At Blizzcon 2019, in a simpler time, Blizzard outlined its plans to make World of Warcraft feel like an RPG again. It was a shocking confession of failure from the minds behind the most influential western MMORPG. Blizzard promised that before the (now delayed) Shadowlands expansion release, it planned to refine the leveling experience to make every “ding” feel rewarding.
It would all start with a squish, reducing the game’s lofty maximum level of 120 down to a measly 60 — the lowest cap since “vanilla” World of Warcraft (now known as Classic) launched 16 years ago.
Now the squish is here, and squishier than expected, as the delay of Shadowlands means players are capped at level 50. So, does the reworked World of Warcraft leveling experience live up to last year’s promises?
Before the patch, leveling was a nightmare. Levels came quickly, but there were too many to grind through. Earning a new level felt like watching the minute hand tick on a clock. But while leveling was too slow, quests passed by at breakneck speed. You could barely scratch the surface of a storyline before moving on to another, creating an incoherent mess of a plot. It was incomprehensible and went on far too long.
With the patch, leveling focuses on experiencing a single story to its conclusion. A new 1-10 leveling zone, Exile’s Reach, introduces newcomers to core mechanics, but veterans can choose to experience it with their new characters, too. I did just that with (yet another) new Warrior.
I went in expecting a lengthy, boring tutorial that couldn’t live up to my nostalgic early moments in the Barrens, or running around Elwynn Forest. And it’s true that Exile’s Reach is nothing like the original leveling experience. Still, it offers a great teaser of what to expect from later expansions, and it feels in line with the expectations of new players. You can also bypass race-exclusive leveling zones you don’t like. So long, Azuremyst Isle!
Once past the level 10 barrier, new players are thrust into the Battle for Azeroth storyline that directly precedes Shadowlands, while existing players are given the choice of turning back time to level in the expansion of their choosing. It’s here that Blizzard needed to carefully crunch the numbers to create a leveling experience that’s more in-line with the narratives they’ve spun in World of Warcraft across the years.
It works better than I expected. Though not exactly how I expected.
As someone who first dove into World of Warcraft right before Wrath of the Lich King, it felt only right to see what The Burning Crusade’s continent of Outland had to offer following the great level squish. Hellfire Peninsula doesn’t look like much, but after weeks of roaming around lush forests and dangerous jungles, I was hooked.
Once the dusty low-res loading screen appeared, failing to fill my standard widescreen 1440p display, everything came flooding back. The obscure ritual beads buried behind the inn, the player-versus-player quest that would bait me with experience and rare trinkets every time, and boars that somehow didn’t always contain blood. It was time to get to work.
At first, it felt too much like the World of Warcraft I’d come to loathe over the years. I had no trouble taking on four to five mobs at a time, an act I’m certain was a death sentence when Burning Crusade was released. It made me question whether Blizzard’s promise to make leveling feel like an RPG again — for every level to feel earned and rewarding — carried any weight. I was mowing this supposedly deadly horde down without even focusing on the screen.
But as the night went on and my 80s disco playlist ran its fifth loop, my character’s HP became an issue. My damage output fell off a cliff, fights slowed down, my action bar grew cluttered, and taking on more than a handful of beasties meant dancing with death. Finally, I was starting to get a feel for what Blizzard had done — the good and the bad.
Leveling up wasn’t getting any slower. I was managing around two per hour. Nor did each ding feel truly justified or momentous. But I did appreciate how weak I was beginning to feel against the enemies that were complete pushovers just a few hours ago. This isn’t how progression should work in an RPG, but the early levels were too easy. A hint of challenge gave me a reason to care.
Why was it more difficult? The reason soon dawned on me. The levels come quick, but gear upgrades are rare. In the Burning Crusade days, you could squeeze three to four levels out of Hellfire Peninsula before the quests ran dry, forcing you to a zone like Zangermarsh. You were nearly guaranteed to have a complete set of relevant leveling items. Now, you’re spacing the same quest rewards across 15 or 20 levels, causing a noticeable slowdown in stats.
Stunted gear aside, after just eight hours — or one long evening — I’d grown from a lowly Level 1 Warrior to a slightly more imposing level 26. That’s just over halfway to the entry point of the upcoming expansion, and the same post-squish level as a Paladin I spent 19 hours leveling during a double-experience event just a month or two ago.
If there’s a 16-hour grind to level 50, and the Shadowlands leveling experience lasts a similar amount of time, Blizzard will finally attain the length of an average RPG, with the end-game then being the icing on the cake. The bonus is that with eight expansions of content in the game, each of which you can progress through individually, there’s eight different classes you can level up across unique experiences.
The patch moves World of Warcraft from having one of the most obtuse leveling experiences in the genre to one of the most varied. Blizzard has finally managed to bring a breath of fresh air to a leveling experience that was known for suffocating new players and veterans alike.