First impressions of World of Warcraft: Legion, part three

    
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A hope for the future.

One of the things that bothered me about Warlords of Draenor was how bad it felt to play. It was unexpected. I don’t inherently have anything against ability pruning; heck, I consider it a necessary aspect of World of Warcraft‘s development. Trying to make a coherent, playable class out of something with a decade of history is a messy concept, and it’s important to make abilities work together more nicely. But my favorite specs, like Enhancement and Retribution, played like hastily cobbled-together messes. They had lost abilities, but no more design work had been done.

Legion fixes that. Whether or not you like the end result, the class redesigns and improvements show an attention to detail that we haven’t seen since, well, Wrath of the Lich King. And I think it’s important to consider that in context, especially since all of the neat lore ideas in the world wouldn’t have meant anything if the game was not fun to actually play.

BEARS BEARS BEARS

Stepping back, let’s take a top-level overview for a minute. For the first three expansions, WoW focused on adding abilities for classes. Cataclysm made a big deal about the new tricks that classes had in their arsenals. Starting with Mists of Pandaria, though, we’ve seen a general reduction in our abilities. In and of itself, that’s fine, simply because you want to avoid cruft abilities that were relevant in one expansion but have become useless or actively detrimental in subsequent updates.

The problem with Warlords‘ ability pruning was that it was just that. It removed abilities. Nothing was really fundamentally addressed; abilities just went away and rotations were left in a functional state. Some specs got it worse than others, but nothing seemed to be getting truly new stuff, just repackages and rearrangements of old stuff.

Legion alters that right out of the gate. Every single spec has been rebuilt more or less from the ground up. And having played with a lot of them myself, I can say that the new designs and specs are pretty darn fun. There are a lot of serious swerves in the mix, especially if you’ve gotten used to the various changes over the years, but the actual play experience is a positive one through and through.

This isn’t an operation as simple as pruning, but a matter of breaking down each spec to its fundamentals and rebuilding it on that basis. Enhancement loses several spells, but gets a sharp melee rotation with the same frantic interplay that it had in the earliest days of Windfury madness. Subtlety finally finds its niche by making the spec all about stealth actually all about stealth, slipping in and out of sight on a regular basis. Discipline’s whole damage-and-healing hybrid gets a reason to exist. The list goes on.

No word on Glowy Fel Dagger Spec, but it's a matter of time, I'm sure.All of these shifts are reasonably big ones. Some are larger than others, too; Monk feels largely similar, but Enhancement is a series of huge shifts. But the actual play experience has almost uniformly delivered on what I originally liked about these specs and what they’ve been going at for the past several years. Unless, of course, you’re talking about Demonology or Survival, both of whom have been brought back closer to their The Burning Crusade-era designs, which is going to provide some whiplash.

Whether or not that’s a good thing, of course, depends on how much you liked those incarnations of the specs and what other options you have. Hunters have options to recreate some of the Survival feel, but Demonology is really gone in every way; at the same time, it’s hard to be too sad about it when the replacement is constantly summoning huge swarms of demons everywhere you go.

The result is that while this is technically a matter of pruning, it’s mostly a matter of refocusing on making these specs distinct and fun to play. Considering the renewed focus on what a given class is, I say it works quite well. It’s also very useful since swapping between specs is easier than it’s ever been now; there’s a definite feel that your character is defined a little more by alternative options as much as a single set of spec-based abilities.

As for the actual questing experience… well, I’ve saved it for nearly last because this is, I think, the least improved part of the expansion. If that sounds like praising with faint damnation, that’s because it is.

The questing is not bad by any stretch of the imagination, easily keeping up with the levels established by Warlords in terms of quality and diversity. You’ve still got bonus objectives to track through the maps, and there’s usually a fair amount of interesting stuff to do. I particularly like the fact that quests pull you in several different directions at any given time, but due to scaling and the like, it feels less like “I have no time to do this before it’s obsolete” and more “I have all of these options, which will I tackle first?”

Having said all that, each of the Legion maps echo existing stories that we’ve heard before. They’re not bad, but they don’t quite have the visceral punch of other storytelling. It’s far from a wash; there’s some neat things going on in each zone, and there were many moments that piqued my interest like dealing with the Blue Dragonflight in Aszuna and watching everything go wildly wrong for the second half of Val’sharah’s story. There are senses that we’ve seen these pieces before, though, and how much that will impact your enjoyment remains to be seen.

My very first impressions were actually a bit weaker, but as time (and levels) went by, I warmed up a lot to the quest experience. The diversity of directions works out well, and it manages to avoid the all-too-frequent feeling of “ugh, one objective a million miles from everything else six times over” that you can sometimes get. Your objectives are often separate, but again, they scale based on how far you’ve come, and so they’re always engaging and rewarding. It’s more of an improvement to the map than to the quests themselves, but it feels better than Warlords, even if just by degrees.

Dungeons themselves are all right, although I freely admit I may be spoiled at this point by the dungeons in other games. They’re fun, but they’re mechanically rather light, and there’s not a lot of reason to go in there below the level cap except for finishing off quests. (Coupled with some truly horrendous queue times, in my experience, but that’s neither here nor there.) A lot will depend on how fun they remain after several months of challenge keystones, too.

Warping time.

And that’s where a lot of uncertainty comes in. I don’t know what the future looks like for Legion, beyond vague promises of stuff that’s probably going to arrive. I can tell a compelling story wherein the game doesn’t patch for a year again and winds up sort of petering out from an initial burst of goodwill; I can also tell a compelling story wherein all of the stuff that’s working well at this level continues to play at higher levels. It’s all possible, and it’s all uncertain right now.

What I can say is that I went into Warlords of Draenor feeling disappointed right from the first round of content, and I’m going into Legion excited. I enjoy playing the various classes. I’m interested in the overall path of the story. I feel like Class Halls are fun to play around with rather than a constant chore, and I think that Artifacts are compelling rather than just being another perfunctory mechanic. I’m interested in the expansion and I want to explore it, see what it’s got in the wings, and find out what happens as we close in on the Legion.

So what’s my first impression of Legion? It’s that this expansion is pretty darn good. And if it sticks the landing, yes, it really could be up there with the better expansions. It’s got a lot of work to do to restore faith, but it’s clearly trying to do so, and it’s fun so far.

Don’t forget to check out parts one and two of this series!

Massively Overpowered skips scored reviews; they’re outdated in a genre whose games evolve daily. Instead, our veteran reporters immerse themselves in MMOs to present their experiences as hands-on articles, impressions pieces, and previews of games yet to come. First impressions matter, but MMOs change, so why shouldn’t our opinions?