It's been a long journey for World of Warcraft, and it's been a long journey for me with it. I've played it more than any other game, and loved it just as much. Yet for most of that time, I've been what the WOW community would term a casual. I dip in and out, questing mostly, solo or with a friend, working on crafting, running the odd dungeon, not really raiding any more. I have a fling with every new expansion and then move on, sometimes returning mid-season for a few weeks of idle comfort gaming when I'm bored.
This merely thigh-deep level of immersion in such a gigantic online game, coupled with my great personal nostalgia for it, makes it hard to take a clear critical view of its current state. I rarely spend long at the endgame, so I'm not synced up with the concerns of the core WOW community. And the feelings of nostalgia that draw me back to the game, and of overfamiliarity that eventually drive me away again, have little to do with how good it is, or isn't. This is why I haven't reviewed an expansion for it since 2010's Cataclysm (which, in hindsight, I was far too generous to, for exactly these reasons).
I couldn't let the latest expansion, Legion, pass without comment, though. Because Legion is not what I expected, nor what it initially appears to be.
The 20-month gap between last expansion Warlords of Draenor and Legion is relatively trim by WOW's standards, and at face value Legion seems a little reduced in scale from what we've come to expect (though still massive by any other yardstick). The new continent, the Broken Isles, isn't quite so huge. The levels from 100 to 110 seem to pass pretty quickly. The style and structure of the questing is very similar to Warlords, and one of the major new features - an Order Hall for your class - is actually a revision of the Garrison base introduced in Warlords, and a notably slimmed down one at that.
Even the expansion's theme seems rehashed, taking the demon invasion threat from The Burning Crusade, bringing back its big bad Illidan (thanks to the intervention of Gul'Dan, visiting contemporary Azeroth from Warlords' parallel-universe past and oh God this is why I never even try to understand WOW's plot), and mixing in some of the ersatz Viking mythology from Wrath of the Lich King. There was also, ahead of release, something hollow and counterintuitive about the idea that every player would get to be the leader of their class order and the bearer of a mystical Artifact weapon of lore. In a massively multiplayer game, every player gets to be a hero, but surely letting every player be the hero is a step too far? I thought I saw the signs of a game running out of ideas in its 12th year, and braced myself for a (no doubt enjoyable) expansion of box-ticking fan service.
All this is valid, but the picture it paints is unfair to Legion, which might just be the best World of Warcraft expansion since 2008's Wrath of the Lich King. What has been sacrificed in ambition and scale has been won back in focus, and big improvements where they really count. WOW expansions tend to be loose and, well, expansive things, with ideas and mechanics shooting off in all directions, often pulling against each other. Legion is tight, and everything seems to be pulling in the same direction.
It would be remiss not to mention the new Demon Hunter 'hero' class, which like Lich King's Death Knight starts at high level, and also like the Death Knight is a former evil henchman made good. Across all its games, from Hearthstone to Diablo and Overwatch, Blizzard's designers excel at creating classes with poise and strongly individual flavour, and cleverly counterbalanced abilities which are richly satisfying to use. So a new class is just about the most exciting content WOW can receive. I haven't spent long with the Demon Hunter, a high-impact melee fighter which can tank or do damage; it's fun, but its appeal seems rather specific to Warcraft lore, and WOW is already well supplied with classes of this type. As far as hitting things in the face goes, it's not going to replace the Monk in my affections any time soon. Almost more interesting are the ground-up redesigns for some other classes' specialisations, particularly the Balance Druid, a spellcaster that now moves to a hypnotic, rhythmic groove, and the Survival Hunter, which brings melee back as a viable Hunter playstyle for the first time since the very old days.
The character classes are World of Warcraft's beating heart, and Legion's smartest call is to make them central to the new content. Being themed around your character class, the Order Hall feels that much more personal than the Garrison ever did - whilst also being less lonely, as you'll see other players running around there. It has been wisely stripped of the many crafting and gathering functions that made the Garrison initially intoxicating but, in the long run, a rather enervating hamster-wheel of chores that kept you away from adventure. Each class gets its own campaign quest line too, which feeds into the Order Hall's systems, including the recruitment of followers to send out on missions. Whilst it is undeniably odd to be one ultimate champion among many, it feels great to have a portion of the adventure that's tailored to your chosen playstyle and flavour of fantasy. (It will be a compelling reason to revisit Legion with other characters, too.)
This thinking extends to crafting professions, which in Warlords were a rather dry matter of optimising your Garrison's production schedule. Now, they have their own quest lines which will take you around the new landmass and even into dungeons in search of rare equipment, recipes and ingredients. I haven't got that far with this, but it already feels like another smart move away from pure game mechanics for mechanics' sake, and towards a more romantic, more storytelling idea of what it means to be a great adventuring alchemist, or engineer, or blacksmith.
But it's with the introduction of two major new features that Legion really sets itself apart, and solves a problem that has dogged WOW since the very beginning. These are the Artifact weapons, and World Quests.
Artifacts are legendary weapons, specific to your class and specialisation, which you earn at the start of the expansion and keep throughout, powering them up as you go. They do undermine player variety and choice quite a bit, and to begin with I sorely missed the excitement of a great new weapon drop. But each Artifact has a web of Traits that grant new abilities or enhance abilities you already have. Essentially, these represent a second talent tree that it will take you well past your arrival at max level to fill out. It's a more interesting, perhaps even more motivating endgame grind that just inching up your character's item level - and it doesn't lead you down the same narrowing cul-de-sac towards tough Heroic dungeons and raiding, because the items that power up your Artifact can be earned any number of ways. You can even earn them without playing, by using the Legion companion app for smartphones to manage your follower missions.
Artifact levelling locks into a perfect embrace with World Quests. World Quests are, in essence, Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls' genius Adventure Mode, copied wholesale and dropped into World of Warcraft. Once at max level, cycling playlists of quests open up that will send you dotting around the world map to clear areas, take on world bosses or engage in events, and for completing five in a row you get a reward from a particular faction. Many of them are suitable for a solo player, although there are some multiplayer PVP and PVE variants too, so they cater to all tastes. If you have played Reaper of Souls, you will know how profoundly refreshing this bottomless, randomised job board was to Diablo 3's infinite grind, and you will understand just how great an idea it is to make it the heart of WOW's endgame.
It has always been WOW's problem - the problem of most online role-playing games, in fact - that once you arrive at maximum level, the community segregates into passionate special interest groups (raiders, PVPers, crafting fanatics) while the silent majority of solo questers feels left out, has little to do, and ultimately unsubscribes. Between them, Artifacts and World Quests get as close as you could hope to Blizzard's long-stated aim of creating an "endgame for everyone". I am not saying they are a magic bullet that will restore the game's player numbers to their former glory, but I am saying they leave it in ruder health than it has been for a very long time.
Every WOW expansion has brought enticing new features and content, important quality of life improvements (I'm still not over the button that tidies up your bags for you), and steady technical progress. But the last three just missed their marks. Cataclysm's retrofit of the entire original game was astonishing, but its high-level content was bitty and rough. Mists of Pandaria was a smooth and well-rounded expansion with an off-kilter theme that seemed motivated by a weird mix of whimsy, office in-jokes and global demographics. Warlords of Draenor captured the original game's spirit of adventure wonderfully, but suffered from an undernourished and mechanically fussy endgame.
It's early days, but I can't yet spot where Legion has put a foot wrong. World of Warcraft is now slicker, prettier, faster-paced and easier to enjoy than any MMORPG has any right to be, never mind one that's pushing 12 years old. The one nagging doubt is whether it's still an MMO at all. With its ease of use, adaptability and strong solo focus, it feels closer to the modern idea of the all-round online game than the classical persistent shared world, where social organisation among players is part of the gameplay. (Even Destiny doesn't have matchmaking for raids; WOW does.) WOW now justifies its subscription fee in the sheer wealth of stuff to do that it offers, rather than in the esoteric intensity of the experience.
From a certain perspective, WOW's remorseless progress has killed the very genre that it dominated for so long. That's sad. But that same progress has left us with a game that can now add unparalleled longevity to its long list of unique achievements; a game that isn't just an all-time great, but that is great in the here and now.