And we’re back! Last time, we went through the four lower expansions in terms of ranking World of Warcraft’s leveling experiences. This time, we’re going through the top four. This is a pretty straightforward process; sometimes doing things in a sequential chunk of columns makes that happen, after all.
One thing I do want to talk about before we get into the meat, though, is why I arrange things in this way. I knew the whole list when I started, so I certainly could have started with the best one and gone down the list… but I prefer doing it this way simply because it allows us to end on high notes and talk about the stuff that WoW has done well over the years. Instead of ending by standing in the muck and mire of Cataclysm, this time I get to end high upon the spires of…
What, exactly? Well that’s what we’re going to find out.
4: Vanilla But More Cataclysmic What
Here’s the thing about the old-world revamp: For all that there are things I can point to that are not great about it, some of the things in there are solid to outright good. And it has something that no other expansion can possibly have in sheer enormous variety.
Most expansions level through a half-dozen zones. The zones are a bit bigger than the ones from the game’s initial launch, sure, but the sheer volume of zones on Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms means that this is going to win out in terms of how many different places there are for you to go. There are a lot of different stories and zones to explore here, top to bottom, to the point wherein two characters of the same faction could level 10-50 through totally different paths without any actual quest overlap.
Moreover, the various quests are usually good about providing rewards as you quest through them, based on a great deal of attention being paid during the revamp to ensuring that this would be the case. In fact, the biggest challenge for some of this flow is just the fact that getting to these zones initially can be a bit off-putting.
I know, it feels weird that this experience – especially when it has gone on to be reviled for years – is actually a pretty good option. And to be totally fair, it’s still a mixed bag. The Cataclysm zones do rear their head at the end, for example. The zones here that are bad are definitely bad. And a lot of the stuff that was memorable and fun in the base game gets kind of mashed down into a formless mass here. It’s not as good as it could be.
But the point is that the revamped vanilla leveling experience is still pretty solid as a leveling path. At least that revamp worked out as intended!
3: Warlords of Draenor
Oh, this one is a big pile of what the heck, huh.
So Warlords of Draenor has only managed to get knocked out of the “worst expansion ever” spot by virtue of Battle for Azeroth, and that’s not something anyone would really point to as a win. This expansion was grindingly awful to be living in for two years, to the point where the developers basically just gave up on it after one major content patch. And yet it also has one of the most solid leveling experiences in the entire game, helped particularly by letting you fly the whole time while also sporting a whole lot of optional side content.
For every confused moment about how it fits into the wider metaplot, the actual moment-to-moment storytelling is fun, engaging, and often delves into corners of Draenor lore that were only briefly touched upon in Outland. There are also so many weird corners to explore that odds are nigh-universal you will wind up finding new things you hadn’t explored before in the midst of your leveling process, and bonus objectives help provide a nice kick upward. Heck, it’s even one of the fastest leveling experiences, which is another mark in its favor!
As weird as it might seem, Warlords of Draenor actually has a really solid leveling experience, and it might well be worth a trip back through if you haven’t played it in a while. Sure, you’ve gotten used to thinking of what a slog this expansion was… but that was when it was also the endgame. Things are different now.
2: Wrath of the Lich King
I don’t need to tell anyone why you should like this expansion. Instead, I want to tell you why you perhaps should not, because all of the virtues of Wrath of the Lich King as an overall experience do not perhaps extend to its leveling run. And that surprised me, too.
One of the things I forgot from my prior experiences, for example, was how slow leveling is during the early stages of this. Heck, for much of the expansion the quest objectives are much more spread out, and while that can lead to some wonderfully atmospheric moments as you explore Northrend, it also means that you spend a lot of time just waiting for things to happen. While the quest design was more or less up to modern standards, the quest pacing was not, and the presentation suffers in many places.
It still bothers the heck out of me that the Wrathgate event now ends at the gate itself, too. Yes, I understand why that change was made, but it also means that the big moment is a total plot cul-de-sac now.
Having said all of that, Chromie Time does helpfully change some needed aspects like ensuring that the higher zones are accessible a bit faster. (Northrend was kind of backloaded in deference to max-level questing.) And, you know… it’s Wrath. I don’t need to convince any of you that this expansion was good. You already know it. But that does mean it’s not quite as good as the best expansion leveling.
1: Mists of Pandaria
This one was actually kind of a surprise to me, but when you think about it, it really does track. You’ve got a diverse lineup of zones, each of which has a strong narrative throughline and plenty for individual characters to do. On top of that, every given zone offers you a whole lot of stuff off the beaten path if you want to stop following the “main” storyline. And the presentation is all top-notch.
About the worst things you can say about Pandaria as a leveling destination are all pretty weaksauce. Like… it does have some plot cul-de-sacs along the way because the game has moved on, but most of them are still mostly about setting a mood so it’s not a big deal. There’s some bits that are a little uncomfortable and stereotypical, but no more than any other expansion. And so on.
If you’re trying to pick a place just based on speed, WoD is almost certainly your fastest 10-50 rush. But MoP isn’t even that much longer, and it is an excellent expansion to level through from top to bottom. Slap on your heirlooms if you have them and get ready for a whole lot of panda time.
Or, to allude to a time-honored commercial… never say no to panda.