Blizzard’s World of Warcraft launched in 2004 with lofty ambition, and has far surpassed anything the company could ever have imagined. A relatively simple game by some measures, its combination of the Warcraft license and open-world massively-multiplayer role-playing seems a natural fit – in retrospect, at least.

Ten years on, and the latest release in the ongoing expansion cycle comes at an interesting time for the title, which is – finally, some might suggest – showing signs of decline. Subscription numbers have been dropping of late, from the lofty heights of more than 10 million to ‘just’ 6.8 million in June of this year.

The interest in Warlords, however, has caused a large spike in those numbers – larger than even a simple expansion might encourage – which suggests Blizzard might well have found their way back onto the path to grand success.

World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor review

Warlords of Draenor, WoW’s fifth expansion, arrests the games’ diversion into parts unknown. Instead of adding alien spaceships or strange new races to play, the narrative this time sends us back in time as Horde leader Garrosh Hellscream attempts to correct the course of the Orcs and ensure their ultimate ascension as the dominant race on Azeroth (and everywhere else).

No one’s about to let that happen of course, so you – Horde or Alliance, it matters not – follow him back through the twisted time stream in an attempt to avoid catastrophe and generally throw down on evil.

This is a clever premise for a number of reasons. Firstly, it returns Warcraft to familiar ground. This is the stuff people are nostalgically connected to: characters they care about interacting during a key moment in the game’s lore that’s never been playable. It’s a tantalising concept, especially for lapsed subscribers. Secondly, this setup affords the game’s designers a way of reigning in the near-exponential stat growth that has threatened to overwhelm the delicate balance of the game. Numbers in Draenor are much smaller than they’ve been previously, and the growth of a character from level 1-100 is much more linear than it would otherwise have been as a result.

World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor review
World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor review
World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor review

The new zones that come with Draenor are massive, something only enhanced by the fact that you can’t fly in them at all. They’re also packed full of interesting objects to discover, on the back of the successful Timeless Isle experiment, which makes both leveling and post-leveling exploration rewarding and exciting. You also needn’t worry about exhausting what they have to offer while leveling, because chances are good you’ll see much less than half of the new content before hitting 100.

A downside of the new focus on ground-based exploration is that it really highlights the limitations of the technology Blizzard use at a base level to render their environments. It feels awkward and cumbersome compared to contemporaries like Guild Wars 2 or WildStar, let alone any vaguely-competent action game released in the last five years or so. To collect many of the game’s new treasures you’ll end up randomly jumping at bits of the world in the hope it’s the right way to go, or worse yet, you’ll load up YouTube or Wowhead in an attempt to figure out what to do. This isn’t a disaster by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a shame, and hopefully will provide Blizzard with the impetus needed to take a long-overdue look at that part of the game engine.

That’s not the only part of the core experience that’s really starting to show its age. While people are getting excited about PlayStation 4s and GPUs capable of spitting out 4K resolutions at 60fps, WoW still chugs along with awkward NPC movement, simplistic quests, and various hallmarks of game system that is, at its core, ten years old. Existing WoW players will barely notice and probably not care, but those drawn to the game for the first time or returning after a long hiatus will likely compare many of these things with more recently developed games, and said comparison won’t see Warcraft earning many plaudits. Again, it’s not a big deal, but Blizzard are going to need to tighten this stuff up at some point.

Aside from the zones and the levelling experience – which are both excellent – the standout feature of Warlords is undoubtedly its Garrisons. An instanced zone that is unique to each player (you can invite friends to look around, if you so desire), the Garrison is arguably a massive extension to the garden technology deployed in Mists of Pandaria. Rather that just planting crops, however, Garrisons let you establish a small town all your own on the new continent.

You can place all manner of buildings down, including some that relate to professions, with various bonuses, quests, and unique items available to you depending on your selections. As you progress, your Garrison becomes an vast, impressive extension of your player personality, generating wealth as effectively as it reinforces your progression through the expansion. Obtained through various quests, your followers will mill around the Garrison, go on quests for you, and even act as your own personal bodyguard depending on the choices you make. It feels great, works well, and is a brilliant new system, so here’s hoping we see something like it in future expansions too.

World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor review
World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor review
World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor review

The new dungeons introduced in Warlords very carefully straddle the line between new and old, presenting familiar situations (patrols, big pulls, phased boss fights, etc) in interesting new ways, and letting players grasp what is going on without feeling like they’ve run this exact instance before. Certainly, after you’ve run each of them many times, you’ll have your favorites, and you’ll know in advance what bit your group will struggle with, but that’s all part of the fun.

The instigation of a new Mythic raid tier has allowed Blizzard to dial back the difficulty even further on the most entry level of the options, turning it into something even the developers refer to as ‘Tourist Mode’. Clearly intended as a way for anyone and everyone to see the raid content no matter their skill level, even the most derp-laden group should be able to tear this up without anyone ever dying – our guild healers stopped waiting for people to take damage and just started DPSing themselves when we tried it. It’s fun, but not super rewarding. A good chance to preview content, perhaps, if you’re not in a cutting-edge progression guild.

Being an MMO, there’s far more content on offer than can ever be ticked off in even the longest of reviews. For example: professions are quite different now and deserve an article all their own, as does the way rare creatures work (you can only kill them once, sort of). You name it, we could talk about it for a while. However, if you’re interested in more of the thoughts that lead up to this review, be sure to check out my previous blog posts.

There’s no doubt in my mind that there are still some kinks to iron out in Draenor. In fact, I’d expect the developers will continue to tweak things from now until the next expansion. That said, I’m also absolutely certain that Warlords of Draenor is WoW at its best.

There is so much to do and so many options available that you’ll barely have time to think about your alts. And if you do decide to do some more leveling, you’ll enjoy the experience each and every time. Hell, I’m levelling 18 characters at once, and it hasn’t felt tiresome yet.

Draenor’s a wonderful place to spend time and a thoroughly masterful display of Blizzard’s genius. If you’ve not had a go at the king of MMOs before, or you’ve been away for a while, WoD’s the perfect time to jump in.