Running through one of World of Warcraft: Dragonflight’s new zones, the Azure Span, it was hard not to reminisce about the Azeroth of old. The massively multiplayer online game’s original locations had a rustic feel to them, an aesthetic shared by the new Dragonflight zone we were able to check out in a preview of the expansion’s upcoming alpha test.
And while going back to one’s visual roots isn’t always the most exciting box feature, it works so well with Dragonflight because moving around the zone functions differently thanks to a brand-new feature: Dragonriding.
I wasn’t overwhelmingly excited for Dragonriding in World of Warcraft’s ninth expansion, but I felt its impact immediately upon logging in for the first time. Unlike previous expansions, where flying on the new landmass was typically reserved for about a year post-release, Dragonflight offers it before you even reach max level. But this is not flight as World of Warcraft players have known it since the Burning Crusade days, where one simply points their mount in the direction they want to go and flies in a straight line. This is falling with style.
When I mounted my dragon in the Dragon Isles, my usual abilities were replaced with unique Dragonriding skills, and I was presented with a new UI that denoted my dragon’s energy levels. I hit the spacebar twice to make my dragon take off. But while we started with a great deal of momentum, our speed slowed over time as my dragon fell into a glide. By flapping its wings again, we regained our speed and picked up some height — although it cost a chunk of my dragon’s limited energy, which only refills when flying at mach speeds or resting on the ground.
I started clumsy, but over time, I learned to dive and pull up at the last moment to gain speed without expending any energy. Eventually I’d need to flap again to regain some altitude, but only an hour into my time with the system, I was dive-bombing my way into quest encampments and traversing the zone with ease.
A world that starts with flight has to be built differently to accommodate it. In a group interview, game director Ion Hazzikostas told us that the Azure Span is the largest single zone in World of Warcraft history, and that other zones in Dragonflight are comparable.
That means that there’s a lot of “negative space” in the Azure Span — places you may never actually need to visit for a quest. And while that may sound boring, that expanse made the world feel alive and massive in a way that no zone has since Mists of Pandaria (the expansion Blizzard often likens Dragonflight to the most). The areas I explored in Dragonflight felt like lived-in spaces that I was stumbling on, rather than a densely packed forest built with quests in mind.
The delightful Dragonriding hours I got during my Dragonflight preview were just a taste of the larger system. Over time, players will earn ways to customize their drake and earn more energy, which should make flying easier. The goal of the system, Hazzikostas said, is that players will eventually have the same, if not significantly faster, movement options seen with World of Warcraft’s old-school flying. But getting there will take both in-game upgrades (which are account-wide) and mastery of the new mechanic. So when players eventually leap into the air, they’ll have an enjoyable time flying from one side of the Dragon Isles to the other, rather than simply hitting “auto-run” and getting up to get a drink while your lifeless mount flaps away.
As for the future of Dragonriding, Hazzikostas told us that it’s an expansion feature currently only designed for the Dragon Isles. However, the hope is that fans enjoy it so much that they demand its implementation throughout the rest of Azeroth. Only a few hours in, I personally can’t imagine going back to the far less engaging flight system that WoW has been using for nearly two decades.