I first signed up for World of Warcraft in the early months of 2006. The Burning Crusade expansion had just been released and I narrowly missed the pre-expansion days, what we now call Vanilla. However, back then the early levelling process was pretty much unchanged from Vanilla. So I think i’m well versed in what was like to be a new player “back in the old days”.

My character was a troll hunter, mostly down to trolls being my favourite unit in Warcraft 3. They’re the blue guys with big tusks and questionable Jamaican accents.

I spent my first days in Durotar, an arid land of canyons and big scorpions. I was doing usual mmo-newbie stuff. Running in circles a lot, doing very basic quests. Slaying harpies, getting a knackered old bow as a reward. Using my leatherworking crafting skill to make “basic sensible trousers”, which I found very exciting despite it being the most humble of gear. There was already a sense that I was barely scratching the surface of all the content this game had to offer.

With Durotar complete, the logical next zone was some place referred to as “the Barrens”. I dutifully set out down the path, on foot of course because I was a long way off having any sort of mount. I remember crossing the river and heading up a gentle slope of dry grass, between parched, rounded hills. Several minutes later I made it onto the plains that made up the heart of the region.

In the hazy distance I could see hints of greenery suggesting a water source. More hills lay in other directions. Roads stretched off into he distance. To west stood the town known as just the Crossroads, the local base of operations for the Horde. Packs of giraffe and zebra-like creatures roamed in search of grazing. I had to stop for a minute to take it all in. The Barrens seemed truly vast, a sprawling expanse of parched wilderness.

The music in this region carried bits of the core warcraft theme but in a languid, quiet way. It spoke of a land of heat and dust. It almost seemed to say, don’t go rushing anywhere here. Make yourself at home, you will be here a long time. There are many adventures ahead, and they will all come in due time. For now, report to the Crossroads for your first tasks.

As it happens, I was indeed here for a couple of week’s worth of gaming. There was a lot to do and many quests to follow. There were harpy-infested parts in the northwestern corner. The lush oases in the centre, around which hostile centaurs prowled. The famous quest to find Mankrik’s wife. More Quillboars in the south. A dwarvern expedition to deal with. Then a whole detour to the neutral goblin town of Ratchet. When I wasn’t questing I was probably hunting about a zillion animals for leather.

Incidentally I was also playing along an online friend who, many years later, would become my wife. Her elegant level 20 elven mage was, compared to my inept and gangly level 11 hunter, some kind of superhero. She could make monsters disappear with a quick flash of flame while I desperately plinked away with my bow. I would routinely end up with half a dozen velociraptors trying to murder me, and run to her flailing my arms wildly and yelling for help.

I don’t have a pic from my first days, but here’s me in the Barrens with a mishmash of Burning Crusade gear and, er, a pumpkin mask?

Over that time my ueless hero become slightly less useless. I upgraded my armour to “+1 moderate trousers of agility”. Traded the knackered bow for a sligthtly rusty musket. Got the hang of ordering my pet scorpion around. Died many, many times to centaurs. Had my first try at PVP, which of course meant being flattened into the dust outside the crossroads by some Alliance Paladin. All part of the process of levelling.

The barrens isn’t actually all that large by open-world gaming standards. Yet the whole game seemed bigger back then. A world of many different and exotic lands, each full of danger but also rewards for an intrepid hero. There were the shadowy forests of Ashenvale, the endless dunes of Tanaris, the icy hills of Winterspring. Each could take days to fully experience. The Jungles of U’Goro seemed impossibly remote, far from teh safety of civilization.

Then there was an entire other continent.. Getting on a zeppelin and crossing the ocean, to join my friend to quest in the Forsaken homelands, felt like an actual trip to the other side of the world. A whole new land of which I knew practically nothing, except that Dwarves and Humans hailed from its depths somewhere.

Sure there was a flying taxi service (riding wyverns because: magic fantasy taxi) but back then you had to find each destination on foot, before you could take a flight there. So you had to spend days questing and traveling the slow way, building up your personal network of flight paths. Also, there were only one or two destinations in each zone, so you still had to go on foot (or on your horse if higher level) to get to quests or other places of interest within a zone, facing any dangers that lay along your route.

Nowadays you can just hop on your dragon and zip around anywhere in minutes. Or jump in portal to reach another continent altogether. That’s more convenient. It’s probably more fitting to a modern warcraft, and to 30somethings with only half an hour to play tonight.

Yet something has been lost, I feel. Azeroth is shrunken and contained. You can’t feel truly immersed in a fantasy world when shooting through the skies above, untouched and unimpeded by the world beneath you. You need to walk through the towns on foot, to encounter the people who call it home, to see the ruins and the monsters for yourself. You need the inconvenience of getting waylaid by kobolds, or having to take a winding path, because that’s as much a part of the world as the things you actually want to do today on your quest list.

Some of my other fondest memories were simply of trekking through lands for the sake of exploring. There was a lengthy route horde players would take, just to join up flight paths between distant locations. You had to run through the jungles of Stranglethorn, hostile dwarvern territory in the Wetlands, and the ashy wastes of the burning steps.  Modern Warcraft would never hold with such a chore; all flight paths are available from the start. Yet the chore felt like a lengthy adventure, full of peril, and introduced me to several new areas.

I fear modern warcraft breaks its illusions. You see the boundaries of the world, you move so quickly you shoot over them. You see each zone broken down into its actual components – a small patch of land with some geographical theme, with vending services in the middle and monsters aimlessly milling around.

To be fair some of the modern conveniences only apply at max level; you don’t get them all starting from scratch. Still, the leveling process is a lot faste, and the world doesn’t feel as dangerous.  The game is more generous with gear drops to enhance your power. You get mounts earlier and more easily, to accelerate your pace. Low level monsters drop dead in seconds, making questing rather easy. So you’re not going to spend days taking in the experience of being an adventurer in the Barrens; you blast through it in an evening and are ready to go quest somewhere else.

Well, I’m getting a bit off track here. There are risks I’ll start rambling about the days you had to go spend an hour looking for trainer when you wanted to use a new kind of weapon. I’m not genuinely complaining here, since it’s not 2006 anymore and Warcraft had to change with the times. I am just being wistful. If blizzard do finally implement those “Warcraft Classic” servers, that will satisfy those of us who want to take an entire evening to do two quests and make some trousers.