World of Warcraft: Classic is gearing up to launch, bringing the 15-year old WoW experience back into the limelight. The story of Classic (also known as vanilla WoW) is an interesting one, as it represents Blizzard's efforts to reach out to communities who were playing on pirated realms, who yearned for the vanilla WoW experience. Naturally, some of those realms were closed down following lawsuits and cease-and-desist notices, but the popularity of those servers proves that the OG WoW experience still has an audience.
Blizzard has also warned that some of the servers it has populated may experience queues during launch, as it appears it may be underestimating demand, all over again. Indeed, for many, it'll be their first foray into "vanilla" WoW. I was there in the old days, and I am excited to take a trip down memory lane. However, for a grizzled veteran like myself (over 10,000 hours played, Lord, have mercy), there's plenty about Classic that I definitely do not miss. There are things about vanilla that, even 15 years ago, worked far better than they do in the modern World of Warcraft.
Here are a few things I miss about Classic, and a few things I definitely don't.
I miss the wider, more daunting, dangerous world
Although Blizzard has been working to reintroduce this experience in retail WoW, a combination of difficulty, reduced hand-holding, and PvP chaos made vanilla Azeroth a far more daunting, and therefor epic place to exist. In the story in modern WoW, your character is regarded as a hero of the Horde (or Alliance ... ahem). You mingle with kings and generals, destroy world-killing gods, and lay waste to entire armies. In vanilla, there was very much the sense that you were merely a soldier, part of a wider, more dangerous world.
This sense of vulnerability permeated throughout the whole game and made it feel more immersive and less like the game was sucking up to me, begging me not to cancel my subscription.
The brain-dead leveling system that World of Warcraft has in its modern incarnation is completely unfun, and in desperate need of a full-blown revamp. Blizzard neutered it repeatedly in attempts to help veteran players skip more quickly to the end game with alternate characters, but the knock-on effect has been to eliminate the sense that, well, it's actually a game. Trying to engage newcomers to World of Warcraft is something Classic will have a far easier time with because you can actually die, there's some actual challenge. Shocking, I know.
The "world" in World of Warcraft is bigger than it has ever been, with various additional continents, dimensions, and planets to explore. Yet somehow, it feels smaller than WoW Classic. Again, additions like flying mounts, teleportation to practically anywhere, reduce the breadth of the universe. Classic forced you to walk basically everywhere until you were level 40 and then gave you a painfully slow mount in exchange for heaps of gold.
It might seem like I'm advocating for inconveniences at a surface level, but in terms of immersion, these hurdles introduced a sense of accomplishment that modern WoW is sorely lacking.
I don't miss the outdated visuals
This is a given, really. A 15-year-old game is bound to look ugly compared to games released today. The low-resolution textures, low-poly models, and basic spell effects really, truly, haven't aged well. Even retail WoW looks dated, despite various graphic upgrades. Classic is on a whole other level.
Blizzard is going to allow Classic players some leeway when it comes to modernizing visuals, allowing players to enable the water improvements introduced in prior expansions for example. However, that won't stop players from looking like total clowns as they gear up to raid-tier sets. Modern WoW has a transmogrification system that allows you to alternate the aesthetics of your armor, helping to coordinate your style. Classic doesn't have this. On the one hand, it was always awesome to see a player with a full Tier 1 or Tier 2 raid set, as you knew immediately the amount of work that had gone into acquiring it. On the other hand, until you've spent weeks grinding a set, you will simply look dumb as hell. Trade-offs, I guess?
It would be cool if we could play through Classic using the modern spell effects and models of retail, but that might introduce gameplay problems for those that are using the newer models, vs. those that aren't.
I miss the solid sense of progression
Retail World of Warcraft doesn't carry anywhere near the same sense of progression and prestige of vanilla, which is perhaps the biggest noteworthy difference among both versions of the game. When we killed heroic Azshara in retail after a week or so of attempts, nobody really cared. There was no cheering on voice comms and no real sense of achievement. The reason for this is hard to place, but if I had to guess, it's because Blizzard introduced four separate difficulty levels for bosses, from super easy mode, to easy mode, to medium mode, to hard mode. "Heroic" difficulty is probably best described as medium mode, but by that point you've probably already killed the same boss several times on easy mode, to farm better gear. It sucks the joy out of a boss kill, knowing that the next step of progress is doing it all over again with arbitrarily raised numbers.
In WoW Classic, there was one difficulty. If you couldn't do it, tough. And it was tough. When we killed Nefarian, a huge black dragon from vanilla, it was a moment of adulation for our guild. Modern WoW just doesn't really have that anymore, since boss battles have become so arbitrary-feeling.
I don't miss the poor story delivery
One thing retail WoW does far better than Classic, is story delivery. Modern WoW has superior technology for creating cutscenes using in-game models and animations, and Blizzard invests a decent amount into voice acting, CGI scenes, and external content like books and comics.
Classic certainly does have a story, but it's hidden away in quest text for the most part. Something the vast majority of players simply won't read. Playing Classic as a teenager, I had no idea what the gigantic Firelord Ragnaros was, or what his goals were, as the story context was buried away in side-quests I simply hadn't come across. Blizzard started to get better at this as vanilla moved forward to the Naxxramas raid and into The Burning Crusade expansion, but I suspect many new WoW Classic players will be as bewildered as I was playing through it the first time.
I miss the interesting talent trees
In vanilla, players were awarded a talent point for every level up, which they could spend in one of three trees representing different gameplay styles for their class. For example, a druid could choose between feral spec, which focuses on transforming into predatory animals for damage dealing and tanking, restoration for nature-inspired healing, or balance, calling on the heavens to deal ranged magical damage. Players could mix and match their points between specs, which led to some truly interesting combinations occasionally, but crucially, it also made leveling a lot more interesting, since you were getting some bits of progress every time you leveled up.
In retail WoW, every 15 levels you're granted a choice between one of three abilities instead. A lot of these abilities were either things classes used to have by default as part of their spec, or are often simply just weaker than other choices. When you get to choose between three, one of them will always produce the best results, making the others obsolete.
Classic's talent trees might have appeared to offer less choice in terms of abilities you could choose, but they were far more interesting in terms of progression, while also creating combo specs by going down two separate trees in some cases. The modern WoW talent panel simply gives you the illusion of choice.
I don't miss the clunky class design
As much as I do miss the old school talent trees, it would be remiss of me to not mention how utterly broken some of them were. Retribution Paladins, for example, were a joke class for the entire expansion, with no instant attacks and no snares for stopping players simply walking away from them. Other specs just simply suffered from a lack of identity in some cases, like Demonology warlocks, whose major talents were passive skills that weren't represented visually.
Looking at it without nostalgia goggles, modern WoW does do a far better job of making different specs feel fun to play, compared to vanilla. Save for a few specs that were in a good place throughout, a lot of vanilla's high-end class gameplay was just overly simplistic, while other class specs were just not viable or competitive.
I miss the close-knit sense of community
Perhaps the number one thing that Blizzard has screwed up in retail versus vanilla is the sense of community. Modern WoW introduced various match-making features such as "Looking for Raid" (LFR) and "Looking for Dungeon" (LFD), that auto-groups you with random players to tackle some of the end-game content. Problem is, random players don't co-ordinate and, frankly, often don't even respect each other, creating this weird hostile environment where nobody is really accountable. In response, Blizzard took an ax to the difficulty of dungeons and raids at this level, which also impacted the sense of accomplishment you get for beating content on harder difficulties.
Beyond the match-making features, Blizzard also does soft server merging, phasing players from other servers in and out of your own to ensure areas always feel populated. On the one hand, it's good that Blizzard ensures that low population realms always have players in them, but on the other, you never know if you're actually sharing a realm with the person in front of you.
Vanilla servers were fixed population realms, where everybody knew each other. Your reputation mattered because there were no APIs that allowed you to look up the player score on an external website. This created an environment where players were people, rather than tools to help you get loot. It was a far better environment for a social game like WoW.
The inclusion of LFR, LFD, and cross-realm play spelled the beginning of WoW's decline. It represents one of the central reasons people want Classic to return.
I don't miss the lack of solo-able end-game content
One thing retail World of Warcraft does fairly well nowadays is introducing content that you can consume while playing solo. There was a point in vanilla WoW where I had all the gear I needed outside of 40-player raids, leaving me with little to do other than jump around cities like Orgrimmar waiting for the next scheduled raid.
Modern WoW has things like pet battles, Island expeditions, PvP Arena, and Mythic+ difficulty 5-player dungeons you can do to keep yourself busy between raids. I suppose it's good that WoW Classic will be playable with the same subscription offered by regular WoW, allowing players to easily jump between clients and experiences.
Bonus: I'm looking forward to classic Alterac Valley
Alterac Valley (AV) was an MMO PvP experience like no other, and Blizzard is actually bringing it back to retail to celebrate the game's 15th anniversary.
A huge scale 40 vs. 40 action RPG combat scenario, taking place in a vast icy valley. Forty Horde players versus forty Alliance players, crashing in the middle on a frozen lake, in a huge war of attrition. The original Alterac Valley design featured NPC combatants as well, along with elite bosses that could roam around and create even more chaos.
The most epic thing about AV was the fact that, unlike today's version which has reinforcement tickets dwindling down over time, leading to a win, the original AV required players to push their way into the enemy's keep and kill their faction boss. This could create battles that lasted not hours, but days, with the same battles raging on after players had slept and returned. It also helped that the rewards for playing AV were excellent, granting one of the best two-handed maces you could get before raid-level gear. Some of my fondest memories of Classic involve that battleground, playing for hours and hours and hours in a non-stop epic war. Sublime.
15 years later, WoW Classic is still worth checking out
I wasn't planning on playing WoW Classic, but since I recently jumped on to try the game's final stress test, I have felt the grip of nostalgia coil around my heart. Now I've reserved character names, and know I'm going to be jumping back in.
Whether or not you've played WoW Classic, it's definitely worth checking out. You don't need to purchase the base game to play. Instead, you can jump in simply with a regular WoW subscription of $15 per month, which also grants access to the up-to-date retail version of the game. Even if you don't stick with Classic through its planned update phases, experiencing the phenomenon first hand is worthwhile, as practically all modern MMOs draw heavy inspiration from it.
Lok'tar ogar and all that. If you're an Alliance player, maybe I'll be seeing you in Southshore very shortly.
World of Warcraft: Classic's servers go live on August 27, 2019. You can log in now to reserve character names, however, with a $15 per month subscription from Blizzard.
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Jez Corden a Managing Editor at 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!