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It's a Good Time to Go Back to 'World of Warcraft'

World of Warcraft's new expansion once again proves the aging MMO knows how to grow with the times.

Somehow, against all odds, World of Warcraft is still with us. BlackBerry was the king of the smartphones when it first appeared, and "The Facebook" was still a thing you usually only found in the nation's elite colleges. But it's hung on, adjusting with the times. And after all the concerns about falling subscriber numbers and year-long stretches without patches, it's currently on the eve of its sixth expansion and it looks as lively as ever. Drop into the servers right now, and you'll find thousands of players fighting back demon invasions for loot and experience for their characters, and there's hardly a negative word around.

It's a good time to come back. In Legion, you can play through most of the new zones in any order you wish, allowing a break for the first time from the dogged treadmill of leveling progression. You share credit with players of your faction while killing quest enemies regardless of if you're grouped or not, which removes the frustration of not being able to finish a quest because other people are quicker at grabbing enemies than you. The new zones brim with classic Warcraft lore like Burning Legion demons and high elves, and each spec gets its own "artifact" weapons to level along with the class itself. Abilities and animations have been overhauled. allowing for things like the new "outlaw" rogue spec inspired by pirates. Even the new Demon Hunter class is a joy to play. It's fast, versatile, and it kicks off with one of WoW's best starting zones so far.

Keep in mind, though, that this is not the World of Warcraft that was; the World of Warcraft of Leeroy Jenkins and the one that Mr. T and William Shatner sang the praises of in a set of goofy commercials. The original game placed a heavy emphasis on grouping up with other players in the world while questing, and the challenges forged friendships that often carried over into "real life." Now, though, you can quest almost to the level cap without ever having to interact with another person.

This kind of sucks (unless, of course, you're opposed to the idea of playing with other people in the first place, in which case you probably shouldn't be playing an MMO). It's but one of the reasons why the fan-run Nostalrius Begins server that Blizzard shut down earlier this year was so popular. It recaptured the cooperative beauty of those early years and a time when the game's other elements were not quite as accessible as they are now.

But there's some necessity in the design. A heavy emphasis on grouping while leveling worked fine when WoW was in its infancy, but with each passing expansion the bulk of the player base and the endgame fun got pushed into new zones held ever farther away from new players. And thus Blizzard literally destroyed much of the old world's design with 2010's Cataclysm expansion, chucking much of the old world's quests in favor of a single-player focused story that made you the world's greatest hero.

Image: Blizzard/Leif Johnson

Fair enough. That still leaves the problem of having to slog through 100 freakin' levels of content as a new player if you want to experience the new stuff. It's a common problem with attracting lapsed and new players to aging MMOs, and I'd say it's played no small role in the decline of other worthy competitors like Lord of the Rings Online. With Legion, though (and Warlords of Draenor before it), Blizzard lets you skip all that with one free boost with your purchase that pushes your character to the relevant level at once.

There's thus no need to miss out on the fun at launch, when the player populations are at their highest. The "only" thing you're missing out on is the deep understanding of your character class that comes from playing it for 100 levels, but there's enough in Legion's 10 levels of leveling content that you can probably put it aside anyway.

Legion's strengths is that it brings back some of the social play. We'll likely never again see the type of bonds that were forged at the game's birth in 2004; the internet as a whole has moved on from that. But I admire the way Legion's faction-tagging lets me cooperate with players on the same quest without grouping with them, and the way the custom Group Finder (also introduced in Warlords of Draenor) lets me find people who are looking to do the same thing I'm doing, whether it's running old raids for cosmetic gear or finding people to run Challenge dungeons with.

Image: Blizzard/Leif Johnson.

As mentioned above, World of Warcraft allows for more solo-friendly play than it used to, but its Warlords of Draenor expansion pushed that tendency to absurd lengths with its "garrisons" that let you hang out in your own join for weeks at a time, collecting gear and gold and crafting supplies without any real incentive to leave. Elements of garrisons remain in the new "class halls," but these at least let you hang out with members of your own class in a setting that caters to the class' "feel." Mages, for instance, get a big library, while warriors get a Azerothy version of Valhalla. For the first time, it makes you feel like you're a part of a community, although I wonder how the feeling with last as the expansion marches on.

So far, in fact, Legion looks wonderful. There's already a new dungeon patch in the works for after the launch, which for me allays some fears that Blizzard will flat out ignore the game again like it did for over a year as it did in Warlords of Draenor. That content drought, I believe, killed World of Warcraft's subscribers far more than anything to do with the game's age. When there's nothing to do, people will leave.

But for now, they're coming back. And even if you only stick around for the ride from levels 100 to 110, I'd say it's safe to join them. Even if you haven't played for years, you'll find a World of Warcraft that looks as though it's finally fully adjusted to meeting the challenges of maintaining its relevance. And if for nothing else, stick around for the story. Legion brings us to the Tomb of Sargeras, the apocalyptic figure around whom all of Warcraft's lore revolves. In fact, sometimes I wonder if Legion's end will be Warcraft's. If it does, based on what I've seen, it's going out in style.