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Can WOW's next expansion bring its legion of lost heroes home?

The sixth expansion promises fan-service, shared thrills - and personal glory.

It's easy to take for granted what an extraordinary body of work Blizzard's Battle.net game launcher represents. By any measure of quality, profitability and breadth of creativity, Blizzard has everything most publishers could ever dream of - and yet it's never looked more vulnerable when measured against the standards of its own achievements.

StarCraft's eSports crown has long sat on another's head, while Heroes of the Storm has yet to penetrate the public consciousness in the same way that Hearthstone has managed to, and to such a remarkable degree. Hearthstone! Even this seemingly unstoppable rising star of the Blizzard family has yet to prove its longevity at a publisher where the value of franchises is measured in decades, rather than years.

What did yesterday's reveal of the Legion expansion do to bolster the foundations of World of Warcraft, the game that remains the jewel in Blizzard's crown, yet continues to suffer a slide in subscribers? Part necessary summarising of a knotted ball of unfinished business, part name-dropping fan-service, the positioning of WOW's sixth expansion felt, in truth, like a bit of a mess at first.

Whatever the advance predictions regarding the theme - with Blizzard followers, that's a game in itself - we were all correct to one degree or another as a carefully curated list of fan-pleasing names were ticked off one by one: Sargeras, Cenarius, the Emerald Dream, Gul'dan and more. If there was such a thing as a Who's Who of Warcraft's world, the first twenty minutes of yesterday's event could have been the reading at the book's launch.

At this time in the game's life, and with subscriber numbers thinning, it's no surprise to see Blizzard reach its arms out as wide as possible with this anything goes approach to fan-service. As the camera cut away during the lengthy opening exposition, however, the confusion etched on the faces of some of those present spoke as many words as creative director Alex Afrasiabi, gamely working to bring everybody up to speed.

The crowd came back on board with the more familiar, tangible elements of Warcraft's milieu though. That there'll be a new adventure to work through in a new world, with a new level cap to achieve, is all but a given at this stage in the game's life. Likewise, we were treated to a healthy roster of delicious new dungeons and raids to batter with friends, perhaps even choosing to play as the new Demon Hunter class. Regardless of the game's deepest doomsayers, these are the staples of the WOW expansion reveal, and a mere artful devotion to these familiar facets of the game will ensure a healthy and happy audience for years to come.

What about the game's lost heroes though, the lapsed subscribers so noticeable by their absence? There are few greater draws for a game structured around earning equipment than the iconic weapons that are soon to become available through Legion's Artifact system. Even the most lore-averse WOW player grasps the significance of yet more of the names that were conjured up at the Koelnmesse yesterday evening: Ashbringer, Doomhammer, Frostmourne and more. If only through a fleeting glance at quest text before greedily rushing on for the next reward, these fundamental elements of the game's lore are a part of the audience's collective consciousness.

The chance to own a piece, or at least an inspired variant, not just of WOW's history but its foundational legends is tantalising to say the least, although it's a sense of prestige and ownership that can only ever be weakened when made available to the masses in this way. Such is the nature of creating bespoke content for a connected crowd of players. Cosmetic differences, based on customisation of the weapon, will help differentiate between heroes, but you should probably take pause and savour the moment when you first lay hands on these treasured items.

Legion's Artifact system might go further than enticing old warriors back, and unite the existing playerbase too. For many players, there are two distinct worlds of Warcraft to inhabit. First, there's the more open universe containing quests, monsters and dungeons bosses. Secondly - and with random, open-world PVP being something of a dream of a memory in 2015 - the player-versus-player battlegrounds and arenas where Horde and Alliance factions do battle against one another directly.

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Artifact weapons may prove a powerful draw for WOW's lapsed heroes.

Thanks to an upgrade system which allows you to tweak and customise your Artifact by beating dungeons, completing significant questlines and winning battlegrounds, these iconic weapons may provide a means for bringing something back to WOW that's long been missing, presumed unnecessary and old-fashioned: a sense of community.

What better way to unite a population after all, than by providing compelling reasons to come together to empower the most fundamental tool of every player's journey through the game - the weapon they hold in their hands? The recently introduced weekend events - which direct players around WOW's huge slate of content for bonus rewards - serve a similar purpose, yet they feel like a crass and forced framework in comparison. It remains to be seen how deep Blizzard will be prepared to take this new feature in Legion, but its potential is apparent.

Elsewhere, Legion's new Class Order system, where heroes of a similar kind gather and train representative Champions, is a welcome reductionist take on Draenor's demanding and fussy Garrison system, but it presents pitfalls of its own. In Legion, it seems we will all be the leader of our chosen class, just as we will all be owners of a unique weapon. Like every MMO, WOW has always struggled with the missing baseline of everyman heroism, but you suspect the solipsistic bubble is close to bursting here.

Legion won't revolutionise World of Warcraft based on what we know so far, but it has the makings of a perfectly solid expansion as we've come to know and expect of them - even if it's one that can't help but be compelled to conclude a storyline set in motion years beforehand. Some of the players it would hope to win back have grown tired of that story though - and some have simply moved on to new adventures.

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