Shadowlands was the first World of Warcraft expansion that I ignored completely. I reached the level cap in Burning Crusade, Wrath of the Lich King, Cataclysm, Mists of Pandaria, Warlords of Draenor, Legion, and Battle For Azeroth, but after playing through Shadowlands’ introductory questline—where you and the heroes of the realm are spirited away to an ethereal, and highly bureaucratic afterlife—I logged off, and never returned.
This wasn’t a decision I made with any real animus. Nothing about the initial taste of Shadowlands disgusted me. There were simply other contingencies in the way. My brother and I were already knee-deep in WoW Classic, the post-release Shadowlands buzz was ice-cold, and perhaps most importantly, I am now 31-years old, and participation in an Azerothian content cycle feels a lot less compulsory than it did when I was 17.
There is a good chance you’re approaching Dragonflight (opens in new tab) within the same context that I am. By all accounts, WoW’s total population swooned throughout 2021 and 2022 as Final Fantasy 14 finally supplanted WoW as the MMO de jure. WoW will soon celebrate its 20th anniversary, and many of those still regularly visiting Azeroth are those who grew up in Westfall and Durotar, many years ago, and are carried along by inertia alone. I’m currently halfway to the level cap, and while I don’t know if Dragonflight is going to bring about a personal WoW renaissance—I have no plans on signing up for a four-nights-a-week raiding guild ever again—I am having fun inhabiting the latest landmass that has materialized out of the ether, even as some of the enduring crises of faith I have with modern WoW have popped up along the way.
Dragonflight, in both its fiction and its infrastructure, is a soft landing spot for lapsed players. We are not skulking through an eldritch plane of mortal existence dominated by an esoteric band of new characters that possess no verve or charisma (looking at you, Zovaal), nor are we gratuitously retconning established Warcraft 3-era precepts for a cynical shot of nostalgia, (thank god there is no sign of Arthas, at least thus far.)
No, instead we are venturing to the Dragon Isles after a sizable time skip within the overarching WoW chronology. The Alliance and Horde have settled into a truce, which has been disrupted by the rediscovery of the ancestral land of the immortal dragonkin who haven’t mattered much in Azerothian lore in quite some time. Where the Shadowlands (opens in new tab) were choked with austere grays and alien blues, the Dragon Isles are pure high fantasy. A tropical, untamed intensity permeates the land; it’s pockmarked by splashes of molten lava, ripe swathes of greenery, and luminescent tundras. Blizzard is clearly aiming to recapture the childlike Tolkein-ish sublimity of a blank map and buried treasure—dragons and all of their hoards—rather than, say, the high-concept crucible of heaven and hell.
I’ve enjoyed the romp so far. There are certain elements of WoW that still feel like they’ve fallen out of 2004, and those can’t be scrubbed away completely. (For instance: The combat remains a plodding amalgam of dice rolls, cooldowns, and line-of-sight gambits, with little opportunities for creativity or dexterity offered to the player.) But Blizzard has done a good job of retrofitting what it can to keep up with the times. The best example of this is The Evoker, which is the new class introduced in Dragonflight that can only be piloted by a new race of draconic humanoids called the Dracthyr (opens in new tab). The Evokers are casters, but in a first for WoW, their playstyle borrows a bit of player agency from third-person action games.
Here’s what I mean: A number of the spells in the Evoker’s arsenal must be charged up and released at the right time for max damage, as if you’re stringing up a bow-and-arrow in Tomb Raider. What that means, for you and I, is that we must aim. Our fireballs do not automatically home in on our targets like heat-seeking missiles. At last, some of the considerations once exclusive to Warcraft’s PvP modes—positioning, hand-eye-coordination—have come to the game’s leveling experience. I have been spamming macros and popping procs for so long in Azeroth that the slightest dash of nuance on my actionbar felt like a downright revolution.
This carries over into one of Dragonflight’s other marquee new features. Shortly after getting your feet wet in the Isles, the kindly brood of Alexstrasza will bless you with your very own “dragonriding” proto-drake (opens in new tab). It is, on its face, a flying mount—akin to the gryphons and hippogryphs we purchased in Outland many moons ago. But dragonriding mounts are far more dynamic than the ambling, helicopter-like transportation we’ve been weaned on for decades. They pick up speed—rapidly—when their nose is pointed to the earth, and run out of steam as they climb altitude. Your character is equipped with a unique set of hotbar queues when they’re on the saddle, allowing players to burst forward or shoot upwards towards the air, like they’re trying to make the final cut at Top Gun.
It is genuinely disorienting to see how Blizzard has taken the shackles off. With enough deftness, you’ll be able to scorch across the continent at blazing speeds; hit a snag or take an awkward turn, and you might quickly plummet to the ground. I never thought I’d see the day where Blizzard started integrating design choices most commonly found in Forza Horizon into WoW, and while I don’t know if I’m in love with the new system yet, it certainly leaves an impression.
The other modernizations are far more grounded. Blizzard, at long last, has returned a traditional talent tree to WoW, doing away with the uber-simplified three-pronged scheme introduced back in Mists of Pandaria. It feels really good to level up and slot a point into a matrix; like an open diffusion of ideas between Classic and retail, which I hope continues in the future. It’s also given us a revamped mini-map, and fully customizable action frames—all of which borrow heavily from the sort of mods people were using to augment their WoW client since its very inception.
I’m a pretty unfussy Azerothian, so I’m still rolling with my two basic hot bars and some side-paneling. But if you are the sort of gamer that is way more interested in staring at your cooldown timers and damage integers than the action on screen, Blizzard has your back. These aren’t the most exciting new wrinkles in expansion history, but it’s important work—a good foundation for the MMO as it enters its third(!) decade of existence.
But make no mistake: Dragonflight is still a modern WoW expansion, and if you are coming back to retail in hopes that Blizzard has opted for a full-throated return to its ancestry—where you must eat and drink before mob pulls, and group up for elite quests, and alt-tab into Wowhead in order to locate where, exactly, you need to go to find Mankrik’s Wife—you will be disappointed. The dungeons I’ve explored seem to complete themselves. Nobody speaks as we teleport, via group finder, into the instance; the bosses all die in fiery AoE, loot is automatically sorted (and occasionally blessed with a rarity upgrade) before we are returned to our native servers to continue our journey to the level cap. If WoW’s turn to idle-game automation has turned you off in the past, you won’t find what you’re looking for on the Dragon Isles.
I don’t know where that leaves me. Dragonflight is beautiful and packed with all sorts of wild new ideas for the MMO, but when I examine my history with WoW, it’s clear that the reason I’ve sunk progressively less time into each of its expansions is that the game now seems to prioritize efficiency over euphoria. I don’t need to read the stats on my gear anymore. Everything on the Isles has an item level listed right below its name. If it’s higher than whatever I’m currently wearing, I can right click it, and my damage level increases by an imperceptible degree. One question keeps eating at the back of my brain: Am I really playing WoW? Hopefully I’ll have an answer by the end of the week.