Why I Play: Exploring World of Warcraft as a free-to-play game


A few weeks back, the Massively OP staff discussed, among other things, whether World of Warcraft‘s leveling revamp coupled with its continued endless free trial constitute a change to free to play. I’d lean toward the “yes” end of that discussion. Though the trial still only lets you get to level 20, the new world-scaling means that grants you access to a staggering amount of content — probably more than some full MMOs on the market.

But how much fun can you really have as a free player in WoW these days? I decided to find out.

First, let’s get a little backstory out of the way. As I’ve noted before, I am a lifelong Blizzard fanboy, and while I have many complaints with WoW as a game, the Warcraft universe has always been the studio franchise that most resonated with me. WoW was my first MMO, and I played it off and on (more on than off) for about 10 years.

I stopped playing near the end of Legion, though, and until now I hadn’t been back. I was deeply unhappy with the direction of the game and its story in Battle for Azeroth, and since the Burning Legion had always been the Big Bads of the Warcraft universe, defeating them kind of felt like the end of the story to me. (Yes, recent lore revelations arguably make the Void a bigger threat, but the Legion was what I grew up with.) With Metzen gone, it was easy to write off anything post-Legion as little more than sanctioned fan fiction. For me, the franchise ended in Antorus.

Shadowlands does look pretty cool, but at this point I fear it may be too little too late where I’m concerned. However, I do still miss the world of Azeroth from time to time. The old free mode was too restrictive to feel like a good option, but with level 20 now granting you access to such a huge portion of content, it became more appealing. I was still determined to avoid BFA, but I wanted to reconnect with some old content.

Thus, I reinstalled and made a new character, a virtual clone of my old Rogue main with a new hairstyle. Thanks to everything being account-wide these days, I was quickly able to get back my old mounts and outfits. Feels like I barely skipped a beat.

I decided to check out the new starting zone, Exile’s Reach. I was not quite as impressed with it as my MOP colleague Justin, who enjoyed it tremendously, calling it the most “streamlined and modern of any starting experience in the game right now.” I agree it’s very effective as a gameplay tutorial, but it has no soul. Warcraft is a rich and vibrant setting with lots of unique cultures and fascinating ideas, but absolutely none of that is on display in Exile’s Reach. You could transplant that zone into any other fantasy RPG made in the last 20 years, and no one would notice the difference.

Also, as much as having some tutorials on how to play your class is nice, I do have to wonder how well that’s going to gel with Blizzard’s obsession with major revamps. How helpful is learning to use Sinister Strike going to be when some dev gets bored and decides Rogues are a now boomerang-based class?

Upon my leaving the new starting experience, the game tried quite hard to send me into BFA content, but I proceeded to nope out of that with extreme prejudice. What follows is quite a journey, or it felt that way at the time. There’s a lot to like about the leveling revamp, and all in all I’d call it a win, but when it comes to the goal of making leveling easier to understand, Blizzard failed spectacularly.

I wanted to go to Pandaria, but there’s no direct route there until you complete the entry quests, and I couldn’t find any way to acquire them. I tried speaking to Chromie to access the new “Chromie Time” feature, which is supposed to help you experience older expansions, but she wouldn’t let me activate it. I’ve been told you need to complete at least some of BFA to unlock Chromie Time, but I’ve heard conflicting reports on exactly how much. At any rate, I didn’t want to go that route.

Full of stubborn determination, I declared, “You people have stood in my way long enough! I’m going to clown college Northrend!”

I hopped on the boat to the Borean Tundra. As it sailed out, I got a warning that I was leaving the tutorial. I clicked “okay” and wound up in Northrend as one would expect. All the quests there were available to me. Having a hunch, I headed straight back to Stormwind, and found that a bevy of quests had opened up to me. Chromie still wouldn’t give me the time of day, but the Heroes’ Call boards now offered quests for zones and expansions across the whole game. Confusingly, there are only three quests on the board at a time. Which quests seems to be randomized, and there’s no way to change the selection without accepting some.

Does your head hurt yet?

After accepting quests for several zones I didn’t want to go to, I at last got the quest for Pandaria, and before long I was off and adventuring in the Jade Forest.

Later, I hopped on a level 10 Allied Race character to see how things were different for her. This character predates the current patch, but I had never done anything with her. She had completed at most one or two quests, and never left Stormwind. She had Chromie time accessible immediately.

It was at this point I realized that Chromie Time only increases the level range for zones upward, not downward, so for a free account limited to level 20 it’s almost entirely useless. All it does is let you queue for your chosen expansion’s dungeons in the Dungeon Finder. My un-Chromie-ed Rogue can queue only for BFA dungeons.

How’s the head feeling now?

Honestly, I can’t for the life of me understand why Blizzard didn’t just go for a more traditional global scaling system. If the devs must keep their power creep, they could still have the current expansion at a higher level, but at least letting all the old stuff scale from 1-50 would be infinitely preferable to the current system, which appears to have been stitched together from the wailing nightmares of Rube Goldberg and M.C. Escher.

And yet, for all the confusion, this is still in many ways a very positive change in the game. The system is difficult to understand, but for the most part it’s very functional once you eventually wrap your head around it. The options for leveling are so much greater now.

And for a free player, it’s an incredible boon. The one downside is that you won’t be able to get to a high-enough level to complete most continents in their entirety, but we’re still looking at an absolutely insane amount of content, and the flexibility to go where you want is wonderful.

I’ve felt pretty negative about WoW and Blizzard lately, but upon getting back to Pandaria, seeing the beautiful sights, hearing the amazing music, and becoming reacquainted with the memorable characters, I remember why I’ve loved Warcraft so much for so long.

In terms of how the level squish worked out, it’s another case where Blizzard seems to have delivered a good experience despite largely failing in its stated goals. One of the main reasons given for the level squish was so you could once again count on earning something new and exciting every level-up, and… you don’t. “Dead” levels where you earn nothing are rarer, to be sure, but they’re still fairly common, and even when you do earn something, it may be just a minor upgrade to an existing ability similar to the underwhelming and largely forgotten “Draenor perks” of some years back.

On the plus side, however, Blizzard did do a really good job of making sure that you get all of your class’ core abilities early on. By level 20, my Rogue already had pretty much all the core tools her predecessor did at what was then max level. She’s only missing bells and whistles like damage cooldowns and niche utility skills. When questing, you don’t really miss them much.

All that’s to say that being limited to level 20 still provides you with a pretty complete and satisfying version of your class. My one complaint is that my energy regeneration is a bit sluggish, due to not unlocking all the boosts to it or having much haste on my gear. Otherwise, it feels great. As I’m someone who prefers limited action sets, the smaller pool of abilities available on a level 20 capped character is almost preferable.

I was also pleasantly surprised by how little Outlaw Rogue has changed since I played last. There are some differences I don’t like, but given Blizzard’s aforementioned love of massive revamps, I rather expected that I wouldn’t even recognize my favorite spec, but that wasn’t the case at all.

On a wider level, too, playing on a free account feels like, well… playing WoW. You can quest, PvP, run dungeons. There are some things you’re locked out of — you can’t use the auction house, nor level high enough to access flying mounts — but for the most part this is a complete game. (And considering the restrictions on flying are one of the main reasons I stopped playing WoW, the irony of my current shift toward a free account that can’t fly is not lost on me.)

So how much fun can you have as a free player in WoW these days? Well, quite a lot, as it turns out. You need to be willing to deal with a fair degree of jank and confusion, but that is to be expected for a game this old. Once you navigate the draconian systems, there are good times to be had.

I think the people who benefit from this the most are people like me who still feel attached to the world and want the occasional hit of nostalgia without committing to a full sub. New players can also find lots to do here, though you may need to sub eventually to finish off many of the storylines. Obviously those who are focused on endgame will not find a free account satisfies them, but for anyone else I think free to play World of Warcraft can be a valid option.

There’s an MMO born every day, and every game is someone’s favorite. Why I Play is the column in which the Massively OP staff members kick back and reminisce about all their favorite MMOs. Whether it’s the new hotness or an old fan favorite loaded with nostalgia, each title we cover here tugs at our heartstrings and keeps us coming back for more.
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