For over a decade, World of Warcraft has dominated the landscape of fantasy MMOs, reaching over 11 million subscribers at its peak, and even though numbers have diminished significantly since then, it is still by far the most successful MMO of all time, spawning an endless number of imitators and pretenders to its throne. Over its life, Blizzard has released five separate expansions to the game, raising the level cap and offering all manner of new content and experiences for players. A sixth, Legion, released in August of 2016, and we’ll judge that one among its brethren at the appropriate time. Nut for now, we decided to look back and rank our experiences with every World of Warcraft expansion, from the wilds of Outland to the alternate reality of Draenor, and everything in between.
Let us start by saying that there were good things about Cataclysm. Most importantly, it wiped away the last vestiges of all the broken and unfinished stuff that remained from the original game, which admittedly probably needed to be done. Except it also took away a lot of the things that players who’d been around since the beginning had fond memories of, and rightly or wrongly, many people felt that it also wiped away many of the systems that had been in place (such as heavily stripping down talent trees and making mounts more easily available) and “dumbed down” the game too much. As for the new content, while Hyjal was a cool area and Uldum was a lot of fun, any gains made were pretty much wiped out by the horror that is Vashj’ir, possibly the worst-designed zone in the entire history of the game. Why Blizzard decided people would love to play an entirely underwater zone where your movement speed was cut to a fraction unless you were on ridiculous seahorse mounts that were useless anywhere else continues to boggle our mind. In fact, even the better areas of the end-game all had the flaw of feeling like they were all “on rails”, as . With players no longer needing to visit all five zones in order to out-level Cataclysm content, we’d be curious to know if anyone ever even looks in the direction of Vashj’ir these days.
In addition, Deathwing was a fairly lame “big bad” who doesn’t really have a huge effect on the ongoing lore despite being portrayed as a massive threat in the opening cinematic and literally reshaping Azeroth initially, and the fact that you actually had to start a new character to experience the bulk of the new content (the redesigned original world), then slog through previous expansions before getting to only five small zones worth of new stuff, didn’t sit well with a lot of people. We’re sure a lot of work went into this expansion, after all, they had to completely re-design the entire existing world, but a lot of it didn’t really translate to players, especially ones that were already at max level and didn’t particularly feel like starting over.
4. Warlords of Draenor
There will inevitably be those who say that Warlords probably doesn’t deserve to be this low, because by a lot of standards, it’s a good game. The story it tells is compelling, and makes the player feels truly powerful, fighting alongside well-known champions of Azeroth against the time-travelling shenanigans of Garrosh and the machinations of Gul’dan. The world of Draenor is well-designed also, with plenty of nods to the fact that it’s an alternate reality and references to the Outland of Burning Crusade that this world never became. The dungeons and raids were all unique and posed some interesting challenges, and most importantly, all of it was easy to accomplish for even a solo player, thanks to so many tools that had been developed to aid in finding instance groups. And really, that’s where things started to go wrong.
The major problem of Draenor is that they took a decent idea of individual garrisons for each player (not quite the personalized housing they’ve been promising since the game launched, but a good effort nonetheless) and made basically the entire expansion revolve around them. Coupled with the LFG tool that could have you in and out dungeons and raids with a minimum of effort or player interaction, and WoW literally became a single player game, as you scoured Draenor basically on your own, upgrading your garrison, which also gave resources that meant you didn’t need other people to provide materials for crafting professions. Cities became ghost towns as players became far more insular, and unless you were already in a strong guild or group of friends, it was unlikely you interacted with anyone on a regular basis while playing. Even the final unlocked area, Tanaan Jungle, was only available after you completed a series of solo quests to build a shipyard for your garrison! Taking the “multiplayer” out of an MMO is a definite huge strike, one we can’t ignore.
3. The Burning Crusade
We will freely admit to being horribly biased towards dropping Burning Crusade down the list, because it’s not a bad expansion. Its placement is more of an acknowledgement of the fact that we just spent way too much time in Outland, with it’s eye-searing colors and generally depressing atmosphere (outside of Nagrand, which is why it’s the best area in the expansion by quite a wide margin and probably why it stayed mostly unchanged in Warlords of Draenor). Due to being WoW’s first expansion, Blizzard was clearly testing and introducing a bunch of new concepts. Over the length of Burning Crusade, we saw the introduction of 10 and 25-person raids (down from the ridiculous 40-person raids of Vanilla), using faction reputation as a gateway to heroic dungeons (which was a bad idea that was never repeated), daily quests, flying mounts, and a variety of other changes, some of which worked, some of which didn’t. Along the way, Blizzard was constantly smoothing out the bumps, but boy, there were a lot of them that needed to be fixed on a regular basis.
For its faults, it’s safe to say we enjoyed more of Outland than we hated. In fact, compared to other expansions, Blizzard actually spoiled us with content patches, adding entire new areas, raids, and other things on a regular basis. Also, some of the instances were truly incredible, especially the Caverns of Time ones which sent you back to important moments in Warcraft history (on the other hand, Auchindoun could disappear forever tomorrow and we’d be fine with it). Most importantly, Burning Crusade introduced us to the Karazhan raid, which in our opinion is the greatest dungeon in the entire game. We absolutely hated the long quest chain that we were forced to do to attune for the damned thing, but once the doors of Medivh’s tower were opened to us, it became our permanent playground for much of the expansion. The layout, the music, the memorable fights, such as the ever-changing Opera House, the tricky Shade of Aran, and the ridiculous Chess match, they all combined to give us some of our favorite experiences in our entire time playing World of Warcraft.
2. Mists of Pandaria
That’s right, the Panda people got to us. But seriously, like many Warcraft fans, even the ones who now pretend they’re too cool to play as cuddly drunken mammals, we would have killed to have Pandarians as a playable race far earlier than they actually made it into the game. In fact, they were rumored to be a race introduced in Burning Crusade before it turned out to be evil elves and blue space goats. Actually, we’re still not sure how true that rumor was, but Blizzard made the right choice making Pandarians available to both factions, because it was pretty clear that if they had ended up on only one side, faction imbalance would have become ridiculously and uniformly one-sided.
But it’s not just the pandas which made Mists so enjoyable, the entire expansion is basically set up to be a more lighthearted story than the grim, dark ones that preceded it (while still making sure to make serious observations on the horrors of war as it drew the peaceful Pandaria into the ongoing Azerothian conflict). After wandering the bleak landscapes of Outland, dealing with waves of Undead in the frozen reaches of Northrend, and watching the entire planet get reshaped by Deathwing, it was nice to spend some time strolling through the bright, Eastern-inspired setting of Pandaria, with its rolling fields and beautiful vistas and quests that often revolved around food and alcohol. Or monkeys and dragons and oversized rabbits, which are also good. Our only real complaint is that since it only offered five character levels of progression, it was easily possibly to out-level the content without seeing it all first, and now that experience required for levelling has been compressed, it’s possible to nearly completely bypass some of the game’s most enchanting areas.
1. Wrath of the Lich King
The second WoW expansion took all the lessons from Burning Crusade and refined them into something that was pretty close to perfect. The choice to continue the Lich King story was both an obvious decision and the correct one, as it let players continue the thread from the original RTS games after being sidetracked by Outland. While not necessarily a constant thorn in your side, the presence of Arthas Menethil hung over the players as they journeyed through Northrend, with the Lich King making several appearances to reinforce his power. More importantly, there was definitely a cohesive overarching story to the Wrath expansion, an area where Burning Crusade often stumbled by keeping the primary antagonists locked inside their dungeons. In addition, the zones of the new continent were vast and full of things to do, and often tried to move outside the regular box of “fetch” quests and requests to “kill ten of X”, sometimes with great success (the now-defunct Wrath Gate quest line was definitely one of the game’s best).
Wrath also introduced “instanced” areas of the game, most notably Icecrown, where players assisted the Ebon Blade and Argent Crusade in building bases to prepare for an assault on the Lich King’s stronghold (but also in other zones, like Zul’Drak and Storm Peaks). While Mists of Pandaria would take that idea too far to the extreme (resulting in players literally unable to quest with each other if they were in different steps), they were definitely a welcome innovation in Wrath, allowing the player the ability to change the environment in a limited, but permanent, way. And while most Wrath instances didn’t offer much in the way of mechanical variety (aside from the disastrous dragon-fighting concept in the Oculus), they were all much quicker affairs than the occasionally long and tiresome slogs of Burning Crusade and Vanilla, representing a significant change in design philosophy. And let’s not forget the highly regarded Ulduar raid, seen as the peak of WoW raid design by many players, and still revered to this day.