World of Warcraft turned ten on Sunday, and through the week we've been marking the anniversary with a series of features from across Eurogamer's editorial team. John's already taken us through the game's finest dungeon - not to mention its toughest achievement - now Bertie sets out to discover if you can ever really go back.
It's been nearly nine years since I sat in that large, airy wooden room and confessed all to my counsellor about World of Warcraft. I'd avoided mentioning it as I'd sunk deeper and deeper, became guild leader, raid leader - poured in more than a thousand hours in around 10 months. WOW wasn't the root of my unhappiness but suddenly I saw it for what it had become: an addiction. And I knew what I had to do before even the first words came out.
A week before, I'd delivered a theatrical Christmas speech to my guild about our raiding future. Everyone was there, ordered in ranks and looking up at me, on that airfield near Ironforge no one was supposed to get to - least of all us, the enemy, the Horde. We were about to merge with another guild and I was top candidate to lead the venture. All eyes were on me.
Then, bang, I left - I slammed that door shut with no warning, no hesitation. And I never ever went back. I'd conquered that addiction.
That's why I falter now, cursor hovering over the 'connect' button on World of Warcraft's log-in screen. I'd locked this game away in my memory and threw away the key. It was the safest place for it. Now, door ajar, I'm about to fall off the wagon.
Can I go back after all this time? When I left, 'new' meant opening The Gates of Ahn'Qiraj, not launching a fifth expansion called Warlords of Draenor - not level bloody 100. And I was somebody. Does my character even still exist? There's only one way to find out.
There he is: Clert! After all these years I clap eyes on him - my priest, my willing simulacrum. No longer a sad rotten clown - more a mean old clown after the character model update - but unmistakeably him. Me. A jolt of recognition brings the memories back. The early days in a rag-tag group exploring an unknown world, dressed like something resembling a pineapple, no real aim other than to explore. Each night he'd look a bit different when I waved goodbye, flaunting progress in a pointy new hat, or with a new level number by his name. Then the innocence melted away and something else set in. Now Clert's bony frame drapes hard-earned Prophecy raid armour from Molten Core - his burial shroud.
I've imagined what comes next for years. The great leader returns and everyone drops what they're doing to run to my side and welcome me back; World of Warcraft a tableau frozen, awaiting my return.
I wait... "Your talents have been reset."
Oh, right. Not really the fanfare I wanted. I'm at The Undercity, my racial home, though I'm locked out. How do I get in again? I hadn't thought this far ahead, and now I'm too overwhelmed to move. I feel like I'm in a dream of an old school play, the scene achingly familiar while I can't remember my lines.
Thank goodness for an old friend, one who nurses my ego with an "!!!!" at my reappearance. He takes me to Orgrimmar, home of the Horde, a place in which I idled hours away. The game used to freeze when I rode in; now, I don't even know how to ride.
When I find my horse, things begin to come back to me. It's a Green Skeletal Warhorse, a glowing symbol of accomplishment, but what was 900 gold then is worth just 10 now: my stallion became a donkey. And all around me, from the air, I'm mocked by a menagerie of fantastical mounts: great dragons, chugging motorcycles, hairy mammoths, flying carpets! My friend cycles through a dizzying collection of them. Players today: they have so much. Me? There's a free mount in my mailbox that's better than the one I'm on.
I cling to my Prophecy armour like a lifebuoy. I'm at sea in waters I used to swim so well, drowning as I realise I have to learn to play all over again. Four game expansions I've missed, and I can't even remember how to access my bank, let alone re-specialise my character for battle. I'm not even top level. In nine years, I've been completely patched out.
When I log back in I'm level 90, having boosted from 60 compliments of Blizzard and Warlords of Draenor. Top level, just like that. Not in my day. I've got a whole new set of gear and I'm in a starter area which, ironically, is designed for level 90s. It's exactly what I need: focus, direction. Though when an old friend dies because I don't know how to heal him, I realise there's still a long way to go.
My brain-frazzling period of research begins. I scour the internet for guides, builds, pointers. What the hell is a glyph? I can group and solo by switching between these specialisations? It all means more research. Hours later I'm up to my eyeballs in user-interface add-ons, laying all the hotbars out, fixing the fonts, making it just so.
I've got a headache... again. Why do I do this so willingly for World of Warcraft? I'd chastise any other game for it. WOW always got away with so much.
It's Warlords of Draenor launch day, and time for my first World of Warcraft expansion. I'm swept away into my personal story in a world that changes with each quest I complete - as it does individually for everyone else. I get my own garrison, my own personal base! The old WOW quests seem so stagnant by comparison. So many things to do, so much to occupy me. Best of all, we're in it together. We're all stampeding the same content, all racing to see what's next. It's just like it was in the beginning! Exclamation mark after exclamation mark: the expansion is a lifeline pulling me back in.
I level up (honestly) for the first time in nearly a decade. Ding! That was easy. But so far I've been solo. Can I still keep a group alive? I used to boast about being the best priest on the server, playing it for laughs, but also hoping someone would, you know, agree. So I call up the new Dungeon Finder tool and put myself as a healer in a queue and moments later I'm in. What wizardry - grouping used to take so long!
I've practised my new healing routine but - charge! - they're off without so much as a hello. What do all these new spells do again? Half-an-hour later I look up from the health bars and we've done it: beaten the dungeon. I'm not sure what the enemies looked like but I definitely remember huge rolling boulders of lava, hurricane winds blowing me dangerously away, and the silencing clouds of gas. I haven't healed like that in nine years. I wonder if they suspected? What a thrill. Frankly, I expect a well done, but they're off with as much of a goodbye as their hello. I really can still keep a group alive. I'm no rehearsed concert pianist, but I can learn. Maybe if I streamline the UI, macro a bit, I can handle healing a raid.
"Careful, Bertie," a friend warns.
Playing Warlords of Draenor is like playing a new game. It levels the playing field, makes all that came before redundant in many ways. I'm forgetting who I am, who I was, and to remember I need to go back, back to the old world of Azeroth, back to Kalimdor, the continent I grew up on. I fly aimlessly south from Undercity on my own flying horse, and what a feeling! I've never flown in the game like this before.
The lands below are untouched in a decade, deserted - a funereal air wafting from below. They're as far from the vibrant Draenor as can possibly be. Once upon a time it was enough. Down there are the ghosts of my past, and as the zones announce themselves they come alive all over again. There are the Wetlands, where I froze like cornered prey as I encountered my first Alliance enemy player; there's Tarren Mill, where we had the end-of-night skirmishes with Alliance before Battlegrounds; and, completely by accident, here I am at the airfield where I gave that Christmas speech.
Then I arrive in Badlands, and my heart stops.
Horde flew to Badlands to strike out for Blackrock Mountain, for Molten Core, the first 40-person raid in World of Warcraft. I flew here every Friday evening with 39 other people ready to spend five hours giving and receiving orders in an oversized fiery pit. In the beginning we couldn't kill anything, but slowly we'd figured each boss encounter out and roared in triumph as another kill was added to the weekly tally. We'd gone from clueless to organised, one final hurdle left to overcome: Ragnaros, fire lord of Molten Core. Beat him and we'd be taken seriously as a raiding force. I obsessed over the way we would do it, but I never did. I left before it happened.
I could go and have a look now.
Once upon a time we would run carefully down the huge chains of Blackrock Mountain to Molten Core - now I can simply fly. The first time I stood in this cavernous instance entrance was with a pick-up raid - a group of strangers - and we failed to even clear the "trash". The Molten Giants and roaming Core Hounds are still intimidating now. Will I be able to kill anything?
The level adjustment makes me a god, my damage multiplied into the hundreds of thousands, and they drop like flies. I can hardly believe it. I could try a boss! Down to Lucifron, where belief was born. Pause, prepare... and he crumbles beneath me. I move onto Magmadar thinking maybe it was a fluke. Dead. And I barely finished my damage rotation. Genennas, Garr, Baron Geddon; Shazzrah, Sulfuron Harbinger, Golemagg the Incinerator. Dead dead dead. I ceremonially loot each corpse as if a raid holds its breath behind me, but it's all mine, every delicious purple piece of plunder - an old dream come true.
Now Majordomo Executus, he who summons Ragnaros upon defeat - a fight about controlling multiple enemies at once. I kill them all at once. Then to Ragnaros' huge chamber. This is it.
Up he roars, dominating everything, a swirling embodiment of raging fire. What about his knock back? What about the Sons of Flame?! Can I really kill Ragnaros on my own?!
We begin. Vampiric Touch, Shadow Word: Pain, Mind Blast, Devouring Plague, Insanity, Mind Flay, Mind Blast, Mind Flay, Shadow Word: Death, Shadow Word: Death.
And he's dead.
I find and slay Onyxia, the scaly old hag, but like Ragnaros her death means nothing. Without the eruption of celebration, without the deadly challenge, they're empty victories - as worthless now as the bosses themselves. They're lingering ghouls in the graveyard of vanilla WOW - my WOW - forgotten because Blizzard, like everyone else playing the game, has better things to do. Even the 10th anniversary content merely buffs Molten Core to level 100, and the Tarren Mill revival is an instanced Battleground - doesn't that defeat the point?
Returning has been cathartic, because I know now. I know that I can go back to World of Warcraft and not fall helplessly in, sacrificing my life again. I know that the world has moved on without me, my friends too. I know I'm no longer a somebody. And I'm OK with that, because I still have that memory, but without all of the pressure and responsibility and sleep deprivation that came with it.
I can't go back to my World of Warcraft, but I can go back to Warlords of Draenor. And in accepting that I can see World of Warcraft for what it has become to me now: a game, just a game - and a better one at that.
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