World of Warcraft's next expansion, Dragonflight, was announced this week, promising a return to terrestrial Azeroth, the restoration of something like the pre-Mists of Pandaria talent system, and the end of expansion-specific “borrowed power” mechanics like artifact weapons or Azerite gear. As someone who has been playing WoW since the closed beta back in 2004, I was a little surprised by how lean the announcement was. There are some flashy features like physics-based dragon riding and playable dragon people, but in a lot of ways it seems Blizzard is trying to sell Dragonflight on what it's not, rather than what it is.
I hope Dragonflight doesn't abandon everything Blizzard tried to do in Shadowlands, but its restraint could be just what World of Warcraft needs right now, when previous expansions have tried to make a bigger splash but fell flat in the end.
It's no big secret that WoW has been navigating rough waters lately. 2018's Battle for Azeroth is one of the most widely disliked expansions in the MMO's 18-year history. And while 2020's Shadowlands got off to a strong start, issues with the story and post-launch support have led to opinion turning against it fairly quickly. Zerith Mortis, the capstone questing area for the recent Patch 9.2, feels rushed, dull, and visually unexciting—an oddity for Blizzard which, even when it's struggling in other areas, usually excels at creating memorable new zones to explore.
Sylvanas Windrunner has become even more of a running joke, randomly turning “good” and undermining all of her previously stated motives going back to Wrath of the Lich King (again) at the drop of a hat. Tyrande Whisperwind, who had an actually interesting turn as a ruthless agent of Moon Vengeance, suddenly decided to spare the Banshee Queen because of Reasons. Arthas finally appeared briefly as a little blue orb, revealing that he is in fact, Super Double Dead, and doesn't even get to live on in the Shadowlands. Garrosh committed Ghost Suicide to destroy… I'm not sure who that was, actually, in a poorly-executed cutscene that made me bark with laughter.
The annoyingly two-dimensional and inconsistent big baddie, Zovaal, collected all of the Infinity Stones—sorry, I mean Eternal Sigils—and was revealed to have been responsible for basically everything that has ever happened since Warcraft 3, in one of the most heavy-handed and frankly nonsensical retcons in the franchise's entire history. Oh, and apparently he did it all to stop an even bigger, even more cosmic threat that we will learn about at a later date. Brilliant.
Back to basics?
While it sold more pre-orders than any previous expansion, my impression of Shadowlands post-launch has largely been that it seems like something that was thrown together using emergency supplies by the crew of a sinking ship. And given the development challenges brought on by the pandemic, as well as recent revelations about systemic workplace culture problems at Blizzard, that's not exactly surprising. But for a long time, WoW expansions seemed to follow the same rule as Star Trek feature films: every other one was good. But now, for the first time, we've had two expansions in a row that are widely seen as failures.
So that leaves Dragonflight in a unique position of trying to restore our faith in WoW from what may be the lowest it's ever been. Refocusing on Azeroth instead of a bunch of cosmic nonsense is something I welcome, though Battle for Azeroth proved that's not enough on its own to make for a winning formula. And hey, dragons are cool. This is a high fantasy game, after all, and who doesn't want to zoom around The Dragon Isles on a dragon?
I'm excited about proper talent trees making a return as well, as I think the Mists of Pandaria talent revamp was well-intentioned, but also one of the most misguided system overhauls WoW has ever inflicted on itself. Playing WoW Classic reminded me how much it just feels good to put a point into something every level and see that increase in power reflected right away, even if it's just a two percent bonus to crit on my paladin's hammer throw. Sure, every hardcore raider may end up with a mostly identical build, but the sense of incremental customization is what matters.
In defense of (parts of) Shadowlands
The thing is, Blizzard can rework progression systems, add zany new zones, and introduce any number of new races, classes and cosmetic options, but none of that really speaks to whether Dragonflight will sink or soar in the long run. For better or worse (in my opinion, mostly worse), WoW has become an experience where the “real game” only starts when you hit max level. And having enough interesting things to do at that point is the biggest factor in whether an expansion ends up being remembered fondly or with derision.
The lore may be in shambles, and I don't think I'm alone in hoping Dragonflight more or less tries to ignore the fact that Shadowlands even happened from a story perspective. But our journey through the afterlives did leave us with some reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the future of max level content. For all its flaws, I have to stick up for Shadowlands a bit and say it put some of the best ideas on the table for what WoW could become.
For one, Torghast is more or less exactly what I want to see more of as someone who mostly plays solo but also really likes to put my combat mastery to the ultimate test. Was the execution perfect? No, but there's lots of room to iterate. If I could look forward to more semi-randomized, roguelite, Diablo-style solo dungeon content with meaningful rewards, and no weekly cap at which those rewards cut off, I'd be thrilled. I know you can't keep handing out gear-based currency endlessly in a Torghast-like mode or everyone would be forced to grind it for 100 hours a week to keep up. But crafting materials? Cosmetics? Mounts? Faction rep? Don't make me stop playing my favorite part of your game because I've run out of compelling rewards for the week.
Not sold yet
Raiding is in a pretty good spot right now, and the vault has been refined into a satisfying way to gear up that respects your time more than any of its previous equivalents. Mythic+, which allows you to get raid-level gear from supercharged versions of five-person dungeons, is where WoW's core systems really shine, and the fact that each M+ season in Dragonflight will include a rotation of four new and four legacy dungeons sounds excellent for keeping the new content from becoming too stale. When I hit the duty roulette in Final Fantasy 14, I could be thrown into any of the scores of dungeons from across several expansions, and there's no reason Blizzard shouldn't take advantage of their ability to bring even greater variety to its version.
I'd still like to see the Mythic+ team more directly and aggressively tackle issues like “skip culture”, where a few weeks into a patch, every dungeon group only seems to be interested in tiptoeing along cliff edges and avoiding trash pulls to clear all the bosses as quickly as possible. Maybe offer some meaningful rewards based on how many normal mobs you kill, to compensate for the extra time that adds? I'm just spitballing here.
From the initial pitch, Dragonflight seems like an introspective but unusually minimalist expansion, trying to strip WoW back to its fundamentals and refocus on what made it successful in the first place. Maybe there's more to it they're saving for later announcements. But either way, it has a rougher road ahead of it than ever in terms of restoring player faith and community sentiment, and a back-to-basics approach could be an effective way of tackling that. I just hope the designers won't abandon some of the genuinely cool and innovative ideas from Shadowlands—particularly solo content in the vein of Torghast—that maybe only needed a little more massaging to be truly great. After all, you can play it too safely. And I can't help but worry that this modest list of new zones and features will translate into a bare bones expansion.