Next month, World of Warcraft celebrates its 16th birthday. In video game years, that's practically ancient. But ask anyone from Blizzard about World of Warcraft's past, and they're bound to quickly move the subject on to its future, forever obsessed as they are about how to make the most successful MMORPG more accessible to everyone, including those who weren't even alive when the game first launched in 2004.
That noble goal is about to come to greater fruition in World of Warcraft: Shadowlands, the eighth major expansion to the game, which opens up Azeroth's afterlife and radically changes the fabric of the universe as players know it.
For this entry, Blizzard has forgone the tradition of adding a new class or set of races. Instead, the studio has introduced something less immediately appealing, but far more systematically valuable to the game's long-term health, implementing a "level squish" that reduces the max level from 120 to 50. It's just one part of a concerted effort to streamline the levelling experience, cutting out the flab to make it faster, smoother, and more enjoyable for all types of players.
But even though Shadowlands saw a recent delay from its October 27 release, a pre-expansion patch has gone live as of last week, essentially rolling out the majority of its biggest changes outside of opening up access to the Shadowlands themselves.
This means that much of Blizzard's new content is now available in-game, and with World of Warcraft still free-to-play all the way up to level 20, new players can enjoy a great deal of that content without signing up to the game's subscription service.
Having tried it out for myself, I can confidently say that this patch has created the best opportunity to begin your adventures in Azeroth, whether you're coming in completely new, or as a lapsed player with years of questing under your belt. And yes, I know World of Warcraft fans say that every time a new expansion comes out, but hear me out, as Shadowlands is no ordinary expansion.
For the Alliance/the Horde everyone
If you are starting afresh, you'll get your first taste of the new Shadowlands content as soon as you get past World of Warcraft's login page, in the form of Blizzard's revamped character creation menu.
Not only has this iconic screen been streamlined for a more visually appealing and easy-to-use experience, but the whole thing has been rejuvenated with some much needed vim and vigor via class animations that now give you a much better idea of what each will look like in battle.
Customisation is also more varied and accommodating to player tastes. Not only are there far more options available across the board, but you're no longer forced into matching certain features with others. Want to make a gnome Mage with a pink moustache, blue eyes, and green hair? Go for it, as one choice isn't dependent on the other any more.
Once you've built your new hero, it's onto an even bigger shakeup brought about by the pre-expansion patch; a new, uniform starter zone that takes you from level one to ten in just under two hours.
I've already talked about Exile's Reach in detail here, but the long and short of it is that it represents the most accessible and approachable introduction to World of Warcraft yet, merging all of the necessary tutorials into a single, isolated story full of wit and peril.
And to allay the concerns of those worried that World of Warcraft will lose its sense of geographical diversity without its iconic race-based starter zones, know that Blizzard still allows existing players making new characters to run through those areas instead of replaying Exile's Reach over and over again. Shadowlands may cater to new players, but it hasn't forgotten those that have been there since the beginning.
Just the beginning
From Exile's Reach, World of Warcraft will then organically segue the player into its Battle for Azeroth questline, which will take them all the way up to level 50, at which point they're ready to enter the Shadowlands themselves. Again, the old content from previous expansions is still there for players to pick and choose from if they wish, but you can consider Exile's Reach, Battle for Azeroth, and Shadowlands as the unofficial "critical path" which fast-tracks you through contemporary World of Warcraft at its very best.
As for the Shadowlands themselves, we still don't know just how strong the expansion will be in terms of entertainment value, endgame longevity, and relevance for the ongoing saga of Azeroth and its factions. Even if it turns out to be more of a Warlords of Draenor than a Burning Crusade, however, the tweaks that Blizzard has made in the run up are a promising start to say the least. The result is that anyone can jump in to appreciate these updates for free, right now, even if they don't end up purchasing Shadowlands itself once the expansion arrives later this year.
For more, check out the best MMORPG games to play right now, or watch our latest episode of Dialogue Options below.