Best answer: For veterans, the overall end game raids and Mythic+ dungeon system is in a pretty decent place right now for the most part and worth a look. The game remains inaccessible for newcomers, however, with a broken leveling system that does little to engage new players. Patch 8.3 has revitalized the endgame for veterans once again, with new corrupted gear, a new raid, and other activities. However, the climb into endgame for returning players is steeper than ever; it may be worth merely waiting for the next expansion at this point.
Get started: World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth (From $31 at Amazon)
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, has a lot of issues. Still, many of the systems introduced in Legion have kept it fun regardless, and improvements have been coming in relatively quickly since its launch in the summer of 2018. But is it worth playing now, in 2020?
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 8.3, launched in early 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. Sadly, Blizzard hasn't done a great deal to improve the experience for newcomers, although things have improved in recent times.
World of Warcraft is an old game, and the bulk of Blizzard's resources go towards monetizing and incentivizing its veteran player base at the top of the level cap. For new players, World of Warcraft is a bit of a mess, with outdated content intersecting and overlapping with new content.
You'll still kill monsters far too easily, with little danger or risk involved throughout.
Indeed, one of the biggest complaints I've gotten trying to get younger siblings or older peers into WoW is that it's just too damn easy to be engaging. Most monsters can be killed with minimal cognitive investment, making low level play a total snoozefest. Blizzard tunes its leveling experience to speed veterans towards the end game, rather than make it fun, and the progression system doesn't feel like a typical "RPG" as a result, with skill unlocks stretched out arbitrarily across its 120 levels. Gear drops also scale with your level, eliminating the sense of power growth as you play.
Blizzard recently introduced new level-scaling systems to keep monsters on a relatively even-footing with your character. However, you'll still kill monsters far too easily, with little danger or risk involved throughout. Low-level dungeons offer some vague degree of challenge, but it's not really enough to be genuinely engaging either. Since equipment rewards scale, upgrades often only offer a couple of extra stats, taking the fun out of getting new gear. Blizzard could do way more to make WoW's leveling experience more engaging across the board.
WoW makes up for its patronizingly easy low-level combat in other ways, however. Levels 1-60 were wholly revamped a few years ago, bringing in new voiced quests, new storylines, and more fun and unique game mechanics to make questing more interesting.
WoW makes up for its patronizingly easy low-level combat in other ways, however.
The level scaling patch will also ensure you don't "out-level" a zone before completing its story, which means you might find yourself more engaged with the characters and plot of any given area, even if the zero-risk combat doesn't entice you. More problems arise when you hit level 60, however, since the level 60-80 content is not only pretty outdated, but it takes place in a different timeline to the level 1-60 content. Not only is this a little confusing for newcomers, but it's also probably confusing for veterans who might not be familiar with the story flow.
Levels 1 to 60 take place in the Cataclysm expansion after the corrupted dragon, Deathwing, assaults Azeroth causing numerous environmental disasters. Levels 60-80 take place in the game's second expansion, The Burning Crusade, set during events several years before Cataclysm or the third expansion Wrath of the Lich King, which showcases the events prior to Cataclysm. Cataclysm not only handles levels 1 through 60 but also 80 through to 90.
The level scaling patch allows you greater control over where and what expansions you use to level.
After level 80, things get a little more concurrent. Players can choose between leveling in Cataclysm zones or the following expansion, Mists of Pandaria, to hit 90. Things get confusing again in the Warlords of Draenor expansion, however, as Blizzard introduced time travel into the game's plot (and a bunch of strange paradoxes along with it). Blizzard has attempted to explain away some of these story holes in the books. Still, many WoW players feel that this expansion was designed to help market the Warcraft movie rather than provide a coherent narrative. The most recent expansions, from Mists of Pandaria to Warlords of Draenor and then Legion, have pretty fun quests and storylines to follow.
The level-scaling patch allows you greater control over where and what expansions you use to level. You can skip The Burning Crusade expansion altogether, and level from 60 to 80 using Wrath of the Lich King zones, for example. It gives you greater control over which storylines you experience, but the overarching plot of WoW will become increasingly difficult to follow at this point – if you're interested in it. It would be cool if Blizzard could somehow make these older zones relevant to the game's modern story, but it would require a significant amount of investment and reworking.
You can skip all of this older, messy, and outdated content; however, by purchasing the latest expansion, Battle for Azeroth, which grants you a token to get a character straight to level 110. Suddenly having a level 110 character, complete with all of their abilities and nuances, might be a bit overwhelming for new players, and I'm not sure whether it would enhance the experience vs. playing through the game's older content (which despite being old, contains a lot of fun quests and environments to explore).
Simply put, World of Warcraft is not very accessible for newcomers in 2020 purely based on how incoherent and disorganized the legacy content is. The story is a non-sequential mess, the leveling experience is patronizingly easy, and the progression mechanics are weak. Blizzard plans to fix this with the upcoming Shadowlands expansion, which will introduce a more streamlined leveling experience. If you fancy giving WoW retail a try again, it might be worth simply waiting for that at this point, since it should release later this year.
WoW might not be suitable for new players, but how is it for returning players who have seen it all before?
State of World of Warcraft Battle for Azeroth (Patch 8.3)
Battle for Azeroth has some of the best leveling content in the game, with many-voiced quests, interesting zones, and a compelling overarching story campaign that follows the current war between the player factions, the Horde and the Alliance. More recent class additions, like the Demon Hunter and new allied races, can make the game feel fresh for returning players too.
Battle for Azeroth has some of the best art and lore in Warcraft's history.
Battle for Azeroth has been praised heavily for its leveling experience, and if you're a Warcraft fan, it's worth coming back for that alone if nothing else. Battle for Azeroth has some of the best art in Warcraft's history, although the story has become derailed in its more recent patches as Blizzard rushes to meet deadlines.
Much of the contention around Battle for Azeroth revolved around its end game, which wasn't well-received at launch. Changes to the global cooldown have made some classes, like Frost Death Knight, feel a little clunky to play. And there are general complaints about Blizzard's approach to class design. It feels like the simplified talent trees Blizzard introduced a few expansions ago contain increasingly imbalanced skills, where some have become utterly useless and obsolete. Blizzard has taken a "light-touch" approach to class design during the course of expansions now, applying tweaks here and there, waiting for expansion packs to do significant class overhauls. While this creates less mid-expansion chaos, it also means classes that are broken have to wait longer to get real fixes, which is frustrating. Even two years on from launch, some specs have remained painfully weak throughout the entire expansion, which is unforgivable if you're a fan of any particular spec (cough cough Demonology cough).
Blizzard also introduced an additional layer of frustration with its gearing systems in this expansion. The "Azerite" system, thematic for this expansion, grants players a special necklace that increases in power for performing certain activities, such as Island Expeditions. The power then unlocks special traits on gear, which modify existing abilities. These were somewhat imbalanced at launch, but they have improved a lot since 8.0 through to patch 8.3. And now, Blizzard has added Azerite Essences, which can be unlocked and upgraded through doing various activities. These are a lot more close to Legion's Artifact weapons, and a lot more rewarding to unlock, often tied to lore-heavy solo quests. The problem is for a returning player, obtaining the higher-end Essences can take weeks, and if you're playing alone, getting into groups without essences is incredibly tough. Without friends to help you out, WoW is currently more hostile to solo players than ever before.
Despite a few problems, World of Warcraft's core endgame remains fun. The Mythic+ dungeon system, which grants increasingly-powerful loot in exchange for tackling increasingly-difficult challenges, is fun to tackle with friends and keeps 5-man dungeons fresh despite many dozens of runs. Every patch, Blizzard introduces new affixes, or combat modifiers, which add new challenges to existing content. Blizzard also recently dropped Mechagon, a vast 8-boss dungeon that is, in my opinion, one of the best they've ever added.
If you can swallow the randomness of loot drops, you can effectively progress a character using 5-man dungeons alone, getting raid-tier loot for tackling high Mythic+ keystones. Thankfully, the 10 to 25-player raids have been pretty fun too.
The current raid tier features the old god N'Zoth and its shadowy N'yalotha city. It contains tons of interesting mechanics, lore, and carries a unique feel, tied to new end-game quest hubs in Pandaria and Uldum. The bosses are relatively interesting so far (having only killed five of twelve at the time of writing), and the art style and atmosphere of the raid is top-notch.
For a while, there wasn't a ton of stuff to do outside of raids, but the inclusion of Uldum and the Eternal Vale world quest zones offer some new rewards and things to grind, including some awesome-looking mounts. You can level extra characters (or "alts") as usual, or indulge in the player vs. player systems, which have been expanded with new "Warmode" outdoor PvP incentives. Sadly, if you're playing in a server cluster with significant faction imbalance (like me), Warmode is pretty much unplayable. Patch 8.3 also includes a gated "Horrific Vision" system, which allows either solo players or groups of five to run the gauntlet inside a nightmarish version of Orgrimmar or Stormwind, filled with bosses and loot. Running these gauntlets allows you to upgrade a legendary cape, required for endgame raiding, which also includes new "corrupted" gear, which comes with unique bonuses and effects. However, some have found the additional RNG on top of regular RNG to be frustrating.
While Battle for Azeroth launched with a lot of poor design choices, but the raids, lore, and Mythic+ dungeons present plenty of fun to experience with friends, even if the overall game is starting to buckle under the weight of its legacy content and 2019 player expectations for newcomers.
At this point, it may be worth waiting for Shadowlands before returning to the game, as the new endgame requires so much investment to catch up that coming in late might be too much of a chore. Alternatively, if you played in 8.2 in 2019, it wouldn't be too difficult to catch up as long as you have friends to help out. You do, however, get access to World of Warcraft: Classic on the same subscription, so if you fancied a trip down memory lane or found yourself merely curious about what WoW used to be like when it initially became a phenomenon, that's an option too.
Still fun (with friends)
The problems don't stop WoW being fun
Loot RNG, under-tuned skills, and broken leveling experience aside, Battle for Azeroth's raids and dungeons remain a ton of fun to experience with friends, especially if you're not new to the game.
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