WoW Factor: 2016 in review for World of Warcraft

Talking about World of Warcraft in 2016 is really different because the game had two different years this year. And unfortunately for anyone trying to develop a comprehensive picture of the past year (yo), we’re on the positive side of the year.

I mean, remember when Legion launched at the end of August and everyone was pumped? I sure do. I remember the prepatch and the events leading up to that launch, too, and everyone was excited. You could run around and get weapon skins and transmog outfits, that was nifty. And you could level your alts up nice and quickly; I took major advantage of that.  There are issues right now, sure, but the general feeling is that Legion delivered what it promised with aplomb.

But I can’t just talk about the past three and a half months because before that came eight months with nothing. No expansion, no patches, no new content, nada. I freely admit that I’m spoiled by the content cadence of other games, but it makes this past year – and its much busier last third – a very complex thing to discuss in the context of WoW.

The long nothing

The isles need not be all that's broken.Every expansion, this is getting worse.

The gap between the end of Warlords of Draenor and Legion was pretty much the largest gap that the game has ever seen, although you could argue that it was equal to the gap between Mists of Pandaria and Warlords of Draenor. However, the latter gap was coming off of an expansion widely received as a step up after Cataclysm and one with numerous content patches; Warlords of Draenor received one substantial content patch after launch. More than a year of dead time, with pretty much nothing to do that players hadn’t already done by that point.

You can argue that some of that was a reaction to the expansion’s negative reception, but at this point I don’t think it matters. And all of the justifications about how things turned out in the end doesn’t actually matter; if you’re going to charge money for a game for a year, there should be some development happening.

Again, sure, I’m spoiled by other games. I accept that and shan’t try to fight it. But that doesn’t mean that we should, as players, accept that we should just accept a year of nothing after very little. And when we talk about the year this game has had, we need to be cognizant of the fact that this happened.

It’s one of the reason why the current rapid pace of patches makes me very uncomfortable: If we get to the end of Legion and wind up waiting another year before the next expansion actually comes out, no lessons have been learned. Patch speed only matters insofar as it’s sustainable.

When we look back over the past year, it has to be remembered and noted that we spent most of the year paying for the development of an expansion that, by all rights, should have been being worked on before the end of the previous expansion. And this needs to continue on down the line; we need to be hearing about the next expansion before patch 7.3, not after. Yes, it might undercut the drama ever so slightly, but it will at least indicate that movement is happening. It beats stagnation for another year, which I fully expect to be staring at by the time 2017 wraps up.

So let’s just keep this in mind. However much we might be enjoying Legion, every nice thing you can say about it comes with an implied reminder that it comes after a year of nothing. Yes? Yes.

For some reason, this lady just keeps getting good photo opportunities. I don't know! But I like it.

The invasion

As expansions go, Legion is far from perfect, and there are lots of legitimate criticisms of it. I’ve even given a bunch of them myself. There’s a lot of emphasis on randomness, which really hurts the game. Some of the most important features of the expansion are slightly hidden behind vagueness and opacity (Artifact Knowledge is pretty vital, shaving your subsequent artifact power requirements down to nearly nothing, and the game pretty much never mentions it). Dungeons have too many difficulty modes without nearly enough going on to justify them. There’s a whole lot of nothing in the space between 100 and 110 in terms of new tricks.

That’s not even counting whether the various changes tripped your personal salt index, which I disagree with but also ultimately understand at the same time. It’s not perfect.

But, having said all of that, I think this is also easily the best expansion we’ve had since Mists, and I’d argue it’s almost certainly better. Between world quests and class armor sets, the game is more supportive than ever of players who prefer to just queue for dungeons to gear up and look nice. It’s still a remarkably RNG-reliant system that has some issues, but you can actually just play and feel like you’re making forward progress, and that’s a very good thing.

More Eredar, though, please.The storytelling is solid enough that I actually remember a lot of individual zone stories and have fond thoughts about specific NPCs. Suramar and Highmountain both stand out as places with a lot of supporting cast members that wind up alive at the end of the storylines, and I care about that. I really enjoy the interplay between Thalyssra, Oculeth, and Valtrois in Suramar, and I love how the zone really gives the feeling that you are slowly but surely clawing your way up against a world of hostility.

For all of the flaws that the expansion has, it feels as if most of them are the sort of thing that can be fixed in subsequent expansions if the developers are actually paying attention. More to the point, I like that it feels like an alternate take on how to make an endgame and a leveling experience work. I like that by the end, you’re really doing the same things you had been doing all the way along; you’re just questing for more specific and repeatable rewards than you were before.

And none of this is counting the stuff that we know is coming next. I’m excited about heading back to the Broken Shore, except unlike Tanaan or Timeless Isle, it won’t be my one chance to get decent equipment; it’s stuff to do and to expand the experience. I’m looking forward to the promise of setting foot on Argus, even if we’re only exploring the barest portion. And I’m curious to see where we’re going next, although I keep feeling like really dealing with Argus should be more than just a late-game patch…

In summary, it has not actually been a great year for WoW. But the ending of the year featured a strong enough expansion that it’s easy to overlook or forget all of that. 2017 is just around the corner, but the game has a foundation to build upon; now it’s time to see what is actually built.

Feedback, as always, is welcome in the comments below or via mail to eliot@massivelyop.com. Next time, I’m going to be dealing with predictions, hopes, and wishes for 2017. I’ve got some. Many of them might be fox-related; I make no promises.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with a decade of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.
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