First impressions of World of Warcraft Dragonflight, part one: Direction and narrative

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While it’s not really what will serve as a foundational component of my evaluation of World of Warcraft: Dragonflight as a whole, I think the clearest impression of the expansion’s overall narrative and focus comes from a small sidequest at the Ruby Life Pools. And it’s a moment a lot of people are probably going to dislike because it’s a quest where you just sit next to an old red dragon for a while before he finally starts talking.

Very slowly, he explains to you the reason that he’s sitting there. He’s old enough to remember when the dragons first left this place, and he’s staring out at a landscape he knows he should remember but really doesn’t any longer. And he starts talking about all of the conflicts he’s fought in, about watching the Black Dragonflight become corrupted and fight him… about a black dragon he loved who died at his claws, and he can’t even remember her name any more. And he very clearly wonders what the point of it all is, what the point is supposed to be now, where he’s supposed to be going.

So I respect the bold narrative decision of WoW at this particular juncture to have the storyline be founded on basically having the characters throw up their hands and state they no longer know what to do. It’s unique.

I’m not really being facetious here. There’s a strong throughline right from the start of the expansion that while the dragonflights are dealing with some substantial outside threats (chiefly the Djaradin, the Primalists, and some centaurs who are real jerks), the main threat is that nobody knows what the heck they’re supposed to do now. Three of the five flights have lost their original aspects, and there was never really a system in place for replacing an aspect. Two of the flights have lost huge numbers of their own through ill-advised wars. Azeroth is a mess. What the heck are we supposed to be doing?

It starts innocuously enough, of course. A joint expedition is launched by both the Horde and the Alliance, and thankfully for the first time in this game’s entire damn history the tensions between the two factions are actually not there. Seriously, after seven expansions where the launch was accompanied by narratives saying, “Well, we just teamed up to stop the world-shattering big bad, but time to bicker like spoiled children again” (and one where we just literally went to the realm of death), this time we’re all working together pretty much peacefully.

You know what? As someone who has been playing this game as long as it’s existed, I don’t miss it. Not at all. It is amazingly nice to have an expansion where you aren’t fighting multiple wars for no reason. That alone felt pleasant insofar as we’re just starting out without acting like none of the last few world-shattering threats happened.

Breathe a zap.Honestly, there’s a general lack of world-shattering threats right out of the gate, which is also a welcome change. That doesn’t mean nothing is happening by a long shot. It’s obvious that the Primalists are a bigger problem that needs to be dealt with, but the main threat that we’re dealing with really is… the dragons are here, but they don’t really know what they’re supposed to be doing here. They’re making it up as they go, and that’s as true for Wrathion as it is for Alexstrasza herself.

Of course, I am also probably giving the story a bit more credit than it deserves here. Case in point, Wrathion and Sabellian have a rivalry that’s played up. Do you remember Sabellian? Of course you don’t because you are probably not a lore nerd like I am and have probably forgotten his whole minor sidequest chain in The Burning Crusade, which he followed up by doing absolutely nothing for the next seven expansions. Now here he is after 15 years, and the plot is trying hard to convince us that this is a big question of who should be the new aspect of the black dragonflight because sure, Wrathion has actually been here for a while, but Sabellian? He parked in Outland for a very long time doing things that we are later informed were very impressive!

As a concept, it’s kind of clever insofar as it makes sense for Wrathion to have at least one obstacle to just cruising into the role he wants. In practice, it feels tacked-on and it’s hard to pit a repeated major story character against a non-entity from an expansion ages ago even if you know enough lore to respect that it does function diegetically. It falls short emotionally.

If you’re part of the “who cares about the story” crowd, well, congratulations for clicking on an article about the expansion’s narrative anyway, but there’s also not a whole lot else to talk about on a strictly technical level. WoW questing finished reaching its modern form in Warlords of Draenor. That’s not an evaluation of quality; it’s just a statement of fact. Some quests have some slightly memorable questgivers or NPCs involved, but a lot of them just kind of roll off the back without sticking with you. The elder red dragon I mentioned before is a high point. Others have low points. You know what you’re getting here.

It just bugs me.

Obviously, a lot is going to depend on the subsequent patch stories and so forth, but I do genuinely appreciate that for all that the narrative team of WoW has been maligned for the stories being told since about halfway through Legion, this feels like a story both thematically and directly about figuring out what you’re supposed to do. And at least thus far, it’s devoid of serious rug pulls… or even the setups that look like them.

Take Raszageth, for example. She’s the current big bad of the expansion, and what does she want? To hurt Alexstrasza and those who follow her. Oh, she talks a big game about how nobody knows what Alexstrasza did to her, but then she immediately says what Alexstrasza did to her, and in fact it is exactly what we already knew happened. No redemption arc hinted at, no signs of a rug pull, just a nasty piece of work who wants to go back to doing what she did before and is mad at the people stopping her from doing it.

If we can somehow stick to this level? If we can keep this as a story about being unsure about where you go but falling back on doing what matters most to you, focusing on your strengths, and restoring what you do well? Yeah, I can get behind that.

Of course, that thematic throughline kind of falls apart when you judge the other things that the expansion is actually trying to do. But that’s going to have to wait for later because as usual, we’re just starting with the first part of the first impressions right here, and the rest will be along over the next few days. Look, I always write these as multi-part features; you knew this was coming.

For now, though? The story isn’t emotionally hooking me without a problem from the start, but it does work. It’s solid, and it doesn’t strain credibility, patience, or basic logic. Let’s call it a solid B, maybe B- at worst. And for your first steps into the expansion, that’s not nothing.

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?
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