This article has proven surprisingly difficult to write, which is odd, because you’d think after two days immersed in more Legion news than you could shake a demon at, I’d be beside myself with joy. I’ll grant you, this is happier than I’ve been for some time, but with my objective hat on it’s not all massive enthusiasm after Blizzcon 2015. What I think the two days in California teaches us is many-fold: silence is golden, Blizzard can listen but there’s still some work to do. It’s also quite obvious from the Opening Ceremony that of all the irons in the furnace of Activision/Blizzard’s ambitions? Warcraft is no longer the one most favoured.
In fact, depending on what happens in the time leading up to the Expansion launch? It isn’t just about making a game and expecting everyone will just want to play any more. Quite a lot has changed in Azeroth and beyond since Warlords, most especially the expectations of an increasingly critical player base. The company itself is diversifying, looking at TV production and eSports coverage as new avenues of exploration. Where before Warcraft was the centre of attention, now it has been firmly established as the source: movie plot, characters for Hearthstone, locations for Heroes of the Storm. It is the Keep in the middle of Blizzard’s bastion from which ideas are taken and inspiration is wrought, but for the last year its halls have been strangely silent. That’s all about to change, as Blizzard acknowledged this weekend they’d been missing an element of game-play that’s about to return with a vengeance: Fantasy.
A Return to Story Based Gameplay
Most people will declare, if asked, that the 90-100 levelling experience in Warlords was pretty much the best Blizzard had ever produced. The biggest problem is that when you hit the level cap, that story pretty much evaporates. There was nothing in the Warcraft Overview Panel on Saturday to even indicate what will happen with questing, but the concept of flexible levelling (the world scales to your level, thus meaning you can complete zones in any order) will mean you’re likely going to see a return to self-contained story-lines for each of the Zones. We already know that you’ll be looking for the Pillars of Creation, a series of artefacts quite apart from your Weapon and the items needed to increase it to maximum power. The potential for immersive storytelling is considerable, right from the get go, and the fact Blizzard are gearing players for a World Invasion scenario 4 to 6 weeks before the Expansion goes live? I’d expect some quite serious attempts to get people engaged and enthusiastic for their life with the Legion during that time.
Fantasy is a big deal this time around: every class revamp (currently being wheeled out in a set of Blizzard-produced blogs) has an entire paragraph of introduction around why you’d pick a Shadow Priest, or an Elemental Shaman. It is no longer just about spell changes or what this means for dps output. Blizzard is asking you to think about the motivations behind picking your class, not simply based on a random set of mathematical variables. In fact, this is the first time for almost a decade there’s been any real focus on the reasoning behind this decision making to begin with. The biggest single complaint I’ve heard from everyone about Draenor is that it lacks a soul, and this is the design team not simply admitting that fact, but embracing the loss and filling many holes at once. It’s seen me finally admit how much I miss my alts too, that this Expansion might well mean that other characters get to see the light of day apart from my legion of Hunters.
The Movie Potential is Strong
There was surprise that Blizzard didn’t do more with the actors from the Movie during the Opening Ceremony: it transpires a select group of people got to see an exclusive Q&A with the cast, but this wasn’t for general consumption, and I’m pretty certain I know why. Despite hints a Trilogy is already planned (and probably the reason why the Movie is subtitled with The Beginning on European posters) this venture is still an unknown quantity. Reaction to the trailer’s been very much love/hate from what I’ve seen, and I suspect that nobody’s going to get too excited about anything until its in theatres and the box office receipts are counted. As a result, there’s far more sense to focus on the titles Blizzard knows will sell, and the markets it is confident in. Of course, if the Movie is an unprecedented success? Expect tie-ins everywhere. The merchandise train’s already loading up for Christmas, I’m sure you’ll be sick of the sight of this by the time June rolls around.
However, it would be a totally foolish woman who’d discount the potential Warcraft has for pulling players into the game. You only need to look at Marvel Universe’s success to understand you don’t need a strict tie-in to benefit from a cinematic success or two. However, if Blizzard wanted to convince players to join Warcraft in Legion, they’d most definitely have their work cut out. This complete redesign of the fantasy elements and making game-play easier at a core skills level is clearly no accident. They’ll want to maximise any opportunity they can to encourage players to join Azeroth, especially in developing markets such as China. That means everyone benefits from the possibility of a successful tie in. I for one welcome our new transmedia overlords.
More Ways to Do Your Thing
Mostly, while Warlords was about defined pathways (Garrison, Dailies, Legendary Weapon) Legion genuinely seems to be attempting to throw the linear questing guidebook out of the window. Everything is flexible: levelling, questing, dailies, even how you customise your character, with Blizzard promising ‘hundreds’ of new Glyphs that will make every play experience unique. The truth is, of course, is that we know that as soon as the Theorycrafters get hold of this someone will pronounce Spec H as being the best and everyone will simply play along. For someone like me, with no pretensions of raiding glory or indeed beating anything except my inability to learn quickly? It’s all about learning the new spec before anything else. If Blizzard can make that simpler? Then we’re cooking.
Mostly, I’m genuinely encouraged to see Challenge Dungeons opened to a wider audience, that Dungeons themselves will have more relevance due to scaling, and that rewards will be everywhere if you decide to take the time to find them. Professions are getting a much needed reboot (again) and Transmog changes mean that actually? It doesn’t matter what happens this time around, at least it will be easier to look FABULOUS whilst I do so. And while I may joke about the details, it was the Systems Panel on Saturday that sold me the expansion, NOT the Overview Panel on Friday. I know how good Blizzard are at making things look pretty. I get how good the Raid and Dungeons people have become in creating compelling content. That wasn’t the problem in Warlords either: you had a working body, you just never dressed it to be believable. The details are what matters and this time it isn’t just rewards. Now there is colour and depth and meaning to a World that was basically stripped of that once you hit 100. Let’s hope Blizzard truly grasp that fact this time around, or this could just be the same old issues all over again.
Ultimately now, there is only one way we discover if the changes that have been offered will make a difference and that’s how they play. I’d expected to have to wait weeks for a Beta client but Blizzard confidently announced on Friday we’d be seeing just that go live in the coming weeks. With 6.2.3 pretty much likely to go live next Wednesday, I’d put my small pile of Goblin Gold you’ll see a client datamined before Black Friday. Then, it’s all about who gets the access, and how they choose to report their findings. Blizzard has placed a lot of emphasis on streaming as an access tool for players, especially with titles such as Heroes and Overwatch. I’d expect Legion to be no different. Blizzcon was not all that I’d hoped for, I’ll be honest. It’s going to be a while before I forgive whoever it was responsible for using the Legion Cinematic as effectively a trailer for the game, in a clearly deliberate attempt to generate pre-sales on the day. In a sense it was a wake-up call: Warcraft’s always been about making money for Blizzard. This was the year they stopped trying to pretend it wasn’t and just came out and sold everything, from plushie birds to their origins story. If you can look past the commercialism, there’s still a title with a heart hidden under all the hype, and the prospects for the next eight months or so are considerably brighter than they were at this time last week.
If they can deliver on anything this time? Make sure it’s the in-game bacon, please. Because if all else fails? I can at least guarantee that then the game will die happy. [*]
[*] No offence meant to vegetariansRelated: Beta, Blizzard Entertainment, BlizzCon 2015, Expansion, MMORPG, World of Warcraft, WoW Wednesday