Before I heard about World of Warcraft Classic, it had been nearly a decade since I left Azeroth behind, bogged down by work and choosing other priorities in my life other than grinding out another WoW toon. Mists of Pandaria had been out for more than six months and I had already maxed out a new Pandarian Monk after having maxed out a Worgen hunter and several other alts. Altogether, I was pretty drained from the experience.
I loved my Worgen main, don't get me wrong, but I came back to WoW in 2011, just after the release of Cataclysm. I had been a devoted WoW player in the heady Vanilla days of the world's most popular MMO, but life intervened in late 2005 and I left the game I loved before much of the best Vanilla content had even rolled out. My WoW experience had been fundamentally different than that of later players and even those who stuck it out through 16 years of evolution.
So when I loaded up Cataclysm for the first time, it was the first time I had seen the game world that I remembered so fondly expanded in any real way, and the differences were profound – and not just because the game world itself had been transformed by Deathwing.
Rather than spamming the LFG chat channel and catching a ride out to the Plaguelands to defy infected bears and skeletal mages on a long, dangerous run to the Scarlet Monastery (at least for a level 34 Night Elf Hunter, my Orc Shaman had an easier time of it), you could simply use the group finder and face roll into a group and be transported to the dungeon entrance.
I'm not saying this is necessarily a bad thing. It made dungeoneering much easier, and since this is my favorite part of MMORPGs, I got to do that without the frustration of having to find a group and get myself across several zones for a single Zul'Farrak run.
But it was a fundamentally different game experience than I remembered. I maxed out my Worgen Hunter mostly through questing and grinding like the old days, if for no other reason than to just explore the world and its various changes. But I was able to max out my Troll Priest, my Blood Elf Paladin, my Dwarf Death Knight, my Goblin Rogue, and even my Pandarian Monk (heal-specced) almost entirely using the group finder and running dungeons, and even raids, almost non-stop. It was fun, but it wasn't the WoW I hoped it would be.
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Returning to the Azeroth of my (relative) youth
I can't remember exactly where I was when I first found out about World of Warcraft Classic, but that's probably because my inner early-20-something id took over my brain and that memory is written into the other timeline the id came from. What I can tell you is exactly what it was like to log in on August 26, 2019, and see the game I remembered loving for more than a decade actually come to life again.
As the servers went live, some went right to work power-leveling their characters to be the first to hit 60 on the new server, but the rest of us lingered around the starting zones and spent the first few hours reminiscing about what we remembered and how well Blizzard managed to recapture the original game's look, feel, and even the tone, despite it being nearly two decades old.
It was also brutally hard. Every single one of us had forgotten how punishing Vanilla's drop rates were for even the most basic fetching quests. Gathering eight spider silks from level one mobs could take half an hour or more if there were a lot of newbies running around doing the same quest, which of course there were.
It took some time to adjust, but WoW Classic was still the game I remembered and I threw myself in. Over time6, problems would emerge that I had forgotten about or were entirely new. As servers matured, low to medium level content like dungeons and open-world group content was almost entirely devoid of players or full of multi-boxers who had little need for other players to help them kill elite mobs.
Power-leveling mages raked in gold hand over fist boosting players in Maraudon to get alts through those empty stretches of content so they could raid as a healer with their guilds. The economy was essentially wrecked by sophisticated gold farmers who made professions far less profitable than they had been in the old days of Vanilla WoW.
With all that, it was still World of Warcraft I remembered, even if it was seen through a glass, darkly. It could never be the same experience as it had been when I first played, something Blizzard itself feared, leading it to resist fans' pleas for Classic servers for years. But this was not what it was like to play Cataclysm, and that was more than enough for me.
Stepping through the Dark Portal for real
The content from The Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King expansions were still a part of Cataclysm, but by the time I got around to exploring the two expansions that made up what many consider to be the MMORPG's golden age, the entire player base had long moved on to Cataclysm's content and the Outland and Northrend were fallow and empty.
There would be times where I was the only player in Hellfire Peninsula, pretty much soloing all of the content for these two expansions when not using the group finder for the expansion dungeons to complete quests. It was a lonely experience that I wouldn't repeat for subsequent characters and there was an enormous amount of content that I simply skipped. I could never shake the feeling that I had shown up late to a party only to find the host already cleaning up and expecting me to help.
This week, however, I was finally given access to World Of Warcraft: Burning Crusade Classic's Beta server, and I stepped into an Outland that felt like a living battlefield for the first time. Granted, the player base is still rather small compared to a regular Classic server. After rolling a Draenei Shaman - boosted to 58, obviously. If Classic's Vanilla content was mostly empty, this Beta server's vanilla content is a vacuum - there were plenty of players at all hours of the day and night looking for help with quests or needing a healer for Ramparts, Blood Furnace, or the Slave Pens.
It's been less than a week so far and already it feels like an entirely different experience than it had been a decade ago. Once the Burning Crusade Classic servers go live, it will be overrun with players like me who are looking to experience or reexperience this content as it was meant to be played – together. It will never be exactly as it was when the original expansion launched in 2007 and it will take a different path just as Vanilla Classic has, but just as I did with Classic, I will be there every step of the way.
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John (He/Him) is the Components Editor here at TechRadar and he is also a programmer, gamer, activist, and Brooklyn College alum currently living in Brooklyn, NY.
Named by the CTA as a CES 2020 Media Trailblazer for his science and technology reporting, John specializes in all areas of computer science, including industry news, hardware reviews, PC gaming, as well as general science writing and the social impact of the tech industry.
You can find him online on Threads @johnloeffler.
Currently playing: Baldur's Gate 3 (just like everyone else).