One of the truisms about video gaming, for the moment at least, is that it’s a technology-led industry. The leaps are far from what they once were, but the last few decades have seen stunning advances in every aspect of the medium. This is great and all but it does mean that, outside of a very few gems, the vast majority of older video games don’t hold up too well. Rare indeed are those that, over time, shine undiminished.
World of Warcraft is one of those even if, confusingly enough, it’s taken the release of WoW Classic to bring back what a visionary experience this was and is. WoW has arguably been a victim of its own success over the years, leaving Blizzard with the competing tasks of keeping the game accessible while serving an extremely large and dedicated player-base who in many cases have sunk years of their life into Azeroth. The specifics of any one feature aside, what this led to was accumulation: over 15 years of expansions and support, a game can gain a hell of a lot of cruft.
You can’t berate WoW for this: it’s probably the biggest factor in the unprecedented scale and length of its success. At the same time one either forgets what it was like, or never knew.
I began WoW Classic with a friend, both of us tempted by the nostalgia. We’re in the level 10-20 range after a few days’ play and, while one of the reasons it’s so enjoyable is the company, it has shown with surprising force what we’ve lost in the age of fast travel and user convenience.
Even after all these years there are few visual spectacles like the world of Warcraft. Blizzard’s style has always had scalability at its core (you’d be hard-pressed to find a PC that couldn’t run WoW) and a side-effect of this is how brilliantly its artists use exaggerated features to build both characters and environment: whether you’re running it across three 4K monitors or in a tiny window while you fish, a Warcraft dwarf looks like a dwarf and Stormwind’s sky-piercing towers look like Stormwind. Chunky windows shoot out of buildings at slight angles, as if straining to escape, while constant palette-switches between areas subconsciously communicate mood.
It’s a cool place just to look at, never mind to get lost in. And without the requisite mods, WoW Classic is an easy place to get lost in. Quest-givers are spread far and wide, key items and skills can be squirrelled-away in the oddest places, and it’s all-too-easy to miss something important and have to take the long way back. Which leads onto the biggest thing of all: you’re expected to walk.
I’m not talking about the namby-pamby little strolls you take in modern RPGs, or even modern WoW (where there are many more travel options). WoW Classic will often point you towards a bit of the map and simply let you get on with it. A ten-minute walk to your next objective is common, and the way the quests are set up will essentially send you criss-crossing areas.
This great piece by Mike Fahey talks about how WoW Classic has brought back the need to, y’know, interact with the wider community. Several of the factors he mentions, such as the fact early areas are once again challenging, also feed into the way you begin exploring the world. My buddy and I can handle the quests and it’s not like it’s hugely difficult, but at the same time if you’re careless and aggro more than a couple of enemies at once it can be big trouble.
Our evenings play out in the same way. We decide roughly where we want to end up, then start picking up quests on the way and digressing into whatever takes our collective fancy. Messing about around Goldshire we spent hours in a constant jog over its paths and woodlands: re-discovering the nooks and crannies, picking off Murlocs, delivering young lovers’ letters, rinsing countless baddies, and watching and occasionally joining up with other players doing exactly the same.
When it came time to head to the Redridge Mountains (in truth a minor journey) we were kind of sad to leave: at its best, and even in low-level areas like this, WoW somehow feels like a living thing.
The idea of journeys has several connecting threads that give context to ‘normal’ journeying like this. The first is the death mechanic which, if you’re unfamiliar, respawns you as a ghost at a nearby graveyard, from which you have to travel to your corpse.
There’s an eerie and reflective aspect to this mechanic, as the world’s colour is drained and the audio moves into strange dimensions, and you begin the walk back to your last location. I wouldn’t say it makes death ‘meaningful,’ so much as creates a self-reflective period where you’re invited to think about what you did.
It also contributes to how familiar you become with these places. Making all these mini-journeys lets you see one place from so many different angles, as you slowly come to notice the less-obvious landmarks and how each area flows into the next.
Moving to another settlement to pick up one quest is a bigger decision, because it’ll take ten minutes to get there. Even these leaner journeys have their pleasures. All WoW players require a preternatural command of autorun, and it is some sort of cosmic mystery why effortlessly tweaking your avatar’s forward path is so satisfying.
The final aspect of WoW Classic that ties everything together is the gryphons (or bats if you for some reason chose a Horde race). These large birds, which are much more widespread in modern WoW, appear only at select and very important locations. They’re the one means of ‘fast travel’ the game really allows (until you start hitting the higher levels and can get a mount), and the only way in the entire game to fly.
But fast travel here is a relative term: the gryphons fly you there at speed, sure enough, but depending on the journey you’ll be watching the world below for long stretches of time: I did a short one the other night that felt like five minutes.
With little to do other than control the camera, these moments might sound too passive. But I’m never bored. The sheer size of World of Warcraft is awe-inspiring, and these gryphon journeys communicate that spectacle through the contrast with your usual travels.
Where your default mode of seeing is ground-level and your speed is a jog, it is now airborne and at the kind of pace where you feel the wind in your air. As the gryphon gets nearer the ground you see other players questing, or fighting among themselves, or simply sauntering along the path to some unknown destination.
You don’t take these flights very often in the early game, and so each time you take off it’s like remembering anew. You see the magnificent set design of Blizzard’s environment artists from vantage points that let you appreciate its character and coherence. Your eye follows the lazy lines of paths, squiggles on the landscape, that you’ve just spent hours traversing. Zoom into first-person view and the ground bustles with activity. You feel like an ant watching the other ants.
I had this sense, when starting WoW Classic, that it was a bit of a novelty exercise. I was curious about how it would feel in 2019, and just how different the experience would be from the game as-is. It shouldn’t be a surprise that WoW can blow you away all over again, but it’s how it builds confluences around something as simple as travelling that still feels fresh.
It makes you appreciate this world in a different way. It makes you realise how much games like this can lose when they become almost too user-friendly, too convenient. And it shows that Azeroth, far from being ravaged by time, has been revitalised by it.