Best answer: World of Warcraft just got a massive update, dubbed 9.0, which revamps the entire game ahead of the big Shadowlands expansion. Now is a better time than ever before to get back into the game, thanks to a totally new levelling experience with a smoother story, new customization features, and a fresh endgame for when Shadowlands launches towards the end of 2020.
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What is World of Warcraft?
WoW is a game that is near and dear to my heart. I have played it on and off for over 13 years, starting out in the original game (referred to as vanilla or classic), all the way up to now, the eighth expansion, dubbed "Battle for Azeroth".
An expansion is an odd way to describe World of Warcraft's huge fully-priced content drops, which contain hundreds, possibly thousands of hours worth of juicy gameplay, dwarfing the definition of "expansion" as we know it with other games. Of course, World of Warcraft is funded by a subscription-based model, with well over 10 million players paying $15 per month for the right to access the gargantuan open worlds that make up the land of Azeroth and the game's other planets (yes, planets).
World of Warcraft has many imitators (and WoW itself borrowed heavily from other MMOs that preceded it), but few have managed to achieve Blizzard's level of execution. WoW is an action RPG that is responsive, exciting, and quite honestly, somehow gorgeous despite rocking an engine that's more than a decade old. WoW is going strong, and while previous expansions such as Warlords of Draenor seemed to contribute in a steep drop off in players, Legion brought many millions of players flocking back.
The current expansion, Battle for Azeroth, is winding down, and the game has been updated to version 9.0 to set the stage for the next expansion: Shadowlands. We have a totally revamped levelling experience, all-new customization features, and a smoothed out story that is far easier for newcomers to understand and enjoy.
I'm going to run through some of my findings, both leveling new characters and indulging in WoW's modern end game content after indulging in Patch 9.0, launched on October 14, 2020.
The newcomer leveling experience
I have experience trying to persuade dozens of friends and family to get into WoW, so I know many of the common complaints. The last time I updated this guide, World of Warcraft's leveling experience was abysmal to say the least. The overlapping timelines from over a decade of content additions made leveling an utterly confusing, convoluted experience, but Patch 9.0 for Shadowlands completely fixes a lot of those concerns.
Now, when you make a new player, you start on a brand new island out in the ocean. Shipwrecked away from your faction, you'll begin experiencing the game from a far more up-to-date perspective, around the beginning of the "Fourth War," which follows the events of the previous expansion, Battle for Azeroth. This new leveling experience funnels new players straight into the Battle for Azeroth zones, bypassing content that hasn't been updated or touched in over ten years. Veteran players can still go back and experience these previous expansions, via "Time Travel" with the Bronze Dragon, Chromie. But for new players, the repositioning of the timeline makes everything a lot easier to enjoy and understand.
Blizzard has dropped a "level squish" on the game, scaling players back down to a level 60 cap. This reduces the amount of time it takes new players to level up characters through the Battle for Azeroth storyline. At level 50, you'll enter Shadowlands, which is all-new content, set to launch towards the end of 2020.
In addition, Blizzard has added piles of new customization features for all of the game's races (although... not nearly enough for Goblins, ahem). This gives returning players new options for differentiating themselves from other players. Some races got boatloads of new hairstyles, skin tones, and other features, which just adds further freshness to the game.
We haven't had chance to go hands-on with the new levelling experience just yet to comment on the difficulty and sense of progression, but as soon as we do, I'll be back here to offer some further insights.
State of World of Warcraft (Patch 9.0)
We're now in the Shadowlands "Pre-Patch" phase, which revamps all of the basic systems of the game to bring them in line with the next expansion. As such, the entire game has been thoroughly shaken up.
Many classes have all-new spells, all-new talent skills, all-new damage rotations, and tools to use. And the way stats scale has been completely changed, so players logging in after Patch 9.0 may find their damage or healing output has completely changed.
Some of the main activities to undertake in World of Warcraft's endgame includes Mythic+ dungeon runs, which gives players access to increasingly powerful gear for completing increasingly difficult versions of existing 5-man dungeons within a specified time limit. Mythic+ was introduced in the Legion expansion and has proven popular, giving players in smaller groups something to do outside of raiding. With Patch 9.0 now live in-game, players will likely continue to run Mythic+ to learn how to use their revamped classes, although the gear obtained from these dungeons will quickly become obsolete when Shadowlands launches later in 2020, raising the level cap to 60 with an all-new story and all-new endgame.
Speaking of raiding, the current tier pits players against N'Zoth and his faceless minions in a shadowy city known as N'yalotha, which exists on the edge of reality. There are likely guilds that will continue to run these raids, which accommodate up to 30 players, although the gear will rapidly become obsolete, again, when Shadowlands drops later this year.
Beyond that, there's world PVP to enjoy, ganking other players for daily rewards, and good ol' battlegrounds, which are less gear-based than they have been in the past. But for the most part, 9.0 will probably see many people leveling alts (additional characters) and gearing up to get ready to hit Shadowlands, rather than pushing endgame progression.
What does Shadowlands bring?
Shadowlands is a large expansion that takes place in Azeroth's afterlife. Sylvanas Windrunner, former leader of the Horde, has gone rogue, and works in the shadows with the expansion's Big Evil, known as The Jailer.
For new and returning players, World of Warcraft has probably never been in a better state.
The full plot will be revealed in updates over time, as Blizzard adds more story beats to the game with subsequent patches and raid tiers. The main features of this new expansion, besides new raids and new dungeons, include Torghast, a gigantic 1-5 player dungeon that changes every time you enter. Shadowlands Covenants give players more options for customizing their playstyle, although the community is concerned about how well-balanced these Covenants will be. The community's penchant to run simulations and min-max their gear and talents could see this Covenant system being less about choice than Blizzard hopes.
In addition to Covenants, Soulbinds and Conduits will give players further ways to customize their playstyle. Again, though, it depends how well these systems will be balanced. Even at this early stage, imbalances have emerged out of the test servers, with many talents, still, being completely useless.
The quality of Shadowlands' endgame remains to be seen, but as for right now, the pre-patch refreshes a lot of the game's systems, and will also bring some story events to prepare for Shadowlands as well. For new and returning players, World of Warcraft has probably never been in a better state.
Still fun (with friends)
World of Warcraft goes to the afterlife
Loot RNG, under-tuned skills, and balance problems aside, World of Warcraft's raids, PvP, and dungeons remain a ton of fun to experience with friends.
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