In honor of Battle For Azeroth’s imminent release, let’s give Legion the retrospective it deserves.
Battle For Azeroth is upon us. It’s always exciting to look forward to a new expansion — new quests, new stories, and new progression systems that will alter World of Warcraft for years to come are plenty to get excited about. But it’s just as important to look back on what came before the shiny new expansion packs and recognize what worked, what didn’t, and what will hopefully be refined in the future.
Legion was World of Warcraft‘s sixth expansion, and looking back, it was pretty damn important in the grand scheme of things. Legion had a lot to live up to — while Mists of Pandaria is generally regarded as a classic era of WoW, its successor, Warlords of Draenor, is pretty much universally maligned. So much so that Legion was announced at Gamescom in 2015, a few months before Blizzard’s own Blizzcon event, which is where new expansions are usually announced, which led to rampant speculation that Legion‘s early release was a reaction to the poor reaction of WoD.
Indeed, after the failure of Warlords on so many levels, in a lot of ways Legion felt like a “break glass in case of emergency” expansion that packed in everything players have been hoping to see in-game for years: an Illidan-focused storyline to redeem the cluster that was Burning Crusade‘s story, the playable Demon Hunter class, exploring the Tomb of Sargeras and even the planet of Argus itself all happened in the same expansion. That sounds great on paper, and well, for the most part, Legion was great.
However, not everything in Legion turned out to be all that great. Artifact weapons, and entirely new expansion-long progression system, necessitated a lot of heavy grinding early on to stay competitive. And the vastly revamped legendary system, while enticing at first, could be endlessly frustrating if your desired legendary just wouldn’t drop for you.
Thankfully though, there was a lot more to love about Legion than there was to dislike. So let’s take a look at what worked in Legion, and which concepts should be built upon and carried forward into World of Warcraft‘s future.
Sure, flashy additions to the game’s lore and increasing the stable of playable classes are usually what an expansion gets remembered for, but by and large, the biggest change to World of Warcraft coming out of Legion is the Mythic+ dungeon system. This new form of progression fit into WoW‘s structure perfectly, and will have far-reaching effects on the game’s replayability for years to come.
For years, PVE progression in WoW came in one flavor: raiding. Sure, the amount of players required to fill out a raid has evolved over the years, from 40 down to 10 and now almost anywhere in between thanks to scaling technology. But you still had to either find a raiding guild, a group of people who played every week, or brave it in pugs — none of which sound particularly appealing to many players for a multitude of reasons. If you didn’t though, you’d be stuck with whatever gear the heroic dungeons were spitting out, and your PVE challenges would cap out there.
Enter: Mythic+. Created out of Diablo III‘s Greater Rift system, Mythic+ allows those dungeons to scale in difficulty and reward nearly infinitely, encouraging players to replay a dungeon many times. Every week, dungeons change a bit with the addition of three new “affixes” — new debuffs/mechanics players must deal with that help keep everyone on their toes and keep the dungeons feeling fresh. When you complete a dungeon, you receive a keystone for a different dungeon of increased difficulty (and loot rewards). Rinse and repeat for as long as you can handle the challenge.
As someone who was once in a hardcore raiding guild but has since evolved into someone who still wants to progress, but is far more into “filthy casual” territory, Mythic+ has been a godsend. I don’t necessarily have the interest in running the same raid 6-12 hours a week on a rigid schedule in order to progress, but if I have 30 minutes to kill, I can easily hop into a challenging dungeon and walk away with an upgrade. If you practice enough and are good enough at it, a player can gear themselves up nearly on par with raiders through Mythic+ dungeons alone — even more so in BFA since raid tier bonuses are going away.
Mythic+ also spawned a whole new form of eSport for Blizzard — the Mythic Dungeon Invitational pits two five man squads against one another in a race to complete the dungeon. eSports are usually of the PVP variety, but with interest in arenas waning, it’s great to see such an inventive, balanced PVE competition keep WoW in the public consciousness when it comes to the increasingly important world of eSports.
WoW players have wanted to play Demon Hunters since day one when a Demon Hunter was featured on the back of World of Warcraft‘s original box art. Legend has it that Demon Hunters were originally planned, but were pulled at some point in vanilla’s development. When Illidan’s story arc in Burning Crusade came and went without a mention of a new playable class, it seemed all hope was lost. But along came Legion, and with it a compelling story of the Illidari and their ceaseless mission to end the Burning Legion.
Let’s get it out of the way up front: Demon Hunters are easy to play. Really easy. But their allure comes not from the reward of pulling off a complex rotation — it comes from feeling really, really badass all the time. You zoom around the map like a monk on crack, dealing damage with Fel Rushes and backflipping back into place. You turn into a demon (sorry, Demo Locks! Meta is ours now) at will and unleash your fury in a concentrated eye beam. If you’re playing Vengeance, the tank spec, you damn near feel like Godzilla, swiping away as an aberrant monster, prying your foes’ very souls from their bodies.
The third class added to the game after release, Demon Hunters are a hero class, meaning they start at a high level (98 in their case) and have a custom intro scenario. As such, like Death Knights before them, Demon Hunters are inextricably entwined in the Legion storyline. And thankfully, Blizzard made the right call when it comes to their lore: only elves may take up the mantle of the Illidari (well, only elves that existed when Legion came out, meaning Void Elves and Nightborne are out of luck), making them the most race-restricted class in the game by a mile.
It can be argued their implementation leaves something to be desired — it begs the question of if we actually needed yet another agility-based leather wearer, for starters. But bringing another tank option to the table is always welcome, and I actually applaud Blizzard for leaving Demon Hunters with only two specs (Havoc for DPS and Vengeance for tanking), instead of watering down the DPS spec by splitting it into two. Overall, Demon Hunters bring great utility to five man dungeons, and solid DPS with incredible burst. Plus, Hunters no longer get the most guff for playing their class anymore, as Demon Hunters have taken up the “Huntard” mantle!
Class Order Halls
Thankfully, Demon Hunters weren’t the only ones getting an immersive class experience, as a centerpiece of Legion was the class order hall concept, wherein every class had their own, separate hub, along with exclusive quests, lore and rewards. Spinning out of the interesting but ultimately unsatisfying garrison system from Warlords, class order halls were a great way to deliver class fantasy, as you interacted with the paragons of your class in iconic locations. Shamans get to chill with Thrall, Rogues command legendary thieves like Garona Halforcen, and Monks…uhh…drink a lot of beer with a bunch of pandaren.
Where garrisons failed, class halls delivered. Garrisons increased the feeling of loneliness, as there were no other players in your garrison unless they were specifically invited. With class halls, you were constantly surrounded by other players honing their craft and progressing through the story. Artifact weapons, which we’ll discuss later, tied into class halls, which acted as a hub to upgrade and enhance your hallowed weapon. Plus, NPCs gawked in awe or cowered in fear at your legendary swords and axes, which was a nice touch. Class order halls also let Blizzard bring back some iconic locations that were going unused, like Light’s Hope Chapel or the Wandering Isle, as well as create new home bases like the Dreamgrove, each (or at least, most) effectively supporting their respective class’s fantasy.
The idea wasn’t perfect: many players don’t like the direction WoW‘s story has gone in, where you the player are now a legendary hero on equal footing with the likes of Tirion Fordring and Jaina Proudmoore, and class halls exacerbate that issue — from your perspective, everyone else in the order is underneath you. They may have fancy looking weapons, but only you have the TRUE artifact weapon. I can see both sides of this debate, but I have to say it doesn’t bother me. For the past 15 years, I have tirelessly defended Azeroth. I defeated the Lich King himself and stopped the growth of the scourge. I prevented Deathwing the Destroyer from obliterating Azeroth. I defeated the mad king of the Horde and brought peace to the planet. I traveled to a goddamn alternate reality to — wait, why did we do that again? Anyway, I’ve accomplished some pretty damn noteworthy things in my time on Azeroth; it’d be a little strange if people weren’t venerating me at least a little bit by this point.
Regardless, class halls went a long way to flesh out the story beyond “demons bad, us good” and helped to develop a sense of connection with your character that has been missing for some time. I’d love to see Blizzard expand on this idea in the future and do something like race order halls — I need some fresh pandaren lore in my life.
Though Warlords is largely viewed as a disappointment, even its most ardent critics will concede that one aspect was extremely well done: the leveling experience. That continued in Legion, where the storyline was just as immersive as Warlords, and key components such as bonus objectives were borrowed and iterated on. Players also had the option of doing quests in any zone in any order, as Legion introduced a massive shift in gameplay philosophy: enemies now scale to your player’s level, ensuring no matter where you decide to quest, you get a level-appropriate challenge. There were exceptions, of course — Suramar, for instance, is a level 110-only zone.
Speaking of Suramar, the zone is perhaps the best example of Legion‘s new approach to storytelling and questing. In past expansions, upon hitting max level you would round out the leveling quests you hadn’t completed yet if you wanted to, and then likely move onto one of several daily quest hubs to continue to increase your power. Legion experimented with this formula quite a bit, introducing World Quests and new, sprawling campaigns such as Suramar.
The Suramar questline took place over the course of two content patches, as the player slowly unfurled the story of the Nightborne, magical elves who shut themselves out from the rest of society eons ago. The player learned of their history, infiltrated the demon-occupied yet still hauntingly beautiful Suramar City, and drove Legion corruption out. Along the way the player earned a ton of AP and even a unique appearance for their artifact weapon.
Suramar, and its successors the Broken Shore and Argus, provided lengthy, cinematic quests that offered a new path of progression beyond raiding. For the first time in the game’s history, even if you weren’t into raiding, you still felt like a part of the game’s main story.
That’s not to say daily quests went away entirely, however — they were supplanted with World Quests, a hybrid concept combining the best features of the old daily quests and Warlords‘ bonus objectives. Upon logging on any given day, each of the game’s major factions have a plethora of things for you to do — but instead of going to quest givers and accepting the same quests over and over again, the quests were always right there on your map, ready for you to run to and complete. Quests would auto-complete upon finishing, and finishing four of them earned an emissary chest cache, netting you AP, reputation, gear and more.
Artifact weapons (for the most part)
Artifact weapons were a huge departure from the established way of things. In every expansion before Legion, finding a new weapon that was better than your old one was one of the most exciting things that could happen to a player. But with artifact weapons, you used the same weapon throughout an entire expansion, augmenting and enhancing that weapon instead of replacing it altogether. Instead of using a refashioned pig sticker or broken beer bottle, you were wielding legendary weapons of lore such as Ashbringer or Doomhammer.
With this came a new system of upgrading your character called artifact power. AP would be dumped into your weapon, and once you reached a new level (similar to experience points), you earned a new trait. You had the ability to choose where to spend your points to an extent — sort of like Final Fantasy X‘s sphere grid system. At first, this was exciting and interesting, and it really felt rewarding to earn a new ability or buff to an existing one.
Unfortunately, the artifact power system was far from perfect, and came with it many problems of its own, especially as the expansion went on. That’s why artifact weapons are sort of a mixed bag, and have a spot in both the “What Worked” and “What Didn’t Work” categories…
What Didn’t Work
Artifact weapons (sometimes)
Early on many players felt gated by artifact talents, so naturally, grinding out AP became a top concern. That meant doing a lot of low level Mythic+ dungeons over and over again just to dump millions of AP into your weapon so you could compete. Conversely, as the expansion went on, and artifact power’s importance lessened, it began to feel like an afterthought instead of a reward at all.
Artifact power also had to increase exponentially throughout the course of the expansion in order to actually make sense and feel like a reward, further contributing to the ever-present power creep problem that Warcraft will have to deal with until the day they unplug the servers. Tokens ended up giving AP well into the hundreds of billions — scientific notation honestly wasn’t that far off. Sometimes it felt like you needed a PhD to actually break down some of the calculations in the game.
When artifact power was one of the most important stats, and artifact knowledge was painstakingly researched instead of handed out like candy, one of the expansion’s bigger earlier criticisms began to rear its ugly head…
This is not an issue at all in the final stages of Legion, where 915-930 gear is handed out like candy on Argus and every character is automatically at max level Artifact Knowledge, but at the beginning of the expansion, it was more difficult than ever to move into a shiny new character and make it your main, or even keep an alt anywhere near the same level as your main. Artifact Knowledge, the game’s system to increase AP gains as time went on, still needed to be researched by hand and every character started at level 1. That meant if you decided to level a new character to 110 a bit later on, that character was at a huge disadvantage for a pretty long time when it came to his or her artifact weapon, which was a huge deal when AP gains were resulting in entirely new abilities and buffs rather than just new ranks of Concordance.
Legendaries (talked about in more depth below) were another game concept that seemed at odds with alts. The only way to get legendary items at all was to play the character — a lot — and hope one drops. When one finally dropped, you had to just hope it was the one you were after. Though when you have no legendaries, any was a vast improvement based on item level alone, eventually you needed to min/max your legendary items to get the most out of your character.
This affected alts adversely, but really, the entire way legendaries were treated in Legion was problematic, and is worthy of its own section:
Legendary items and gearing in general
Legendary items have undergone several evolutions over the course of World of Warcraft‘s history. In the early days, the original legendary items Thunderfury (did somebody say…?) and Sulfuras were crafted using extremely rare items that dropped in the game’s most difficult 40 man raids. In Burning Crusade, the items were still ludicrously rare, but the bosses simply dropped the legendary weapons themselves instead of the materials required to craft them. This gave way to Wrath of the Lich King and Cataclysm‘s quest-oriented system for Shadowmourne and Fangs of the Father. Mists and Warlords evolved this quest concept, providing an expansion-long questline that rewarded the player’s patience and diligence with an extremely powerful cloak and ring, respectively.
Legion threw all that evolution out the window, instead opting for an all-new system where legendary items weren’t supremely lucky drops from end bosses, status symbols or hard-earned rewards. Instead, they dropped from literally anything you did in the game — quest rewards, emissary caches, dungeon bosses, raid bosses, standard mobs…anything could drop a legendary item. If you were lucky enough, a level 100 wasp could somehow be holding a coveted legendary item. These items fundamentally altered the way your character played in many cases, and offered a wide range of benefits, from pure throughput increases to passive absorb shields to self-heals.
The intent was clear: borrow from Diablo III‘s feeling of excitement when a bright, shiny orange item dropped that would drastically change the way you played your character. However, there were multiple problems with that: World of Warcraft has always had an RNG element to it, but Legion turned that factor up to eleven. Especially early on, two players of the exact same spec, skill level, and gear level outside of a legendary would produce wildly different DPS, based on nothing but good luck on one player’s part. This was obviously extremely frustrating if the RNG gods weren’t smiling down upon you.
This of course led to players who were trying to maximize their effectiveness to play essentially nonstop, doing absolutely everything possible to try to force a legendary to drop. And if you were successful there, now you had to hope it was one of the legendaries you actually wanted — many legendary items provided utility benefits, such as reduced damage taken or increased mobility, which are always welcome benefits, but almost never at the cost of pure throughput. This caused many legendary items to be considered “useless” by a large portion of the player base.
But many of them had absolutely indispensable benefits, so despite the poor reception of the entire system, obtaining the best possible legendary became the first order of business for many. Another unfortunate interaction, however, was the feeling that you were playing Jenga with your gear — trying to get your 4-set tier bonus while at the same time wearing your two best legendaries was sometimes difficult. If you were a Demon Hunter looking to wear both Delusions of Grandeur and Chaos Theory, for instance, you had no option but to equip the helm, chest, gloves, and legs to achieve your tier set bonus, leaving no room to switch anything around. Combine that with Legion‘s sometimes wonky tier bonus scaling, and the problem became even greater — Windwalker Monks, for example, clung onto their tier 19 2 piece bonus for as long as mathematically possible, leading to bizarre gear combinations. One of Blizzard’s goals, controversial as it may be, has been to make item level the end-all, be-all stat, trumping every other stat when it comes to deciding whether or not a piece of gear is an upgrade. This in turn placed even more weight on the completely random titanforging system, which sometimes provided bonkers results through no doing of the player.
All of these problems combined to make Legion‘s system of obtaining and upgrading gear problematic. But the biggest problem was the way legendary items were handled, which most will agree was nearly a complete failure. Clearly even Blizzard agrees, as this system is not returning in Battle For Azeroth, and even long-standing WoW concepts like tier set bonuses are going away entirely.
Feeling of claustrophobia
Broken Isles is physically a much smaller continent than, say, Northrend or Pandaria, but Legion continued the precedent set by Warlords of Draenor by initially not allowing flying mounts. The slower speed (and lack of z-axis) helped mitigate the feeling of a smaller world, but Legion‘s zones were so jam-packed with enemies and events that it kind of eliminated the feeling of truly being immersed in a living, breathing world. In sharp contrast to older points in the game’s history, and popular current games like Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, vast, sprawling areas where you could just take in the scenery essentially don’t exist in Legion. Even following the roads on your mount will eventually always lead to you aggroing a mob, causing a true feeling of claustrophobia never really felt before in a Warcraft expansion.
There’s almost always something to kill, see, or deal with in your travels, which is not always a bad thing, but one of the hallmarks of the MMORPG genre is the feeling of immersion. I’m not just going to an amusement park, riding the rides and leaving; I’m supposed to be inhabiting this world, and becoming the character. Not being able to stop and smell the Starlight Roses once in a while takes a big part of that immersion away. It will be interesting to see how Battle For Azeroth deals with this, if it does at all — BFA features two continents, but both are significantly smaller than the Broken Isles are.
That was a lot to dive into, but Legion was perhaps one of Blizzard’s most interesting expansions to World of Warcraft in years. It introduced new systems such as Mythic+, World Quests and enemy scaling that will change the way the game is played for years to come, and eschewed long-standing traditions such as weapon drops and legendary items in favor of wildly new systems. While it definitely succeeded in many areas — story immersion, dungeon replayability, class fantasy — it failed spectacularly in others, such as the over-reliance on RNG, a frustrating legendary system, and concepts like artifact power that petered out into near irrelevance about halfway through the expansion. Legion fixed many of Warlords‘ shortcomings, but created others.
I think years from now, we’ll look back at Legion as one of the most comprehensive, and more importantly daring expansions to WoW Blizzard has ever produced. They recognized the model Warlords was built on was flawed, and the direction it was sending the series was not the right one. Legion managed to set the lore back on a fulfilling path, getting away from alternate-reality time travel to instead focusing on pillars of WoW‘s story, such as the Burning Legion, Argus, and yes, Illidan Stormrage. Weapons of lore that have been unobtainable or outright missing from the game were finally put into the hands of players. A lot of Legion‘s core conceits may have felt like fan service — the aforementioned weapons and storyline, the ultra-mobile hero class based on one of the most beloved characters in the game, going to Argus — but it was a welcome course correction back to what makes Warcraft, well, Warcraft.
And more importantly to the long-term health of the game, systems like Mythic+ dungeons were established to make the game nearly infinitely replayable, and even stake another foothold into the eSports market. Legion certainly had numerous flaws, but overall, it did a great service to the World of Warcraft brand and many of its ideas will be the basis of WoW for years to come.