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World of Warcraft: Legion is here, and it's just like I remembered

Commentary: After twelve years and six expansions, coming back to World of Warcraft is a foregone conclusion. But it's something we do to ourselves.

This isn't about the first time I played World of Warcraft. Nor is it about the last time, or any of the half a dozen times I quit forever. It's about this feeling I get when I come back to the game, as I have done, and have resigned myself to do over and over again.

I've been playing World of Warcraft -- Blizzard's all-powerful, all-conquering massively multiplayer online roleplaying game -- off and on for more than a decade. I could tell you exactly how much time I'd spent playing, but for my sanity I'd rather not know. But I remember so much about playing this game.

I remember being stuck with terribly mismatched armour on my hunter because anything better refused to drop. I remember discovering, after knowing his digital self for a year, that my raid leader and I went to the same university. I remember one player-versus-player arena match that turned into a game of peekaboo that went for half an hour.

It's just a game, one I've played a whole lot of. But really, it's more than that. It's a place I've shared with friends I know in real life, and friends I've only met through the game. The sheer mass of content, of players, of time spent, means the memories aren't really something I can easily shake.

Screenshot by Luke Lancaster/CNET

Looking at what developer Blizzard has planned for its new expansion, Legion, it is putting our fond memories front and centre to win its own quest for more subscribers. Legion is roping in Azerothian all-stars, bringing back old-school enemies and iconic locations, building up player classes into the ideal versions of what they should be. It's trading on those old memories with every quality of life update added to the game since launch.

My latest WoW relapse was just over a month ago, when the first touches of the upcoming Legion expansion were added to the game. Though I was logging into characters I'd invested (or should I say "invested") hundreds of hours into, Legion's completely redesigned skill trees and abilities meant that I was at a bit of a loss. In the time-honoured tradition of Warcraft, I went and killed boars with my mage until I sorted everything out.

Somewhere around boar number 12, when I was the embodiment of living flame and calling down meteors with a button press, the feeling started to come back. It wasn't because I'd remembered how to play, because I never really forgot the basics. It was because right then, I got a message from a friend, asking if I wanted to go and run through some old dungeons.

Screenshot by Luke Lancaster/CNET

That's what my friends and I have been doing this past month. All of us long-term, all of us having quit and un-quit more times than we should have. With our characters at maximum level, we've been running through what would have been the hardest content in the game five, six, seven years ago. Instead of a group of 25 hardcore raiders, it was the three of us casually destroying what was only accessible to the most elite of players once upon a time.

On this latest trip to Sunwell Plateau, one of the dungeons released in 2008, a friend was inspecting the spoils of victory from an enormous demon we'd killed in embarrassingly short order. "I remember all this armour," he said. "I was just never good enough to get it at the time."

That's why we were there, after all. To see the old content and acquire that gear, now for purely cosmetic purposes. But it was more than that. I remembered how that armour looked too, adorning players well beyond our level as we loitered around capital cities in the game. Back then there was a lot of loitering.

I'm sure people are still coming to World of Warcraft fresh, discovering a universe decades in the making for the first time. But everyone I know is coming back to rediscover the familiar. It's day one of Legion as I write this, and as it normally goes on expansion day one, I'm queued and waiting to get into the server. When (or if, judging by the time) I finally get in, I'll have new worlds to explore. But it's the one I already know that I'll be looking for.