Epic MMO Battles of History: World of Warcraft’s Wrath of the Lich King vs. Legion

    
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Yeah, we're doing this.

It was just a couple of days ago when Bree was sharing that I felt like Wrath of the Lich King was the best World of Warcraft has ever been. But was it actually the best, or is that a matter of memory tilting it to be the best? I mean, that game was released a decade ago when I was still living in a house without air conditioning. I’ve moved twice since then, lots of new games have come out, we finally got a decent Mega Man game. There have been changes.

Of course, at a glance I’m not inclined to change that particular viewpoint… but there are people who have argued that Legion is, in fact, the best expansion in the game’s history. And one of the benefits of this particular format is that I go in without a clear picture ahead of time; it’s all about putting together totals based on the criteria laid out. So let’s actually put these two expansions head-to-head. Wrath of the Lich King vs. Legion: Two expansions enter, one leaves as the best expansion in the game’s history. Begin!

DID YOU PICK UP THE QUEST?!

Lore basis

The fun thing about these two expansions is that from a certain point of view, they’re both continuing the same storyline. Wrath of the Lich King is dealing with the extended fallout of a prior Burning Legion plot to demolish Azeroth; Legion, on the other hand , is dealing with the abandonment of subtletly and just brute-force invading Azeroth the hard way. This, to be fair, kind of raises the question of why that wasn’t the first plan instead of using several dozen catspaws that all failed.

(Yes, there are lore reasons, but let’s not make Thermian arguments in here. “Well actually” statements in the comment are not inspirational.)

For all that, though, it feels like Legion ultimately does a better job of framing the conflict in the light of the overall struggles of the world. Arthas feels like an exceedingly powerful dude, but he still feels like just a dude and one more in a long-running series of dudes with armies. The Legion, however, feels almost unassailably huge. It feels like Arthas is a difficult foe who will prove near-impossible to fight; it feels like the Burning Legion is actually futile to fight, and you get a sense of desperation through everything.

Advantage: Legion

You don't suppose they'd let me stick around as, say, technical advisor or something?

Main story

The problem here is that both main plots wind up fumbling the football here partway through. In Wrath, after a long campaign to bring down Arthas, at the absolute eleventh hour we find out that there always has to be a Lich King for intensely stupid reasons. There’s also an attempt to build up sympathy for Arthas as a tragic villain, which works… up to the point when he takes up Frostmourne and willingly damns himself. That tragedy was already explored and done with.

Legion, on the other hand, consistently sets up a need for redemption and correction with Illidan that it proves utterly unwilling to follow through with. There’s the first part of a redemption arc there, but it never actually goes anywhere; it basically ends on “Illidan is actually the hero because we said so” despite Illidan never actually, like, being heroic. The ending feels like the story is just ignoring the many, many things Illidan did wrong in order to pretend he’s totally been justified in all of his patently unjustifiable actions.

Unfortunately, while Wrath’s problems only crop up in the absolute end, Legion’s problem is shot through the entire expansion, and “a kind of lackluster conclusion” is going to be better than “systematically ignoring a horrible character being horrible.”

Advantage: Wrath

Smug twit.

Zone stories

At first, I was a little more inclined to give this advantage to Wrath because Wrath made sure that every single zone tied back into the campaign against Arthas. This was, in many ways, a good thing. By contrast, in Legion it felt like you spent a lot of time solving a problem to solve another problem in a way that would eventually tie back into the main conflict. It was a little bit disconnected, in other words.

However, upon further reflection, this isn’t right. The fact that Legion didn’t have every zone constantly harping on the war against the Legion meant that there was space to tell some really great individual stories, like Mayla Highmountain’s growth into her role, the sad tale of the blue dragons, the isolated Gilnean settlement of Bradenbrook… all of these things are great. And you did get a sense of how the presence of the Legion was destabilizing things even if they were not constantly up in your grill. It didn’t fix the main narrative, but it made the individual zones more fun.

Advantage: Legion

Everything is not the same.

Zones/environment

One of the big promises before the launch of Wrath was that the zones would not all be a constant assault of ice and snow. This is true, and the environments do feel different enough that, say, the Storm Peaks are visually distinct from Icecrown or Dragonblight. But all three of those zones are still basically just “big snowy places.” By contrast, the zones of the Broken Isles are all immediately distinct, even on Argus; there’s some strong similarities between the Broken Shore and big chunks of Argus, but they don’t feel as same-ish as any stretch of Northrend.

Of course, the flip side is that Northrend feels like one land mass with a unique visual identity while the Broken Isles feels like a collection of wholly disconnected locales. Still, I’m giving this nod to Legion.

Advantage: Legion

Wow, that just happened.

Visuals

And then, to flip the equation, that unified sense of visual design works out well for Wrath. There is a distinct look to Wrath from its armor sets on downward. Iron banding. Rivets. Worn wood and leather. Broken and splintered ends. Skulls. Ice. There are lots of individual touches, but the pseudo-Norse aesthetic and overall design never let you forget that in Northrend, you are the interloper. You are not wanted here, and this region is not friendly.

By contrast, Legion is a visual grab bag to the point it can never quite grasp one thing firmly. I don’t have any idea what visually inspired any given set here except for past sets, the enemies are all pasted from elsewhere, and even the most visually striking bits (like Bradenbrook) are basically just ported from elsewhere. It never develops its own visual language; it traffics on being a greatest hits of the game’s visuals.

Advantage: Wrath

It never happened.

Combat

The combat in Legion felt the best that it had in a very, very long time. Every single spec was designed from the ground up to work on a fixed rotation and to play nice with its individual artifact. It was so good that it’s easy to forget the reason it felt so good was partly because combat had felt so bad for such a long time, and in the process it trimmed a lot of rotations down to a three-button sequence.

By contrast, a lot more of Wrath’s combat felt wild and wooly… but it also had lots more in the way of situational abilities that didn’t fit into a firm rotation but required evaluations and smart play. There was definitely stuff to be refined here (instead of gutted and thrown out, which is what we actually got), but at their core, every spec in this era used the same basic class toolkit and tuned accordingly. It was just more involving to play.

Advantage: Wrath

What if this is as good as it'll ever get?

Dungeons

The dungeon game in Wrath was the best it’s ever been, on a whole. That doesn’t mean none of the later expansions had dungeons which were good; some of them were even outright great. But it does mean that on balance, the Wrath dungeon environment was the best, and it was the point when the developers started to really understand how to develop interesting boss arenas and fights.

Unfortunately, the problem is that the game has never really moved on beyond that. Dungeons and their mechanics have never gotten better than Wrath on a whole. More to the point, many of the encounters in Legion were unnecessarily simple in normal and Heroic mode in favor of focusing on Mythic difficulty. This meant that most of the fights turned into “beat on this punching bag for far too long without currency rewards,” which was something less than the rallying cry to group content.

Advantage: Wrath

A dark heart of nonsense.

Raiding

Wrath introduced the idea of every raid having a 10-person difficulty and a 25-person difficulty. On the one hand, that means it’s the obvious thing to blame for the game now offering four distinct raiding difficulties, three of which will never be experienced by the majority of players and two of which will be experienced by only a tiny minority. On the other hand, it also meant that the game made more versions of content accessible to more players, even if 10-player runs wound up generally more challenging due to less cushion than 25-player runs.

Legion, at least, gave you an option to see the raids if you weren’t interested in forming a raid group. But it also had the problems I just described above. Frankly, I’m inclined to call this a wash and move any discussions of the fine point into endgame models.

“But what about the actual challenges of the raids?” Dude, both of these ended in a raid wherein the entire party automatically died and then got resurrected. As far as I’m concerned, if that’s your main mechanic for the finale, you’ve failed at raid design.

Advantage: Tie

WE'VE ACHIEVED SOMETHING

Questing

Did you know that Wrath is when Blizzard figured out how to do vehicles? Because gosh, the game would not let you forget it. It was vehicles from dusk until dawn. Often even if it didn’t make a whole lot of sense. It was clear that the questing had taken a big step up, but a lot of elements were still very unfamiliar to the design team.

By contrast, Legion shows a team with a mature, restrained, and knowledgeable approach to questing. Things like bonus objectives work marvelously to break up the flow and reduce the number of arbitrary separate quests in a given area, and you get a good flow from point to point as you level. It’s immediately obvious how much learning has happened between the two installments, and it makes questing in Legion still feel organic and fun.

Advantage: Legion

DON'T MAKE ME RELIVE IT!

Crafting

At least Wrath introduced a new profession? But then, at least Legion actually had crafting quests? Talking about crafting in WoW is never a good time, I’m not going to let this decision ride on this point.

Advantage: Tie

Can we?

Endgame structure

Ion Hazzikostas was totally correct in saying that you could mark when you would get your upgrades on a calendar, right up until the point where he thinks that’s bad. He’s also wrong because it was possible, even probable, that you would get upgrades in other ways. Sometimes you’d get a lucky drop, sometimes you’d get to a needed reputation faster than you thought, and so forth. There was still moment-to-moment excitement, but you didn’t rely on luck to get upgrades.

Legion did that. And that’s always going to be a mark against it, more so because Legendaries exacerbated the same issues present in the prior expansion, and then even more so when the waning days brought a vendor that just sold legendaries that should have been in the game since launch. There was good stuff about Legion’s endgame with Word Quests and such, but at a fundamental level, it can’t match the fact that in one model you could plan your upgrades and content consumption, and in the other you have to hope.

Advantage: Wrath

Do you like me yet? Can I stop now?

Reputations

This is an area where both sides really kind of average out to a wash. On the one hand, Wrath’s tabard system was really good for giving you a way to farm up reputation when you needed it, and it was another element of getting rewards out of the dungeon you run even if you don’t get a new piece of gear.

On the other hand? World Quests are a good system, the Emissary system lets you take days off and break up tedium nicely, and the reputations felt much more focused in Legion. So rather than both sides getting it partway right, both sides do good things that split the difference.

Advantage: Tie

This is not content. The mini-holiday, that is.

Content lulls

Yes, we’re on to the slightly sillier categories, but let’s not forget that the lull between Wrath and Cataclysm was so bad that Blizzard promised it would never be that bad ever again. (And the lie detector test determined that was a lie.) The pacing of updates in Legion was a lot better, even down to having more on offer for the post-conclusion stretch.

Advantage: Legion

What do you mean story justification? Thor is public domain, right?

Vrykul

In Wrath of the Lich King, the Vrykul were weird but neat. They had some Norse flavor and some points of myth there, but they also had a really weird set of interlocking beliefs that was clearly the result of someone doing some thinking about what it meant to revere death. They felt alien and original.

In Legion, there are Vrykul because people liked Vrykul, and they’re basically just tall Norsemen who yell at you a lot. So, like… still cool, but not really taxing the old imagination muscle.

Advantage: Wrath

And STILL champEEEEN

Overall

This was a close one! But when you neglect the categories where things are toss-ups, the ultimate decision comes down in favor of Wrath of the Lich King, the winner and still champion. Sure, Legion does a better job with questing and its visuals, but its ultimate inability to really work through its main story and the tedious state of its endgame means that you’re going to hit a much earlier wall of not having much to do. Or you would, if it weren’t far in the rearview.

Will anything dethrone Wrath? Well, combine the design panache of Legion with the things that Wrath got better, obviously. So, you know, pretty much the opposite of Battle for Azeroth.

‘What’s the best MMO ever?’ is a ridiculous question; we’re not going to tell you that. Instead, we’re going to pit two MMOs against one another, point by point, line by line. Two games enter, and… well, they both leave, but one gets declared the victor. It’s Epic MMO Battles of History, and while it may not actually decide any long-term debates, it’s at least fun along the way, right?
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