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Exploring Freedom In World Of Warcraft

My mind started racing with ideas when we here at Game Informer decided to reflect on games that made us feel free for the Fourth of July. I still remember gleefully tearing across the countryside in ATV Offroad Fury and creating imaginative freeform missions in GoldenEye 007 with my friends via its pioneering console multiplayer. But when it comes down to it, no game has made me feel so free as the original World of Warcraft.

Before WoW, the classic Warcraft series was my real-time strategy introduction. I quickly became enamored with the dark tone of the war between men and orcs. I devoured the story of the wizard Medivh opening a portal to the world of the orcs. I loved Warcraft III’s introduction of the continent of Kalimdor and the feuding armies’ joint attack against the demonic Burning Legion invaders. I happily dived into novels that expanded the stories behind the characters and the lands they fought so hard for. I wanted to visit Azeroth before I ever knew Blizzard was considering opening a portal to it for fans everywhere.

Despite all my love for the series’ rich lore, World of Warcraft stumbled out of the gate as a storytelling platform. WoW failed to weave compelling tales thanks to bland NPC text and fetch quests, but made up for it in spades with a sprawling, diverse set of continents begging for players to explore them. I bought World of Warcraft at launch in 2004 at a friend’s recommendation, but we rarely ended up questing together. Free of the exhaustive online guides that would come later, WoW began as an uncharted frontier. I spent hundreds of hours exploring Azeroth by myself, questing and getting better gear just so I could venture into new territory without getting killed instantly. 

I still fondly remember the first time I was resurrected into the Tirisfal Glades as an undead warrior. The murky, haunted landscape used to be home to the bustling human race, but the castle of Lordaeron ultimately fell and the undead claimed the broken hold. The sprawling wooded environment, bordered by mountains and water did a better job of telling a story than any NPC could. I reveled in hiking up mountains, swimming out to sea, and following trails into the next region. Few games have instilled virtual wanderlust in me so effectively, often tempting me to trek into deadly zones far above my skill level.

Blizzard didn’t just succeed in creating two huge continents with miles of digital terrain to explore; the developer also succeeded in injecting staggering variety into the various regions. I spent dozens of hours leveling up near the undead’s Undercity capital before finally hopping on a zeppelin towards the Horde capital of Orgrimmar. The dry, sun-bleached savannahs were a shock compared to the dreary forests of Tirisfal Glades. At that moment I knew I needed to explore every inch of Azeroth. It became my mission. The mighty pillars and expansive salt lake of Thousand Needles. The dinosaur and wildcat-infested jungles of Stranglethorn Vale. The intricately carved mountain statues on the path towards Ironforge – the list goes on. My friends focused on honing the perfect champions and finding the rarest loot, but I insisted on treading every acre.

The sense of wonder only intensified when I finally unlocked mounts. Cruising across rivers and through mountain passes on a skeletal steed made visiting every corner even more amazing. I spent so much time soaking in the expanse of Azeroth that I didn’t reach level cap with a single character until 2008’s Wrath of the Lich King expansion set, when I finally got my flying mount. The wonder had worn off a touch by that time, but I still made a point to set sail for the frozen lands of Northrend.

To this day, I still get the undeniable itch to return to World of Warcraft. It’s not an uncommon craving for longtime WoW players, but my desire to return isn’t rooted in min/maxing stats or twinking a character for the Battlegrounds. I want to recapture the tremendous sense of freedom and possibility that came with venturing off to one of the biggest virtual worlds ever created.

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