So at this point, we actually have a remarkably clear picture of what’s going to be in the first major content patch for World of Warcraft: Dragonflight. Well… it’s actually being pushed as the third patch, and it is the third patch this year, but we’re probably not getting this until May, which is a long gap for the first major patch. Then again, the game has also been pushing out smaller patches pretty regularly since then, but that just raises the question of why this is the first major patch, and you just go round and round in a whirligig. It’s exhausting and sort of makes you want to throw up eventually.
Anyhow, let’s talk about what we know so far. We don’t know everything just yet (not everything is even up on the PTR at this point), but we do have a sense of the shape that this patch will take. And let’s start with the first major weakness that this patch has that I kind of hate pointing out but still needs to be said: From what we’ve seen so far, this patch’s new zone and raid looks damn ugly.
Dragonflight, as a whole, is a pretty grounded expansion visually. This is not unusual; usually we go back and forth between a pretty grounded expansion and a more visually weird one, even though it’s not a hard-and-fast rule. And I do think Dragonflight suffers a fair bit from the simple reality that we’ve seen so many environments in WoW format at this point that none of the zones really look new in any reasonable way; Azure Span and Ohn’ahran Plains are the worst offenders in this regard, but none of them really made me sit up and say, “Gosh, that looks different.”
That being said, it’s not unattractive, just familiar. The only really ugly design is our first raid, which just looks intensely bland and reminds me of nothing so much as Molten Core with better textures; it’s actually got a lot of visual detail and design, but it looks intensely boring. But now our new zone is… a cave. A cave that does not, at a glance, feel significantly different in any way from the caves that I have been going into in this game for the past two decades of my life. It’s just bigger.
Maybe that’s going to change as we see more of the zone, but it doesn’t exactly fill me with excitement to have an entire zone’s worth of Just A Really Big Cave. And yes, I know, everyone (including me) is still kind of hoping we get to see Nerubian stuff some day… but there’s more to that than just A Cave. That’s the difference.
It’s not really substantive. But it’s not great when your first impression of a new zone is, “Oh, that looks hella ugly.”
Moving on to systems… well, uh, new Renown faction does not exactly make me jump for joy. It’s not awful, but it’s also not particularly exciting. I suppose it’ll be interesting to see how it’s balanced against the existing factions, and it at least is not the worst new thing imaginable; renown advancement has generally felt somewhat less exhausting than reputation farming has in the past, although realistically that’s just because it’s a longer grind with more pit stops.
The discussed-but-yet-unseen unified upgrade system, though? That’s a downright good idea, and I’m curious to see how it’s implemented. Done well, it could actually go a long way toward addressing the major gearing gaps that the game still has, and while it’s not just straightforward deterministic gear of “buy X with Y currency,” it may wind up being a different route to get to the same point – especially since Valor is specifically called out as being another upgrade system that doesn’t tie into any other for no good reason.
It also ties in with discussion about how tier set bonuses work, which is something that I’m curious to see the developers address. It seems weirdly late in the game to be learning that people see tier set bonuses as key to how your spec plays, considering that it’s been discussed that way since at least The Burning Crusade, but we can possibly write that particular statement off as just not having been thought through very well. The point is understanding that hopefully addresses how assembling set bonuses and the task of managing them is handled.
Also, finally, cross-faction guilds! I predicted this, and now it’s come to pass. It’s long overdue, but better two expansions late than never, and it’s another step toward just admitting that the faction split was a bad idea and always has been. I’m just glad to see this and look forward to a continual erosion of this arbitrary divide, and it really hammers down on the idea that maybe we’ve taken the whole “Alliance vs. Horde” thing as far as it can logically go and then even further. Time to get a new thing.
That’s not to say that all of the changes are good ones or all the answers we’ve heard are good. For example, we know that Demon Hunters are getting a new cosmetic glyph, but we’re being told “changing this stuff too much could impact PvP.” This is kind of a hilarious statement when you consider how hard the developers are now leaning in on cosmetic gear, which actually does affect PvP. Plus, it’s like… the easiest thing to fix? Cosmetic glyphs are disabled in PvP. There, done, no problem. We should be awash in cosmetic glyphs by now.
Overall, the patch looks… fine. Visually, it looks kind of weak, but the stuff going on under the hood at least seems fine on paper. It does have the same problem that the expansion on the whole has in that you’re likely to be psyched to all heck if you’re already psyched to all heck about everything that WoW does. But for everyone else, the paint chips easily, and it doesn’t have anything that makes me sit up and say, “Damn, that’s new and a really neat idea.”
And that’s probably a good thing on some level because doing whatever the designers thought was a cool idea has not actually worked out for the game very well over the past few years anyway. But it does mean that enthusiasm gap is still there, and when you literally have the game offering to give you Dragonflight for free for a couple days and boost your level and please come back and play…
Yeah, it doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence. You can say that I’m perhaps a little more cynical about the game than normal, but given what is actually happening in promotions (on top of the concerning news from the investor report), it should be pretty clear that it’s not like everyone else is in love with Dragonflight and I’m the lone naysayer. It’s more that people who were still fine with the game through Shadowlands are going to pretty much be happy with whatever it does, and everyone else is… not coming back.
So you would kind of want your new zone and new patch to not leave much room for “eh, I guess it might have some nice system changes, shame about some ugliness.” Hopefully that’ll change as we learn and see more, and there’s a fair bit more to say about the upgrade system in-depth already (I wanted this column to be more of a general overview). We’ll just have to wait and see.