Last night, I dinged level 70 on my new raid main Monk, finished the baseline story of Dragonflight that was available to me, and took a look at a couple of world quests and the baseline endgame content.
At this point in Shadowlands, I was pretty positive on that expansion too, and that is an experience I have kept in mind as I reflect on the launch day and change experience I currently have with Dragonflight. Shadowlands was afflicted immediately with borrowed power cruft, a list of things you needed to do immediately upon hitting level cap. Sure, with the weekly cap, Renown was fine to a point, but it was still a catalyst for creating this feeling of forced interactions, of needing to “keep up.”
Hitting 70 in Dragonflight was, comparatively, a breeze. The experience of leveling through the zones had this quality of…calm, I suppose, infused throughout. The story was introducing escalating beats, the difficulty of the experience climbing slightly in the 65 and up level reaches (especially for a two-week old boosted character who started Dragonflight around 260 item level), and then when I finished the story and got the “you did it!” screen (a nice touch that helps guide you to things, by the way), I felt this sense of…freedom.
But let’s backtrack a little to talk through things in a more ordered way.
It’s been a rockier launch than expected for both a predictable and yet stupid reason. To keep up immersion, Blizzard has the sole entry point to Dragon Isles for starting adventurers be…a boat (or a zeppelin if you’re Horde). As long as the vessel works properly, all clear, right? Well…nope!
At 3 PM PST on Monday, a boat showed up – the one to Kul Tiras. If you got on with the quest to start Dragonflight, a flash of Bronze Dragonflight magic would hit and port you off, telling you that wasn’t the boat. The boat you needed faced the other way and would let you board while afflicted with this quest. Fair enough, decent way to prevent annoying players when they arrive in BfA. The Kul Tiras boat left. Suddenly, the dockkeeper and his time until boat showed an “Unknown” time of arrival. Uh oh. Eventually, a boat poofed into play and brought the people there to the Dragon Isles. On my server, this was the only boat that seemed to work for around 4 hours, leaving thousands of players on the dock. Eventually, Blizzard plopped a portal in that sometimes worked, and at some point, there was a quick blip that I know disconnected me and when I got back, all my boatless guildies were en route to the Dragon Isles!
The funny thing about this launch is that, once you get to the Dragon Isles, it is mostly smooth! There have been lag pockets and spikes, but my experience past the initial boat woes has been pretty good. Now, granted, I got on that one single boat that took me away quickly enough, so I was able to get started in a timely manner, and that definitely colored my experience, but I’ll acknowledge that it seemed pretty bad for some and that sucks. I get that the boat was neat, and once the expansion isn’t being choked with thousands of players per server trying to cram in over the course of minutes, it’ll be a great bit of world building! But for now, it’s a chokepoint, and a bad one that was causing a lot of problems. What makes it somewhat worse is that both factions feed into the same zone, and to the same small area – a pair of docks about 100 yards apart. It means that early quest objectives will be a little overharvested until the expansion start “cools off” but at least past the very initial part, it felt like a pretty interesting pace that eased up a lot. In fact, I still seldom saw more than 5 players even across the story of an entire zone, which is either really good if you’re a solo-focused player enjoying the experience, or really bad if you want that sense of liveliness and social interaction. It seems to be either phasing related, or just simple pacing, but it was interesting.
The Leveling Experience
An observation I’ve made multiple times to guildies since starting the expansion is that Dragonflight is incredibly relaxed and almost relaxing as a leveling experience, and having hit 70 prior to the story conclusion, that seems pretty true still. You can min-max it through leveling guides and poopsocking it to hit 70 super quick, but I took it at my own pace, including doing some profession stuff and side quest chains, and I went 60-70 in around 15 hours played, roughly. I had some rested XP for the second leg, as I logged off far earlier than I had planned to on Monday night, but it wasn’t a lot and I burned it pretty quickly on Tuesday.
What helps this is that the game’s XP pacing is very forgiving, seemingly by design, but also in that there are a lot of sources of added experience. Gathering gives experience as it has for over a decade now, but what is new is that crafting also gives experience, and a healthy chunk of it at that. Each first-time craft gives a substantial chunk of experience, and there are a lot of profession quests designed to explain the new Dragonflight changes by having you run around a small amount in exchange for a decent bit of experience.
The zones are huge and expansive, but the questing path is, as ever, pretty on-rails to take you between hubs with some structure. Side quests get a little off of those rails, but in a mostly-logical way, and dungeon quests remain side quests that you get as you come up on the swirly portal. There’s a caveat here – in Ohn’ahran Plains, the main dungeon there has three quests, spread across the zone. If you want to run it once for big experience, wait until the end of the zone course to get the last of the quests and then do it!
Dragonflight, as an expansion, is the “slap a talent tree on it” expansion. Character specs? Slap a tree on it! Dragonriding? Talent tree unto itself. Professions? Talent…trees. It is funny the extent to which Blizzard has slapped talent systems onto everything that can take them, but honestly… it works. Dragonriding has a fun system for gaining those points, and professions have their own system of mastery and building specializations that is pretty no-frills, but lets you pick and choose the thing you want to focus on the most.
In terms of player power from gear, there’s a big spike in rewarded item level from quests after level 65. Before then, you get item levels that fall into mid-Shadowlands reach, with starting levels around 226 and level 65 stuff near 270ish, before everything jumps around 300ish and higher. The curve fits about right, as you notice the need for an average around 300 item level right as mobs in the world start being able to hit you harder and need more damage to tackle the enemies you do face.
Dragon Isles is gorgeous, with zones that feature a lot of diversity of biomes and interesting design. The environments fit with the dragonflight that calls each zone home and has an interesting set of architectural kit that leans on the Titanic influences of the island that was showcased in the announcement cinematic. There’s a lot of really cool stuff, like what visually looks like an updated, high-resolution Oculus (with far less mechanical annoyance!), the main capital city has a scale that is great, and the spaces are wide and tall, with lots of interesting verticality and room to fly out for thousands of yards.
But you might note something annoying there, or at least something that was previously annoying…verticality and large spaces. Well, it’s not now. Because…
Dragonriding is fucking great. The system has a bit of a learning curve around optimizing Vigor usage, but even just one talent point deep into Dragonriding, it is easy to learn and manage once you get used to the momentum and how to force Vigor to recharge while in flight. The world design is modern WoW to a new standard of height and vertical movement, but it makes up for this by having Dragonriding right now to let you fly. Once you master the quest hub bunny hop, it gets hilariously easy to simply hop between quest hubs for a single Vigor cost that will recharge before you need to take off again. Annoying cliff? Just mount a dragonriding mount and walk off into a glide, which you can angle down as possible to accelerate rapidly. The momentum-focus and ability to maintain over long distances, once learned, is fantastic-feeling.
A point that Gnomecore brought up a few times in objection before, which I found a lot of interest in, then, is how Dragonriding deals with the moments where you’d want to idle on your mount in the air. It’s not possible in Dragonriding, but Blizzard did think about this one a little bit, saturating each zone with flight paths closer and more numerous than ever before. Odds are really good that you can coast a glide into a sanctuary and catch a little rest for an AFK break with only a few seconds of thought. Now, to be fair, you do have to think about it and maneuver that way, but it is very doable and straightforward.
Dragonriding really feels like the best possible compromise between the modern development team and flight-loving players – Dragonriding benefits from knowing the zones, including the vertical spaces, but offers players a more expansive world and play space with easy navigation around it. There were a lot of moments where I would default to launch-day mount behavior, realize that the next objective was around 200 yards away, and instead of running and risking combat, just pop on a dragon and bunny hop over the danger and annoyance to the next thing. It’s really well done, and it also populates the world with a ton of fun extras like the Glyphs that tie in to the riding talents and the races dotted all over the world.
It is, for me, to the point now that if Dragonriding ends up being exclusive to Dragonflight zones and content, I will riot. It has been that good so far.
Dungeons in Dragonflight are interesting. They’re a bit different so far, in that 3 of the 4 level dungeons are not new, bespoke dungeon spaces, but instead large chunks of the zone they belong to dropped into an instance made to tell a story moment. In this way, there is some learning from FFXIV, whose dungeons are made to be story setpieces that are single moments and events in time instead of static strongholds where the boss is patiently waiting for you, but it also leans into the strengths of WoW’s existing dungeon gameplay – non-linear routes, scaling gameplay, and the like. Nokhud Offensive stands out to me so far – as a dungeon, it is the entire map of Ohn’ahran Plains, with bosses and trash clumped into 4 hubs that you dragonride between. As a gameplay concept, it is fantastic, and it opens a lot of potential interest for Mythic Plus – routing can involve Dragonriding and hopping between objectives or even over trash mobs and problem pulls instead of needing invisibility skips! There’s a lot of interesting possibilities in the base dungeons that I cannot wait to see.
So, I’m going to take a deep breath here, because Dragonflight’s base story is…pretty okay, so far.
The best beats are still tucked into side quests and little slices of content, but the core story isn’t half bad and even likeable at points. The main narrative involves restoring the Oathstones of the Dragonflights so that new Aspects can be crowned. This beat is not particularly well-explained as of yet, but it is early days so hey, maybe it will get better, but it also isn’t that bad, especially because restoring them doesn’t immediately make things better, crown new Aspects, or anything – it is a slower process than that. Each zone focuses on one (in one case two) Dragonflights, telling the story through their allied races in the zone – the Centaur, Tuskarr, or through the enemies of the Dragonflights. The main villain of the Primal Incarnates is not super well explained as of yet, but Raszageth gets far more and far better characterization compared to the Jailer, and she has some interesting development over the course of the story thus far.
There are moments that are built up for obvious later payoff, like Nozdormu’s inevitable Murozond turn (and conveniently, the Bronze Temple in Thaldraszus looks a lot like a raid entrance in waiting), the conflict between Wrathion and Sabellian (I don’t think that’s gonna be a raid or dungeon, but it will likely color the end goal of having an Aspect heading each Dragonflight once again), and Merithra and the greens (who get the least storytelling in the core leveling content, sadly). Where things are intended to go actually feels open and full of possibility, which could be great or awful and there’s no real way to know for sure yet.
However, I can say that I kinda like what is there so far. The main story isn’t bad to this point, and there are a lot of moments where I was impressed by how much I was actually enjoying the overall beats. Granted, I will still say that FFXIV has the MMO story crown locked down in my estimation, but I think the WoW team also admits that they’re not aiming there – there’s value to having a story, and if you are going to have one, it should at least not be offensively bad, and anything above that is going to impress overall. Dragonflight gets the balance a lot better than Shadowlands did, because Shadowlands was also saddled with having to explain the way the systems of the Warcraft afterlife worked while Dragonflight can lean on established lore that stretches back much, much further.
In fact, the thing I like the most is that the potential retcon we’re getting this expansion, akin to “the Jailer did it!” in Shadowlands is actually…good? Neltharion’s corruption to Deathwing has, in Warcraft past, always been a sort of switch-flip – he was good until he wasn’t, but why did he take the corruption to heart? Dragonflight is playing with that a little bit, by adding a motivational factor through the Dracthyr to explain why Neltharion broke for the Old Gods. It ties in nicely with the major bits of lore we’re getting via the Primalists – the Dragonflights accepted the Titan’s gift, but not everyone sees it as a gift, so how do we reconcile that? Well, you have the Primalists who reject it, the Aspects who accepted it, and then Neltharion who accepted the Titan’s gift but also later accepted the power of the Old Gods, and there are a lot of parallels to explore in that thematically.
Dare I say I have…hope? For the Warcraft story? It’s kind of there, and I don’t know how to feel about it yet.
The in-engine, realtime cutscenes further develop the lip-syncing from late Shadowlands cutscenes in a positive way – while even those SL cutscenes still had a little lip-flappyness about them, the Dragonflight cutscenes are much tighter and more polished. The pre-rendered cinematics are still excellent, and the quantity and quality of voice acting is higher than normal.
In terms of character representation and diversity, Blizzard has put a lot of clear effort into new characters and new forms of existing characters to answer for how the company is seen in the wake of last summer’s allegations. There’s a gay couple with a lot of really fun and genuine interactions, there’s a lot more Black representation among NPCs, and there is even a deaf Centaur leader that is perfectly accepted and integrated into their society. It feels like a direct answer to critique of how things have traditionally been within Warcraft, but also to address the poor ways they handled similar ideas in Shadowlands, especially with Pelagos, whose transness was sort of erased outside of the game with the forum post about it being disappeared and the information being buried in dialog trees with him. Using visage forms for most Dragon NPCs allows Blizzard to add a lot of variety to the NPCs you do see, which is nice. It feels more genuine compared to the past, like there is a real human experience being drawn on to put that touch on the game. For what it’s worth, Pelagos being trans is a story I enjoyed and I think it colors a lot of where he went in Shadowlands to know that, which is why I remain so disappointed with how it was handled both in-game and outside of it. His route to Arbiter makes a lot more sense as the continuation of a struggle with identity from life into death and then into an afterlife that doesn’t suit him and where he doesn’t feel like he belongs.
Thankfully, Dragonflight, so far, is much better on those issues and it feels less like tokenizing representation and more like the kinds of stories and lives you would expect to see characters have with those identities inside of Warcraft.
Endgame (So Far)
One of the things I was most vocal about as a draw for Dragonflight to me was the elimination of forced grinds and “chores” you had to do at endgame to stay competitive in dungeons and raids. Has Dragonflight lived up to that notion I had pre-launch?
Upon finishing the leveling story, I was given a wide-open array of things I could do, but none of which was a forced activity. The weekly quest is to gain 4,000 reputation with any combination of Dragonflight reputations – and I already had just over 1,000 within an hour of getting it. The model leans on older ways of powering up in WoW – gear is king and the sole source of player power gains, and you get it very much like older expansions – doing dungeons, raids, PvP, and grinding reputations, but also in smaller measure from World Quest rewards.
Dungeons are pretty straightforward, and while I haven’t done Heroic or Mythic base difficulty yet, early reports I’ve heard is that the baseline Mythic tuning is very forgiving (which is good considering how much higher things scale in higher M+ keys with the new reward paradigm in play).
World Quests have a lot of fun variety, from combat to minigames to just fun little diversions – I did a combat world quest asking me to kill 12 of a leathery lizard and then order them skinned by a Tuskarr ally, and I did a food fight with students at an academy where you flip a table for shelter and then toss stinky food at dragons, who are tossing food back at you. It’s lively and fun – something Warcraft has needed for a while.
Right now, of course, the endgame is also truncated, because the actual content that is the foundation of it is not yet available to play, so any judgement of that will come later. However, it is a promising start, precisely because I could see going right to leveling an alt (and I might!), or looking at professions much more in-depth, or even just racing my dragons around collecting glyphs and winning races. Dragonflight is genuinely fun to play because it takes to heart some things players have been saying for literal years now in the borrowed power era, and that fact alone is a surprise and delight.
Dragonflight’s best improvements come from the fact that, for once, Blizzard has shown an understanding of player feedback right from the start of an expansion. All the things we’ve complained about for literal years? Gone. No borrowed power, no chores, no keeping up or immediate need for catchup mechanisms, with gear as the sole source of power and a “do what you want” approach to building interest. There’s no obvious time sucks, nothing designed to keep you subscribed and playing short of interesting content, and provided the content to come remains interesting, I think they have a hell of a formula here.
It’s back to basics in a way that WoW has sorely needed for years, it refocuses the story on established, well-trodden themes and ideas, the gameplay does not drive players but the players instead drive the gameplay, and the way that Blizzard has redirected the energy that was previously spent on borrowed power systems and temporary, single-use content has been to instead fill the Dragon Isles to the brim with new and interesting things to do, from community feast cooking to combat content like siege events and multiple hunts you can do with the Centaur tribes.
On nearly every front, so far, Dragonflight reflects a marked step up in quality and fun compared to Shadowlands, BfA, and even, in some ways, Legion. The game is open and free in a way that WoW has been missing for a long time and it makes playing it so much more fun and interesting. Even aspects I was cynical about right up to launch, like story, are better so far, such that my cynicism is waning around the edges. I fully expect I’ll probably still end up annoyed with the story at moments, or that the gear-based progression will have its own layers of minor nuisance, but compared to the layers of stuff you had to do to just simply play what you wanted, Dragonflight is just unmitigated fun to engage with – provided you enjoy the combat-focused, gear-progression model of WoW. If you fell off of WoW long ago, I don’t necessarily think Dragonflight would be your cup of tea because the fundamentals are still quite similar, but if you, like me, quit in Shadowlands because that expansion was so obnoxious with what it demanded of you, then Dragonflight is a breath of fresh air that will likely renew your passion for WoW. At least, it seems to be for now, but the trajectory is promising in a way I hadn’t dared to hope for.