For a long time, I have been considering this particular column just because, well, it’s an obvious one. If you have a column whose entire premise is listing things and you have enough expansions to rank for that, it’s kind of a gimme. The problem, of course, is that I initially came up with the idea back when World of Warcraft was knee-deep in Battle for Azeroth, and at that point I did not actually have enough entries for a Perfect Ten.
That has changed, of course, and at this point I have just enough entries. We have another BlizzCon coming up, somehow, and we’ll probably be hearing about a new expansion there. Before that happens, let’s count down our entries, yes?
10. Battle for Azeroth
The one nice thing I can say about Battle for Azeroth is that we got to go to Kul Tiras and Zandalar. Of course, then you remember the actual content of those regions, and it’s less nice. Where I used to say that other historically bad expansions were split between “aiming low but hitting the target” and “aiming high and missing horribly,” BfA aimed low and still screwed up. Let us not forget how bad this expansion was, how much feedback said “this is really terrible,” and how awful the story was. Just a complete clownshow.
9. Warlords of Draenor
Let’s not pretend that “aiming low and hitting the target” is in any way a commendable achievement. Warlords of Draenor had good leveling zones, but everything else about it was atrocious, it made the capital cities into collections of shacks instead of the functional cities that wound up being useless, and it introduced the most half-assed version of housing imaginable. Heck, it’s more like quarter-assed, really. And the story here was bad enough that even Blizzard’s own writers didn’t seem to understand what was going on.
The nicest thing you can say about Shadowlands is that it was trying. It wasn’t trying very hard, and even what it was trying to do wasn’t very good, but it was a step up over Battle for Azeroth. But that’s not even remotely commendable, and the fact is that Shadowlands was still on the worse end of the game’s various expansions. It’s just not the worst one. Or the second.
As alluded to earlier, Cataclysm was at least aiming high. That’s worth a few points. It did not, however, come anywhere close to hitting what it was aiming for, so that’s kind of a gold “You Tried” star at best. The expansion is rife with noxious pop culture references that show exactly why shoving your game full of that nonsense is a bad plan (having aged like milk in the sun) and for everything it nudged toward further accessibility, it nudged something else away from it, creating a vicious gatekeeping mess that the game is still dealing with today.
Hey, all the gatekeeping mess started somewhere. This isn’t to say that the original WoW was a bad game; even if you ignore that I was there playing at launch, it was a good game then, and aspects of it still hold up decently today. But the launch game was very much meant as a hardcore grouping raid game just like its inspiration, and it just happened to provide an alternative path that was not in that wheelhouse. The more time passes, the more I’m convinced that original WoW was a pretty good game that just happened to have enough critical momentum and enough polish to embrace where the zeitgeist was heading… and then wrench hard away from it and prompt a whole lot of nonsense for a while. But that’s a separate article I’ve already written like six times.
As I’ve said many times, Dragonflight makes some tepid steps back from the hole its two immediate predecessors dug for the game. But it always seems like half-measures, and it always is accompanied by the directors and producers saying, “Well, we can’t do this thing players have asked to have for ages because something something the progression-minded players won’t like it.” Which means that it’s basically as good as the game can get while still catering to that specific segment with a fervor. This is not praise.
4. Mists of Pandaria
I have honestly never been a huge fan of Mists of Pandaria. While it represents a high point following Cataclysm, it also has a lot of negative aspects. Sure, it managed to get a lot of depth and storytelling out of the concept of Pandaria, but that also first involves taking a not-very-funny April Fools’ joke and turning that into the premise of an entire expansion. It introduced a totally new and very bad talent system, but it didn’t have the worst incarnation of that, which is… almost like a merit. The zones were interesting and inventive, and the story was compelling, but it also started a long-running problem wherein the story had to keep pulling its narrative punch at the last minute because we can’t actually erode factions, right? It’s a land of contrasts. But I recognize why the people who really like it do so, and I won’t disagree that it belongs in the top end.
3. The Burning Crusade
The first expansion for the game really set a standard that subsequent expansions would pretty firmly fail to live up to with one exception. There are, of course, many parts of this expansion that have not aged very well, but at the time? It was amazing. It explored new ways of structuring content, had inventive new zones, added what felt like all-new classes to the game, included two new races wildly different from the existing options, and it was hard not to fall in love with it. Some of this is absolutely my nostalgia speaking, I’m sure, but there’s a part of The Burning Crusade that still makes my brain do the happy chemicals.
Of course, “some nostalgia” doesn’t override my ability to evaluate these things critically, and in that light we have to note that Legion took the theme of the Burning Legion further and better: finally adding Demon Hunters, adding in Artifact Weapons, bringing the storytelling to some heights that haven’t been equalled since (until the plot became all about Illidan being a jerk while the narrative acted like he wasn’t). There’s stuff in this expansion that didn’t hold up, and I soured on it partway through as I saw the signs of it going wrong that would then, well, go on to inform Battle for Azeroth and Shadowlands. But you can’t say that Legion wasn’t a high-water mark, and it’s easily the best expansion the game has had within the past decade.
Oh, I made myself sad.
1. Wrath of the Lich King
I’m not going to explain this one because I’ve already done so many times, but I will note that if you’re still hoping the current development staff is ever going to surpass the game’s second expansion, consider that their biggest change to Wrath of the Lich King in WoW Classic was to ahistorically ruin and change it.