Classic, Burning Crusade, Wrath, and Cataclysm — what was the greatest era of WoW?
Let’s be honest: There’s been a lot of negativity about Blizzard and about WoW these past six months. We don’t need to recap it all. Mainly it comes down to this: Battle for Azeroth has been disappointing so far in multiple ways and for multiple reasons. Blizzard still has a few patches to get it right, so ultimately it’s too soon to judge how history will view BFA. Legion also had a rocky start, if less so, but Blizzard was able to course-correct the biggest problems and turn it into a thoroughly enjoyable expansion.
It seems like a good time to put all this negativity aside and focus on the things that have made WoW special. WoW’s history is full of incredible innovation, enthralling stories, and tremendous gameplay. But which era in WoW’s history gave players the best overall experience? Let’s look at what was great about each expansion and try to figure it out! This is all, of course, just my opinion, man.
Classic memories, classic memes
What can really be said about Classic that hasn’t already? There’s a reason why Blizzard is reviving the original incarnation of the game this year: the fans demanded it.
Stepping into Azeroth for the first time was a magical, almost religious experience for so many players. Finally we had an MMO that put aside so much of the tedium of the genre and focused on fun first. Blizzard plunked us down in a fully realized fantasy world and said, “Go. Explore. Most of all, have fun!” And so we did.
We leveled, slowly, but smelling the Mageroyals along the way. We wanted to wring every last drop of adventure out of this game. We got frustrated trying to figure out the clues to complete quests. Sometimes we had an “aha” moment and got there on our own. Sometimes we asked chat for a hint. Sometimes we cheated and went to Thottbot to look it up.
Along the way, we made friends and we made enemies. We formed guilds and grudges. We saved gold for mounts and riding skills. We fought to the death in Hillsbrad. We begged for UBRS runs. We were paranoid about Deep Breath. We raided faction cities over and over, even on PVE realms.
Meanwhile, the golden age of WoW memes took over the Internet: Leeroy Jenkins, Mankrik’s wife, more DOTs, and 50 DKP minus, FROST SHOCK, Barrens chat, Soon™ and TOO SOON. WoW memes were everywhere.
Looking back, Classic had a lot of flaws, but we didn’t care. We were willing to put up with just about anything as long as we could hang out in Azeroth. For many of us, our lives would never be the same.
While we can never recreate that first experience of stepping into Azeroth, Classic’s release this summer will hit all of the nostalgia buttons for an entire generation of gamers.
The Dark Portal beckons
Traveling through the Dark Portal for the first time is one of my all-time favorite WoW moments. You weren’t just in a different place — you were on a different planet. A massive battle raged in front of you as Azeroth’s forces fought to contain the Burning Legion. The sky above and the ground below felt utterly alien. You had no idea what awaited you here, but you couldn’t wait to find out.
The Burning Crusade gave us a lot of moments like that: taking to the skies for the first time on a flying mount, fighting our way up the tower of Karazhan or to the depths of Serpentshrine Cavern, confronting Kael’thas and Illidan Stormrage in their strongholds, liberating the Isle of Quel’Danas, and ultimately taking on Kil’jaeden himself.
Some of this content was accessible to average players. Some was reserved only for the most hardcore guilds, especially before the many attunement requirements were lifted. Looking back, between Heroic dungeons that really felt Heroic, questing (and daily questing) in genuinely dangerous areas, few catch-up mechanisms, and single-difficulty raids, TBC was an unforgiving expansion. We didn’t know it back then. After all, we were fighting the Burning Legion — of course it wasn’t going to be easy!
TBC also gave us the innovations of quest hubs, badges, daily quests, and flying mounts. All in all, Blizzard succeeded at giving us a new place to explore that was completely different from Azeroth but still felt like it occupied the same WoW universe.
Story takes center stage
The big leap forward of Wrath of the Lich King, in my mind, was Blizzard’s storytelling. The stories of Classic and The Burning Crusade were a bit disjointed and hard to find. Why were we killing Illidan? If you weren’t playing close attention to all the quest text, you didn’t have the first clue. Wrath changed all that. Making use of cutscenes, spoken dialogue, and cinematic quest events, Blizzard gave us not only an incredible new continent to explore but also an epic story. The Wrathgate made an impact on players like no other story moment before it, thanks to a great cinematic and clever use of phasing. Ulduar (if you went on to face Algalon) and Icecrown Citadel both featured fantastic cinematic moments of their own. The Death Knight starting zone also included a fully integrated story, and it became the prototype for all starting zones moving forward.
Wrath gave us several innovations and brand-new features, including automated group making, achievements, vehicles, and additional raid difficulties, starting with Ulduar’s unique “hard mode” mechanics. The class team also did their best to make most specs in the game relevant in PVE content, which seems like a no-brainer today, but that was not even remotely true in Classic or TBC. Talent trees were at their most complex, with eleven rows each, so this was no easy feat.
Blizzard pitched Wrath as the long-awaited conclusion of the Arthas storyline that stretched back into the RTS Warcraft games, and they delivered a satisfying finale for one of WoW‘s biggest, baddest big bads.
In Cataclysm, Blizzard took that story concept from Wrath and ran with it. For better or worse, they transformed the entire Classic experience into a new version of the world, much of it now tied into the aftereffects of Deathwing’s emergence and its devastating environmental consequences. The dev team took the time to radically remake most of the game’s original zones. Thousand Needles went from a desert to a mostly aquatic area. Azshara was literally reshaped into a giant Horde symbol by goblin ingenuity. Stranglethorn was crushed by a tidal wave.
It was a bold move, as far as I know unprecedented in the MMO genre. Although this redesign of the “old world” has not aged well, at the time it was incredibly exciting to discover what had happened to all of those original zones and what new stories Blizzard had to tell. Leveling felt completely fresh. The older zones lost a lot of their nostalgia but gained a cohesive storyline, rife with cutscenes, lore, and fantastic in-game moments. They also became far easier to navigate. Quests required fewer long trips to other zones or continents to complete, and adjacent zones finally had adjacent level ranges.
The new zones also had a lot to offer in terms of amazing story moments and atmosphere, from the abyssal terror of Vash’jir to the exploits of Harrison Jones in Uldum. Endgame content was slimmer than in earlier expansions, but the addition of LFR made raiding (and its important lore moments) accessible to all players.
Talent trees were pared back and specs became forever separated. This allowed Blizzard, for the first time, to truly differentiate every spec in WoW. Signature specialization abilities like Stormstrike and Aimed Shot could be learned far earlier in a character’s leveling because they no longer had to be buried farther down in the talent trees.
Although Cataclysm is often viewed as a bad expansion, I enjoyed it. Yes, even those overtuned Heroics. I actually wrote a whole Archivist column in defense of it.
The early frontrunner
Predictably, this column ran long, so we’ll have to finish up with part 2 next week. Of the early expansions, however, you have to give it to Wrath as the best overall experience. The game reached its peak subscription numbers during that time, and it was clear why: all in all, throughout 2009, WoW offered the most comprehensive and compelling MMO experience on the market. Northrend was perfectly realized. The city of Dalaran was so impeccably designed, down to the last detail, that Blizzard used it for two expansions. Classes felt great and (almost) all specs were finally relevant in endgame PVE. Death Knights were a fresh, welcome addition to the class roster, even if it took Blizzard a long time to finally settle on the design they wanted for DKs. The raid content (except for the Trial) was among the best Blizzard has ever created, and with the 10-player option for all raids, it was more accessible than ever. The story of Wrath was utterly brilliant, outside of the Argent Tournament weirdness.
Fans who lived through the Wrath era wondered if Blizzard would ever top it. Check out the next WoW Archivist to see if Blizzard ever did (in my opinion, anyway!).
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