Azeroth's dragons aren't too willing to trust them just yet. 

(Image credit: Windows Central)

I don't want to spoil too many plot elements for those who want to experience it first-hand, but the initial starting quests are intriguing, designed to ease players in to the new Dracthyr mechanics while also introducing the Dragon Isles to the lore. You awake after thousands of years in a deep magical slumber, only to discover that your sanctum is being attacked by Malygos loyalists, the mad blue dragon who sought to contain and hide away all forms of magic. You emerge to discover the Dragon Isles in turmoil, at the mercy of an enraged faction of elemental protodrakes, whose goals are as of yet unclear. 

The Forbidden Reach starting area of the Dragon Isles is gorgeous with an impressive scale, designed for verticality and flight. Indeed, Dracthyr have the innate ability to quite literally fly as part of their racial toolkit, making WoW's existing racial abilities feel archaic and lame by comparison. This isn't WoW's existing "swimming in the air" flying either. This is swooping, diving, gliding, ascending, powered by a system that feels like it emerged from flight-oriented games like The Falconeer. You get an entire stance bar dedicated to aerial maneuvers to help power and prolong your flight, although you have finite charges per trip. 

Dracthyr cannot fly indefinitely, with each turn hindering your momentum until you eventually run out of steam, but you can cover vast distances extremely quickly, or leap up to a ledge far above your character without having to whip out a full-blown mount. It's also on a fairly strict 5-minute cooldown to prevent it from making other racial abilities look too bad ... but even still my Undead's racial abilities are looking hilariously terrible when put up side by side with the Dracthyr's. 

(Image credit: Windows Central)

There are some downsides to being a Dracthyr though, depending on your playstyle preferences. For one, they barely get any armor appearances to wear, restricted to a subset of designs due to their unique model requirements. Also, they don't get to display a weapon either, which is quite a departure for a game that revolves almost entirely around loot. Feral druids will feel at home, though. The other downside is how scrawny they look, although I admit that's a bit subjective — and I'll frame it as feedback. Even with a body type set to maximum, it's difficult to make Dracthyr look truly draconic. They instead appear more like winged lizards, with spindly limbs and serpentine necks. I couldn't help but stand next to some of the amazing new drakonid models and feel a twinge of jealousy, and those guys can even hold weapons too. 

On the upside, dracthyr do get mountains of customization. From colors, to scale textures, and even jewelry. You also get to pick their innate base armor appearance, as well as a secondary "visage" form, which allows them to appear in more human-like forms similar to other dragons in the game. Blizzard missed an opportunity to give Horde access to the human male model, though, giving us yet another variant of the blood elf male, sadly. At least these blood elves have real beards, though. 

Perhaps it is fitting that these dragons are a bit on the petite side. They are technically mages, after all, attacking with magical powers and breath attacks rather than brute strength. It's pretty clear that their gameplay design is well and truly a work in progress as of writing, but the promise is quite clear. 

Dracthyr borrow their energies from all of the existing dragonflights. Red fire for destruction and cauterizing wounds, green energies for renewal and healing, arcane blue magic for direct damage, and potent black magic for devastating earth attacks. Unfortunately, they only have two talent trees to pick from, with one focusing on ranged damage and the other on healing. As of writing, I found the dracthyr damage dealing gameplay to be bit awkward — but it is very early days, and Blizzard is still gathering feedback. I felt like I was just playing whack-a-mole with the different abilities as they came off cooldown, with minimal need for reactivity. I suspect this will change between now and launch, though. 

Indeed, I said earlier that it holds promise, because the attacks look incredibly cool, and have some brand new mechanics baked in as well. The Onyxia-inspired deep breath attack sends your dracthyr gliding in a wide 40-yard arc, destroying the ground with earthern spikes for huge damage with stun potential too if talented. Dracthyr also come with some potent party buffs, giving players shorter cooldowns on movement abilities, while also boosting the raid's defense against area attacks. There's even a new empowered spell system, allowing you to prolong your casts for higher damage or to hit additional targets. I do wonder how latency may affect optimal casts of the empowered abilities, though, given that you can overcast them, but we'll have to wait and see how it plays out in retail.

It will be interesting to see how (or if) Blizzard responds to feedback from the alpha and beta programs with regards to Dracthyr. I do get the sense there are a lot of things they can tweak to make the rotations feel a little more satisfying, because when isolated, the new mechanics are absolutely top-notch. I do lament for a melee-oriented spec that riffs on Final Fantasy's dragoon, but hey, we can't get everything we want in life (such as more glyphs for Inscription ...). 

The Dragon Isles and new old features

(Image credit: Windows Central)

While I'm feeling a little mixed on the design and gameplay of the dracthyr, one thing I'm certainly not feeling mixed about is the Dragon Isles itself, which so far looks absolutely stunning. If there's one thing about World of Warcraft that has remained true for the past near-20 years, it's in the game's art style, which continues to impress and enthrall in Dragonflight. 

In this current iteration, Blizzard is testing out the new Thaldraszus zone, which houses the Dragonflight's seat of power. The large cityscape is represented by towering magical spires reminiscent of Wyrmrest Temple from Dragonblight, albeit on dragon soul-infused steroids. This massive city was nowhere near finished in this version I saw with various placeholders and other markers signifying a work-in-progress, but even at this stage, it was a compelling locale after spending the past couple of years confined to the drab symmetry of Oribos of Shadowlands. It also exemplified the verticality of this new world, which gave me nostalgic feelings of the first time I stepped foot into the Stormpeaks in Wrath of the Lich King. This is a continent that is designed around flight, with large amounts of verticality and wide open spaces beset with cliffs and huge mountains. 

One of Dragonflight's headline features is its dragon riding system, which vastly improved WoW's archaic flight mechanics. In the alpha, you're given a small menagerie of example beasts to choose from, each of which comes with a large array of customization and progression systems that will form the basis of some of Dragonflight's endgame play. 

(Image credit: Windows Central)

Dragons obtained with dragon riding grow more powerful over time, able to sustain themselves in the air for longer periods or ascend more times without getting tired. Dragons have three stamina charges initially for using different flight abilities, such as ascension and speed boosts. Momentum can be gained by diving, which also recharges your stamina bar enabling you to use more abilities. I was surprised at how much room there was here for skillful play, given the absolute gargantuan size of the maps I've explored thus far. Traversing across Thaldraszus with the alpha dragon was quite difficult without fully depleting stamina. Upward ascent can cause you to lose momentum and thus descend, so maintaining velocity and speed becomes a careful balancing act to do well. Dragon mounts will gain more power and prowess throughout the expansion, though, making them essentially your personal companion for the duration. Professions will be able to craft customization accessories for them too, from armors to trinkets, which can be applied in a barbershop-like interface in the Valdrakken main city. 

Speaking of professions, that's one aspect of WoW that is also getting a bit of an overhaul this expansion. Indeed, a common thread for Dragonflight is a focus on core systems within the game. Flying is getting revamped and expanded with dragon riding, and a points-based talent tree system is also returning to the game, following their popularity in WoW Classic. Blizzard is also fully revamping the user interface to make it more modern and accessible without having to rely on piles of community-crafted addons. It's oddly the profession system that I find myself most intrigued by, and I got a taste of it in Dragonflight. 

World of Warcraft Dragonflight Alpha

(Image credit: Windows Central)

When dabbling in Final Fantasy XIV, I couldn't help but envy its rich profession systems, which not only had entire quest chains attached to them, but also had gear progression and puzzle game-like mechanics. Professions in WoW have long been neglected, with crafting lacking all semblance of flavor. Dragonflight aims to shake this up a bit, and give professions a true place among WoW's endgame systems, with the biggest overhaul in complexity and depth since the game launched almost 20 years ago. 

Clearly borrowing from FFXIV, WoW's new crafting materials and products will also come with quality ratings, which boost their values based on your skill and investment. You'll also be able to get equipment that enhances your crafting speed, and reduce required reagents, essentially creating a new economy for gear tailored for crafters. The new system stops short of Final Fantasy XIV's oddly satisfying mini-games, but it does add some much-needed depth in the form of granular profession specializations. You could become your server's most renowned plate pauldron crafter, for example, if you invest your profession talent points into that specific specialization. You could craft the server's most powerful axes or swords, or most potent potions and flasks, and charge a premium as a result. Hopefully, these systems will also improve player interactions, which have become anemic in WoW's post-matchmaking world, which has damaged the game's sense of community.  

Ironically, it does seem like WoW Classic has had an influence on Blizzard's design philosophy with Dragonflight, and that fills me with optimism. 

Tentatively optimistic

World of Warcraft Dragonflight Alpha

(Image credit: Windows Central)

Fans were so desperate to get a taste of what WoW used to be like that they began running pirate servers in order to avoid the retail experience, which has been quite awful for new and returning players in general. Whether it's time-gated content,  gameplay design that reduces the need for players to actually co-operate, or half-baked story beats — it's only encouraging that Dragonflight's central themes and design direction seem to lean heavily into WoW's storied past. 

Dragonflight's emphasis on elevating and enhancing existing systems should enrich the core of the game. It should prove a far better investment than Blizzard's more recent strategy of creating transitory gameplay systems that are designed to be removed at the expansion's end. The more grounded and familiar terrestrial story, with reduced stakes, with classic characters like Alexstrasza, feels almost like we're getting back to the roots of what Warcraft actually is. 

Players have drawn comparisons between Dragonflight and Mists of Pandaria, given that Mists has a neutral race with the Pandaren, and a similarly themed new class with the monk. For me, however, it reminds me more of Legion. A re-focus on class fantasy with the talent tree revamps, alongside major new core mechanics that will remain in the game in perpetuity, like Legion's Mythic+ addition. I'm not quite sure why Blizzard pulled back from working on the game's core, but it seems as though they're re-evaluating this design ethos. 

(Image credit: Windows Central)

World of Warcraft: Dragonflight is very much in alpha right now, with missing cutscenes, half-finished systems, and armies of placeholder NPCs. This early preview is meant to just give you a taste of what to expect as we move deeper through alpha into beta. I'm framing this article primarily as feedback as such, with a plan to return to Dragonflight at retail to do a full review, once the systems and features have reached completion.

One thing is for sure, though, I for one am optimistic! Dracthyr lore is interesting, and their spell effects are incredible, even if they do need a little more time in the oven rotationally. Taking to the skies with the new flight mechanics also feels incredible, and I can only hope the dragon riding system will replace the mount system for the entire game in the future. I'm looking forward to seeing how the profession system plays out, and feel encouraged by the soft reboot of the game's story as we move into a new saga with a small time skip.

Like anyone who has been playing WoW as long as I have, I want to be hopeful that the game can grab the investment from Activision it needs to find its footing again. As far as WoW has fallen in recent years, it's still the best MMO in my view, with the most responsive combat systems, with the most compelling and challenging raids and boss battles, atop a universe with peerless lore and depth. The most exciting thing about Dragonflight so far is the apparent change in design ethos, which should do wonders for the game's health in the near and long term future. 

World of Warcraft: Dragonflight is targeting a December 2022 launch date on Windows PC. 

Jez Corden is a Senior Editor for Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!