How does a video game stay fresh and relevant in the minds of fans and popular culture? Back before the days of the internet, when it was all about stand-alone games and LAN parties, impressing players with a sequel and building a franchise of games was the usual practice. Then the phenomenon of the massively multiplayer online role-playing game took off. While stand-alone games still enjoy fan-made mods and other additions, MMOs are all about new content, and sooner or later every thread in the grand MMO tapestry leads to the World of Warcraft.
The base game was released in 2004, and in the 16 years since then, there have been seven expansions to the retail version of the game, with another on the horizon. There’s already a lot of hype surrounding the release of Shadowlands with the Beta version currently up and running, ironically in stiff competition with a revamp of Classic WoW. This is a game in which the selling point is that there are no expansions, and it’s been Blizzard’s most successful venture in some time. If a 15-year-old game is the main competition for a new game that’s the result of a long line of expansions, maybe it’s time to rethink this whole marketing strategy.
7 Battle for Azeroth (2018), Metascore 79
Released in 2018, Battle for Azeroth is the most recent expansion and has seen mixed reviews from both players and critics. It seemed to try and do what was fashionable at the time, and in this case, that meant going back to the roots of the game. This means it actually calls back to the RTS games of the 1990s in the way that players take on the personas of noted Azerothian heroes and play their stories.
After how many years of building up a unique character of their own, however, this wasn’t such a thrilling option for many. Players did appreciate a return to the old story of Horde versus Alliance, but anyone who likes nostalgia that much is playing Classic WoW anyway.
6 Mists of Pandaria (2012), Metascore 82
Reactions to this expansion are visceral, with some marking it as a time of achievement and creativity, while others declared that World of Warcraft had now gone off the rails and would never be the same game again. Visually, the new continent and the related characters were stunning, and players finally had a neutral race to play.
However, the expansion had a few tonal problems. Did something so colorful and cheerful really belong in a game about war, conflict, and betrayal? Other controversial changes were also a part of this massive expansion, like pet battles and even further streamlining the LFG systems, factors that put it close to the bottom of everyone’s favorite list.
5 Warlords of Draenor (2014), Metascore 87
This is hardly a player or critic favorite, but even worse, it’s the expansion that nobody seems to have asked for or ever cared about. There were already plenty of games that focused on prequels or traveling to an ancient time period and provided players with the ability to conquer their own territory and build their own base.
Other than raising the level cap and adding a few new skins and abilities, this expansion didn’t have much for people who weren’t into old Orc lore or enjoyed the social aspects of the game. Not that many players cared about what happened to Grom Hellscream, so this expansion didn’t do very much for anyone.
4 Legion (2016), Metascore 88
Another expansion that was immersed in a lot of hype, but this one enjoyed a warm reception among players and critics. It had some impressive additions, with most of the storyline of Legion revolving around Illidan and the Burning Legion. The expansion included a whole new region to explore along with a new hero class, the masked Demon Hunter.
The expansion included some epic quests and locations that were fun and beautiful, including exotic, mysterious locations like the Emerald Dream. There were some unpopular changes that followed the trends set by the previous ones, mainly the pay-to-level option that allowed subscribers to advance a character to level 100 instantly for an extra fee.
3 Cataclysm (2010), Metascore 90
Everyone remembers where their ‘toons were when Deathwing broke the world. This was the biggest expansion up until this point. Along with the usual changes that came along with previous expansions, like new dungeons, quests, abilities, and a higher level cap, the physical world of Azeroth was dramatically changed. The hype surrounding this expansion was enormous and players braced themselves for the deluge.
After the dust settled, and players had time to experience the Looking for Raid option, the heirloom option, and other new features, it wasn’t all smiles and sunshine. Subscriptions started to decline for the first time in several years after this expansion was released.
2 The Burning Crusade (2007), Metascore 91
The first official expansion, this one set the bar for others to come. Players of Classic WoW actually entertain the idea of a TBC server, as they argue it’s the only expansion that’s faithful to the original spirit of the game. On the technical side, certain bugs and conflicts were fixed, and the level cap was raised to 70. On the lore side, dropped story threads were picked up from the older games that included the saga of the Blood Elves and a resolution to the story of the Windrunner Sisters. There’s only one other expansion that even comes close to this one in the minds of fans, so it’s not a surprise that it has the same score.
1 Wrath of the Lich King (2008), Metascore 91
The high score this expansion enjoys has a bitter side. It impressed fans with its incredible graphics, mesmerizing soundtrack, and compelling lore that continued right where the RTS games of the 1990s left off. Unfortunately, this is also the expansion that included Death Knights, a class that started at an advanced level, and 25 man raids, a change that affected guild composition and the social aspects of the game in a way that Blizzard probably didn’t intend. Gamers argue about the long-term effects of the changes that took place with this expansion, but most agree that overall, this is one of the best that Blizzard ever released.