I woke up today with the intention of watching the reveal event for the next WoW expansion unspoiled and with no one else’s opinions but my own, and I managed it!
Dragonflight is now confirmed to be the 9th WoW expansion, and with it comes…well, a few things with vague descriptors and some brief in-game footage and screenshots.
Biggest on the list is the new continent, as we will be exploring the Dragon Isle, and they had the good sense to not just make Dragon Isle the name of the expansion! There are 5 zones there to start, with 4 leveling zones and a…starter zone? We’ll discuss that more in a moment. The zones have a mix of themes, with some taking after a given Dragonflight and the remaining zones being a mix of draconic and Titanic influences (the Titans of Azerothian lore, not the sinky boat). The starter zone is used for a new race – the Dracthyr, who are also their own class of Evoker, a new class with two specializations focused on healing and magical ranged damage, bringing Warcraft back to the number of ranged specs the game started with!
The rest is sort of an attempt at addressing the fundamental challenges that have plagued World of Warcraft in its recent era – a focus on fundamental permanent character progression, addressing navigation through the inclusion of flight at launch (with a giant asterisk we’ll discuss in a moment), an attempt at returning to a more high fantasy setting with close ties to Azeroth and the lore we know there, and updating legacy code and systems to keep the game up to a modern standard of content – UI updates, mostly.
So, let’s go through each point and I’ll just give my immediate, low analysis opinion.
The Dragon Isle: It looks really cool, and that is little surprise. The art team have been the MVPs of WoW the past…forever, and even more so when the gameplay has fundamentally failed to live up to expectations. The variety of settings feels fitting for a place that was the nesting grounds of Dragons for ages, avoiding the weird dissonance of Broken Isles being a vastly different biome per zone even if it is a handwave. Thaldraszus (why is it spelled like this Blizzard, why?) is probably my standout – I like the ancient civilization feel and there’s something sort of funny and interesting about the Dragons wanting to make a city that maps neatly to what humans might expect.
Dracthyr: I feel…odd about this race. On the one hand, cool – dragon people, it’s interesting conceptually and more player choice on customization and identity is always a good thing in my opinion. For my personal take, though…oof, they look really fucking weird. The gangly proportions are just strange and something about them looks viscerally wrong to me, like I cannot look at them without questioning what happened. I mean, if they are an experimental race in lore, it makes sense on that level, but they just look bizarre in an offputting way to me. I don’t want to say “repulsive” because that’s not the case, but I just can’t quite put my finger on why I don’t like the model (I think it is the necks). Also, if they are a race that doesn’t get to wear gear for visual emphasis to an even worse degree than Mechagnomes, that is a hard pass for me.
Evoker: I like the idea of new healing specs in the game, and when they put forward those efforts, I generally like them. I really enjoyed Mistweaver, which was the last time we got a new healer in WoW (10 years ago!) and I could see wanting to try one just for that. If they’re locked to Dracthyr only, though…I don’t know, because of my general aversion to the visual of the race noted above. The idea of charging mechanics for spells sounds fun in isolation, but in an MMO where class and spec balance must win out, I fear that this is going to end up being the equivalent of the MoP announced where we were told that Monks would have no auto-attack only for that to be too difficult to balance and having it pulled as a result. WoW’s pacing for spellcasters can already be a challenge with the mobility requirements of the average raid or dungeon encounter, and if a big part of the optimization of the DPS spec revolves around standing still to charge a spell, that feels like it will be a hard feat to balance in a game that is already notorious for having balancing issues. The flavor of the class is great, though!
Dragon Riding: Here’s that asterisk about flight coming back around. So in Dragonflight, you can fly from launch (if that means while leveling or only at max level remains to be seen), but there is seemingly a catch – it is not flight in the traditional WoW sense, but instead Dragon Riding, a new system added to the game in the expansion. Dragon Riding combines two interesting ideas – being able to fully customize your own dragon mount from a set of choices, and a new flight gameplay that involves physical forces – momentum, gravity, and the like. It looks more dynamic and cooler, frankly, than normal flight does, and if it means you can jump off of cliffs on your dragon, ride the gravity drop down to near ground level, and then glide off from there, that sounds amazingly fun and interesting to me. Of course, the big question mark that pinged for me as soon as they introduced that is “why not all flying mounts?” and then “does this mean I’ll never be able to use my own flying mounts on Dragon Isle?” and I sure hope they expand the system to all mounts at some point and that we’ll be able to use that gameplay outside of the expansion content. Honestly, in a way, dragon riding actually sounds like a cool way to expand the non-competitive gameplay of the game – if navigation and getting around the world is a fun game in and of itself, that is powerful, because that certainly is not the case now.
Talent Trees Return (Sort Of): This was the big 11th hour leak I saw last night that I was curious about, and sure enough, there it was. On talents, there is a lot to say, obviously. For one thing, I think more customization and more granular power acquisition happening more frequently is a good thing – it is the very essence of an RPG, in fact, and something that WoW has lacked for a long time (10 years now, in fact). The idea of the trees is modernized to a point – instead of trees based on spec and picking a little from each, you get a class tree and one for your chosen specialization, with a mix of passive boosts, granted spells and abilities, and choice tiers where you pick an active ability from a couple of options (and some Covenant choices snuck in, like Convoke the Spirits for Druids!). The new system looks very complex, perhaps too much so, but that is also without much in the way of context for how it unlocks and rolls out to players – until we get that, it looks like a nightmare conjured with Microsoft Visio, but the promise is there. The modernization effort is also good – changes can be done as easily as today, with saved templates so you can quickly switch between saved tree paths instead of having to dump the points manually as we once did back in the day.
On the other hand, talent trees are also hard to be super excited about from a certain gameplay perspective, because competitive PvP and PvE gameplay means there will always be a chosen path that is mathematically determined to be best, and the irony of Hamlette of old Elitist Jerks being the one presenting the new trees was not lost on me. Can such things be designed around? To a point, sure, but Blizzard never stuck the landing fully on that with the MoP-style pick-1/3 talent system on having balanced choices, with each spec maybe getting one or two tiers that were loaded with multiple viable choices, and even then it was like 2/3 were good choices and 1 was a trap. For most gameplay, it’ll be fine, but if you go into a raiding or Mythic Plus scenario, there’s always going to be that pressure to optimize. The new system should hopefully make it so that optimization still lets you pick fun active abilities that you enjoy, and it may allow them to make more true hybrids – using the Class tree to let DPS pick their healing spec cleanse to use as DPS would be a powerful addition for raiding but especially for Mythic Plus, and that could have interesting gameplay ramifications for the better. Need more detail to say for sure, because right now I am both cautiously optimistic and somewhat pessimistic – it gets closer to that RPG choice and progression, but I don’t know that there is a way to prevent players from optimizing the fun out of it, if that makes sense.
User Interface Updates: On the one hand, who cares, that is what addons are for. On the other hand, the team is correct that WoW’s UI has fallen behind and the base game needs to accept a degree of customization to allow players to better build a stock UI that is functional and useful to them. WoW’s placement of UI elements made sense for 4:3 aspect ratio CRTs in 2004, but it is woefully inadequate on even a basic widescreen, much less an ultra-widescreen or at vastly higher resolutions like 4k. Updating the assets and implementing basic tools for repositioning and resizing elements are changes that should have been made ages ago, but WoW’s vast addon library has helped reduce the need for that – if you run into issues, you can get addons to fix almost all of them. However, not everyone wants to use addons, and the game itself should have customization options. FFXIV has an excellent default set of customization choices like repositioning any element of the default HUD, changing scale and size for elements individually, and multiple loadouts so you can have different HUDs that you can toggle between for different roles or jobs. WoW getting that is a good sign that the team has woken up to the competitive landscape they find themselves in and decided to adapt (and it also creates a pathway of customization that could be useful in, say, a console version…).
The Cinematic Reveal: I’m torn – visually it was quite beautiful and had a lot of attention to detail put into the work, again a strong suit for Blizzard is the cinematics team. However, I struggle a bit with the cinematic because nothing is really clear about what is happening or why – Shadowlands at least had a sense of who was the bad guy and why we’d be clued in to those events, while this cinematic was kind of just a really cool looking slice of the Dragon Isle and like, yeah, it’s visually stunning, but I also find myself wondering what the gameplay is and how we end up here or why. It raises more questions than it answers, which is not inherently bad, but there’s just nothing of substance there to really chew on. Cool looking trailer, and I will always give kudos for that (especially as I learn more 3D modelling and rendering and understand the technical level of how difficult that is to pull off), but I came away from it sort of…not hyped, in a way. The biggest observation I could make was a meme – the Titanic watchers represent everyone’s guilds in Shadowlands – starting off full before time wore them down to a bare minimum. Which I guess makes Alexstraza a quality of life patch trying to cling to the remaining players, and now I’m just writing an extended meme shitpost, so I will move on.
The Story: There was a segment of the reveal dedicated to the story, which was…uh, well, it was there, that is for sure! I’m going to be honest here, I am deeply cynical about the WoW story at this point, and nothing said assuages any of that cynicism or encourages me to walk a new path on the story, and I have nothing good (and nothing really bad either) to say about it. It was there, I don’t have faith in the current writing staff to make the reasons behind everything interesting, and the cinematic trailer did no real storytelling either, short of the journey of the lone Titanic watcher. There’s nothing in this aspect of the reveal to be upset over, I suppose, but there’s also nothing to get my hopes up over – a bunch of vague platitudes about the kingdoms of man and what the dragons did when the isle was their home. As ever with WoW, this place that has sparingly been mentioned has this rich deep history that characters we’ve interacted with have been the keepers of but have just failed to mention to us, so a new island appears on the map, we go to it, hijinks ensue. I’ll wait until launch to see if the story merits a post that stretches the limit on the number of times I can put the word “fucking” as an adjective into a single post.
Crafting and Gathering Updates: They’re taking the idea of stats for crafting and gathering from other MMOs which existed long before them, but also as a concept that has been proven in the mainstream of the MMO market with FFXIV, a game that is often lauded for the way its crafting and gathering are whole classes unto themselves. They appear to be striking a middle ground, with stats and visual looks for those roles, and the new work order system seems interesting and good, but if it ties back into the current WoW style of professions (where most crafted items are garbage and anything good is BoP or limited to one piece equipped per player), it won’t be enough to save crafting and gathering. These systems have felt functionally on life-support for a long time now, and while gear crafting and Legendaries in Shadowlands have been decent support for these systems, they also come with frustrations of their own that have taken most of the sheen off.
The Presentation: It was…weird, but different weird compared to the past. Having Ion at a table with other people helps his obviously-nervous solo presentation style, and I think that is a plus. The roundtables with developers were interesting, but I felt bad for Andy the animator (stop cutting him off you guys!). It was…fine, I guess – I appreciate that they tried something different and more like a panel at Blizzcon in that way, but it still felt very workshopped and PR-massaged, with obvious and sometimes blatantly-obvious cuts and stitches to keep things on-message (there’s one part of the zone reveal where Gary Platner sounds like a sentence was cut mid-stream and picked up from later with an obvious audio hiccup). Bundling the announcement of Wrath of the Lich King Classic in there was very meh and also a poor read of the audience of the game, which really has two separate camps with some overlap.
And to the point of my last post, I didn’t quite get the new vision and contrite Blizzard I was hoping for, but they did at least acknowledge that they’ve focused on player feedback as of late, which is true, and that they are attempting to continue that trend going into the expansion. Great, but I want to see action on the expansion scale, where they are most notorious for ignoring and discarding player feedback (visibly and actively at that) to adhere to their vision for the game. If beta launches and were still having discussions about ripcords and design ideal, then it’s going to be a rough two years.
The Dragonflight announcement did a decent job of building some excitement for a new chapter in WoW. At the same time, it was so detail light that it could only real either build small interest or create small amounts of dread – nothing particularly stood out to me as “hell yeah!” or “oh fuck no.” It was very much just middle-of-the-road details, which maybe served the announcement well, because I just saw an IGN interview with Jeremy Feasel that says Renown is coming back with Dragonflight and I just…can, unfortunately, believe it.
Good announcement, but on the particulars, it seems I will have to save some breath to type more posts and sigh more heavy sighs.