World of Warcraft Classic vs Retail
Now that Classic is available, how does it compare to the current retail version?
World of Warcraft (WoW) has for years been the MMORPG to beat. Since its debut in 2004, the term ‘WoW killer’ has been used to describe many similar MMORPG experiences. And while some titles have come closer than others to truly deserving this monicker, none have truly been able to de-throne World of Warcraft.
“Four years have passed since the mortal races banded together and stood united against the might of the Burning Legion. Though Azeroth was saved, the tenuous pact between the Horde and the Alliance has all but evaporated. The drums of war thunder once again.”
Over the years, WoW went through many iterations and changes — some smaller (update patches), and some larger (entire expansions). The first expansion — Burning Crusade — launched in 2007, adding an entire new world for players to explore, more PvP and PvE content, and the addition of flying mounts. Then, in 2009, Wrath of the Lich King arrived and like its predecessor, added a whole new explorable continent along with bunch of balance changes and the first ‘hero class’: the Death Knight. However, the biggest change to the game wouldn’t be made until 2011, when World of Warcraft: Cataclysm was released. This time, players weren’t simply looking at a new continent; now, the entire original world had been torn asunder. It was replaced by a new post-cataclysm world. Sure, there were plenty of important additions; cool new quests and abilities, and new explorable areas — but at this point, the original World of Warcraft was entirely gone.
Even in the midst of the ruin, there was still hope. Mists of Pandaria came next and a new content and story came along for the ride, as well as an entirely new class in the Monk. This expansion featured a lot of great content and story development, but something was still missing. Soon after, Warlords of Draenor was released and it re-introduced some iconic Warcraft characters back into the game (thanks, time travel plot!) — it also resulted in a pretty sharp surge of players coming back into World of Warcraft, at least for a brief time. Legion then arrived in 2016; it’s possibly one of the best newer expansion in World of Warcraft. This expansion brought back one of the most iconic characters — Illidan — and also enabled you to fight on his side thanks to the new Demon Hunter class, which allowed you to become one of Illidan’s disciples. Finally, just last year, Battle of Azeroth was released — it’s the current WoW expansion. While there’s plenty of story development and overall content here, I’d argue that many WoW players felt that the magic had been lost.
Enter World of Warcraft Classic, which launched just a few weeks ago. WoW Classic launches in a context where many players — hundreds of thousands — have for years expressed a desire to play the “vanilla” game, prior to the introduction of the expansions (including even the first, Burning Crusade). To that end, many thousands of players had clustered around private servers which sought to replicate the pre-expansion experience. Some servers also ran modified versions of the base game, introducing their own new features, classes, and races. Over time though, many of these servers were shut down by Blizzard. And this is partly why the arrival of WoW Classic is such a big deal.
I’ve been playing WoW Classic recently, and it’s quite amazing how different this version of the game is to the current retail release. I suppose that much should be obvious, given the evolution of the retail release, but I find it interesting just how much impact your choices in WoW Classic have on your overall gameplay experience. Allow me to explain.
One of the most obvious differences relates to the skill tree. In WoW Classic, every level from 10 onwards awards you a talent point. And there are a bunch of different skills to spend these talent points on. Yes, some are really, really bad and others are outright broken, but this is kind of the point. In WoW retail — and around the time Cataclysm came out — Blizzard started re-shaping the way the talent tree works. These changes felt like a huge mistake to me; every iteration beyond Wrath of the Lich King did not award a tale point every time you levelled up. This change was ostensibly made in order to avoid cookie-cutter builds, with a view to improving the game’s overall balance. But I think the premise is flawed: the idea that players won’t simply research the optimal build simply because the developers limited the number of abilities they can use doesn’t make sense to me. Not only that, but the end result is an experience that feels far less rewarding when you do level up and don’t have a skill point to put into whatever ability you think is best.
There are numerous other changes that have been rolled back. For example, the way weapon skills works. In WoW Classic, if you’ve never used a mace, you’re obviously going to have a low weapon skill for maces and it won’t do much damage. In order to level it up, you have to use maces. Every time you level up your weapon or profession skill — or even just when you generally level up — the chat log will tell you which stats increased. That simple text feedback, although rudimentary, does indeed make a difference.
The last — and probably biggest — bone of contention is the addition of the Dungeon Finder. In WoW retail, you don’t have to physically travel to the dungeon you want to run. You simply open the pop-up window, select your role, and then when the queue pops, hit accept and you’re instantly transported there. Sure, it’s convenient, but it really impacts the way players move around the world — I mean, dungeons and raids are one of the most enjoyable things you can do in WoW. In the retail version, you’ll never see much activity outside the Scarlet Monastery — the system just doesn’t incentivise world exploration in the way it could.
In some ways, this gets at the core of the problem with the retail version as it stands today. Without the world itself being highly active, the “MMO” aspect of the WoW MMORPG starts to die. And then you’re just left with an RPG to play with friends. Let’s be honest: there are so many more cooperative RPGs that are probably more enjoyable moment-to-moment and that don’t suck away all your time like World of Warcraft.
In this context, WoW Classic feels like a welcome return to form in numerous ways. Yes, it does contain imbalanced classes and abilities — but I’d argue that knowing a certain class’s weaknesses or strengths contributes to the gameplay; it creates an even greater dependence on other people, which further enhances the social aspect of the experience.
Overall, my return to a modernised version of a fifteen-year-old MMORPG classic was pleasantly surprising. WoW Classic is a clear reminder of why the franchise became so stratospherically successful to begin with.