First impressions of World of Warcraft Dragonflight, part three: Combat, content, concerns

Are you for real, guy.

Eventually, you are going to have to fight something in World of Warcraft: Dragonflight. Of course, by “eventually” I actually mean “more or less immediately” because this is WoW and someone heard MC Chris ranting about Kingdom Hearts 2 ages ago and has never ever forgotten it. Why are you going into the menu to equip your gear, fool? We did that shiz for you! Press 1!

Once that happens, well… I don’t know what to tell you. You’re either all right with WoW’s combat by this point or you’re not. But I wouldn’t have brought it up in the first place if there weren’t at least a little more to talk about here, and yes, a lot of that comes down to the way talent trees are structured.

At least for the moment, a lot of the talent builds are exactly what I had hoped. There is not “here is your best build.” Most of the specs I play have a few different builds available that are viable, and even those builds have places where you can easily tweak things based on your preferences. And that’s looking at M+/raiding builds.

First and foremost, I think it’s important to note here that some of the “there’s no best build” state of affairs is less a function of “Blizzard has Fixed This Problem” and more that at this point there are not a whole lot of accepted BiS trinkets, set bonuses, and so forth to compel people to play one build over another. It is possible that this will change as balancing and other designs change over time. And yes, some talents are still just better than others and more foundational.

What is still the case – even with the level cap boost – is that most of those foundational talents are also toward the top of the tree or, at the very least, in the middle of the trees. They do not tend to require a whole lot of investment or massage to get and are frankly kind of hard to avoid. And there’s a lot of space to play around after the fact if that’s what makes you happy.

I’ve been playing with the talent builds a fair bit even with the recommendations in hand, often making slightly sub-optimal choices for my own satisfaction or just because I would rather focus on Spell X instead of Spell Y. And it’s working well; I don’t think I can cripple myself in the process. So that’s a good thing, especially with the full lineup of points and no features like Shadowlands borrowed power putting a finger on the scale.

World Orlando Fontaine Warcraft, as always, is contractually obligated to show up here.

Unfortunately, I haven’t had a whole lot of time to go on many dungeon runs during my time with the expansion thus far. That’s probably fine, though, because… well, much like quest design, WoW dungeon design has not significantly evolved in quite some time. I am sure someone can break down the fine details of the various dungeons compared to one another and how they will impact your M+ runs, and considering my thoughts on that particular format and the game’s dungeons in general, I will implore you to touch some grass. They remain dungeons based around “how can we skip the most enemies while accomplishing our goals” and have the same basic structure you’re used to.

This is not surprising or unusual. Some are more fun than others, and I’m sure once I’ve run them more I’ll have stronger opinions on those that are better or worse, but much like combat you know what you’re getting into. Ditto raids. There are some new sorts of world quest, but it is generally all content and systems that you are familiar with at this point.

What is unique is the way that the endgame stuff is structured. There’s much more of an emphasis on weekly quests and events over daily ones, which put more focus on playing at varied times rather than forcing you into the same cadence as the prior callings. And after Battle for Azeroth and Shadowlands wholly demolished the things that made the mission table fun in Legion, having it not be there is…

All right, it’s not a welcome change, but if the option was Shadowlands or nothing, I pick nothing.

But then, that’s kind of the problem, isn’t it? Dragonflight cannot be taken wholly divorced from the context in which it launches. There are parts of the expansion that are all right and parts that are bad, but at the end of the day, many parts remove features that either worked at one point and then got butchered or were already a hatchet job done on something else. I’m not sad about the removal of borrowed power, but 60-70 as a climb is still new talent points and nothing else. That’s more significant than “nothing” but it still lacks actual new skills or abilities.

And you have to ask – inevitably – whether Dragonflight is enough. Whether, in fact, the work that has been done is enough to rescue the foundation or the new foundation is even solid enough to facilitate further construction. For something that has been heralded by the designers themselves as the start of a new era, is this an expansion where the thematic focus is literally “what do we do now” actually a good place to start?

You knew this image was going to show up at some point during these articles. Be thankful it only happened at the end.

You don’t need to look far to see troubling signs. Things like Blizzard’s advertisements trying to mock hypothetical complainers in something that could only be described as cringe coupled with clearly maintaining problematic design choices that give a feeling of the designers changing just enough. And it is also painfully clear that you have people who will keep carrying water for this company and acting as if the players are at fault, as if the designers just release value-neutral content and do not have their palms resting heavy on one side of a scale.

People are going to say nice things about Dragonflight no matter what, and make no mistake, this expansion has changed and matured only in the sense that it has tried to make just enough changes for you to come back and stop being mad about it. The reason a lot of my praise has seemed provisional is that in some way it is provisional. For all my initial satisfaction with the story, for example, it is not lost upon me that “and now it turns out the Primalists were in league with the Void” is really one Shocking Twist away from smashing that whole house of cards.

However… you also can’t judge a game on what it might be. You can’t even judge a game on what it was. You judge it on what it is. Even when that game is tied up in a lot of emotions, many of them negative, and when it’s being released by a company that is utterly unpleasant and has doubled down on all of that unpleasantness even as it tries to fix some parts of it.

Oh, and just to make this a little more fun, odds are that most of you have already made up your minds about this expansion regardless of anything and are basically waiting around to see whether my opinion aligns with yours or not.

Which is why I am deliberately drawing this out a little bit.

You might say to get on with it, but drawing it out is literally the point sometimes.

So, then. World of Warcraft: Dragonflight is a rather feature-thin expansion that leans heavily on undoing bad past decisions, altering its endgame balance yet again tilting just enough toward player satisfaction without implementing easy and well-worn solutions that would cut down on the elitism of its cutting edge, with main features that are a technically worse version of flight and an overcomplication of a crafting system that it has consistently failed to make relevant.

At the same time, it’s also a decisive new narrative step for the game that opens up a great deal of potential territory for the game and addresses major narrative errors, it seems to be a genuine improvement to the game across the board for the first time since 2016, and it leans more on its strengths than trying to be something it isn’t. Its main features are a more engaging form of something that has long been contentious as the destruction of gameplay and now actually has quite a bit of gameplay, plus the enrichment of a core gameplay system in a substantial fashion.

It is, at the end of the day, not nearly as much of a step forward as the game needs. It still lacks deterministic gearing and still doesn’t know how to capitalize on its extant assets in terms of storytelling or game design. It lacks many of the changes I want to see in this game that would bring it meaningfully into a modern era.

But – and I think this is the crucial element – as much as I can write a story where all of that potential never materializes into reality, that is not the only outcome that can happen.

One of the minor plot points in The Shawshank Redemption is Andy Dufresne writing a letter once a week to the state legislature requesting more funding for the prison library. He keeps doing it for quite a while before the government finally sends a huge pile of books, records, and funding, along with a letter to stop sending more letters. His response?

It only took six years. From now on I’ll write two letters a week instead of one.

Dragonflight is a B- expansion, and probably a weak B- at that. But the last A+ expansion this game produced was when I was still in my 20s and I turn 40 next month. Maybe it’s turning a corner, maybe it’s not, but I certainly hope it is. And that’s more than I expected to say when actually getting my hands on it.

So I hope it’s turning a corner. I hope it’s a step in the right direction and that the developers and designers keep making those steps. And I hope they’re prepared for me to write two letters a week instead of one. But that’ll happen after I help a walrus village make a really bangin’ potluck.

I don’t know what happens next, Veritistrasz. But maybe we can learn to be better after all.

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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