World of Warcraft Classic vs. Retail, Part 1: Which Early Game Plays Better?

World of Warcraft Classic vs. Retail, Part 1: Which Early Game Plays Better?

Ever since World of Warcraft Classic launched, I’ve been burning a significant amount of time in Azeroth. While the game is no longer as popular as it once was, it’s played on an ongoing basis by millions of people worldwide. Classic offers a unique chance to return to the original version of a multiplayer game and to experience a bit of gaming history in the process. This article compares the leveling and adventuring experience of the first third of WoW, spanning levels 1-20.

In this article, “Retail” refers to the current version of the game, “Classic” refers to the new servers Blizzard launched in late August, and “Vanilla” refers to the original game and associated experiences from 2004 onwards. References to Vanilla are historical references.

About the Author, Test Rules

I have played World of Warcraft since well before the game launched. I joined the Closed Beta in March 2004, just after the Tri-Horde push. I briefly played a Paladin, but ultimately wound up maining a Warlock and hit Lvl 60 before the game launched. I wrote extensively on Warlocks at the time, but once WoW had actually shipped I decided I’d rather try a new role and class and rolled a Paladin on Zul’jin. I have mained a Paladin ever since and have reviewed the game and its expansions over the past 15 years, for various publications.

Lakeshire, Redridge Mountains. Left is Retail, right is Classic. I’m rather proud of how well I was able to blend these two images, screenshots are hard to match across two different game clients. Click to enlarge.

I’ve tested the game(s) by leveling a Paladin in both Retail and in Classic. I recall the original Paladin leveling experience in Classic, and I wanted to use a class I was familiar with in both versions of the game. Paladins are not the fastest levelers in Classic, but they have excellent survivability. They are also capable of fulfilling all three of the game’s primary roles (DPS, healing, tanking) while leveling in both Classic and Retail. Protection Warriors are preferred tanks for endgame raiding in Classic, but for leveling, all of the hybrid classes (Druid, Shaman, Paladin) have healing, DPS, and tanking options.

My goal with this series of articles is to compare the leveling and game experience between Classic and Retail, without taking advantage of any of the additional bonuses Retail players can use to level faster. Retail WoW offers Heirloom gear — items that increase in level every time you do. Several of these items also increase the amount of experience you earn. My Retail playthrough does not use these items. I do not craft gear for my Retail Paladin using a different character. This means that my Retail Paladin will not level as quickly as a Retail player with alts is likely to level today. My goal, however, is not to compare the experience of playing WoW with tons of alts, but to compare how the game feels and plays with a new player experiencing the game for the first time in both versions. I’ve met people in Classic and Retail experiencing WoW for the first time in 2019.

I have sought to duplicate my original play-through in all the particulars I can still remember. My Paladin — Tovah on Classic, Tovahlt on Retail — has used the same zones for leveling and played through the same content. I have taken the same professions (Blacksmithing, Mining) on both. I have spent time in game leveling both my professions and my character, but I handle the profession leveling at natural down points for doing so. I have avoided going Away From Keyboard (AFK) on either character so that my leveling speed measurements remain accurate. If I need to go AFK, I log out first.

I have used no add-ons for my Lvl 1-20 experience. While I played with add-ons as an endgame Vanilla raider, there weren’t very many available when I was leveling in the earliest parts of Classic, and I wanted to replicate my experience as closely as possible.

Finally, please keep in mind that this is a leveling comparison that specifically focuses on Lvl 1-20. It is not a dungeon comparison or a DPS/tanking comparison. It most certainly is not an endgame raid comparison. I will address all of these topics as they are relevant in future articles.

Let’s Get to Fighting

The first thing to know about World of Warcraft Classic versus Retail is that these are two different games that happen to share a common engine and the same graphical assets. The experience of playing a Paladin in WoW Classic is entirely different from the experience of playing in WoW Retail. Retail is faster, more polished, and less grindy, but has a very different difficulty curve. Classic is slower and requires more grinding, but can also feel more rewarding.

Three Corners, at the border of Elwynn and Redridge. Classic WoW, click to enlarge.

In both cases, my Paladin begins the game with a handful of core capabilities. In Classic, Paladins use what’s called the Seal/Judgement system. Seals affect your attack in various ways. My first Seal, Seal of Righteousness (SoR), inflicts a flat amount of additional holy damage on any mob I strike. I can then cast Judgement a target to inflict additional damage, but this consumes the Seal (which must be re-cast and costs mana). In Retail, I have a quick melee attack, Crusader Strike, on a long cooldown. Judgment still exists in Retail, but it isn’t linked to any other attack and doesn’t require that I refresh a separate ability after I use it. Characters in Retail WoW have far fewer spells than Classic WoW does and class abilities are gated based on your current specialization (Holy, Retribution, or Protection for healing, damage-dealing, and tanking roles).

Three Corners, Retail WoW. Click to enlarge

The first difference I notice favors Retail. Casting Crusader Strike and watching the animation play is viscerally more interesting than SoR. SoR adds damage, but it doesn’t play a different attack animation when it triggers. The flow of combat is completely different between the two games. In Retail, mobs die so quickly, there’s no meaningful skill or strategy required to deal with them. I spend far more time waiting for my two abilities (Crusader Strike and Judgment) to come off cooldown than anything else.

In Classic, you start with the Holy Light healing spell and the game expects you to use it. It becomes immediately apparent that the class is designed around the idea that you will heal during combat. Retail creatures have far fewer hitpoints and kill speed in Retail is much faster than it is in Classic. It can take 15-60 seconds to kill a single creature in Classic, particularly if it is 3-4 levels higher than you. In Retail, this is impossible — all creatures are the same level you are unless you deliberately enter a zone you aren’t ready to play in yet. You don’t even get a heal until Lvl 8 and you’ll scarcely use it.

The slideshow above compares Retail and Classic WoW in terms of graphical settings, draw distance, and some other changes between the two versions. I went for as close to an “apples-to-apples” comparison as I could frame between the two.

Game Difficulty, Leveling Speed

The biggest difference between Retail and Classic is the underlying difficulty of the game. Classic WoW can be genuinely difficult, particularly if you wander around in areas intended for players above your level. It is not unusual to see mobs spawn in packs of 3-5. A Paladin between levels 1-20 might manage to kill a pack of three monsters but pulling 5 creatures at equal level with normal gear is going to get you killed. Mobs are often packed close together and spawn with no warning. Because creatures in Classic WoW have their own independent levels, you can adjust the game difficulty by where you choose to play. Playing in a zone with quests a little too low for you will be easier; playing in a zone where the quests are orange or red will be significantly harder or downright impossible. There are fewer quests overall, and you may wind up making long treks to other areas (or simply killing monsters) to finish off a level and open more content.

In Retail WoW, all creatures are the same level you are. They have far fewer hitpoints and you carve through them like butter. This level-matching means that the game offers a flat difficulty curve. Classic WoW had some quests that were substantially harder than others. In Retail, quest difficulty is static and stuck on “Easy.” This disparity is part of why leveling in Retail is so much faster than leveling in Classic. Retail also has more quests available, the quests are gathered into the same area to make finding them easier, quest items are highlighted, and there are more flight points to move you around the early zones. When you don’t have a mount yet, those flight points are worth their weight in gold.

In Classic, if I see someone running away from a group of enemies, it’s because they’re about to die. In Retail, if I see someone being chased by a group of enemies, it’s because they’re gathering them up for more efficient slaughter. If I had to pick one observed difference between the two games that captures the essence of playing them, it would be that.

Classic doesn’t have to be a challenge, but you can play it that way if you want to. Retail leveling simply isn’t challenging. The only exception to this was when I walked into the Deadmines (a 5-man instanced dungeon) and started killing the elite mobs on my own. Gold elite mobs in Classic will have your guts for garters if you try to take them 1v1 in the early part of the game. In Classic, I have to be careful about how many mobs I pull, and what level they are relative to me. I also have to make sure I’m topped up on mana and health before a multi-mob fight and I will have to heal between every engagement. In Retail, I almost never stop to eat or drink.

The combined impact of these changes means that leveling in Retail WoW is much, much faster than in Classic. Below are my leveling times for each level in Classic versus Retail. The line isn’t straight because I was able to bounce through some levels faster than others by turning in a ton of quests at the same time. The graph below shows my cumulative leveling time at each level. The trend is quite clear:

As of this writing, I have played 492 minutes (8.2 hours) in Retail and 1713 minutes (28.5 hours) in Classic. 17-18 was a pain point; the zones I was questing in were both stuffed with players and it took me a while to complete quest objectives. I also spent time leveling up professions at 17. I hit Lvl 20 in Retail more than 3x faster than I achieved the same goal in Classic.

In Classic WoW, the best way to increase your leveling speed is to level in dungeons or do quests in groups. The relatively short time I spent going from 18-19 and 19-20 is because I ran Deadmines in the first instance and grouped up with people to do quests in the second. In Retail, it scarcely matters. Hitting dungeons is a good way to learn how to group and get some quests out of the way, but you don’t need to do it. If you have Heirloom gear, you already have better items than you’ll get otherwise.

How the Class Evolves

In Classic WoW, the Paladin is a support class, with strong, short-term buffs. Paladins have more buffs than any other class and our buffs have unique effects that no other single class has. We can give bonuses to attack power and mana regeneration, reduce the damage taken by physical attacks, reduce the threat other classes generate, transfer damage taken by other classes to ourselves, and buff the resistances of other classes (and ourselves) to various elemental damage. I’m still missing most of these abilities at Level 20, but I cast the ones I have constantly. In Classic WoW, your choice of specification (Ret, Holy, Protection) is basically a “flavor” layered on top of a strong support class. Running around the world and buffing random folks is one of the joys of Classic WoW and people frequently return the favor, even though our buffs are short (5 minutes).

In Retail WoW, each class has far fewer abilities and the abilities you do have are tied much more tightly to your particular spec. Because Blizzard has made a number of changes to WoW to reduce its difficulty and the importance of grouping, most of our buff capability is gone as well. In Classic, I buffed people from Lvl 1 forward. In Retail, I won’t even get Blessing of Kings until Lvl 58. Distinctive class abilities in Classic, like the ability to Lay on Hands (fully heal my target at the expense of all my mana), are already unlocked by Lvl 20 but don’t unlock until much later in Retail.

Both versions of the game have Talent points that you invest periodically to improve your skills and abilities. In Classic, you begin unlocking talent points at Lvl 10 and earn one talent point per level. The value of each individual talent point is mostly low. Classic WoW has certain core talents in each tree that you unlock after investing a certain number of points.  One problem with Classic that hits every class in one way or another is that certain talents have much less utility than others. Discipline Priests, for example, have to invest 5 points in either Wand Specialization (more wand damage) or 15% fear/stun/interrupt resistance. Wand damage is marginally useful for leveling. Neither option is very good.

Every class has a number of subpar talent choices like this. Retribution Paladins, however, have some reasonably solid choices for talent point investment when leveling and my 11th talent point at Lvl 20 unlocks the primary DPS ability I’ll use for the rest of the game: Seal of Command. Talents cannot be changed in Classic without paying gold to an NPC who can reset them for you, and the fee for resetting your talents goes up each time you do it, to a maximum of 50 gold.

Technically this is a screenshot from WoWHead, but it displays the data in higher resolution than a cropped shot in WoW. Classic WoW Paladin Talent Calculator 

In Retail WoW, talents are unlocked every 15 levels except for the last. Each specialization has its own talent tree and there are always three options for each level. The retail talent system reflects Blizzard’s efforts to fix the old Talent system. Every class in Classic WoW has at least some talents that are borderline useless, and some classes have entire trees or roles that are unused in the endgame due to poor design and a deliberate decision made by Blizzard to force all of the hybrid classes into principally healing roles for endgame content. Retail WoW has never completely solved the useless talent problem, but there’s usually at least one good option out of three. This system may well work better mechanically, but it doesn’t feel as fulfilling while leveling, at least not to me. Opinions on this point are split and may reflect how good (or bad) your classes talent trees were in Classic to start with.

Paladin-Talents-Retail

WoW Paladin Talents Retail. Some of the Classic talents are still available in this tree.

I have far fewer talents and spells to juggle in Retail than in Classic. Combined with the very low difficulty and high kill speed, this makes Retail WoW rather boring to play while leveling by comparison. The flip side, as we’ve seen, is that leveling is much faster. At Lvl 20, my Classic Paladin’s utility comes from his ability to heal himself and others during combat, his damage, and his buffs. In Retail, I kill things quickly… and that’s pretty much it.

Why Leveling Is More Fun in Classic WoW

Leveling in Classic WoW is slower than in Retail, but in my opinion, it’s also far more fun. There’s a contradiction at the heart of the Classic versus Retail comparison that has to be unpacked to be understood. By every objective metric, Retail should be more fun. Leveling is faster, and difficulty is more consistent. Quests are easier to do. Some quest chains are frankly more interesting, thanks to the use of phasing content (phasing refers to the ability to change how the world looks for players who are on a specific part of a quest chain; WoW Classic completely lacks this feature).

But one consequence of this complete lack of difficulty is a sort-of boring sameness. In Classic, I check people’s health bars as I run by and buff nearly everyone I see. Even if I had buffs in Retail WoW, they wouldn’t matter, because no one needs them. Kill speeds are so fast, there’s no point in even trying to help someone. By the time I reach them, they’ve already killed whatever mob they targeted. It’s still faster to level in a group, but there’s no real need to work together in any way to do it, beyond targeting the same type of mob. When I group with other people in Classic, I assume whatever role will bring utility to the group — healing, if I’m the only healer, or DPSing if I’m not.

The dramatically lower difficulty and the way the game has been streamlined means that many NPC trainers are useless in Retail today. They still exist, but they can’t teach you anything — skills are acquired automatically, at no cost. Classic WoW requires you to carefully manage your money and weigh the benefits of purchasing an item on the AH against what your future skill upgrades will cost you. Retail requires no such calculation.

Why has Blizzard flattened, accelerated, and simplified leveling this way? A full discussion of all the reasons will have to wait for future articles. Some of the reasons why Blizzard made the changes it did don’t really come into play until later in Classic WoW, and we’ll address them in future comparisons. The reason we’ll discuss today (because it’s already visible in the 1-20 play-through) has to do with alts.

When Blizzard built World of Warcraft, it designed the game to make it easy to hit max level and to maintain alternative well-geared characters, known as “alts.” New character classes and races have been introduced with several expansions, along with new starting areas or experiences to give players incentive to hit the leveling treadmill once again.

While it’s absolutely possible to level a character in WoW using different zones (and therefore having different experiences), people who have leveled 4-12 alts have long since worn the bloom off the metaphorical rose. Players have consistently pushed Blizzard to make leveling faster and easier. When the overwhelming majority of people are playing in the endgame, making people run a bunch of dungeons to hit maximum level in an acceptable amount of time just encourages them to quit playing altogether. All of the changes Blizzard has made to leveling, as near as I can tell, stem from a desire to make the game more accessible to people leveling their 10th character as opposed to their first. And players have relentlessly pushed for these changes because no one really enjoys running through the exact same content for the 10th or 15th time.

It makes perfect sense, but the end result is a substandard experience. Thus far, from levels 1-20, there’s virtually no challenge in Retail WoW. Classic WoW is not particularly hard by default, but you can play it in a way that’ll stretch your own abilities. The wide availability of buffs and the difficulty of higher-level content encourage grouping in a way that Retail doesn’t require.

Community

Right now, two things are true:

  1. WoW Classic’s community is vastly more vibrant, polite, fun, and enjoyable than anything currently going on in retail.
  2. I am not certain I can argue this makes WoW Classic’s community “better” in any lasting way.

I’ll be the first to acknowledge that the current community atmosphere in WoW Classic is more fun than anything I’ve seen in retail in years. People are grouping together, playing together, and being downright polite. Chat is full of mock arguments over whether it’s called Deadmines or Van Cleef, not political debates. Chuck Norris memes and discussions of vanilla game mechanics dominate chat. Yes, I’ve seen people being jerks. It hasn’t been the norm.

I have a few ideas about why this is true.

First, remember that a lot of people have fond memories of WoW Classic. Nostalgia is a powerful draw; being able to run content with your friends and family for the first time, again is a powerful draw. I know parents who play WoW with their children and spouses who raid together. A lot of people are having a lot of fun in Classic for this reason alone. Happy people buff each other, they take turns on spawn points, and they line up for quests. Classic WoW’s very early game (1-10) is definitely more difficult than Retail WoW’s equivalent, but Elwynn Forest is still a pretty gentle place to play.

When I’m walking in Stormwind…

WoW’s early game hits an agreeable sweet spot in terms of leveling speed, and while zone crowding is annoying, there are usually some ways to mitigate it — some zones are more popular than others, and there are optimal routes to take in terms of leveling speed. Spawn rates and drop rates are low enough to be annoying, but they aren’t so annoying as to make the game unplayable. There are advantages to having a lot of people running around. Folks are willing to group up easily and groups can knock out higher-level quests than a solo player can. Leveling speed in groups is fast enough to compete with Retail, and the game encourages grouping. Right now, the game is easy enough that even a not-very-good player can play it.

I’ve spoken to people who explicitly say they came back to Classic because they wanted the more challenging experience it offers. I’m one of them. There’s a contingent of retail players that sneer at the idea that anyone would want to go back to Classic. They’re wrong to do so. A lot of people, including me, are having more fun in Classic than we’ve had in Retail WoW in years.

But as nice as the current situation is, any fair consideration of the topic has to acknowledge the other side of the coin.

Yes, Classic WoW is currently a fun, happy place to be — certainly happier than retail. But the bloom is currently very much on the rose. There’s a certain critical mass of players that need to be moving through a zone in World of Warcraft Classic to ensure enough people to form groups for various dungeons, or even for quests. Without enough people to do group quests or dungeons, you’re locked out of the better items and quicker leveling these areas offer. People who like doing quests to see the plot points don’t get to see them. Gear that would make your leveling easier remains out of reach.

As people level up, the early zones empty out, and leveling slows down. It’s going to be harder to find people to group up with to do quests and move through content quickly. Running dungeons is a great way to level, but running dungeons on alts still requires finding people to play with. As the early zones empty out, groups get harder to find. Joining a guild can help, but leveling alts was still a pretty slow process and one consistent complaint that players made to Blizzard was that it was too hard to find people to run dungeons with.

I’m only discussing community in terms of groups in this article — the damn thing is long enough already — but I think that makes sense for 1-20, where most grouping is done in temporary clusters rather than in-guilds. Nonetheless, Classic WoW encourages grouping for mob-tagging and faster questing/dungeoneering. That’s a wonderful thing when there’s plenty of people to play with. It’s not great at all when you don’t have them around.

WoW Classic is designed to funnel players toward endgame content. Level 60 is the end-state. This is one issue that’s going to reoccur, and that’s why I’m not terribly comfortable waxing poetic about the wonderful nature of the Classic community. It’s not because people aren’t being helpful; they very much are. It’s because some of the changes that Blizzard put into the game between Vanilla and Battle for Azeroth may have weakened the community bonds of the game, but they were changes Blizzard made to try and support what many players themselves said they wanted. At the same time, yes, there were players who were absolutely against these changes. Every expansion of WoW has made significant changes to the underlying game mechanics.

The social dynamics of WoW changed when cross-server battlegrounds went in (I was making my own run for Commander at the time). They changed when multi-queue battlegrounds went in. They changed when the LFG and LFR tools were put into the game. There are people who preferred the social dynamics of the game in Vanilla and people playing Battle for Azeroth today who wouldn’t go back to Vanilla if you paid them to do it. I don’t know that one is better than the other, but I do know that Vanilla’s original social model certainly wasn’t perfect.

But I will say this. There is no better time to play Classic World of Warcraft than right now. The game is best experienced on a well-populated server, with plenty of people leveling alongside you.

Classic Isn’t Perfect, But It Wins the Early Game Comparison

Are there downsides to Classic? Absolutely. You’ll spend a lot of time running hither-and-yon in search of quest mats and quest givers, taking notes from Person A to Person B, and staring at the ass-end of a gryphon. Retail has some better quests and better quest availability. Being able to find a group in the dungeon finder can be a godsend if you only have a little while to play and wanted to get in a dungeon run. Retail WoW is more flexible and vastly more respectful of your time. If I had to pick which game I’d rather level five characters in, I’d pick Retail. Asked which game I’d rather level in once — at least from 1-20 — I’d pick Classic. That may change as we progress.

In some of my past articles on WoW, some of you have asked why I didn’t really dive into the differences between Retail and Classic. This article is the reason. Once I started unpacking the differences, there were a lot of differences to be unpacked — so many that after some consideration, I realized I’d have to split the article into parts. There’s simply no other way to speak to the way WoW has evolved in its intervening years or to explore the differences in content and community.

One thing I also want to note is that I’m not speaking strictly from nostalgia, here. Last year, I persuaded my fiancée to give WoW a try for the first time and leveled a Monk with her. I’ve done the leveling experience in Retail already and my opinion on it hasn’t changed that much between then and now. Doing it on two different versions of the same character class gave me a lot of insight into how Paladins have changed and having Classic to play has let me refresh my 15-year-old memories — but it hasn’t changed my thoughts on the Retail side of the experience.

I understand why Blizzard has made the changes that it made to WoW and why it made them, but I hope the company spends some time analyzing the fact that a 15-year-old memory of its game offers a better starting experience than the current one does. I’m not saying WoW has to evolve back towards Vanilla to make itself more fun, but the current Retail experience just isn’t as good. It feels hollowed-out compared with the original game, and the lack of any real difficulty means I’m not looking forward to playing it as much as I’m enjoying Classic — at least so far. We’ll see what 21-40 hold.

In conclusion, for those of you who made it this far, I’ll leave you with the below. Keep an eye out for Hodor and Ronda Rousey.

I’m glad to be back in Classic — gladder than I ever thought I would be, to be honest. That may change as I move into the endgame. It’s not clear yet if Druids, Shaman, and Paladins will get a better shake in non-healing rolls in 2019 than they got in 2004, and a lot of hybrid players were unhappy with WoW precisely because of this limitation. Classic WoW had endgame balance problems that are not apparent while leveling and while I’m focused on reviewing the game as I’m playing it, I recall those issues all too well.

But all of that is in the future. For now, I’m off to craft myself a hammer and see what I can smash with it.

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