World of Warcraft has been out for 15 years at this point – no doubt an extremely long time for a game to both be out and as popular as WoW is. However, while the popular MMORPG has grown to include some amazing new features and has made life generally easier in Azeroth over the course of the 6 expansions – there's always been a contingent of the player base that wanted to go back in time to the original game.
Enter WoW Classic, Blizzard's official response to the ravenous demands for nostalgia after the developer shuttered the unofficial Nostalrius server. This version of World of Warcraft turns back the clock to patch 1.12, or "Drums of War". This patch was released way back on August 22, 2006, and according to Blizzard "represents the most complete version of the classic experience" (opens in new tab).
So, obviously, I was intrigued – after playing the current game for years, I've grown used to how everything feels, and wanted to get a visceral feeling for how much the game has changed. And, well, it's changed a lot. World of Warcraft, even in the state it launched in so many years ago, is one of the biggest and best PC games of all time. So, what was it like to travel back in time – and is what's there better than the game millions of us are already playing?
Old-school experience, new-school performance
The game engine that World of Warcraft runs on is at least 17 years old, as it originated in Warcraft III. Now, obviously, without fine tuning over the years, that would be extremely problematic. In the Blizzard blog post (opens in new tab) we referenced earlier, this early build of the game didn't recognize modern graphics cards, and wasn't compatible with modern security or anti-cheat measures.
However, Blizzard found a way to port the WoW Classic code to the modern engine, without changing the experience. That means that we were able to play WoW Classic at 4K, and with a 200% resolution scale, while still getting a solid 100 fps with our AMD Ryzen 9 3900X and Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Ti. So, the game was extremely smooth – at least when I gave up trying to join a server-queue ridden population realm.
To be honest, I was at least a little tempted to run the game at 480p on an old CRT monitor, but we just don't have that kind of equipment lying around.
I haven't had a chance to get to endgame, yet – and probably won't for a few months at least – but, at least I don't have to worry about the game slowing to a crawl when we enter Molten Core with 39 other players to take on Ragnaros.
Rose-tinted glasses? Nah.
Jumping into WoW Classic, I have to admit, I was skeptical. Sure, everyone loves reminiscing on the past, before they had full-time jobs and responsibilities, when they were able to just tune the world out and get lost in WoW for hours at a time, but was the game actually better? Well, it kind of was, at least in the early game.
You see, whenever I set out to level a new character in the current version of World of Warcraft, or "Retail WoW", I strap our new character with powerful "heirloom" equipment and just turn on autopilot for the next 20-30 hours until I hit max level. The leveling experience, and being out in the world, feels like a chore – something to get out of the way before I can get to the content that I actually want to play.
But, the first thing I noticed when jumping into WoW Classic is that it felt like an actual game from the get-go. I'm this new adventurer in a huge and open world, and it feels like that. Azeroth is a mysterious place, and while we thought that our embarrassingly huge amount of time in the game over the years would spoil that mystery, it really didn't. Maybe it was just our hazy memory, but exploring Tirisfal Glades as a low-level Undead Warlock felt wonderful.
It was dangerous, too. In the current version of World of Warcraft, I've grown accustomed to pulling every enemy in sight simultaneously, to just make everything go faster. I tried that once in WoW Classic, and regretted it immediately. Especially as a class that wears cloth, rather than the mail or leather of other classes' armor, I didn't exactly put up much of a fight.
This meant I actually had to be aware of what was going on around me while leveling – something that was amplified by the fact that nothing was labeled on our map.
Is WoW Classic better than Retail WoW?
I have to admit, there are a lot of aspects to the current version of World of Warcraft that I still love. As I've got older, I simply don't have time to dedicate to the game, and the systems in place now, like the Looking for Raid feature and the Dungeon Finder make it easy to enjoy the game on my terms.
For me, there's definitely an appeal to being able to log in every once in a while, and get something done, without feeling the pressure to get in there every single day, just to be able to see everything.
Still, there is a lot that you give up when you streamline the game to the extent that Blizzard has over the years. Even if WoW Classic is technically more simple, and the story is just all over the place, it feels more alive, feels more complex, and feels like more of a complete experience. It's easy to see why World of Warcraft was such a success back in the day, why it was so beloved by so many.
I probably won't spend a ton of time playing WoW Classic – I simply don't have the time. However, I would be lying if I didn't think it was a better experience for those that do have that time. I can't remember the last time I was excited to see a simple bag drop in World of Warcraft, and that excitement is definitely there in WoW Classic.