It’s finally here. The thing everybody calls back to every time they bemoan the modern ‘casual’ MMO landscape. Classic World of Warcraft has returned in an official capacity, and based on how it’s taken over the internet, it’s making an impression on a lot of people. But what’s it actually like playing a game from the mid 2000’s today?
First up, let me mention my history with WoW, because nostalgia is obviously a powerful factor in how one experiences Classic. I first started playing WoW during The Burning Crusade, somewhere just before patch 2.3 I believe (I have a distinct memory of Blizzard lowering the exp requirements to hit max level a week after I hit 70 which was a cruel twist of fate), so I didn’t live the true Vanilia life back in the day, but I did get a taste of what old school WoW was like.
I think the biggest takeaway I have from the few hours I’ve spent playing is the importance the game places on everything you do. I really do mean everything; engaging mobs poorly will get you killed, spending that five silver on extra bag space may mean you can’t afford to purchase new skills when you level and being efficient with where and which quests you take can drastically affect your experience with that game. The game wants you to be thoughtful with how you engage with the world and pushes back at every turn.
I think the best way to contextualise how Classic feels is to compare it to the retail experience. Before Classic launched I rolled a fresh Undead Monk as I’d convinced my GF to try Classic and wanted to teach her some of the basics. So we arose from our crypt, I quickly equipped a suite of heirloom gear I already had unlocked, which is a scalable armour set with with an exp bonus baked in, and got to work. Questing was a streamlined affair; we were always pointed in the right direction to quest hubs with 3-5 quests that overlapped nicely (usually a general kill quest, paired with a task to kill a named guy and a collection quest in the same area) so you were rarely doing things one at a time. We breezed through the content, nothing challenging even my beginner GF in a real way. There’s some slick storylines dealing with some conflict from 4 or 5 expansions ago but it breezes past so fast you don’t take much of it in. We spent a couple nights doing this, sprinkling in some dungeons and we hit around level 30 before we knew it. Modern WoW feels designed to keep you moving at all times, it doesn’t want you getting bogged down while leveling, which is fair because you have a long way to the current cap of 120. The downside is it feels very soulless; you rarely if ever have to interact with people and you move through parts of the world so quickly it never makes an impact on you.
You can basically take everything I just said about Retail WoW and turn it on it’s head for Classic. Simply finding quests to do can be a challenge in itself; they’re often spread out across zones in a seemingly random manner, with even the level requirements for them varying wildly (and you don’t want to take on enemies even a few levels above you, trust me). I’ve spent a lot of time bouncing back and forth between some of the early zones cleaning up quests that I couldn’t do the first time. There is some small semblance of storylines through the zones, but it’s at a very small scale mainly delivered through quest text. If you know the layout of the zones and quests offered you can play somewhat efficiently but the reality is you will be spending a hell of a lot longer grinding the same mobs over and over for quest drops. Leveling is almost painfully slow with the majority of exp coming from actually killing mobs, hence the focus on classes that can kill mobs en masse with powerful AoE spells like the mage.
And yet it’s this refreshingly slow, stripped back approach that is a breath of fresh air. It’s hard to articulate why it’s fun, but just having all this intent behind what you do really brings the world to life. I think it’s cool to have an MMO actually require you to spend time in the world as the primary gameplay space. Retail WoW and other MMO’s often feel like the play spaces they create are theme parks. You’re meant to run around them once, see the sights and then quickly move on to the real meat and potatoes content. Classic is very happy with having you simply exist in this space and I think that’s the core reason why the game has such a lasting legacy.
I know it’s been said to death but the social interaction in Classic is one of its strongest points. All the tools to erase social interaction from Retail WoW aren’t present here. If you want to run a dungeon you need to go out and find people. Spend time in any zone and you’ll see callouts for other people to complete group quests with, and these can lead you to some of the off-script fun MMO’s don’t really have in the same way these days. For example I had a group quest to do in Loch Modan, one of the early zones. I saw someone looking for the same quest so we joined up, grabbed a few more people and set off. One hour later and we’d finished multiple group quests, chatted about our histories with WoW and generally had a social interaction we simply wouldn’t have unless the game forced us to work together. Even small things like trading castable buffs with passersby as you run around the world fosters a sense of community that was stripped out of the game over the years.
Of course Classic isn’t for everyone. A lot of people like the streamlined nature of modern MMO’s when they’re actually good, and Classic requires a patience many are not accustomed too. I’m not even sure it’s a game for me for too much longer; there’s a long road ahead of me to get to 60 which only gets harder as quests become more sparse across the later zones, and committing myself to the arduous task of Vanilla raiding is something I’m absolutely not interested in.
But for now, Classic is a great throwback to a simpler time, and I hope it serves as a reminder to Blizzard about what made their game legendary.