Nostalgia is a very potent sensation. Like any long-lived MMO, World of Warcraft extends its lifespan with expansions that tap into the happy memories held by many of Azeroth's veterans, giving them a comforting mix of the familiar with a generous helping of the new. And it’s the power of nostalgia that fuels much of the fun in WoW's fifth expansion, Warlords of Draenor. While its additions don't reinvent the loot-chasing wheel, WoD's blend of old experiences and new adventures is enough to get any lapsed player hooked all over again.
Much of WoD feels like something you've seen before, only better. Take Draenor itself, the setting of your journey from level 90 to 100. Through a series of plot twists and turns that are best not thought about for too long, the Alliance and Horde have wound up in an alternate universe on the other side of the iconic Dark Portal. Instead of stumbling into the shattered continent of Outland, you're suddenly a part of the orcs' rewritten history in the realm of Draenor. It's a convoluted plot device with an interesting purpose: it puts you in places you feel like you've been to before, even though they're barely recognizable.
Of course, any compelling sense of familiarity depends on your personal history with WoW. Draenor is a callback to the Burning Crusade expansion from 2007, but altered into something wholly new. Rather than trekking through the barren wastelands of Blade's Edge Mountain, you'll cut through the lush jungle of Gorgrond. Instead of eradicating the Arakkoa bird-people of Outland's forests, Draenor gives you the chance to help them rise up out of a brutal caste system. Beyond the standard quest structure, optional objectives and rare mobs with guaranteed loot drops pepper the landscape, encouraging you to explore well beyond the beaten path.
If you didn't experience Outland back in the day - or decide to skip it entirely using the complimentary instant-level-90 character boost included with WoD - the environments are no less varied or attractively colorful. But there's a certain magic to revisiting an alternate version of those places you explored years ago, appreciating all the subtle or extravagant ways they turned out differently in this universe. And over the course of five expansions, Blizzard has absolutely mastered its phasing technology, creating quest chains that make you the hero at the center of your own story (which just so happens to include random players cavorting around the backdrop). The plot progression within zones has actual payoff in the form of awesome cutscenes, and lore hounds will love the nods to characters from Warcraft's history as far back as the original RTS.
WoD also recaptures the feel of WoW's first expansion with some smart design tweaks, including a game-wide reduction - squish, if you will - of stats, damage, and health values. By reducing numbers across the board from big and ludicrous to small and comprehensible, WoD does away with the constant stat escalation typical of past expansions. Another clever move is the reduction of ability count across all classes, making your options more clear without fundamentally changing your playstyle. It's a move that feels less like an insult to your intelligence and/or competency, and more like a much-needed refocusing that cuts away the fat from your skill bar.
These are but a few of the most prominent refinements in WoD. Retooled character models for every last race and gender combination (Blood Elves forthcoming) give each player a fresh, more modern appearance. Your characters probably won't look exactly as you remember them, but their new faces and animations are undeniably better once you've adjusted. It's also mind-bogglingly easy to group up with friends, now that you can join parties across all servers.
Dressed to kill
Even after 10 years of designing iconic-looking loot, Blizzard still manages to keep delivering the wardrobe hits. The epic gear in WoD looks impressively badass across all classes, and you'll immediately know a hardcore raider on sight by how stunning their armor is. Pictures don't do them justice; seeing some of the crazy animations on the armor sets in-game - like extending metal horns, spinning blades, and ghostly veils - is simply wonderful.
And you'll want to party up ASAP, because WoD's dungeon designs are excellent. With the tweaks to class abilities, your role in group content is much more engaging this time around, whether you're a tank, healer, or DPS. Healers in particular have to be smarter about the timings of their spell-casting, while tanks and damage-dealers need to be much more aware of crucial boss mechanics instead of mindlessly spamming their attacks. Yes, the end-game still boils down to repeatedly running the same instances ad nauseum in anticipation of more content, but the dungeons offer many more degrees of stimulating challenge and loot incentives compared to previous expansions.
Of the brand new additions to the WoW formula, Garrisons are the headliner. Rather than giving players mundane houses on dinky plots of land, WoD puts you in charge of a Garrison, your very own fortress which you build from the ground up to your preferred specifications. By constructing barracks, stables, forges, and much more on a pre-set grid, you'll gain access to crafting resources and unique bonuses. And while you quest through Draenor, customizable outposts filled with loyal grunts give you a real sense of presence and lasting impact in the world. But even after you've expanded your home base from a humble domain to a mighty stronghold, it still feels like a mundane hangout spot for small acts of micromanagement.
Yes, I feel compelled to log in to WoW every day, check on my Garrison, collect my ever-accumulating resources, and start work orders that will culminate in long-term rewards. But its the same satisfaction I might derive from a well-crafted mobile game: the compulsive desire to efficiently chain together a series of activities that are inherently uninteresting. Rather than taking pride in my Garrison as a unique, ever-improving castle which I'm sworn to protect, it feels more like a glorified, spike-covered candy dispenser, churning out smaller items that will eventually let me acquire bigger, more purple items.
The way WoD handles your personal army of non-player Followers is also somewhat lackluster. In theory, it's incredible: as you explore Draenor, you'll encounter recurring allies from all walks of Azerothian life. Help them out, and they might see fit to join your squad, acting as operatives who you can send on dangerous assignments which they're perfectly suited for. The problem is that your Followers - and the missions you send them on - suffer from a serious lack of personality.
All the bits and pieces of interesting minutiae are there: distinct traits for each Follower, their own level progression, and a large pool of possible missions to choose from, each with their own little backstory. Yet despite all those little flourishes, Followers end up feeling like interchangeable minions. Missions are frequently repeated, and you'll soon view your selection of Follower-driven quests as nothing more than a checklist, your eyes glazing over as you assign objectives without a care for the context of these mini-quests. A select few Followers can be recruited as tag-alongs, but they're more akin to text-spouting assistants than, say, the charismatic companions of Star Wars: The Old Republic, all of whom felt like they had very personal motivations and concerns that demanded your attention. WoD's Followers are just kind of... there.
As a whole, though, this is WoW's strongest expansion in years. Coming back to WoW after a stint with WildStar, I was afraid that Blizzard's undying MMO would feel antiquated. But playing it again, it's clear why WoW is still number one: it's the best at what it does, refining itself and adding polish over and over again until old flaws feel like ancient history. Warlords of Draenor will remind you why WoW is on top, even if the Garrison system doesn't do much to change the core experience. And for many players, simply getting back in touch with that nostalgic sense of MMO enjoyment will be enough.