World of Warcraft Classic: Hands-on with the Azeroth of Old

We've played World of Warcraft Classic and have some thoughts about Blizzard's new blast from the past. Here are our impressions...

More than 12 years have passed since I was last able to play the original “Classic” version of World of Warcraft, but it took less than 12 minutes for me to encounter a Chuck Norris joke, a Thunderfury meme, and an invite to Southshore vs. Tarren Mill upon returning to the game.

As Blizzard spawned my pre-made Level 40 Paladin into Ironforge during last week’s World of Warcraft Media Event in Irvine, California, it all came rushing back — the memories, the nostalgia, the often ridiculous Trade Chat banter. I was finally home again, and in some ways, it felt like I had never left.

I was one of a handful of reporters and content creators Blizzard invited to test its recreation of Classic ahead of this week’s Closed Beta launch. I quested, I PvP’ed, I ran a dungeon, and I died more often than I’d like to admit. Back in the real world, I also had an opportunity to sit down and interview two of Blizzard’s top Classic developers, and they had a few interesting things to say.

To Stranglethorn… with the Wrong Specialization

When I started playing World of Warcraft in 2005, my first character was a Paladin, and so that’s the route I went when creating my character at the Media Event. I leveled as Retribution back in 2005, so I immediately dumped all available talent points into a Ret build upon spawning in Ironforge. I then opened my quest log and saw that Blizzard had helpfully already given us an active quest in Stranglethorn Vale. I was so excited that I immediately jumped on the tram to Stormwind and then hopped onto a gryphon to STV without a second thought. It was only during the flight south that I began to inspect my pre-made character and the contents of his bags, and upon doing so, I realized that I had a problem.

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My pre-made Paladin came with a one-hand sword and a shield equipped and did not have a two-hand weapon in my bags. In my haste to get started, I had already dumped all of my talent points into Retribution and would be landing in Stranglethorn without the type of weapon needed to make use of my current spec.

Of course, anyone who’s played Battle for Azeroth or any of the other recent expansions knows that this would not be a problem in the current retail version of the game. Talents and even entire specializations can be changed on the fly in any city or with the help of a reagent or two. But in Classic, I’d have to go all the way back to the class trainer in Stormwind and pay gold to respec. Either that or pray that a random STV panther would miraculously drop a two-hander.

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I complained about the lack of my preferred weapon to Blizzard community manager Josh Allen and several developers. They admitted that perhaps they should have included a two-hander for Paladins when creating the demo, but one developer just said, “Well, Ret Paladins weren’t really that great back then.” I locked eyes with her. How dare she?! My fake anger aside, I was grateful for the lesson this false start provided.

World of Warcraft Classic really is old-school WoW, faithfully recreated by Blizzard. And that means patience is a virtue in everything from the leveling experience, to pulling a camp of mobs into combat, to making absolutely sure that you have the right talents and gear before heading out for your next adventure. I logged off my scuffed Paladin and created a level 40 mage, spawning in Ironforge to start over.

Everything Old is New Again

I decided to change things up with my Mage, and headed off to Dustwallow Marsh via Menethil Harbor. If you’re asking why I didn’t just teleport or create a portal to Theramore, that’s because that was only added to the game in Patch 2.4.2 during The Burning Crusade. Yet another convenience that’s no longer available, and yet, I didn’t mind at all, a wave of nostalgia washing over me as I climbed in the boat that would ferry me to Kalimdor, the same ship every Level 60 Alliance toon used repeatedly back in the day to get to Onyxia’s Lair.

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Upon docking at the other side of the world, I was quickly reminded of another blast from the past. As I got off the ship and looked up at my screen, I saw the city of Theramore in all its vanilla glory, long before Garrosh and the Horde laid waste to it prior to the Mists of Pandaria expansion.

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I spent the next 10 minutes doing something I’m pretty sure every player is going to do repeatedly when Classic finally launches this August: I walked around an area I had not had the pleasure of seeing in years, taking screenshots every step of the way, stopping to admire the harbor and each building. I climbed the steps of Jaina Proudmoore’s tower and posed for screenshots with her at the top. I clicked on her repeatedly to listen to her dialogue, which now seems so innocent compared to what we’ve heard from our Lord Admiral and “Daughter of the Sea” in Battle for Azeroth

World of Warcraft Classic really will be a return to a simpler time in ways that I think will be welcomed by many players. Jaina’s back in Theramore and Thrall’s back in Orgrimmar. Bolvar Fordragon isn’t the Lich King, he’s the bodyguard for tiny little Anduin Wrynn in Stormwind Keep. (“Have you heard any news of my father?”) Meanwhile, Lady Katrana Prestor, *cough*Onyxia*cough* stands nearby, coldly plotting her next move.

Two Mobs Are Trouble, Three is a Death Wish

After a bit more sightseeing in Theramore, I ventured out into the Marsh to see what my little gnome mage could do. The entire zone was restored to its original glory and the significant changes made during the Cataclysm were nowhere to be seen. I immediately encountered dragonkin mobs towards the south of the map on the way to Onyxia.

Spamming Frostbolt a few times, I realized this was going to take a while. 1v1 combat in PvE finally felt like a real challenge again.

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I had to keep my shield spell up and use Frost Nova on cooldown to give myself some breathing room, all while being careful not to aggro additional mobs while fighting my current one. When I did accidentally aggro more enemies, I found that my mage was versatile enough to stay out of trouble, thanks to abilities like Blink and Polymorph, right up until the moment I was out of mana. Yes, mana depletes quickly even for damage dealers when you’re spamming every ability on your hot bar.

I ran for my life, but the Dustwallow Marsh was absolutely teeming with mobs. I was screwed no matter which way I went. Death number one arrived, but I wasn’t mad. I had just been challenged by Level 40 leveling content. My character was dead, and yet I felt so alive. I can’t remember that last time that happened while leveling in the retail game.

Sap, Sheep, and Plan Each Pull

I had the good fortune of playing on a rig that was located next to some of the WoW community’s biggest streamers and content creators, including Towelliee and EsfandTV. As I was enjoying my solo adventure near Theramore, I heard some hooting and hollering around me. All of the big name Twitch streamers and YouTubers decided to form five-man groups to tackle a wing in the Scarlet Monastery dungeon.

Anyone who has played WoW in recent years knows that most dungeons are now an AOE grind fest. Just pull the entire pack and start blasting everything down at once. From some of the yelling I heard, this is no longer going to be a successful strategy come August.

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I jumped into some dungeon fun myself with other players, and it was again incredibly refreshing to have strategy come into play on each and every pull. Packs with three or more mobs needed to be carefully crowd controlled or all hell would break loose, which was usually followed by our healer running out of mana, followed by yet another run back from the graveyard, another stupid smile on my face the whole way.

Southshore vs. Tarren Mill

10 minutes into my demo, another reporter walked over to my side of the room and tried to get a Southshore vs. Tarren Mill fight going. When World of Warcraft originally launched in November 2004, there were no Battlegrounds like Alterac Valley or Warsong Gulch in the game. Players made their own fun, with world PvP playing a big role.

The Hillsbrad Foothills zone was an especially big hotspot for Alliance vs. Horde bloodshed, with players congregating at either the Alliance town of Southshore or the Horde town of Tarren Mill, and then venturing forth to try and conquer the opposing side. The organic battle became so iconic that Blizzard brought it back as a special 40 vs. 40 instanced Battleground for an Anniversary event.

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Those of us at the Media Event weren’t quite able to get a full-scale battle going, as many players, including this reporter, needed to get up from our seats throughout the day and leave the demo area to interview various developers. But I was able to have at least a little fun, running into a handful of Horde players in the zone while trying to avoid the ??? level Tarren Mill guards who did NOT like me getting so close to their town.

When Classic launches, Blizzard will be following a content release plan that mirrors the original game, and that means Battlegrounds will remain unavailable until probably sometime in 2020. It only took a few minutes in Hillsbrad for me to realize that Southshore vs. Tarren Mill is going to come back in a very big way towards the end of this year, and I can’t wait.

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The Blood Plague Might Return, Unarmored Mounts Will Not

Throughout my seven hours with the Classic demo and other Blizzard games, reporters had the opportunity to speak to various Blizzard developers and community managers. I spoke Brian Birmingham, Lead Software Engineer, and Patrick Dawson, Production Director. Here’s some of the more interesting information I learned:

The Zul’Gurub “Blood Plague” bug used to allow players to take a debuff from a raid boss out of the raid and into the capital cities where it would quickly spread and kill many players. Blizzard patched this bug out of the game, which means it technically should not be available in the Patch 1.12 version of the original game that will ship as Classic.

But Birmingham said that he understands that some players might like to experience the Blood Plague again when Zul’Gurub releases in Phase 4:

“I would be lying if I didn’t say it came up,” Birmingham said. “We all had a good laugh about that experience. [Bringing it back] sounds interesting. I don’t have any plans to announce today, but it’s certainly something we thought was an amusing idea.”

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But while there might still be hope for fans of the Blood Plague, those hoping to get their hands on WoW‘s original unarmored mounts are out of luck. When vanilla first shipped, players who quickly got to max level and grinded 900 gold could get a mount that was essentially a naked animal with no armor on it because Blizzard had not finished the design. Blizzard eventually patched these mounts out and allowed players to switch to an armored version if desired. But those lucky few who got the original unarmored version were allowed to keep theirs. Because this version was only available for a very short amount of time at launch, they are essentially the rarest mounts in the game today.

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Birmingham said that the developers talked about putting the unarmored mounts into Classic for a limited time, but decided against it.

“We recently talked about this, and we were going back and forth for a little bit,” Birmingham said. “We pretty much committed at this point not to do that.

“The reason why is because we don’t want to incentivize people to a playstyle that they would not otherwise choose for their first level up experience. If someone comes into World of Warcraft, and we say, ‘Hey, you can only get this mount if you get to level 60 and get all this gold in the first month…’, we don’t want to force that on anybody. We want to make sure that everybody that comes back plays at their own pace that they feel is most comfortable.”

In-Game Reporting Clarification

Another hot topic for the Classic community has been the in-game reporting feature that will be available this time around. In retail WoW, players can right-click another player to report them for spam, abuse, or other violations. This feature was not available during the original version of the game. The concern is that players could abuse this feature by spam reporting a member of the opposing faction who has killed them in PvP or otherwise drawn their ire. Birmingham explained that the feature is an important tool, but there will be a human element to it and not just automatic bans based on algorithms.

“We do have in the user interface the ability to right click and report somebody. That’s certainly there and we want to make sure it’s really easy if somebody is being abusive to you, we want to make sure it’s really easy to report that. It’s really important to us to make it a safe and welcoming environment for everybody.” the developer said. “You’re right that the opposite side of that is if somebody is being abusive by trying to report somebody unfairly, that’s also not okay. There are humans involved in this process. If you feel like you’ve been actioned inappropriately, you can reach out to customer service.”

New Level 60 Content After Naxxramas?

In the original World of Warcraft, the level 60 Naxxramas raid was essentially the last major content update for the game before The Burning Crusade arrived. Den of Geek noticed many players on the ClassicWoW subreddit and elsewhere talking about Blizzard creating new level 60 content, including brand new 40-man raids if Classic is a huge success. It would be an opportunity for Blizzard to continue developing the game with its original sensibilities in mind. We were a bit surprised when Blizzard told us it’s a real possibility and not a crazy pipe dream.

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“Anything is on the table. This is a love letter to our fans,” Dawson said. “If the fans have a desire for something, it would absolutely be considered. We’re certainly not planning to do that today, but if people want more, we can talk about that. We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”

World of Warcraft Classic begins its closed beta May 15 and releases in full on August 27.

Jason M. Gallagher is a freelance contributor. Read more of his work here.