Every World of Warcraft expansion has its box features. The new aspect of gameplay that Blizzard hopes will capture players’ interest enough to keep them engaged for another two years and will reinvigorate those players that have dropped off in the twilight days of the previous patch.
It was a touch confusing then, especially given Blizzard’s particular emphasis on enticing returning players in its marketing efforts, that the recent Dragonflight expansion’s big draw isn’t tied to player power like artifact weapons or Azerite armor; or a new kind of content to consume like warfronts, island expeditions or Torghast, but instead is simply a new method of traversing the world: dragonriding.
Mounted movement in WoW typically has all the excitement of listlessly swimming through the air, so the system has been well overdue an update, but is a new form of transport really enough to keep players interested?
Falling, with style
It does feel fantastic to get access to flying right at the start of a new World of Warcraft expansion. In the past, we’ve had to wait for the release of one or two major pre-launch patches to be allowed to take to the skies. Blizzard typically, though understandably, forces us to explore its lovingly crafted new continents ground-bound, but this has two impacts on the player experience.
First, the excitement of a new expansion is somewhat dulled with that annoying little itch in your brain that reminds you you’re arbitrarily weaker and slower than you were before, and second, it becomes increasingly obvious that these new landmasses are designed with ground traversal in mind. There may well be stunning vistas, but everywhere must be accessible by those who’ve not yet unlocked flying, making flying feel overpowered and ground mounts feel frustratingly muted.
It's a brave move from Blizzard to make the most exciting mounts – of which most players have hundreds at this point – essentially moot, but it massively pays off. The Dragon Isles have a stunning amount of verticality, which is fantastic to swoop and glide by, collecting resources for the newly improved profession system. It feels like so many of WoW’s systems have received a welcome kick into a more modern era of gaming. Add in the new and improved endgame experience for casual players, with more engaging side quests and in-game events, and Dragonflight 10.0 is one of the best entry patches of any WoW expansion to date.
A dampened experience
Despite feeling initially like a puppy let off the lead for the first time, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this new experience was slightly muted. Dragonriding is certainly thrilling compared to what we’ve had access to in Azeroth in the past, but that’s the issue. Other games have done mounted movement better. Several players have already noted that dragonriding looks and feels pretty similar to flying in Guild Wars 2, even down to having to land on a cliffside occasionally to recuperate your energy. And, with more than one game on the market focusing on riding dragons into battle, or deftly traversing vast swathes of landscape, it’s pretty easy to make unfavorable comparisons.
The system is definitely a vast improvement on World of Warcraft’s days gone by, but the problem is almost certainly WoW’s almost two-decade-old engine. New innovations feel great, but only by WoW standards, not by gaming standards in general. It’s like when the pet battle system was introduced in Mists of Pandaria – it’s a pretty fun Pokémon clone, but not nearly scratch on Pokémon itself.
We’re still stuck with the same dragon model skeletons we’ve seen in WoW for 18 years – it’s a strange move in a dragon-themed expansion not to put some added development time into new dragons. True, the models have got a pretty glorious new lick of paint, but despite a few new twirls and flaps here and there, the animations are all pretty similar to before.
Thankfully, the team has brought forward the renewed focus on character creator customizability to dragonriding, but most options currently available are minor tweaks with a couple of options for facial features, horn shape or tail style. It’s hard not to wonder about how customizable this system could be. Drakthyr characters can be dozens of different color combinations, so why can rideable dragons only be five block colors? Where are the collectible wing shapes or armor styles? It’s a system that Blizzard will surely expand upon further into the expansion, but right now it looks slightly bizarre milling around in Valdrakken while people ride around on what looks like the same four mounts on rotation.
Dragonriding is admittedly a huge step forward for WoW, and pairs nicely with polish added to the expansion’s other new systems, but considering this is apparently a game-selling box feature, it would be nice to see Blizzard double down on customizability and collectability, either of new dragons or more diverse options for the four already available. Otherwise, we’ll all be sick of seeing the same four models in four years’ time.
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