Screenshot: World Of Warcraft: Legion/Blizzard Entertainment

It’s easy to dismiss the plot of World Of Warcraft: Legion as evidence that Blizzard has run out of ideas. Its sixth expansion is devoted to the fight against the Burning Legion, the same army of world-conquering demons that was the primary antagonist of the game’s first expansion, The Burning Crusade. But Blizzard proves its world is worth fighting for by embracing the game’s long history rather running from it, drawing on its huge reserve of characters, settings, and lore to produce its darkest and most story-driven expansion to date.

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Appropriately, Legion’s opening is the most dramatic since players surged through the Dark Portal to battle the Legion in The Burning Crusade. The game makes a point of getting back to its social roots by grouping players into a massive and chaotic battle against the invading forces who are surging into Azeroth through the opening of the dark god Sargeras’ tomb. At one point, players in the Horde and Alliance are separated by a chasm but take turns battling the same massive foe, but the fight goes badly. The forces of Azeroth are outmanned, outgunned, and forced to retreat after having lost the leaders of both factions.

Screenshot: World Of Warcraft: Legion/Blizzard Entertainment

Blizzard spends a lot of time in Legion trimming its bloated roster of powerful characters and letting players step up to fill the void. You’ll eventually become the leader of your character’s chosen class, which provides the most powerful incentive ever to level up multiple avatars since you’ll need several to experience all of the game’s quest chains. Each class also gets its own hall, a more social version of the garrison system from Warlords Of Draenor, with players sharing the same virtual space rather than having a base just populated by their computerized followers. Legion abandons the Farmville-like elements that originated in Mists Of Pandaria and made visiting your garrison feel like a necessary chore. Now, if you want to gather materials to build potions or armor, you have to go back into the world. The follower system in Draenor was at its best when you were recruiting NPCs that you’d spent significant time with, but it became weirdly abstract when you started just buying contracts for people who had specific beneficial abilities. In Legion, you have a limited number of followers who you help by recruiting expendable underlings or conducting research for upgrades in a system borrowed from StarCraft II.

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To fight the Legion, Azeroth needs powerful weapons. The search to find them is split into a hunt for the Pillars Of Creation, which can help seal the gateway into Azeroth, and a set of artifacts tailored to every build option for each class. It’s hard for a shield just invented for Legion to stack up against the excitement of acquiring Ashbringer, a weapon that’s been part of the game’s lore for years, but Blizzard tries to give the items equal weight by designing a series of dramatic quests that test a player’s skills in a particular role, like making a healer keep a squad alive. Once acquired, the artifacts can be leveled up and customized by completing additional quests and finding items dropped by rare enemies or hidden in treasure chests around the world.

Those added bonuses for exploration help make Legion the game’s least linear expansion. Players can choose from one of four starting points based on what interests them most, with options ranging from dealing with the remnants of a lost elf society to earning the respect of giant Vikings. Paths to the other zones open up quickly, and soon, you can easily move between them, completing quests for the main plot, your class-specific campaign, and your profession, while periodically detouring to rescue baby animals or delve for orbs that can summon giant bosses. The questing formula sticks to classic kill-and-gather missions, but the game leans heavily on bonus objectives that make leveling up fast and painless.

And getting into the game has gotten even easier. Not only do you get a free level 100 character when you sign on, but professions have been untethered from your level, meaning you won’t need to spend hours building basic items to start working on the crafts you’ll actually want at level 110. Instead, you’re tasked with some entertaining quests that instill the same pride in your profession as Legion attempts to build for your class. For instance, if you bring a book of alchemical formula to your alchemy trainer, he’ll send you to the inscription trainer for a translation while insulting anyone who would spend their time making scrolls. Soon after, his hubris leads to his lab getting wrecked and your alchemist has to help him repair things by visiting magical locations to power a Bunsen burner.

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The ease of starting a new character is especially helpful given that Legion introduces a new class: the demon hunter. Like Wrath Of The Lich King’s death knights, demon hunters are an elite class, meaning you start one at level 98 rather than level 1 and are dropped right into fighting the Burning Legion by making deeply questionable decisions and eating a lot of demon souls. Along with looking awesome, the class is excellent, a highly mobile fighter than can leap out of fights, then charge back in while transformed into a demon. They also get wings that can be used to glide around the world, providing new ways to explore and fall to your death. Their quest line includes one of the most gorgeous cutscenes Blizzard has ever produced and shows a new experimentation with narrative choice, as you can opt to follow one of two leaders without it having any effect on your character’s faction or powers.

Along with building pathos by killing well-established characters, Legion shows the scope of the demonic invasion by pushing the action beyond the new zones it introduces. In one quest line, players are sent to the Exodar—a city that had been largely forgotten by Blizzard since The Burning Crusade—and find it in flames. The class halls themselves occupy old real estate, like the Light’s Hope Chapel, a place where paladins have been fighting the enemies of all that is holy since the game’s launch 2004. After more than a decade, the lore has gotten incredibly dense, so some of these moments fall flat if you don’t remember why you’re supposed to care about a certain character or group, but the high quality voice acting and art help bridge the emotional gap.

And the expansion houses plenty of humor to go along with the drama. One plotline sees the dramatic death of a character that’s been around since Warcraft III and the corruption and destruction of an ancient order of druids, but it’s punctuated by some fights that show Blizzard’s writers have spent an inordinate amount of time coming up with tree puns. Because there’s so much to explore you can usually find a zone or task that suits your current mood.

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Warlords Of Draenor also had a strong launch, but a lack of content updates caused its following to drop off dramatically. As players renew their subscriptions to try Legion, Blizzard will have to work to retain them. The first raid and a new player-vs.-player season are starting soon, and Blizzard has already previewed a massive amount of content it plans to release with the expansion’s first patch including a revamped version of the Burning Crusade raid Karazhan. If can it continue to learn from its mistakes and embrace the things that made the game great, this expansion will keep players fighting until the Burning Legion has been defeated for good.

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