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World of Warcraft Classic is compelling in ways that modern WOW isn't

Barrens blues.

When I booted up the World of Warcraft Classic demo for the first time a couple of weeks ago - while BlizzCon was still in full swing, and the servers were busy - the general chat channel was flooded with nostalgic longing. People were loving this recreation of the great massively multiplayer game's early days and lamenting what WOW had become in the 14 years since. Someone celebrated freedom from the tyranny of item levels. Someone mentioned the hushed sound design, noting that they could hear every footstep and clink of their chainmail. Someone else remembered how the community was so much friendlier back then, in so much less of a rush.

I love modern WOW, but I do know what these people meant. For me, the nostalgic pull of World of Warcraft circa 2005 is as strong as it gets - for two reasons. The first is that it was one of the greatest gaming experiences I've ever had: an astonishing, epic quest of discovery, so much more powerful for being shared with friends. The second is that it was gone, truly vanished, and could not be recreated. Until now.

So I approached my first chance to play WOW Classic with great excitement and trepidation. The friends were gone, and the game was about to be exposed to the harsh light of hindsight for the first time. Would the magic still be there?

The demo - which went offline on Monday - started at level 15 and allowed Horde players like me to quest and explore in The Barrens, which I have previously described as "an empty expanse of arid grassland, sparsely populated with dull quests and notorious among Horde players, for whom it was an early levelling area, for nettlesome Alliance raids and a chat channel filled with sub-literate neophytes. It was magical." Blizzard could not have picked a better zone to stir nostalgia and then skewer it on the truth of how boring the game could be.

The first quest I picked up was to harvest bills from plainstriders: lumbering, flightless birds which initiate combat with a derisory screech, and which can be found milling all around the Barrens. Straight away, I crashed hard against the grind of early WOW. The drop rate for the bills was miserable - no more than 40 per cent - and I must have killed two or three dozen plainstriders with my hunter, repetitively sending my pet out to meet them and cycling through the few skills available. (The demo allowed players to climb a few levels, but not to train any new skills.)

There can be no argument at all that quest design and storytelling were better in early WOW. They could be quite poor. There's an awful lot of mechanical drudgery, with endless culling of wildlife and troublesome local populations, low drop rates and high kill counts padding out the levels with makework. You can find grace notes, of course, like an amusing spat between rival goblin factions, but these could often end up fighting the game systems or poor design. There's a famous quest in The Barrens called Lost in Battle which has you searching for the wife of an orc called Mankrik, with no clue as to her location in the vast play area or hint that you were actually searching for a body generically labelled as "Beaten Corpse". Almost no-one could complete it without annoying everyone in the infamous Barrens chat channel by asking, and what should have been a poignant bit of storytelling fleshing out the hardscrabble life of the orc caravan became a running joke. That quest is back in WOW Classic - unfixed, of course.

It's stunning how slow the game is compared to modern WOW, and how much more work it requires. It makes sense that the levelling is slower - back then, the level cap was 60; now it's 120 - but that's not all. Combat has a much more deliberate rhythm. I could swear the global cooldown on all skills is quicker now, but individual skill cooldowns are certainly longer and you can expect to spend a lot of time auto-attacking and waiting. Corpses need to be looted individually. Health and mana regenerate much more slowly, so you need to take regular breaks to eat and drink.

Playing a hunter, I encountered many systems that have since been stripped away. I needed to be mindful not to run out of arrows and I was required to switch between ranged and melee weapons depending on the distance to the target. I also had to micromanage my pet a lot more, both in combat and out of it. It needed to be fed to keep it happy, gaining loyalty and dealing maximum damage. I dismissed the plainstrider pet the demo provided me with and trained a big cat instead, but this pet was now several levels below me, which meant it needed to be trained in vital skills like Growl (a taunt) and was ineffective against the mobs I needed to fight for some time. All of this is completely foreign to contemporary Hunter gameplay, having been streamlined out of the game.

Is that a good thing? This question gets to the very heart of WOW Classic and its reason for being, and it's not so easy to resolve.

World of Warcraft is certainly a lot easier to enjoy now than it was then, but while the questing is far more entertaining, it has become a near-frictionless vehicle for delivering storylines, progress and regional flavour at the expense of actual gameplay. Outside of dungeons in modern WOW, you almost never die, and you certainly never need to think about changing your skill rotation. I was shocked, in the WOW Classic demo, to die frequently while attempting simple quests (and also shocked at the length of the hikes back to my corpse). A mob one or two levels above me might cause me trouble, a group of two definitely would, and a wandering patrol could easily wipe me out. I sometimes had to stop and think before wading in, checking enemy positioning and considering ways to pull stragglers away from the group or use utility skills like Scare Beast to buy me a little time. I had to mind my mana level and my pet's happiness before starting combat. Minor buffs from crafted armour patches or scrolls were, all of a sudden, quite valuable.

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This could be frustrating, but it could also be fun - really fun - fun in a way WOW has not been in a long time. It almost felt like a survival game, and attempting a quest I was slightly underlevelled for became a chewy challenge of resourcefulness and caution. Levelling progress felt hard won. I wasn't just experiencing a smorgasbord of lore on my way to the endgame; this, as sparse and parsimonious as it could sometimes be, was the game.

Blizzard is attempting something quite remarkable with WOW Classic. In its own way, it's as unprecedented a project as the ground-up rebuild in 2010's Cataclysm expansion that swept away all the original levelling content. It's not a simple task technically and it presents a host of thorny curation issues, too. At what point does convenience trump authenticity? Blizzard is largely going for authenticity, apart from a few user interface improvements and a 2008 loot-trading system. Just what is classic WOW, anyway? Is it the game at launch? No, if for no other reason than it wouldn't even have competitive multiplayer; Blizzard have settled, for a variety of reasons, on patch 1.12, "The Drums of War", from March 2006.

Is it a static snapshot of the game? Here things get really tricky. If updates are taken too far, it will obviously cease to be what it purports to be - but an MMO without changes and in-game events isn't an MMO at all. Blizzard will actually move WOW Classic progressively through over a year's content, starting as it was in March 2005 and adding Battlegrounds and new raids over time, while keeping the systems static as they were 1.12. In this respect, WOW Classic will rarely, if ever, align perfectly with the game as it actually was. (For more on the curation of WOW Classic, read Bertie's fascinating BlizzCon report.)

In the past, Blizzard has displayed real ambivalence about a return to classic WOW. Asked at BlizzCon 2013 if the company would consider official legacy servers, J Allen Brack - then WOW's lead producer, now Blizzard's new president - infamously answered, "You think you want it, but you don't." It must be hard, of course, for a developer to acknowledge that fans might want to discard a decade and a half of what it sees as improvements to the game. And yet here we are: WOW Classic will be launched next year - notably, an 'off' year for World of Warcraft when no new expansion is expected. Blizzard has either had a change of heart or calculated that adding Classic to the service will be a great way to retain subscribers and win back lapsed players.

The thing is, I don't think the fans were wrong to want it. I don't want to wish away the game WOW has become, the thousands of changes it has lived through or the real improvements that have been wrung from it. But I am excited to have original WOW back, warts and all. It's a different game, sterner, more gruelling: an epic hike rather than a guided tour. I think it might just claim me back.

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