In less than two months, Blizzard will launch the Battle for Azeroth — the latest expansion in World of Warcraft. As part of that event, Blizzard is offering a “Welcome Back Weekend.” Beginning immediately, and running through June 24, World of Warcraft is free to play to anyone that has previously had an account.
As the fine print states, the game access you’ll be granted is equivalent to either the last expansion you purchased (if you played through Legion), or the previous expansion, Warlords of Draenor, whichever is higher. This might not seem to be a huge gift, given that it still locks out the latest expansion, but it’s a great way to spend some time refamiliarizing yourself with class capabilities and possibly some game plot after years away.
If you’ve been gone from WoW for years and decide to check it out this weekend, don’t feel bad if the game feels like you’ve fallen off a cliff. Classes were heavily revamped for Legion and those changes are generally persisting into Battle for Azeroth, which means you can learn the way the game works now without having to relearn nearly as much from scratch two months from now. (There will, of course, be some changes — but you’ll get a head start on the process).
Obviously whether you want to leap into Azeroth will depend on whether you’re interested in returning to WoW in the first place, but I’ve got high hopes for BfA. I used to be a PvPer — I earned Commander in the original honor grind — but ultimately didn’t find battlegrounds all that attractive and the small-scale Arena combat wasn’t very interesting, either. BfA’s emphasis on PvP and its war zone ideas sound interesting and I’m curious to see what the game does there. The slideshow below rounds up some of the changes Blizzard has made from the launch of WoW through to Legion.
We'll start off with a big-picture overview. Here's the Westfall zone in World of Warcraft, circa 2004. While the game's engine had already been updated multiple times by the time I left in 2012, I decided to start off with a look at how the game has evolved over the years. Westfall was always a plain-looking zone, but it looks decidedly dated today.
Westfall today. While the zone is still plain, the skybox and water model have been substantially updated, texture details are much higher, and the lighting engine is significantly improved. WoW was always designed to run well on a great variety of hardware — even at its best, gamers looking for top-notch fidelity are better off with games like Crysis 3.
Shifting gears and moving over to interface tools here. The LFG tool was already in the game when I left, but it's been expanded and revised to include more types of groups. PvP, for example, is now handled in the same tool. In the old days, you had to physically travel to a battlemaster or battleground if you wanted to queue for PvP. Now, that's mostly been eradicated.
World of Warcraft often awards mounts for various in-game achievements, while others can be purchased with cash. One change that's new (at least to me) is that mounts are shared across characters now, rather than being individual to each hero.
The Adventure Guide was introduced in Warlords of Draenor and is a major new feature of the game. It's meant to help players by suggesting content appropriate for their level. It includes some detail on boss fights and basic strategy, as well as factoring your equipped items, quest progress, and achievements into its recommendations.
The Adventure Guide also includes a "Suggested Content" page. Want to hunt around for lore and interesting quests? This is where you do it.
Blizzard had offered collectable pets and toys for a while before I left, but these aspects of the game have been beefed up substantially. Trying to navigate the new UI options wasn't easy — in the old days, you carried everything in-inventory. Now, many items have their own special slots and menus, and while this saves on inventory and bag space, it also means it can be hard to find things when you're looking for them.
Battle pets! This mini-game has been expanded substantially over the last few years. Originally, pets completely ignored each other. WoW isn't exactly trying to challenge Pokemon here, but friends of mine who enjoy this aspect of the game have told me there's strategy to it beyond "The pet with the most HP wins."
Appearances and transmogifications are something we've seen in both Diablo III and World of Warcraft. In the old days, there was no way to make one piece of gear look like another. Now, you can apply an "Appearance" for entire sets of gear to a character — or you can customize individual items to look like one another. Want to run around looking like you've got early level gear when you're actually rocking something altogether different? You can do it.
Another comparison shot, though this one was impossible to completely match. The dragon in question was part of a time-limited event and is no longer in the game. This shot is from Duskwood and was contributed by Strydant of Zul'jin.
The same area in-game today. Ground clutter has been greatly increased, overall detail levels are higher, and the light at the top of the path now reflects on the ground below it rather than only illuminating a spot in the air.
Story-wise, meanwhile, BfA should be an interesting continuation of the plot we played through in Legion. While the threat of Sargeras may have been dealt with, his last action inflicted critical damage on Azeroth itself. Healing this hurt — while beating the crap out of members of the Horde — are basically the two plot anchors of BfA that we can talk about without giving away spoilers for Legion or other content. But the overall path WoW took during Legion was a strong one, and provided this continues in BfA, I’m looking forward to another few years of excellent overall gaming.
If you want to get back into WoW but aren’t sure how, sites like Wowhead have written a tutorial on re-entering the game covering everything from reinstallation to leveling guides, “What’s Changed,” and general FAQs covering various aspects of the title. It’s a great way to refamiliarize yourself with the mechanics and classes before jumping in.