While playing the newest expansion, Dragonflight, I experienced several World of Warcraft “firsts.” For the first time in 14 years, I declined a summon to a dungeon because I was having too much fun flying there. For the first time, I slowed down when leveling because I got distracted by the multitude of optional unlocks, reputation grinds, and exploration. And for the first time in a long time, I find myself playing WoW only because I want to, never because I feel like I have to.
According to the developers, we’re entering the third “phase” of World of Warcraft’s development. The second, the “AP” era (Artifact Power, Azerite Power, Anima Power), was much bemoaned by the community at large. These systems relied on “borrowed power,” a mechanic by which characters would become stronger within bespoke systems that would then be scrapped at the end of the expansion. These systems also relied on keeping up — if you didn’t grind your arbitrary number up you’d quickly fall behind the pack.
Moving forward, the WoW dev team has said that they want to focus on more evergreen systems that will carry over to the future, and none of these are more apparent than the new Dragon Riding mechanic.
Unlike previous expansions, flying is available from the start of Dragonflight. It’s also roughly three times faster than before and relies much more on player agency due to a focus on maintaining momentum. Before leveling up your skills, it’ll feel like you’re flying a Dodo in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. But collect enough Dragon Glyphs scattered around the zones and you’ll be in the air indefinitely — soaring breezily from one location to the next.
To compensate for the blistering speed of the new, customizable dragon mounts, zones are roughly four times the size of days past. The four new zones are gorgeous, sporting vast, painterly skyboxes and varied locales even within their bespoke boundaries.
I thought Dragon Riding would be a bit of a gimmick, one that would be novel for about fifteen minutes before becoming a necessary chore for getting around. Well, remember that dungeon summon I declined earlier? It’s because I was having too much fun swooping downward, hugging the faces of mountains, and skimming the brooks of valleys as I soared there on my own terms.
The story of Dragonflight is a bit smaller in scope than recent expansions, which is honestly a welcome change from the world-threatening baddies that consistently end in a disappointing anticlimax. The simplified narrative helps to take the pressure off and invites the player to slow down a bit and take it all in, and there’s plenty to do besides the main quest.
Following the main thread of Dragonflight’s story means awakening the Oathstones of each of the Dragonflights — different colored and storied families of dragons with their own unique powers. These will send you on tangents involving nomadic hunter-gatherer Centaurs, wonderfully rotund walrus-like Tuskarr, and even through time itself to briefly visit alternate histories of Azeroth. There aren’t many curveballs in the formula, but small improvements like the wonderfully improved lip sync of in-engine cutscenes make the journey frictionless and enjoyable.
Whether it’s backpacks containing gold and other goodies scattered around the map, an interesting side quest chain to pursue, or the multitudes of rare bosses and collectibles, there’s always a reason to bring your dragon in for a crash landing and explore a little. I found the side quests, which I was heavily incentivized to complete due to their rewards and reputation boosts, had some of the most memorable stories I can recall. Whether it’s everyone’s favorite dwarf-shaped-dragon regaling the player with a story of a long-lost love, or chasing down a deliriously dehydrated expedition leader who thinks he’s the god of the local stratum, there are consistently funny and interesting tales tucked away in every crease of the Dragon Isles.
The Renown system from Shadowlands has been carried over here and replaces traditional reputation grinding with the Dragon Isle’s different denizens, with a tiered system for each that rewards new ways to explore, further customization options for your favorite mount, crafting recipes, and cosmetics. None are required to gain power, and this only furthered my interest in leveling each — I’m far more interested in looking good than playing good, after all.
A lack of a borrowed power system also means a much more alt-friendly expansion. Tack on catch-up mechanics for Renown grinding and it’s easier than ever to level another character, though I wish Renown unlocks were account-wide.
Revamped professions are among those “evergreen” features mentioned earlier, and they add so much depth to the crafting systems I considered (and still am, frankly) giving up entirely. It’s nice that professions aren’t so braindead as “pick up plant, make potion, repeat until disgustingly rich,” but it does require a lot more legwork from the player. The best part of something like Alchemy is that you’ll be given random recipes as you experiment, which means that early on in the expansion, players are relying more on each other for crafting, fostering more of a sense of community.
Talent trees, likewise, add lost depth back to each of the classes. While it’s inarguable that most end-game players will simply copy-paste the best builds from sites like Wowhead (made easier by an import string command, almost as if this was anticipated), there is some joy to be found in experimenting, particularly while leveling. Even if we’ll all be shoehorned into optimal meta builds, we’re getting a lot of lost spells back, and keeping the best ones from Shadowlands in the new system, so I’ll call it a win.
Dragonflight has renewed my faith in World of Warcraft. I really can’t believe that after nearly two weeks, I’m playing, or wanting to play, as much as I did on day one of a new expansion. The sense of discovery, exploration, and class identity hasn’t been this strong in over ten years, and it really does feel like we’re entering a new era for the gracefully-aging MMO. The return of veteran developer Chris Metzen, who rejoined Blizzard Entertainment just a few days ago, might also be an omen of good things to come. Either way, the game is in a great place right now, Blizzard is quickly responding to player feedback, and it seems that for the first time in a long time, World of Warcraft is interested in forging a relationship with its fans based on fun rather than obligation.
This review is based on the PC version of the game. A copy was provided for review by Blizzard Entertainment.
For the first time in a long time, I feel like I have a healthy relationship with World of Warcraft. I'm playing because I want to, not because I need to. I'm driven by a new sense of exploration and comradery, rather than seeing a number tick up that I know will be lost to time. It does feel like the start of a new era for the gracefully aging MMO, and I'm excited to see what's next.