WoW Factor: The World of Warcraft leveling experiences ranked, part one

Those are people who died, died.

Now that the pre-patch is here, you can level through any World of Warcraft expansion you’d like in the order your heart desires! But that, of course, brings the question of which one you should start with; you have eight options, after all.

Obviously, my first suggestion would be stuff that you haven’t leveled through before, since that’s going to be the most novel set of experiences. But if you don’t care about that or even just want a place to start, you’re in luck. I’ve leveled through all of them, sometimes to my great displeasure, and so I can not-at-all-scientifically rank these expansions as leveling experiences from worst to best. Some of them might surprise you! Others… definitely won’t, especially when we start with the bottom. Either way, this is not specifically about the fastest or most efficient leveling experiences, just the most fun ones.

I'm a jerk!

8: Cataclysm

Oh, don’t act surprised, you knew this was going to be here. And you knew it because however much parts of Cataclysm might have gotten re-evaluated over the years, the expansion’s zones are still largely seen as just plain bad. This is due to the fact that they are bad.

Seriously, the closest thing I would say Cataclysm had to a good zone is Twilight Highlands, and even that’s a close thing. Uldum and Vashj’ir are both bad. Hyjal and Deepholm are bad, too, but not quite so egregiously bad. Gilneas is a fun zone, but it stops being relevant after the first few levels. It’s all just a set of disappointments, if we’re being honest.

This isn’t to say that there’s nothing good within the expansion, however; I want to stress that. While it is bad, it does have some interesting moments, and it features at least one zone type that the game has never tried before or since. If you don’t have these achievements, there is some interesting stuff to be found, some neat quests and quest moments along the way, even some honestly lovely dungeons along the way.

Unfortunately, these moments never come together to make for a fun overall experience. While there’s touches of fun to be found, you wind up falling right back into bad before too long, and it just gets tedious. It is, definitely, the worst of these experiences.

(For the record, I’m aware that Chromie Time sandwiches this together with the base-game-vanilla-ish stuff. I’m ranking them separately for good reason, so consider the fact that they are wedged together.)


7: Battle for Azeroth

Oh, don’t act surprised.

The reality is that in many ways, Battle for Azeroth has featured a lot of refinement to the leveling path, story presentation, and so forth. What sinks this one is that all of the technical acumen in the world can’t help you if your fundamental material is no good. Or, to paraphrase Dan Olson, the real problem here is that the script sucks. Everything else being good can’t salvage your production when you’re working off a bad premise.

Fortunately, BfA also has a number of other things that ensure it can’t even try to rise above its script problems. For one thing, both factions don’t get six zones but three, with a couple of jaunts back over to the other side. The leveling experience also stops well shy of any real conclusions not just for zones but for the story arcs as a whole. There’s also Drustvar, which is just plain bad, and the general numbness of all the Zandalar areas.

Looking back, I started that paragraph with the word “fortunately” for some reason.

It’s really strange that this one is going to be the de facto starter leveling experience for new players, considering how bad it is as a leveling experience. About all it has is being up to date with the game’s timeline. But that isn’t the same as it being remotely good.

If we are being altogether honest, you were probably prepared before.

6: The Burning Crusade

Wow, this one is down here? Yes. Yes it is. Fortunately (this is actually fortunate) we’ve left the “bad” stuff behind by now, so it turns out that The Burning Crusade is the first leveling experience wherein its main problem is just that it is… fine. It’s fine. Not great, not bad, just fine.

In other words, its biggest sin is the fact that this expansion came out a long darn time ago.

One of the main motivational features behind the revamp of the old world was the fact that the original version of Azeroth was, by the time of Cataclysm, considered to not be up to the acceptable state of questing throughout the rest of the game. This is understandable. From a technical standpoint, questing in Cataclysm was solid! Obviously it had some major issues despite that fact or it wouldn’t be two notches below this expansion, but the fact of the matter is that it was solidly put together and worked well.

While TBC was a massive leap forward from the questing in the old world, it’s hard to ignore the fact that it was a massive leap forward from content that has since been removed and replaced. By modern standards, this is the oldest questing content in the game… and it absolutely shows, top to bottom. Many elements that would later be handled better and more elegantly are here in larval form, but you can see the janky edges of things like bombing runs and cinematic quest moments.

It also suffers a bit from the fact that Outland predates expansions and/or zones being reliable about telling a single contiguous story, leaving you with something of a scattershot approach that never entirely meshes. With most of these leveling experiences, you do get a narrative to play through. Here, though, it’s… just a matter of “well, that was a bunch of stuff that happened.”

It's the final showdown.

5: Legion

All right, this time you might actually be surprised. But I would stress as a reminder that this isn’t about ranking the expansions as a whole, but the leveling experiences. And in that case, Legion is… a little weaker than you might otherwise expect!

The thing about Legion is that every zone is largely built around being still viable at the endgame. This was entirely the right choice for the expansion, and in fact it led to a great overall structure wherein players felt like each zone closed out with a major victory (such as beating up God-King Skoooooovald) but still had other problems for players to keep addressing. Unfortunately, it also means that the overall arc of the storyline is built around supporting a larger ongoing structure that… no longer exists. It’s the first two acts without ever getting into the third one.

It also suffers a bit more for the fact that, well, Legion is a pretty constrained expansion as a whole. There aren’t a whole lot of different choices. You can take on the zones in a variety of different orders, but most of the zones you will be taking on more or less in their entirety with no major dangling threads. Once you’ve leveled through it once, you’ve seen about 80% of the expansion.

It’s good! Better than TBC, even. But it’s not even in the top half of expansions to level through.

Of course, you can guess which four are in the top half by this point by process of elimination, but the fun excitement is seeing where they fall… which means we’re going to need to keep going next week. (Because I didn’t feel like making this column twice as long. It turns out I had things to say!)

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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