Since the announcement of Dragonflight, the ninth World of Warcraft expansion, Blizzard has been determinedly tight-lipped on the details of what’s coming. Understandably so, given that now seems like a really critical time for Blizzard to impress.
Coming off the heels of Shadowlands, which garnered significant criticism for its endgame content and its story (looking at you, Sylvanas), Dragonflight has a lot to prove. It’s an expansion that the community has asked about for years, featuring playable dragon characters in the Dracthyr Evoker hero class and a high-speed new mount system in dragon riding. It promises much-needed upgrades to the profession system, and customizable UI. And it’s all coming out by the end of this year, per Blizzard.
Fortunately for those of us who have been wondering when the fog around the Dragon Isles might finally lift, Blizzard is preparing to launch its public alpha later this week, and I was able to get a brief, limited taste of what the dragons there have in store.
World of Warcraft: Dragonflight Alpha Screenshots
I spent a few hours in the colorful, scaly skin of a Dracthyr Evoker, the new race/class combo launching with Dragonflight. Were my time not limited, I probably could have spent hours fussing with the Dracthyr character creator before I ever got into Dragonflight, customizing every detail of both the draconic and human forms of my Evoker – from her multicolored hair right down to the scales on her feet. It’s the most robust character creation Blizzard has made for a WoW race before, though at least some part of that is due to Dracthyr’s unique draconic forms requiring a custom armor set they wear all the time rather than taking on the visual appearance of whatever armor they happen to have equipped. I can see that trade-off being off-putting to those with massive transmog collections, but fortunately, the human Dracthyr appearances will wear whatever armor they’re currently donning, so you can still show it off. It definitely makes the character creators for all of Blizzard’s other races, especially the older ones, look woefully thin, though, and I hope once Dracthyr are locked in some of that love will get shared around.
The healing specialization, Preservation, wasn’t available yet, but I got a decent tour of the ranged magic abilities of the Devastation spec. Sturdier than a mage, warlock, or priest, but far more mobile than an elemental shaman, Devastation Evokers have a curious toolkit that deftly mixes crowd control, multi-target damage, and movement. For instance, I was able to use Landslide to root multiple enemies in a line in front of me, then take to the air with Deep Breath and soar above their heads, blasting them all with fire where they stood. I could then remain where I landed, or use Recall to warp back to my starting point before they’d even broken out of my Landslide.
I also enjoyed the novelty of the charged ability Fire Breath, which does more damage if you hold the button down to charge it fully, though currently its quick charge time doesn’t make the wait feel like much of a sacrifice. I’d like to see Blizzard do more with the charge mechanic, and hope it doesn’t get relegated to a one-move gimmick that’s quickly patched out. I see a lot of potential for some fun risk/reward play here, especially for such an otherwise mobile caster class.
It’s tough to know exactly how the Dracthyr’s talent tree will play out this early on, but another aspect I enjoyed was the criss-crossing customizability of both the Evoker tree and the Devastation tree. Devastation splits off into fire-themed and arcane-themed branches, but depending on how you spend your points it’s easy to either focus almost entirely on one with only a few benefits of the other, or mix and match while still unlocking some of the more powerful talents. The same goes for the Evoker tree, which has a side dedicated to crowd control and another dedicated to healing. All of this is likely subject to change, and the endgame will probably dictate what the best players use. But the differentiation in the trees is nonetheless enticing, almost like sub-specializations. I hope that dedication to themes bears out in other classes, too.
My brief stint in the Dragon Isles took my Evoker and me to the Azure Span, one of the five new zones in Dragonflight. The Azure Span’s blue dragonflight caretakers evoke thoughts of mountains and ice, and certainly the zone had plenty of that. But it also featured a lush green wood further down the mountain, and golden grassy stretches dotted between. It’s still early yet, and Blizzard is clearly still filling in the Azure Span with creatures, characters, and secrets, but what struck me most were the colors. There’s no denying that World of Warcraft looks increasingly dated the longer it goes on, but interesting color palettes, architecture, and geography can do a lot to mitigate that. Shadowlands already did a promising job of breaking WoW of some of its worst visual impulses (read: grey/brown wastelands and green fire), so if the Azure Span ends up emblematic of the rest of the Dragon Isles, then Dragonflight on the whole might not be so bad to stare at for the next two years or so of expansion content.
Especially from the air.
The best bit of Dragonflight thus far is, wonderfully, the exact thing being advertised in the title: the dragon flying (or riding, to use the technical term). Prior to this, all of WoW’s flight was merely accelerated movement across all three axes, and unlockable only after having jumped through numerous hoops with each new expansion. It was a means to an end, a way to get from Point A to B without having to tromp tediously up mountains or use winding flight paths. Dragonflight promises something far more dynamic, though. It promises speed and verticality; an activity undertaken for its own sake, with its own customizations and improvements unlockable throughout the expansion as opposed to a one-time reward.
The pre-alpha gave me extremely limited access to the new and dramatically improved flying feature, but that was enough to sell me. The Azure Span my pre-alpha tour took place in is wonderfully vertical, allowing me the pleasure of leaping off its absurdly high cliff faces and swooping down into the valleys below at high speeds. I was able to build speed on declines that was then spent as I soared upward again, but I could also spend energy on a special stamina meter (called ‘Vigor’) to flap back upward or zip straight ahead even faster. With a bit of practice, I was mapping out flight paths from the Azure Span’s highest peaks that took me all the way across the zone and (oops, sorry) into a few areas Blizzard clearly didn’t want me poking around in yet. I cannot wait to unlock barrel rolls.
Early dragon riding admittedly leaves a few things to be desired, though. The Azure Span I soared through wasn’t finished yet, and I’m hoping its final cut includes more in the way of interesting flying tests or quests that can only be completed by mastering the swooping skills I was tooling around with. And the climbs back uphill when your energy is spent are about as enjoyable as dragging your toboggan up a mountain after a gleeful sled down. Blizzard has clearly left room for more skills and more stamina, unlockable throughout the expansion, that could trivialize this problem for those who invest enough in their dragons. I already picked up a number of cosmetic customizations for my mounts just from finishing a few regular sidequests, which leaves me optimistic that dragon riding will be effectively woven through both the leveling experience and the endgame when the time comes.
With just a few hours to spend in pre-alpha and some pretty significant training wheels on what I was allowed to do, it’s hard to get a very exact taste of how Dragonflight will shape up. I didn’t get a solid grasp of where the main story was going, for instance, but I did spend a lot of time doing very World of Warcraft activities like collecting pinecones and killing a set amount of air elementals. The expansion is bringing with it a significant profession overhaul, and I did get to fuss with the crafting menus for a bit, but so much of its success depends on resource availability, economy, and tuning that it’s tough to get a handle on whether this is more than just an interface improvement just yet. Similarly, UI customization appears to still be in its infancy, so while I’m optimistic for the feature, we’re likely in for a lot of tinkering time left before anyone can say one way or another whether we should all ditch our old add-ons or not (though I’m delighted to have a toggle to combine my bags at last!). That doesn’t even mention all the keys to endgame: dungeons, PvP, raids, and whatever other scenarios Blizzard wants to throw at us.
For now, though, the Dragon Isles seem a welcoming enough place to spend some time in, and are certainly worth the vigor it takes to swoop and soar around. I’m curious to see whether Blizzard can ultimately deliver on its grandest promises for an expansion fans have been asking for since World of Warcraft expansions first became a thing, especially at such a chaotic time for the company and studio.
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.