It seems commonplace to the pop-culture guru of 2019 to be engrossed in all things nerdy – fantasy novels and films, theatre, video games, campy sci-fi, and comic books. But it may surprise the younger readers to learn that there was a time when these things (especially high fantasy) were considered a type of nerdy reserved only for nerds, true nerds, to authentically interested nerds, who flocked to magic and sorcery and medieval settings to escape the droll, humdrum goings-on of their middle school lives. It was in middle school that I discovered the fantasy staples that provided the framework of my imagination, namely The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, Dungeons and Dragons, and, of course, Blizzard Entertainment’s real-time strategy video game series Warcraft. I began my Warcraft obsession with the second entry to the series, playing long games in my brother-in-law’s office (who was kind enough to introduce me to what would eventually consume endless hours of my video game leisure time).
Title: World of Warcraft Classic
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Available On: PC
Reviewed On: PC
Release Date: August 26, 2019
Game Acquired via Subscription for the Purpose of This Review
Naturally, I preferred the leaders of what later adopted the moniker of The Horde. The Orc race was strong and savage, and the sounds of their axes clinking against the metal armor of their human foes remains amongst my favorite video game soundbytes. My loyalty remained into the Warcraft 3 chapters of the story, where the narrative shifted the orcs from a brutal warring race to a tribal, shamanistic people in touch with the spiritual forces of Azeroth, heeding the guidance of a hermetic prophet. The Human race fostered a more villainous tone, showing attributes of greed and bloodlust (despite this being exclusively an Orc spell). In the midst of the Reign of Chaos and The Frozen Throne campaigns, which comprise what I consider to be one of the greatest high fantasy stories of all time, you are introduced to a new ally to the Orc, the minotaur-esque Tauren.
Fast forward to 2004 – I am a senior in high school and Blizzard is prepared to release their first MMORPG. The lore and land of Warcraft are promised to come alive as you create and control a single unit that you so carelessly disposed of in the RTS iterations of the series. The war between races continues, but seeking greater protection, races have developed tenuous friendships based upon mutual interests. The previously independent and elusive Night Elves align with the Humans, Dwarves, and Gnomes to form the Alliance, and the Undead, spurned by their living cousins, find sanctuary with the Orcs, Taurens, and Trolls of the Horde. The servers eventually went live and on that very day, I created a Tauren warrior (who still remains on my account) and began my adventure into the World of Warcraft. Needless to say, very little sleep (or school) happened for the rest of the week.
Fifteen years and seven expansions later, a lot has changed in Azeroth. More races have picked sides in the ongoing war. New skills and classes have been discovered and perfected, and new professions drive the economy. New continents have been added to the ever-changing map. All of this seems like a recipe for success, and Blizzard wore the crown of reigning online RPG for many years; indeed, more years than any MMORPG could claim. World of Warcraft extended beyond the game world and became a cultural phenomenon. Conventions, television parody episodes, and eventually a feature film were all generated from the unprecedented success of Blizzard’s efforts.
Yet, somewhere along the way, I and many other gamers felt lost. The deeply rich and vibrant lands we once ventured across no longer held any allure, only temporary distractions and shadows of the glory we once strove for. Leveling became easy. Professions became bothersome. Travel was insignificant. Money lost value. High fantasy was sacrificed for a fantasy/sci-fi hybrid, complete with motorcycles, rocket ships, and aliens. Even the war between factions held little intrigue, as too often had the conflict been sacrificed in the name of some greater evil. The flavor from World of Warcraft faded, and subscriber numbers slowly dwindled to a fraction of their peak. We didn’t want to play the seventh expansion of World of Warcraft anymore, we wanted to play the original. We wanted vanilla. We wanted classic. At least, we think we did…
And we were right.
I do not mean to disparage the efforts of Blizzard Entertainment to provide us with a living, breathing world backed by constant support from developers. Neither do I condemn them for attempting to make the live retail edition of World of Warcraft work for as long as it did.
In fact, I would like to take a moment to applaud Blizzard for listening to their passionate fans. Imagine the difficulty in realizing that years of effort were eventually coming to a close. It must take great humility to release a fifteen year old game, one admittedly generations behind its current iteration, to compete with your biggest product. But in the end, the consumer (and by extension, the consumer’s wallet) is always right. We wanted to return to a time when the world was new, the players were young, and the true craft was war.
World of Warcraft was a product of its time. Developers drew inspiration from the largest and most successful MMORPGs available to create a culmination of the greatest aspects of each while incorporating their decade-long storytelling and world building. Fans of previous MMORPGs like Everquest, Asheron’s Call, and Dark Age of Camelot were familiar with much of what the game offered in terms of mechanics. Indeed, I remember forum posts proclaiming that World of Warcraft was too easy, that partying being mostly optional was an insult to the genre, and that levels and deaths carried such little consequence as to be virtually irrelevant.
In today current gaming climate, where games trend to a lower difficulty compared to earlier ages and extra lives can be purchased with the swipe of a credit card, World of Warcraft seems positively diabolical. Even Battle for Azeroth, WoW’s live and current expansion pack, would be offended by the time commitment of even the most simple tasks. Bags do not organize into different categories automatically in World of Warcraft Classic; in fact, bag space is a commodity that goes at a premium. Players new to vanilla WoW would be quick to notice many game mechanics either lacking or completely missing. Your map does not display quest objective locations without the assistance of add-ons. Quest logs only show a vague, color-coded representation of quest levels that do not scale with your current character level. Named monsters and quest items that spawn in the world are frequently on such long timers as to cause a double-digit amount of players to stand around and wait their turn in hopes of killing or looting the next spawn.
And yet, each of these things feels right. It feels rewarding to gradually upgrade your bag space with new bags you either buy, craft, or are lucky enough to find. Completing a quest that has taken longer than normal is relieving and adds value to the game’s challenge. Even well-hidden quest objectives are fun to find based on non-descriptive quest log text. In fact, this final point brings me to what may be the most valuable asset of World of Warcraft Classic.
Imagine for a moment that you are deep in a cave of kobolds, your target being their leader in the lowest trenches. Successfully slaying the hardly-humanoid beast allows you to remove his head and return it to some particularly vengeful townsperson, who in turn rewards you with weapons, armor, or monetary compensation. You are anxious to slay the foe and retrieve your due prize, but his location eludes you. A number of websites and add-ons would be happy to help you locate the kobold, but the game makes communicating with nearby players so easy that this is almost always the preferred method of solution. Players are almost always happy to help you complete your goal, and I have had many more positive experiences than negative with players sharing quest hints, parting with valuable loot drops, and sacrificing their own play time and experience to assure that you are enjoying yours.
Truthfully, the community of World of Warcraft Classic serves as the true missing element of the game’s current iteration. Interacting with players outside of your own guild is rare in live World of Warcraft, and having random drive-by moments of jokes or memes is almost nonexistent. It is not uncommon for me in World of Warcraft Classic to glance at the current buffs applied to my character and notice that some altruistic druid or priest has bestowed their favors upon me. In turn, since I am unable to provide similar buffs as a hunter, I have frequently fired a stray arrow towards an enemy currently being attacked by a fellow Horde member, allowing the kill to proceed slightly faster.
This early in the development of World of Warcraft saw little in terms of formal player-vs-player scenarios. The community quickly fixed this issue by assuring that Warcraft remained a game true to its purpose: a war between factions fueled by years of conflict and hatred. Playing on a PVP server fills you with the constant dread any time you see a red name run by that may be too strong for you to handle, and mercy may not be in your future. Of course, you have the option to turn and begin the fight yourself, but do you stand a chance? (Better to die brave than live cowardly, as I always say!) Of course, if PVP isn’t your idea of a good time, you have the option to play on one of the numerous PvE only servers, or even a role-playing specific server. PvP-RP servers exist for the brave AND weird.
Blizzard has done a magnificent piece of restoring the game to its original 2004 state. The Classic release contains content up to the first major patch with content, meaning that included initially is Molten Core, Onyxia, and a number of bug fixes that plagued retail release. There are also options to slightly increase texture details and environmental terrain above what the 15-year-old base game was capable of. The development team will continue to release patches on a scheduled timeline that will include more content pre-Burning Crusade, with fan favorite additions like Blackwing Lair, Battlegrounds, Dire Maul, and beyond. This staggered release of content isn’t just a coy scheme to get players to subscribe for longer (though I’m sure that wasn’t far from their minds), but also helps to ease the stress and pressure of players feeling like they have so much to get done. I have felt free to take my time leveling and progressing through current content, knowing there is only so much I am able to do for the time being.
Graphically, even without the small upgrades that Blizzard has graciously provided, World of Warcraft Classic maintains a timeless charm that continues to provide scenic views and impressive vistas. More than once, I’ve paused my character on some mountainous ridge to screenshot the panorama before me. Looking closely at monster and beast models reveals surprisingly low polygon counts, but configured and textured in a way to continue appearing attractive nearly fifteen years later. In fact, many of the graphical upgrades in the live expansions, though objectively better looking and with higher graphical fidelity, look jarring and out of place compared to the developers’ original intent.
WoW Classic comes with its own frustrations, and being able to successfully campaign to level 60 (and fully gear your character through end-game content) will take an angel’s share of patience and determination. Some classes and professions simply don’t feel balanced compared to what is otherwise available. Spawn rates can be painstakingly long, and drop rates agonizingly low. There’s little to stop a high level character from camping you as you attempt to peacefully quest through Hillsbrad Foothills – and to make matters worse, the more you die, the longer you have to wait to respawn. Sitting in chairs or at tables will occasionally cause the strange phenomena of the camera to be placed under the table rather than behind your avatar. Quest items stay in bags long after the quest is complete. Getting stuck in terrain is uncommon, though still possible. Ninja looters are back.
If these things bother you, I don’t blame you. These are things that shouldn’t be part of one of the most successful online games of all time. In 2004 and 2019, each of these things has distressed me to some degree.
But for me, it feels like home. I remember being mad at a party member rolling “need” for the axe that I needed, he didn’t. I remember getting stuck behind the casks at the top of the tower south of Ratchet. Just last night, I required one more quest item of ten from a mountain lion that simply wouldn’t drop, despite it repeatedly dropping at approximately 75% chance previous to my needing the ultimate piece.
But that’s Azeroth. And Azeroth isn’t fair, and Azeroth definitely isn’t for everybody. Azeroth requires strong, hearty warriors for the Horde, and loyal, brave soldiers for the Alliance. The men and women that will be fighting the war in the end will be those that struggled through ten levels of the Barrens, wiped five times at Princess Theradras, and lost countless minutes to griefers, looters, and enemy buffoons. My brethren in the end will be the trolls, the orcs, and the undead that suffered through queue times and trade chats to get the final piece of gear they needed. My enemies will be the humans, the gnomes, the dwarves and night elves that carved their way through 60 levels of killing boars and bears for hearts and livers, only to be rewarded with items their characters couldn’t even wear. In a few short months, I’ll sit atop my kodo and look over the lands I’ve traveled, the friends I’ve made, and the community I’m a part of, and in the midst of it all will be me, Sunstrider, Tauren Hunter, pet by my side, bow strung, arrow nocked. My banner will show the red and black symbol of the Horde, the Earthmother ever watching over her children.
Azeroth will have need of you too.
Where will you be?