a warrior stands in front of a red dragon
Image: Blizzard Entertianment/IGDB

‘Dragonflight’ helps ‘World of Warcraft’ soar once more

If you’re a fan of Warcraft, the following statement will most likely be uncontroversial: World of Warcraft has been in a bit of a state for the past few years.

Once the champion of the MMO gaming world and beloved by many at its peak of over 10 million players, WoW and its developer, Blizzard Entertainment, have been subject to harsh – and in large part justified – criticism recently. Ask a WoW player when the ‘glory days’ of the game were and you’ll receive a unique answer each time, but the complaints that people raise about the current state of the game are often similar: it ‘doesn’t respect the player’s time’, has ‘lost its soul’, and the endgame content is simply a ‘list of repetitive chores’. According to many, the developers were relying on creating daily and weekly checklists that needed to be completed regularly to make sure your character was ‘keeping up’. If you took a break from the game, you’d have to work your way through weeks of not-so-exciting content in order to catch back up with everyone in terms of the power level of your character. Playing the game became more of a case of avoiding FOMO than actually wanting to play and enjoying your time with it.

Now, I’m a firm believer that basically the only reason to play a videogame is because it’s fun. But for many, their relationship with Warcraft is far more complicated than that. Since 2004, people have invested months (if not years) of their lives into the virtual world, and they feel attached to it, in a kind of sunk-cost fallacy way – no-one wants to feel that they’ve spent months of their life on something, only for it all to come to nothing because the game is bad now. That being said, the community was at breaking point, and the ‘Shadowlands’ expansion saw the largest exodus of players in the game’s history, with those that were staying having numerous complaints with the way that the game was being designed. Add to this the massive loss of development time due to the pandemic and the protests that took place at Blizzard due to revelations about the shocking treatment of (particularly female) employees at the company, which led to massive shake-ups in staff, and it seemed like WoW was stagnating – on its way out.

Has the new expansion, ‘Dragonflight’, brought the game back from the brink? This addition to the Warcraft universe was heralded since its announcement as the huge shake-up the game needed, and developers cited a big change in their ethos: no longer looking to just add more things players felt obligated to do to keep up, but making large, sweeping and long-lasting changes that make the game feel fresh, exciting, and, most importantly, fun again.


The Freedom of Choice

WoW expansions have become clockwork-esque in the last decade. The new expansion would launch with a set of shiny new features, like ‘Legion’s Artifact Weapons’ or ‘Shadowlands’ Covenants, and the cool rewards and endgame content would be locked behind these features. In short, you had to play by Warcraft’s rules. If you don’t want to engage with the Covenant system in ‘Shadowlands’, then have fun getting no cool new achievements, mounts, abilities, or gear. One thing that struck me immediately in ‘DF’ is that this has changed completely. As soon as you arrive in the new continent, the Dragon Isles, the world is open to you. If you want to go and fly around on your new dragon friend (we will absolutely get to that), you can. If you want to collect treasures and completely ignore the story, you can. If you want to make your living digging rocks and not engage with any other parts of the game, you can. The old, classic path of rushing the story and getting to max level ASAP is still there, but very little, if any, of the content is locked behind finishing all the quests or reaching the new level 70. It’s an openness that feels amazing, and I wasn’t pressured to do anything but enjoy the game at my own pace – I didn’t feel bad about taking a break to explore the world or help a massive dog find his destiny (this quest is worth the price of admission itself), and that is so refreshing for Warcraft.


The Isles Awaken

Now let’s talk about my dragon friend. Flying has been a thing in Warcraft since the ‘Burning Crusade’ expansion all the way back in 2007. At first, the developers factored flying into their world design, creating secret areas or whole zones that were only accessible on a flying mount – meaning that when you unlocked flying, it felt like unlocking a whole new part of the game and was a genuinely exciting change. This hasn’t been the case as of recent expansions, with Blizzard locking off flying until later patches and forcing people to experience the world from the ground. When you did eventually unlock flying, this completely negated any interest in or complexity of navigation, allowing you to just point your flying friend in the general direction that you want to go, close your eyes and in five minutes you were there – now that is pod-racing.

Blizzard has finally embraced flying again and, oh boy, it is amazing. You are given a dragon (which is inherently amazing) very early on, and the Dragon Isles are designed to be navigated by dragon. Using a new flying system that doesn’t allow you to stay in the air indefinitely, flying itself is now a facet of the gameplay. You can build speed and momentum by diving off high places, but to preserve that speed and not crash to the ground before your destination, you have to plan your route from A to B carefully, avoiding obstacles and factoring in places to build up more speed along the way. Before DF, traversal was an inconvenience, something that got in the way between the exciting combat bits, but now it’s my favorite thing in the game. Planning how to get myself from the main city Valdrakken to the other side of the isles without touching the ground and while looking cool is engaging in a way that no-one ever thought traversal in WoW could be.


Focus on Narrative

The story is not everything in ‘DF’, but it is brilliant. Some certainly just play WoW for the endgame, the raiding, being the strongest Death Knight on their server, etc.. But many, myself included, are deeply invested in the story and a world they’ve been inhabiting since 2004. Some of these characters are the most iconic in gaming history, and Blizzard has had a habit of royally fumbling the handling of their story in recent years. You only need to ask an invested WoW fan their opinion on the Sylvanas arc of the last expansions and you’re in for a whirlwind evening, trust me.

I’m happy to report that the story of ‘DF’ is great thus far. The four zones you’ll visit while leveling up each have an engaging narrative that develops the arcs of our five main dragon allies (all classic Warcraft characters) extremely well, and in a way that respects and is consistent with the way that they were presented previously and the stories that were told with them. Kalecgos, leader of the blue dragons, is given a particularly moving story about accepting loss and moving on, which pays homage to everything his character has been through while also just being well-told. This expansion is also absolutely full of cutscenes and cinematics like never before. Legend has it the whole cinematic team were given free physiotherapy appointments to treat the back pain that they’ve gotten from carrying the game for this long. The characters are animated exceptionally well, portraying a level of emotion that Warcraft’s long outdated character models have never been able to do.



There is so much more I could mention to try and convince you that this expansion is fundamentally different and great. How it feels like our characters are living in the world as adventurers, and not super overpowered magical god-like champions who can do no wrong. How the new User Interface is sleek, modern and very usable (albeit I keep forgetting where the calendar button is now – 10 years of muscle memory is hard to break). How the new class plays very differently to your usual standing-and-hitting-things MMO classes. How the customisation options have been quadrupled. The list is almost endless.

If you are or were a Warcraft fan put off in recent years by the game losing its spark in favour of an endless grind to keep people playing – I implore you to give ‘Dragonflight’ a try. Many will be skeptical that, after years of seemingly ignoring player feedback (for more on this, see the famous “you think you do but you don’t” of J Allen Brack), Blizzard might actually be making player-friendly changes, but one thing is for certain: whatever you used to enjoy about Warcraft, there is something for you in ‘Dragonflight’, and the game is no longer interested in making you play its way, but in allowing you to play in yours. If Blizzard can keep this up for the year to come with interesting patches and new content, we are in for a good year of WoW.


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