Greying handlebar mustache? Check. Balding Friar Tuck-like locks? Check. A touch of sadness to his face, wearing the pain of the family he lost to an orc raid upon his village?
Check, check and check.
Windhymn, my first serious World of Warcraft adventurer, is ready to head out into Azeroth, and stake his claim amongst the great players of Blizzard’s world-renowned massively multiplayer role-playing game.
Except, he’s almost 15 years too late. Though I briefly jumped into World of Warcraft back when its first expansion, The Burning Crusade, launched in 2007, I only managed one monthly subscription cycle before my pocket money ran out and my friends moved on to different games.
Now, six expansions and the launch of a revived vanilla version of the game (World of Warcraft Classic) later, I’m back to WoW on the eve of its 15th birthday.
My original goal: to ignore the hype around the very-good-sounding World of Warcraft Classic, and to bring my first ever WoW character up to the level cap on standard, retail, vanilla World of Warcraft with the Battle of Azeroth expansion, to see if a ‘noob’ can enjoy the MMO as a beginner today.
My actual reality: I’ve barely enough time to feed myself, let alone devote the time required to see Windhymn ascend to greatness. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t have a good time trying.
Pray silence, for The Brief-Yet-Incomplete Legend of the Paladin Windhymn.
Stepping out into Elwynn Forest
Ah, Elwynn Forest. I remember you well, what with me being a totally basic fantasy fan with no imagination beyond “I’ll make a human character with a long beard. Standard.” And if you make a human character with a beard, Elwynn Forest is your Level 1, game-opening port of call.
Green and leafy, just how I remember it, but look closely and a few things have changed. 2010’s Cataclysm event totally ripped up the game world of Azeroth, and while Elwynn Forest remained relatively unscathed, it did get some new inhabitants – orc raiders who would never have dreamed of venturing this far into ‘Alliance’ territory when I first dipped my toes into World of Warcraft.
And here’s where my first hurdle with World of Warcraft arises. As the name suggests, the game is a recreation of a ‘world’ – and time doesn’t stand still in a world. There’s not only 1,000 years of in-game lore to get up to speed with, but now also 15 years of real-world time having past, and all the associated changes that come with it. Short of firing up WoW Classic, you’re going to have to really poke around the fansites to get a sense of how Azeroth has changed over the years, or accept that you’re now jumping into a story in media res.
But some changes suit Windhymn, and myself, well – I’ve never been great at socialising online unless playing with real-world friends, and WoW has become far better at letting you solo the game. With my Paladin able to both damage deal and heal, I’m happily exploring the forest without having to call upon a healer for aid.
Westfall and dungeoneering in the Deadmines
The dusty plains of Westfall, I remember you well. It was here where my first World of Warcraft adventure nearly ended. Westfall was where the true nature of WoW’s old-school grind made itself apparent to me, as I seemed to encounter endless farm fields of automaton robots.
Post-Cataclysm, things are looking a little different – there’s a tear right through the center of the land for instance, surrounded by tornadoes and populated by gooey slime monsters. Windhymn wastes no time in slicing through the Defias Brotherhood – the area’s low-level ne’er do-wells, and soon I’m enjoying a highlight of the early zones: the Deadmines dungeon.
For an Alliance player, it’s likely your first opportunity to take on a dungeon – a challenging area for up to five players to battle through together, ‘instanced’ so that it’s only accessible to your dungeon team, and available to play through again and again.
In old-school World of Warcraft, you’d have had to have manually assembled a like-minded crew with complementary character classes and headed to the dungeon entrance together. But modern WoW has a ‘Dungeon Finder’ tool that automatically groups you with those also looking to take on the Deadmines, and puts you in a queue to join them. The relative benefits of both systems are obvious – old-school WoW encouraged you to make a real connection to players before setting out on a difficult task together (it’s why Classic is proving so popular), while modern WoW lets you jump in on the action quickly. I can see why long-time WoW players prefer the feel of the original style, but the reality for Windhymn was that I’d have never pulled a crew together without the dungeon finder.
And I’m grateful, as it’s here where World of Warcraft really shines. Suddenly, the social aspects of the game, the need for team work and a little forward planning, come into play and grab my attention.
The veteran dungeon runners I find myself auto-paired with know all the acronyms that fly above my head, but I get the general idea of what’s required of Windhymn as I watch, drawing the attention of the mobs while the true damage dealers do their thing. For my party, it’s likely not their first, or even fiftieth rodeo through the Deadmines, and there’s certainly something lost in terms of what must have been a spine-tingling challenge when all this was fresh.
But the reward is great – not only in terms of gear and XP gathered, but in terms of the spirit of adventure too. There are multiple bosses, from the robot-riding Sneed with his buzzsaw arms to the elusive Edwin Van Cleef, key to the unfolding Defias Brotherhood storyline elsewhere. From the awe-inspiring, Goonies-like cavern of the dungeon’s pirate ship hideout, to the way Westfall’s surrounding environmental storytelling comes together in a focal location, it’s everything that makes World of Warcraft great.
Redridge Mountains and real Warcraft storytelling
Deep breath – remember that scene in Lord of the Rings, where Samwise Gamgee realises that if he takes one more step, that’s the farthest from the Shire he’s ever been? That’s Redridge Mountains for me – I’ve crossed the giant bridge over Lakeshire’s namesake body of water in my last failed campaign, shrouded in the shade of its autumnal leaves, but that’s where it all ended previously.
Which is a shame, because the neighbouring Redridge Mountains play host to the best piece of storytelling I’ve seen thus far in World of Warcraft. While its environmental storytelling, with Stormwind’s great stone monuments and the wild’s secluded dungeons, has always excelled, I’ve otherwise bounced off of Warcraft’s plot. Likely because it’s often just a mechanic to bounce you from one quest giver to another.
But the story of Keeshan’s Raiders in the Redridge Mountains got me hooked. It almost felt like a Vietnam war film story, with John J. Keeshan, an old war hero, coaxed out of bare knuckle fighting clubs and inevitable self-destruction to rescue his old Bravo Company squadmates from an orc POW camp.
What follows includes a light stealth mission, an explosive sabotage of a watchtower-filled camp, a raid on an orc fortress that includes a face-off with the mighty orc commanders Tharil'zun and Gath'Ilzogg, a bombastic tank journey and a final showdown with massive dragon Darkblaze, ‘Brood of Worldbreaker’, on the battlements.
It proved to me that when not stuck in the cycle of the grind, World of Warcraft can deliver some excellent sustained and linked storytelling, with dramatic set pieces and characters that you can grow to really care about. Yes, all the towers I destroyed reset themselves after my mission ended, and yes, Bravo Company is probably back in chains now waiting to be re-rescued by some other plucky adventurer. There’s never a sense of finality, or finite consequence to a questline that must be endlessly repeatable by whoever follows in your footsteps. But for a few engrossing hours, I finally felt like I was part of the ‘war’ in that ‘Warcraft’ name.
The sands of time
And that’s it.
Sorry, yep. Windhymn has done very little of note since that point in his quest to get to the level cap. Life got in the way for me – new job responsibilities, new relationship responsibilities. Responsibilities, I’ve found, generally, aren’t great for keeping up the commitment needed to succeed in World of Warcraft. And WoW’s modern-day ability to let players solo-play through the game means I’ve felt no real responsibilities to those other players I’ve met along the way.
And so here I am currently, flailing around in the level 30 region, hitting a wall after the murder of countless orcs, kobolds and murlocs, and I begin to see the appeal of World of Warcraft Classic.
Regular WoW, though welcoming to the beginner with its hand-holding quest markers, forgiving “everyone’s a healer” set up and easy-matching dungeon finder, can feel a bit lonely. For the sort of gamer (like me) that revels in the lore, and loves the thrill of exploration, unless you’ve convinced a pal to come along for the ride from level 1 up through 120, you’re going to be experiencing that solo, and that can start to feel like a slog without a friend to chat with along the way. All the cool kids are hanging out at level 120, min-maxing their way to a good time, or taking the harder route through World of Warcraft Classic, the systems contained therein challenging players in a way that requires genuine teamwork and comradery.
Yes, you can level boost to the current level cap, and yes, I could join the elite this way. But I want Windhymn to have a bit more of a story behind him, a history in this digital land. Blizzard has crafted a fantastic world, one that makes up for a lack of modern graphical bells and whistles with a vibrant and anarchic creative streak that makes it a pleasure to discover. So why skip through that?
And that’s what I think I’ll take away from this latest journey into World of Warcraft. It’s the “World” bit, not the “War” or “craft” bits, that I really care about. I could walk the streets of Stormwind City for days, or sneak around the cavernous Deadmines for hours, soaking it all in.
Maybe all a beginner in the World of Warcraft needs is an eye for a vista, a taste of adventure. Maybe Windhym will never hit that level cap, but as he stops to smell the Sliverleaf along the way, maybe that doesn’t matter.
A twist! The reveal of Shadowlands
Yes, that last paragraph seemed like a very tidy conclusion to this story, didn’t it? And once, it was – prior to Blizzcon 2019, that is. For with Blizzard’s annual convention came news of a new World of Warcraft expansion for some point in 2020, Shadowlands, and with it hope for the extended endgame adventures of Windhymn.
Shadowlands will see Sylvanas Windrunner rip a hole in the fabric of reality, opening up a portal to the afterlife. With five new zones to explore, four ‘Covenant’ factions to align with and earn rewards from and an ever-changing dungeon called Torghast, Tower of the Damned, it’s going to have plenty of high-level content to get stuck in to.
But that’s not what’s got Windhymn’s moustache twiddling – Shadowlands is going to reduce the level cap, squeezing everything down from 120 to 60. Hit level 50, and you’ll be able to travel to the Shadowlands, too.
In other words, it’ll completely change the early levelling experience. Says Blizzard:
“We’ve adjusted the experience curve to make it faster than ever to prepare for the newest challenges, and each level along the way will provide more meaningful increases in progress and power. All expansion zones are getting more flexible, too; they’ll be able to scale to you and your friends while you level to 50, so it’s easy to try a zone you’ve never played.”
It’s an interesting, and substantial change. For newcomers, they can presumably race to the top of the content tree, cherry-picking the storylines they want to see along the way, while pros can power level alternates and scratch the itch of another character build they’ve never had time for.
As for Windhymn? He’s torn – what will his experience look like if he continues his quest to visit all expansion areas in order? He’ll finally see the pearly gates of Azeroth – but will he have earnt it? He’s a stubborn, set-in-his-ways kind of adventurer. “Kids these days don’t know how lucky they’ve got it,” he’ll say, while trembling at the thought of the long-lost epic grind of yore.