There was going to be what sounded like a very welcome shift in gameplay to a more modern, less directive approach, borrowing from the trend begun by Guild Wars 2. The whole enterprise had a looser, more relaxed, less intense vibe than the war-torn drama and earnest work ethic of WoD, yet without crossing the credibility barrier into cartoonism that so tried the patience of the hardcore prior to the release of MoP.
Admittedly, a lot of the tent-pole features didn't do much for me. Order Halls sounded eerily like yet another way for Blizzard to wriggle out of offering real housing (something that, were they ever to take a proper run at it, would probably bring back literally millions of their missing subscribers and hold them, not for months but years). Demon Hunters didn't catch my fancy any more than Death Knights had. Artefact weapons are a thing I actively avoid in any MMO that has them.
There were ten new levels though, and although I tapped out at 69 on my original run, the expansion was set to arrive with the now-traditional boost to the previous cap, meaning I could start at 100 and go on from there. The half-dozen new zones of The Broken Isles sounded interesting. The new scaling mechanic meant they could be approached in any order and I've always been a sucker for an archipelago.
|Move your ears, can't you? The reception's terrible..|
There were, however, two standout features of Legion that made a re-up more likely than ever before: a real appearance system and Gnome Hunters. Add the super-sweetener that gnomes get clockwork pets and really, what more is there to say?
My highest character in WoW is a Dwarf Hunter. I found the class eminently playable and very enjoyable. As a rule I like dwarves in MMOs but playing a dwarf does have a certain effect on my demeanor and in-game personality. I tend to joke less and act more soberly. It's still more fun than playing most tall races but noticeably less amusing than playing a goblin, a ratonga or, yes, a gnome.
For this last year the prospect of being able to roll a gnome hunter at launch and take him or her clothes shopping as a career has kept the possibility of an early purchase of Legion alive. It was never a done deal because I have a lot of MMO pots on the boil right now and the end of August might not turn out to be the best time to commit to a subscription, but on balance I would have said it was more likely than not.
And then came came patch 7.0, forever to be known, around here at least, as The One Where They Gave Away The Farm. Not the Pandaria farm (anyone remember those?). No, just the very parts of the expansion that I would have been most willing to pay for.
The patch largely removed my need to buy the expansion but it gets better still (or worse, from Blizzard's point of view). As someone who has always tended to enjoy the ultra-low level game in MMORPGs most of all, I don't even need to subscribe to indulge my whimsy. Both gnome hunters and the new transmog system are fully available in the free starter edition that lets you play WoW with few restrictions up to level 20.
With that, I dusted off my old log-in details and gave birth to a new gnome. Thus far (level nine) it's been a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
The character creation screen seems to have changed a little since I made my Goblin nearly three years ago. It seems slicker and shinier than I remember, with a nice sliding-panel that shows off the limited selection of looks. It was easy to get a face I was happy to look at in screenshots and a hairstyle I could stand to look at from behind for hour after hour.
The Gnome Hunter arrives fully petted up - with a mechanical rabbit. It's an odd choice. I realize "rabbit" says "small woodland animal suitable for a newbie" but it's a machine not a mammal. I didn't have to go out at level one and tame it. If you're going to make a mechanical animal to fight for you, wouldn't you choose something more intimidating than a bunny?
None of which logic affects the simple fact that the rabbit looks great and fights like a tiger. Oh come on, you know what I mean...
As a major addition to the game, Goblins get what amounts to an entire ten level RPG of their own. Gnomes, being ever the Unlucky Alfs of Azeroth, probably need to count themselves fortunate to get even a very short introduction. I did initially take it to be something new for Gnome Hunters but on research it turns out to be merely the general post-Cataclysm reboot for the race, which I hadn't seen before.
|Gnomes don't really do elegant, do they?|
It's a short, tight tutorial with a couple of nice set-pieces. WoW does tutorials as well as MMOs tutorials can be done - in the world and not in your face - and Dun Morogh is one of the most aesthetically pleasing of the starting areas, so the first few levels passed very pleasantly.
I'm currently playing a ratonga bruiser on EQ2's new Race To Trakanon server, which has reduced leveling speed and higher difficulty settings, akin to those on the Time Limited Expansion servers. The difference between that experience and the one I'm having in WoW is instructive.
Neither is clearly "better" than the other - they are just different. There's a lot said about how incredibly fast leveling is in WoW these days but I suspect that's mostly hearsay, based on the accounts of players who burn through the levels using Heirlooms, Recruit-a-Friend and other leg-ups. With none of that, leveling is sprightly but no sprint. On RTT, by contrast, it's definitely a marathon.
It's also my feeling that the actual difficulty of the encounters and quests has changed a lot. I leveled through the pre-cataclysm Don Morogh several times back in 2009 and I remember it very clearly. Some of the quests haven't changed much, if at all. When I was killing Wendigos last night I had flashbacks to the frequent deaths I had in their caves in the past. I'm about certain that with one character I had to postpone that entire sequence and come back a level or two later because I couldn't solo it. Now it's a cakewalk.
|Hunter's Moon. So it's told.|
Even so, I managed to die twice. The first time was on the quest where I was meant to call on High Tinker Mekkatorque for "orbital" strikes to help kill sub-boss Crushcog. I was so busy enjoying the mayhem I forgot to notice Crushcog's many minions had killed my rabbit and were finishing up the job on me.
The second time I died while AFK looking up how a quest worked. For all its much-vaunted slickness and simplicity, I have always found WoW to be at least as fiddly and unintuitive as any other MMO and more so than many.
The quests use a myriad of systems that are often explained only vaguely if at all. In this particular one my admittedly perfunctory scan of the quest text led me to believe the gears I wanted were ground spawns when in fact they were drops. Close reading of the text could have cleared this up but so could the quest helper - which was no help at all!
Acquisition of gear and abilities at low levels is a slow and steady process at best. At level nine my gnome is wielding a Poor (grey, vendor trash) bow rather than the Uncommon (green, quest reward) rifle because the grey one has better DPS. Same happened with two pieces of armor.
|Gnomes come from Sunderland, apparently. Who knew?|
The quest rewards can be odd. At level eight a quest gave me a choice of four items, the only one of which I could equip was a cloth robe. Since the patch also gave Hunters the right to wear Chain from level one (they previously started in leather and had to wait until 40 to equip chain) doing half a level in a dress seemed an idiosyncratic option at best.
Still, at least the frock didn't expose her bare, pale gnomish skin to the wicked Don Morogh wind. At level nine she replaced the robe with what appears to be a chainmail sports bra. Here's hoping something better drops before she gets frostbite.
It's a racing certainty this gnome will make twenty. I like WoW. Every time I play I have fun. There's a vast amount of content I've never seen. It's highly likely that at some point I'll buy Legion and resubscribe.
For the moment, though, any sense of urgency to grab the digital download or buy an actual box in a real-world store has ebbed away. I still might jump on board at the end of August - the new expansion buzz is always a draw - but it all depends on what else is happening at the time.
For now I'm happy pootling about in Don Morogh. I always liked it there but it's even better with a robot rabbit.