The last time I was here, it was August. Since then, an awful lot has changed, a considerable amount of it not really that stellar, if truth be told. Someone asked me on Twitter this past weekend whether I thought J. Allen Brack’s apology for the Hong Kong Affair was genuine or not:  he wasn’t apologising to me, that’s for damn sure. That cut-scene was for the shareholders and press, many of whom seized on this opportunity to point out that actually, nothing really ever changes.

Sorry, Mr Brack, but you will never be Mike Morhaine. It’s that situation when Doctor Who swaps from an actor you love and respected to another that really isn’t living up to the ethos that personal memory and experience has built over many years. You never replace the Chris Metzens of this gaming world, they become legend and must never be touched, however much that might become inconvenient over time.

Yes, that was an apology, but does it make anything better?

An awful lot has remained steadfastly unchanged in the Warcraft Universe since… well, probably Pandaria, if we’re honest. That became the template which everything has subsequently been cut and pasted from in terms of art resources, land masses, zones and creatures. The slow, sensible upgrade of all housing and external resources means that, undoubtedly at some point, the old World will be re-rendered as ‘new.’

The features that have been tried and tossed aside since then still exist however, in various forms. There’s that quest in Boralus where you free villagers from Void Octopi: pulling their tentacles is just like pulling up weeds at Halfhill. I’m sure that Island Expeditions would not exist without the invention of the Scenario, and I’ll bet those mechanics will be making a reappearance in Shadowlands.

Everything that is seemingly new, undoubtedly comes from judicious recycling. It’s the only means by which the Dev team can decrease content release times: same model skeletons, different skins. That new mount you get from pre-ordering, for instance, looks suspiciously as if it’s a Pandaran dragon skeleton underneath. Getting excited about new therefore is a bit of a pointless exercise.

Except this time, there’s an actual difference from expansions past.

There were, undoubtedly, complaints on the announcement that we’ll be going back to L50 to begin Shadowlands. However, when you set this reduction in its wider context, the fact that all new characters will have a redesigned, re-purposed 1-10 levelling experience before being able to choose their path based on previous experience… this is huge. No, really, this is absolutely massive.

Kudos to the Devs responsible for this. Well done on realising you could finally, sensibly recycle every single old Expansion as a stand alone ‘experience’ if they were a) all scaleable and b) they could be completed in approximately the same number of days ‘played.’ It was, in the end, an exercise in maths and data, the stuff Blizzard prides itself on using already. Tweak the XP rewards, alter the skills paths.

All that is old can, and will become new again.

The other vital change was announced last night: all those personalities making their living back in the day from pushing for the removal of ‘button bloat’ (presumably because they found it too hard to play well) were undoubtedly part of the reason players started yearning for The Good Old Days, and went back to Classic with joyful glee. With a return to Classic level cap, Retail now has a chance to regroup.

It’s ironic, when I look at this from my position, a long way from the bright centre of bleeding edge progression, that all those promises of cohesive Group Fantasy and better playability were finally put to shame by a 15 year old, low graphic qualitied concept that allowed players to do what they wanted, to play how they chose. Player agency was what defined Classic’s meteoric rise in the first place.

It is ironic therefore that Shadowlands owes so much to the game that created it.

I still have some fairly major misgivings going forward: like, for instance, that fucking huge sword in Silithus what I really hope isn’t going to be conveniently ignored for the sake of narrative expediency. Those of us who have been here for 15 years will look at this zone preview and see nothing really new: that bit comes from Highmountain, another bit from that zone in Legion… the reskinning and repurposing becomes quite easy to spot, after a time.

That, however, should not take away from the Dev team a very clear and obvious effort this time around not only to listen to criticism, but to make good on promises that happened a very long time before politics became anyone anybody wanted to talk about. I note that Shadowlands will be delivered ‘on or before December 31st, 2020’ so that gives us over a year as players to have some kind of constructive input on what might yet transpire.

As it stands, from this distance, the potential is surprisingly strong this early out.

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