I’m a thousand feet above The Forbidden Reach, with elemental wind buffeting my dragon-like wings. I’ve flown in World of Warcraft (opens in new tab) many times before, but you could hardly call that flying compared to the Dracthyr’s racial Soar ability, which is like a baby version of the full dragon riding system that will be available when the expansion launches. There’s a palpable sense of momentum and wind resistance, and I can’t simply hover in midair indefinitely. Seeing that I’m just about over my next quest target on the minimap, I go into a hard dive toward the cold ground. I want to try something.
Moments before I would have met the horizon line and made a nice reptile purée, I tap the button to break out of the soaring animation and immediately smash the key for my new Deep Breath ability, still in midair. Without skipping a beat, I unfold my wings again and perform a fiery strafing run that devastates the unfortunate enemies who never even saw me coming.
“What just happened??” I excitedly ask my dog sleeping a couple feet away, who doesn’t know the answer and doesn’t care.
Highway to the danger zone
In that moment, I really had to check myself: Wait, this is World of Warcraft? That completely bonkers aerial maneuver I just pulled took place in a practically ancient MMO that I started playing 18 years ago, when the height of adventure was watching my human character auto-attack wolves with a stick? I have mixed feelings about WoW: Dragonflight’s back-to-basics philosophy (opens in new tab). But I have to hand it to Blizzard with my big, scaly claw: stuff like this makes Azeroth feel new again.
Warcraft, from its humblest beginnings, has been a bubbling stew of over-the-top tropes from epic fantasy, steampunk, comic books, and heavy metal. So the idea of simply letting you be a fire-breathing dragon who can swoop over the countryside and barbecue your enemies is absolutely a natural fit. It’s almost the culmination of what the ideal Warcraft experience is meant to be: It’s fun, it’s flashy, it’s excessive, and it’s kinda silly. I can’t get enough of it.
Of course, the lore and theming behind the Dracthyr are a bit more muddled. For ages, Warcraft lore has had five “Dragonflights” that each have their own color, powers, and cosmological duties. The Red Dragonflight are the protectors of life, the Bronze Dragonflight are the keepers of time, and so on. The Dracthyr, on the other hand, were created using the powers of all five flights, and so the Preservation healing subclass uses both the nature powers of the Green flight to mend wounds and the time-warping of the Bronze flight to literally rewind you back to before you got hit in the head with an axe. All of these powers are definitely cool, but it feels a bit weird that you can’t pick your favorite dragon color and commit fully to that fantasy. I understand creating and balancing five different subclasses would have been an unprecedented development challenge, but it’s hard not to see it as a missed opportunity.
The mechanical elements that unite all Dracthyr (opens in new tab) definitely make up for it, though. With 2016’s Legion expansion, the last time we got a new class, Blizzard started to break the traditional rules of what a WoW character can do with the highly mobile Demon Hunter. And the Evoker (the class all Dracthyr belong to, so I’ll generally just use “Dracthyr” to refer to both the race and class here) pushes those boundaries even further. They have lots of movement options, from a limited hover that lets them use all their other spells while moving, to the ability to grab your friend who isn’t paying attention out of the fire and swoop them to safety.
They also get several abilities that can be charged up, doing more damage or healing depending on how long you hold down the button. This is an MMO that came out when Everquest 1 was still king, running on some vintage code that severely limits how responsive and tactile combat can feel. Simply getting a 40-man raid to function in 2004 was a work of technical wizardry, and even today WoW is built on the legacy of the sacrifices it had to make to enable that. Backend upgrades in the nearly two decades since can only go so far toward addressing the issue. So when the class designers can really make me feel like I’m playing a much snappier action game than WoW truly is under the hood, purely using clever ability design, it goes a long way.
I hope I die before I get old
As my WoW account has become old enough to vote in most countries as of this year, it would be easy to get the sense that the end is in sight. But running dungeons and taking on world bosses with my badass dragon lady has made me feel the opposite. At some point, we and Blizzard will have to move on from WoW. But it might not be for a while if they keep throwing aside conventions and experimenting with what this game can be, not simply remixing what it has been.
The honeymoon period with a new patch or expansion is always difficult to draw conclusions from. Maybe with time, soaring around on dragon wings and spewing flame across the battlefield will become just another sequence of keypresses I memorize to get through dungeons as quickly as possible. But for now? WoW actually feels like a different game when I’m channeling my inner Smaug, and I’m going to enjoy it as long as I can.