World of Warcraft: Classic — and vanilla WoW in general — is a divisive product. Some veterans will feel like they spent enough time in that nightmarish, original version of Azeroth back in the day, while others long to go back. Some new players may approach it and wonder how it was ever popular; others will latch on right away. It won’t be a product for everyone.
No matter who you are, it’s hard to sit down and load up the Classic demo without feeling some grand sense of scale wash over you. World of Warcraft: Classic takes the famous MMO back to its roots, before any expansions were released. It’s the version of the game from 2004, and it’s still absolutely massive — even by today’s standards. As you wander the plains of the Barrens or the grassy hills of Westfall, it’s hard not to see the appeal of hunting down one more stupid NPC for a quest.
But it’s often not the quests that are tantalizing; it’s the journey in between them. Without any kind of direction, you’re forced to read and wander your way to your objectives and back. Even if you know where you’re going, the scope of the world around you feels vast and beautiful, despite the painfully low resolution.
That scope and the restricted style of play creates a grander journey. In the years since World of Warcraft first launched, getting around its massive world has gotten easier. But in exchange for convenience, we leave some of the original adventure behind ... even if there are parts of that adventure we dread returning to.
“[I’m not looking forward to] playing my Shaman, coming off level 20, getting the quest to get my water totem before I can keep learning a number of my abilities,” said Ion Hazzikostas, the game’s director, when we spoke to him at BlizzCon about his own anxiety toward returning to the world of vanilla WoW, “then having to go across the other continent halfway through a zone that I’ve never been to, just to get this one item so that I can actually learn my next spell that my trainer has to teach me.
“Slight, slight inconvenience.”
But Hazzikostas was grinning the entire time we spoke about his old memories. For as much as he dreads going back to the Eastern Kingdoms to get his totem, his nostalgic fondness has him excited for it as well.
Regardless of how annoying a giant journey around Azeroth can be back in Classic, it remains one of the game’s major selling points. In Classic, you can’t fly and your mounts are slow — if you ever get one. You take the giant world one step at a time, dirtying your metaphorical boots along the dozens of zones.
World of Warcraft: Classic is slow-paced. Modern World of Warcraft is filled with ways to move faster. It’s about the task at hand, not the time that it takes you to get there. The time spent traveling between areas in the classic version would be better spent standing up to get a drink or make yourself a sandwich. Nowadays, we don’t have to worry about wasted time: You fly or teleport yourself nearly everywhere.
When I loaded into World of Warcraft: Classic during a demo at BlizzCon, it was hard not to notice that difference in speed. But because my map was useless, and because there were no arrows telling me where to go, I remembered everything. That tree marks where I need to turn right back into town, a bunch of Plainstalkers spawned around this rock. You create and store memories around these locations instantly — places I’ve been running right by for years.
Looking into the distance, I saw the four low-poly trees and the endless nothing that awaited me, but I couldn’t simply bypass it like I can now. Every direction, no matter how plain, is an adventure I hadn’t taken yet. That kind of exploration and slow paced adventure isn’t for everyone, but it’s hard not appreciate that it’s there.
“It’s [deliberately] paced, about the journey,” said Hazzikostas. “And I think some of it is just how long it takes to get around, your pace of travel. Those things affect the way you interact with the world around you. And I think different people have different preferences, right? Some people are going to prefer Red Dead [Redemption] 2, some are going to prefer Spider-Man [PS4].”
Veteran players have nostalgia on their side when it comes to Classic. It’s easy to go back through an area like Westfall and start spouting off memories from way back when. But for fans who cut their teeth on the game after the old days, Classic will be all about finding a new perspective on a world they’re probably already familiar with. From there, it’ll be up to those players to make memories of their own.