No King Rules Forever — Revisiting World of Warcraft

Please help, can’t find Mankrik’s Wife?

Screenshot by DoubleXP

The Gates of Ahn’Qiraj is what I think of most when I reflect on my history with World of Warcraft. For those unaware, the Gates of Ahn’Qiraj (also known as The Gong Event) was a server-wide event that required players on both the Alliance and the Horde to contribute literally tens of thousands of items to a NPC-driven War Effort to defeat the Silithid forces hiding behind the Gate. This was a multi-week long endeavor due to the high amount of resources needed — I distinctly remember each faction needing about 100,000 Copper Bars and 400,000 Cloth Bandages, for example.

While non-raiding players contributed to these efforts, end-game raiders were focused on completing the Scepter questline. This questline was long, requiring you to not only clear some of the hardest content in the game at the time (Blackwing Lair at the time was a 40-man raid) as well as grind up reputation with a faction that hated you (Brood of Nozdormu), but also backpack across the entire game world collecting shards (each of which had their own associated quests.) The reward was worth it, however — players who completed the questline were able to secure a unique Epic Mount and title: Scarab Lord. Servers were organizing specific dates and times to “bang the gong”, because you could only turn in this questline within ten hours of the first gong-ringing.

Screenshot by DoubleXP

So why tell you all of that? Well, nothing before or since has resonated with me in such a way, from World of Warcraft to Final Fantasy XIV — and for good reason. Players who did not complete the questline, or joined a server after their gong had been rung, could never obtain these items. The world event shut down once the Gates of Ahn’Qiraj were opened — and later, in the Cataclysm expansion, removed entirely from the game. It’s a relic of a long-gone era, where players were working feverishly to complete an event that, after a few months, would no longer exist and no longer be obtainable.

These memories of World of Warcraft make up the rich history of a game that many believe has been in a long, slow decline. Every expansion has a story that a veteran player can reminisce about: The Burning Crusade had the constant back and forth fighting on the Isle of Quel’Danas, and The Wrath of the Lich King had the extremely popular Ulduar raid and Dalaran-wide Algalon defeat speech. Cataclysm changed the face of the world permanently, and Mists of Pandaria had some of the best side-quest writing and exploration in World of Warcraft to date. Unfortunately, shortly after that, my journey with World of Warcraft ended — and the decline mentioned above is argued to have begun.

The expansion following Pandaria, Warlords of Draenor, promised a return to locales from The Burning Crusade, only in an alternate timeline before Draenor became Outland. In this expansion, the farming system introduced in Mists of Pandaria grew into a base management system labeled “Garrisons”, allowing the player to gather resources and delegate missions to collectable units. This had the unfortunate side-effect of removing the player interaction part of an MMO, as players rarely had a reason to leave their Garrisons except to go raiding or PVP’ing. The world felt dead and lifeless, even though the expansion sold very well at launch — and this general sense of lifelessness drove me from World of Warcraft entirely.

Screenshot by DoubleXP

Seven years later, I’ve returned to Azeroth to see what’s going on. In what is rapidly becoming a world tour of MMOs, in 2022 I’ve gone from being a Warrior of Light in FFXIV, to a Vestige in Elder Scrolls Online, and now back to my roots as a Champion of Azeroth. How does modern World of Warcraft stack up to nostalgia? To other MMOs that I’ve spent the past decade of my limited life on this Earth enjoying? The thought buried itself in my brain like an Old God whispering madness-inducing messages.

Even though my old account is gone (RIP my old Troll Hunter), I still figured it would be best to experience modern WoW from a fresh account’s perspective. Prior to my departure, the newbie leveling experience was to go through your starting race’s area in Cataclysm-affected zones, then head to Outland and Northrend, before returning back to Cataclysm and eventually Mists of Pandaria. This was confusing at best, and painful at worst, because you would be jumping around in the timeline and forced to go through outdated content before getting to the modern stuff. Thankfully, leveling a new character has never been simpler than it is nowadays.

When creating a new character, you are given the option to experience a short story related to your faction choice that guarantees you’ll reach level 10 before it finishes — or you can choose to experience your race’s Cataclysm starting zone before heading off to any of the past expansions. Leveling is extremely fast — as of this writing, I am level capped at 60 with only ~48 hours total playtime. Within two days of starting, I am playing with friends near the end-game — something you cannot do in Final Fantasy XIV unless you purchase a level-skip and story-skip potion.

Screenshot by DoubleXP

The writing in Shadowlands isn’t unsalvageable, but you can definitely see where the story feels compressed and needs to be fleshed out — or just generally lacks closure. The entire history of WoW is beyond the scope of this article, so in short — Sylvanas (previous Forsaken leader and Warchief) ripped open a portal to the afterlife and struck a deal with the devil to seek the end of death itself. It’s definitely more than a little weird discovering that a “hero” I’ve been familiar with for most of my childhood is now a villain, but it wasn’t an unwelcome swerve — however, the climax and resolution to this is so bewilderingly awful I’m not entirely sure who greenlit it.

Final Fantasy XIV’s Ascian storyline took years to develop and finish with Endwalker, but throughout those years you were constantly chumping out Ascians and solving problems, while also unlocking additional hints and answers to the Grand Questions regarding them. They provided closure when necessary to advance the overall plot — the deaths of Moenbryda, or Haurchefant, or even Papalymo were done in service of solving both immediate problems and progressing the story. Meanwhile, the Sylvanas plotlines feel like the writers do not know who or what they want Sylvanas to be. Instead of closing the book on this character, they opted for “misguided error and redemption” as an easy out for someone who committed literal crimes against humanity. Steven Messner of PCGamer said it best: “it starts to feel like Blizzard is stalling in the absence of having a story worth telling.”

Moving on, the systems introduced in Shadowlands, such as Torghast (a rogue-lite mini-game) and the Covenants (which are upgradable factions that confer faction-specific bonuses) offer a form of customization to players — as well as a way to make those numbers go up. They’re engaging at first, but like most World of Warcraft systems, require you to log in and complete quests daily to get benefits over time. That’s possibly the biggest part about World of Warcraft that I dislike — if I don’t log in daily (or hell, even weekly) in Final Fantasy XIV, I don’t really miss out on much. Yoshi P regularly expresses the sentiment that the FFXIV development team wants players to play Final Fantasy XIV when they feel like it — “It’s alright not to play it everyday.” he stated in a Q&A session at Gamescom years ago. World of Warcraft, on the other hand, demands your daily attention, and doesn’t always justify the demand.

Screenshot by DoubleXP

The sound design and music in World of Warcraft feels as it always has — it gives a sense of suspenseful exploration and the booming bass swells when you delve into dungeons and raids grant some urgency and tension. Unfortunately, it doesn’t leave the deep imprint that Soken and team at FFXIV tend to leave with almost every single track. To this day, outside of the World of Warcraft title themes, I cannot think of a zone, dungeon, or encounter where I can remember the specific in-game track. Meanwhile, I can sing Wayward Daughter and Equilibrium from memory. These songs are created specifically for individual boss encounters, each telling a story in addition to the story from the fight, and it leaves lasting impacts on those that experience them in-game.

It shows in the fight design as well. This is footage from the latest (as of this writing, at least) Final Fantasy XIV encounter to come out — Dragonsong’s Reprise, an ultra-hard raid that most players will never complete. Genuinely look at the player positions and timings: each of the eight players has a role, a position they have to be in, and it stays fluid throughout each stage of the fight. It’s like a waltz — sometimes they mis-step, and when they do they pay a penalty. But when it comes together, it looks fantastic, even if you have no idea what’s going on.

Compare that to footage from the latest raid in Shadowlands. This is a world first clear for The Jailer (Mythic), and the differences could not be more apparent. Players often do not have a mechanic or role they must immediately and continuously “dance” to — while some have to fall into holes to prevent raid-wipes or move out of void zones, it’s less of a waltz and more of a two-step. Note that this isn’t a commentary on difficulty — I guarantee you most players will not clear Mythic Jailer either, myself included — but instead a comment on the differences in fight design and pacing. FFXIV is a little more slowed down, but deeply involved whereas World of Warcraft is faster-paced, yet less involved at times.

None of this is irredeemably bad, mind you, and is mostly a difference in taste — the fight design and overall tenor of gameplay of World of Warcraft feels like it always has. It’s like returning home, in a way. Even if you move on and try to leave things behind, you almost always return to your roots, just to see what’s still around and what’s changed. Perhaps that’s one reason players generally feel disgruntled at World of Warcraft. Everything feels the same. Seven years of being away from Azeroth and it’s like I really haven’t left at all. Imagine playing the game non-stop since 2005, and you can see what nearly 20 years of playing the same game ends up feeling like.

Screenshot by DoubleXP

There are other issues — obviously no article about WoW is complete without mentioning the deep, systemic and horrible discrimination and sexual harassment stories. The recent investigations of these atrocities have put a general feeling of unrest about Activision-Blizzard in the air. Combined with alleged labor violations and a potential buyout from Microsoft, and you’ve got a lot of pressure on a development team from managerial forces mostly beyond their control.

Gameplay-wise, Covenants are an interesting mechanic on paper, but in practice some Covenants are better than others if your goal is min/maxing your character. The removal of player choice in service of doing the highest numbers is always unfortunate. There also was apparently a 7-month long content drought, something I have never heard of in any live-service game that wasn’t on life-support or on its way out the door — and in a game that emphasizes the end-game grind, I cannot imagine players were happy with how the drought ended. In fact, I don’t have to imagine — they quit in droves to go play Final Fantasy XIV.

In preparation for Dragonflight, the next expansion to come for World of Warcraft, I plan on sticking around in Azeroth for a while. I’m truly hoping the ActiBlizz developers can right the ship and bring back some good will to players — scale down the power creep in fantasy writing and focus on telling a good story with interesting gameplay elements. As much as I’m a Warrior of Light, I’m also a member of the Horde — and I’d hate to see a game I once loved as much as World of Warcraft get memorialized as poorly as it is right now.