World of Warcraft’s next expansion, Dragonflight, has unenviable shoes to fill. At launch, its precursor, Shadowlands, was allegedly the fastest-selling PC game of all time. Still, thanks to a shoddy patch release timetable, questionable gameplay pacing, and unpopular story vignettes, in no small part due to the coronavirus pandemic, Shadowlands has left a sour taste in the mouth over the last two years.
While the big sell of the new expansion is right there in the name, being able to take to the skies astride a scaly beast isn’t enough on its own to keep World of Warcraft players entertained for two years. Thankfully, it looks like Blizzard is doing a lot more with the new adventure, evoking much of that classic World of Warcraft feel of exploration, adventure, and core fantasy of the bygone days of Warcraft’s past.
New shores, same World of Warcraft
“Everything about this expansion feels very classic Warcraft to me,” associate game director Jeremy Feasel says, “It’s a chance to tell dragon stories, to delve into their history in a way that we’ve only hinted at in the past. It’s been one of those hanging story threads that a lot of people have been interested in pulling on, and they’re part and parcel with the history and future of Azeroth, so if you’re a lore nerd, I think that’s going to be really interesting.”
But Feasel quickly explains that this isn’t just a lore dump, saying, “We’ve doubled down on focusing on our max-level sandbox activities. We want you to feel like you’re a member of a faction like the Tuskarr, with feasts and fishing and family, or when you’re doing Centaur things, you’re thundering across the Ohn'ahran Plains hunting big creatures. I think there’s an interesting evolution of our max-level system there.
“We've also evolved the Mythic+ system, which we started in Season 4 of Shadowlands and carried over into this expansion. We got to an awesome space by the end of Shadowlands, and we had a tonne of systems evolutions.
“We carried that all forward while revamping the game’s whole UI and adding a new talent system for players to dig into. It’s a great time to join World of Warcraft.”
But one of the biggest draws of Dragonflight is the chance to experience the swooping, swirling wind-in-your-hair fun of the shiny new dragon riding system. Existing flying mounts in World of Warcraft can travel at a little more than three times your running speed. Because of your distance from the ground, that speed can feel like flying through treacle, and the lack of hover or mount/dismount animations really highlights that the system needs a lick of paint. Dragon riding is eight times faster than running, with vastly superior animations and a much more interactive gameplay loop.
“The initial prototyping helped establish the key pillars of what dragon riding could be – fast, flowing, fluid, and very visceral, Feasel says. “You’re flying, you’re swooping, you’re soaring, so the wings need to come out and back at a moment when you’re gaining speed. We looked at the VFX around the outside of the wings so it feels like you’re gaining multiple different levels of momentum, and field of view changes had to reflect that. Your drake even has a little bit of drag to it. We wanted it to feel like a heavily controllable, highly gameplay-first fluid, fun, and awesomely animated system.”
All of that extra movement speed would feel pretty muted in a small, confined sandbox. Thankfully the Dragon Isles are one of the biggest landmasses that the World of Warcraft team has ever designed, focusing on exploration. The new zones have added eye-catching negative space between quest markers and hidden details like quests and collectibles to discover.
“One of the pillars of World of Warcraft is the world,” lead software engineer May Flores Garcia says. “A system like dragon riding makes you pay so much attention to the design of the world. Even though it’s a new system, it makes you feel more connected to the world.”
“From the moment you step off the boat,” Feasel says, “you’re going to be talking about proto-dragons, meeting members of your expedition, being carried off to various precarious locations. The whole thing should feel like a whimsical Warcraft space, and the art and design teams have really done a fantastic job of getting that across.”
Dragonflight launches on November 28, with the pre-patch live now. Players can catch a glimpse of the dragon riding system through the new Drakthyr racial ability Soar, but will have to wait for their trip to the Dragon Isles to see whether dragon scales glinting through the clouds of unfamiliar skies will reinvigorate WoW’s 18-year journey.
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