A few weeks ago, the operations staff discussed, among other things, whether world of warcraft’s leveling revamp, along with its ongoing, endless free trial, constitutes a switch to the free game. I would lean toward the “yes” end of that discussion. Although the trial version only gets you to level 20, the new world scale means it grants you access to a staggering amount of content, probably more than some full-fledged mmos on the market.
but how much fun can you really have as a free player on wow these days? I decided to find out.
First, let’s get a bit of backstory. As I’ve noted before, I’m a lifelong Blizzard fan, and while I have a lot of gripes with WOW as a game, the Warcraft universe has always been the studio franchise that resonated with me the most. wow it was my first mmo, and i played it off and on (more off and on) for about 10 years.
However, I stopped playing near the end of legion and haven’t been back so far. i was deeply unhappy with the direction of the game and its story in battle for azeroth, and since the burning legion had always been the big bad of the warcraft universe, defeating them felt like the end of the story. (yes, recent lore revelations possibly make the void a bigger threat, but the legion was what I grew up with.) with metzen gone, it was easy to dismiss anything post-legion as little more than sanctioned fan fiction. for me, the franchise ended in antorus.
shadowlands looks great, but at this point I’m afraid it may be too late as far as I’m concerned. however, i still miss the world of azeroth from time to time. the old free mode was too restrictive to feel like a good option, but with level 20 now giving you access to such a large chunk of content, it just became more appealing. I was still determined to avoid bfa, but wanted to reconnect with old content.
so I reinstalled and made a new character, a virtual clone of my old main rogue with a new hairstyle. thanks to everything being account-wide these days, I was able to quickly get my old mounts and outfits back. it feels like it just skipped a beat.
I decided to check the new starting zone, the scope of exile. I wasn’t as impressed as my mop colleague Justin, who thoroughly enjoyed it, calling it the most “optimized and modern of any early experience in the game right now.” I agree that it’s very effective as a gameplay tutorial, but it has no soul. warcraft is a rich and vibrant setting with many unique cultures and fascinating ideas, but absolutely none of it is within reach of exile. you could transplant that area into any other fantasy RPG created in the last 20 years, and no one would know the difference.
Also, while having some tutorials on how to play your class is nice, I have to wonder how well it’s going to fit in with blizzard’s obsession with big revamps. how useful will it be to learn how to use sinister strike when some developer gets bored and decides that rogues are now a boomerang-based class?
Coming out of the new initial experience, the game tried quite hard to send me to bfa content, but I proceeded not to come out of that with extreme prejudice. what follows is quite a journey, or so it felt at the time. There’s a lot to like about the leveling revamp and overall I’d call it a win, but when it comes to the goal of making leveling easier to understand, blizzard failed spectacularly.
I wanted to go to pandaria, but there is no direct route there until you complete the entry quests, and I couldn’t find any way to acquire them. I tried talking to chromie to access the new “chromie time” feature, which is supposed to help you experience previous expansions, but it wouldn’t let me turn it on. i was told that you need to complete at least part of bfa to unlock chrome time, but i heard conflicting reports on exactly how much. in any case, I didn’t want to go down that road.
Filled with dogged determination, I declared, “You guys have stood in my way long enough! I’m going to Northrend clown college!”
I got on the boat to the boreal tundra. when it came out i got a warning that i was leaving the tutorial. I clicked “ok” and ended up in northrend as expected. all quests there were available to me. On a hunch, I headed straight to stormwind and found that a quest pool had opened up for me. chrome still didn’t give me the time of day, but hero call boards now offered quests for zones and expansions throughout the game. confusingly, there are only three missions on the board at a time. which quests appear to be random, and there is no way to change the selection without accepting some.
Does your head hurt already?
After accepting quests for several areas I didn’t want to go to, I finally got the pandaria quest, and before long I was out and venturing into the jade forest.
Later, I hopped on a level 10 Allied Race character to see how things were different for her. this character predates the current patch, but I’ve never done anything with her. she had completed at most one or two missions, and never left stormwind. she had chromie time accessible right away.
It was at this point that I realized that chrome timing only increases level range for zones up, not down, so for a free account capped at level 20 it’s almost completely useless. all it does is allow you to queue for the dungeons of your chosen expansion in the dungeon finder. my rogue without chromie can only queue for bfa dungeons.
How does your head feel now?
I honestly can’t understand why blizzard didn’t go with a more traditional global scaling system. if the devs must keep their power slow they could still have the current expansion at a higher level, but at least letting all the old stuff scale from 1 to 50 would be infinitely preferable to the current system, which seems to have been sewn from nightmares From the laments of Rube Goldberg and M.C. escher.
And yet, despite all the confusion, this is still in many ways a very positive change to the game. the system is difficult to understand, but for the most part it is very functional once you finally get the hang of it. level up options are much bigger now.
And for a free player, that’s an incredible blessing. the only downside is that you won’t be able to get to a high enough level to complete most of the continents in their entirety, but we’re still seeing an absolutely incredible amount of content, and the flexibility to go wherever you want is wonderful.
I’ve been feeling pretty negative about wow and blizzard lately, but coming back to pandaria, seeing the beautiful sights, hearing the amazing music, and reacquainting myself with the memorable characters reminds me why I loved warcraft so much. so long.
In terms of how level crush worked, it’s another case where Blizzard seems to have delivered a good experience despite largely missing its stated goals. one of the main reasons given for leveling up was that you could once again count on earning something new and exciting every time you level up, and… you don’t. “dead” levels where you gain nothing are rarer, to be sure, but they’re still fairly common, and even when you do gain something, it may just be a minor upgrade to an existing skill similar to the disappointing and largely forgotten one.” draenor perks” from a few years ago.
On the plus side, though, blizzard did a pretty good job of making sure you got all the basic abilities for your class early on. at level 20, my rogue already had almost all of the main tools that his predecessor had at what was then the maximum level. it just lacks bells and whistles like damage cooldowns and niche utility abilities. when you do quests, you don’t really miss them much.
All of which is to say that being capped at level 20 still gives you a pretty complete and satisfying version of your class. my only complaint is that my energy regeneration is a bit slow, due to not unlocking all the boosts or being too rushed on my team. otherwise it feels great. Since I’m someone who prefers limited action sets, the smaller pool of skills available on a character capped at level 20 is almost preferable.
I was also pleasantly surprised at how little outlaw rogue has changed since the last time I played. there are a few differences I don’t like, but given blizzard’s aforementioned penchant for massive revamps, I was hoping it wouldn’t even recognize my favorite spec, but that wasn’t the case at all.
On a broader level, too, playing with a free account feels like, well…playing wow. you can search, pvp, run dungeons. there are a few things you’re locked out of – you can’t use the auction house, or level high enough to access flying mounts – but for the most part, this is a complete game. (And considering that flight restrictions are one of the main reasons I stopped playing wow, the irony of my current switch to a free account that can’t fly isn’t lost on me.)
so how much fun can you have as a free player on wow these days? well, quite a bit, as a result. you have to be willing to deal with a good degree of blocking and confusion, but that’s to be expected for a game this old. once you navigate through the draconian systems, there are good times to spend.
I think the people who benefit the most from this are people like me who still feel attached to the world and want an occasional hit of nostalgia without committing to a full subscription. new players can also find plenty to do here, though you may have to substitute yourself eventually to finish many of the stories. Obviously, those who are focused on the endgame won’t find a free account that will satisfy them, but for anyone else, I think free to play world of warcraft can be a valid option.