Blizzard's epic fantasy is still losing players, and its sixth expansion aims to stop the rot.
It's easy to dismiss a massively multiplayer online role-playing game that's six years past its peak of 12 million subscribers – and even easier since Activision Blizzard stopped reporting World of Warcraft player numbers last year following yet another round of disappointingly steep declines. However, the scope of the game's latest expansion, Legion, suggests there might be life in the old armored warhorse yet.
Each new expansion brings a temporary spike of players and all-new content, and Legion – which releases today – promises to be Blizzard's largest yet. If the last expansion Warlords of Draenor was where you hung you up your cloak and handed in your guild badge (along with millions of others), or if your only trip to Azeroth was when you accidentally wandered into the wrong movie theater a couple months back – what can you expect this time around?
Does Legion have anything to do with the Warcraft movie?
The movie takes place at a far earlier time in the Warcraft canon – back when humans and orcs first meet – but doesn't mean you won't find anything familiar in Legion if all you've seen of the franchise is the film.
Sorcerous movie orc and all-around evil-doer Gul'dan is still around. Durotan and Draka's baby orc survives his Moses-like trip down the river in the basket and grows up to be a surprisingly sensitive Horde faction leader who has a storyline in Legion and the bumbling wizard Khadgar steps up as a prominent character for the second expansion in a row. He's now middle-aged and perhaps a-little-too-serious, in contrast to Ben Schnetzer's charming movie version.
Is now a good time to get (back) into WoW?
New expansions are always a good time to jump (back) into World of Warcraft, but this one in particular may be one to see. It's the "largest ever created" in terms of overall content, lead game designer Ion Hazzikostas claims, and WoW currently has its largest development team ever as Blizzard recommits to the game following the great player exodus that followed Warlords.
The expansion also offers the opportunity to get two level-100 characters (the current maximum) pretty much right out of the box: It gives you one straight-up character boost, and also offers the new demon hunter class, which finishes its starting area at level 100. Legion will take you to level 110.
How is Legion improving the game?
Nearly every system in WoW has been overhauled for Legion. New legendary Artifact weapons allow players to wield the most iconic gear in the game, and they offer an alternate system for talents and power. Player-versus-player combat has been completely remade, with a new PvP-specific talents and easy-to-get gear that works for PvE but scales up when you step into PvP areas.
The classes have also seen substantial redesigns. If you haven't played in awhile, there's a good chance your favorite characters are going to feel very different than you remember.
Some changes invite skepticism – leveling up as a healer to fully empower your artifact weapon feels like an awkward choice, and some classes still feel a little clunky to play.
Is there a type of player that will get the most out of Legion?
The one experience all WoW players have in common is leveling up: questing and killing monsters to make their character more powerful. In the past, once you got to maximum level, that largely solitary experience suddenly disappeared, replaced with group activities like dungeons and raids and organized PvP.
As a result, many people who weren't into the group thing wandered off. With Legion, the development team is targeting those players in particular with new solo-oriented content: world quests in the new Suramar zone, better support for crafting professions, more and better rewards from smaller-group dungeons and other tweaks designed to keep lone wolf types subscribed.
What do I need to know about Warcraft lore going in?
Demons: bad. Everyone else: good. OK, it is a bit more complicated than that, though you could probably get away with knowing just that much.
The Warcraft universe revolves around the conflict between the Alliance, made up of humans, pointy-eared night elves, dwarves, gnomes, the tentacled, goat-like Draenei and lycanthropic worgen; and the Horde, made of orcs, the perhaps problematic (Caribbean?) trolls, cow-like Tauren, the undead, pointy-eared blood elves and funny little goblins. (The pandaren, a race of talking pandas, can join either faction.)
Legion forces the two factions to uneasily work together against the demons.
I hate grinding! Will I still have to grind?
WoW was one of the first MMOs to allow you to get from level 1 to max entirely by doing quests, and that hasn't changed. But at max level, you'll encounter several game systems designed to put you back on the dreaded grind. For solo players, capping off your reputation with different world factions or getting those crafting professions to the highest skill level may require Genghis Khan levels of slaughter. Less incriminating pursuits such as the Fishing and Archaeology professions, while polished up a bit for Legion, are still notorious grindfests – definitely avoid them if you hate repetition.
The new world quest system should feel like less of a bore than it did in the 2012 Mists of Pandaria expansion, where it seemed like every faction handed you the same half-dozen quests over and over and over again. All told, Legion has about 400 world quests, which change up often. Hazzikostas said you could potentially play for two weeks without seeing a repeat anywhere.
I'm a Hearthstone fan. Should I check out Legion?
Hearthstone's characters are typically ripped right from Warcraft lore. League of Explorers and Whispers of the Old Gods were the first Hearthstone expansions and adventures to include imagery of characters that had not been previously seen in WoW, and Blizzard told us that we'll likely see some of those characters in-game. You'll definitely see characters from the new adventure, One Night in Kharazan – the Kharazan raid – which was part of the very first WoW expansion, The Burning Crusade – has been remade into a five-player dungeon in Legion.
Developers learned one other subtle lesson from Hearthstone – daily "quests" to win games under certain conditions pile up for you if you're not around. In the max-level zone of Suramar, home to those world quests we talked about earlier, the "good" quests will now wait around for you, Hazzikostas said. That tactic was lifted straight from the card game.