I am a thousand feet above the Forbidden Reach, and elemental winds whip my dragonlike wings. I flew in World of Warcraft (opens in new tab) many times before, but you could hardly call that flying compared to the Dractyr Soar’s racial 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 just float in the air endlessly. Seeing that I’m just over my next quest objective on the minimap, I fall hard toward the cold ground. I want to try something.
Just before I would have reached the horizon line and made a nice reptile puree, I tap the button to break out of the floating animation and instantly smash the key to my new Deep Breath ability, still in the air. Without skipping a beat, I unfurl my wings again and unleash a fiery strafing run, crushing the unfortunate foes who didn’t even see me coming.
“What just happened??” I excitedly ask my dog sleeping a few feet away who doesn’t know the answer and doesn’t care.
highway into the danger zone
At that moment, I really had to check myself: wait, that’s it World of Warcraft? This completely insane aerial maneuver I just pulled took place in a practically old MMO that I started playing 18 years ago, when the culmination of the adventure was watching my human character attack wolves with a stick automatically ? I have mixed feelings about WoW: Dragonflight’s back-to-basics philosophy (opens in new tab). But I have to leave it to Blizzard with my big, scaly claw: stuff like that makes Azeroth feel like new again.
From its humble beginnings, Warcraft has been a seething stew of over-the-top tropes of epic fantasy, steampunk, comics, and heavy metal. The idea of just making you a fire-breathing dragon that can dash across the landscape and grill your enemies is totally natural. It’s almost the pinnacle of what the ideal Warcraft experience should be: it’s fun, it’s flashy, it’s excessive, and it’s kind of goofy. I can not get enough of this.
Of course, the lore and themes behind the Dractyr are a bit muddled. For ages, there have been five “dragonflights” in Warcraft lore, each with their own color, powers, and cosmological duties. The red dragonflight is the protector of life, the bronze dragonflight is the keeper of time, and so on. The Dractyr, on the other hand, were created with the powers of all five swarms, and so the Maintenance Heal subclass uses both the green swarm’s natural powers to heal wounds and the bronze swarm’s time warp to literally rewind you before you hit your head with an axe became. All of these powers are definitely cool, but it feels a bit strange that you can’t pick your favorite dragon color and fully embrace this fantasy. I understand that creating and balancing five different subclasses would have been an unprecedented development challenge, but it’s hard not to see this as a missed opportunity.
The mechanical elements that unite all Dractyrs (opens in new tab) definitely make up for it. With the 2016 Legion expansion, the last time we got a new class, Blizzard started breaking the traditional rules of what a WoW character can do with the highly mobile demon hunter. And the Evoker (the class to which all Dractyrs belong, so I generally just use “Dracthyr” here to refer to both race and class) pushes those boundaries even further. They have many movement options, from a limited levitation that allows them to use all other spells while moving, to the ability to snatch your friend who isn’t paying attention out of the fire and guide them to safety.
You also get several abilities that can be charged and deal more damage or heal depending on how long you hold the button. This is an MMO that came out when Everquest 1 was king and ran on vintage code that severely limits how responsive and tactile combat can feel. Just making a 40-man raid work in 2004 was a work of technical wizardry, and even today, WoW continues to build on the legacy of the sacrifices it had to make to make that possible. Backend upgrades in the nearly two decades since can only address the problem to a limited extent. So if the class designers can really make me feel like I’m playing a much faster action game than WoW really has under the hood just through clever ability design, then that’s a long way off.
I hope I die before I grow old
WoW kite flight (opens in new tab): Everything we know
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Dractyr summoner (opens in new tab): The new race and class
Since my WoW account is old enough to vote in most countries as of this year, one could easily get the feeling that the end is near. But running dungeons and taking on world bosses with my badass lady dragon did the opposite for me. At some point, we and Blizzard will have to move away from WoW. But it could still be a while if they keep throwing aside convention and experimenting with what this game can be, rather than simply remixing what it was.
The honeymoon with a new patch or expansion is always difficult to draw conclusions from. Perhaps, with time, flying around on dragon wings and spewing flames across the battlefield will become another keystroke sequence I’ll memorize in order to get through dungeons as quickly as possible. But for now? WoW actually feels like a different game when I channel my inner Smaug, and I’m going to enjoy it while I can.
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