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World of Warcraft: The War Within alpha's first zone is beautiful, melancholy, and surprisingly polished

Internal conflict, external beauty.

World of Warcraft's newest expansion, The War Within, starts off as Identity Crisis Theater. Characters old and new are attempting to redefine themselves, and it lends a melancholy air to its first gorgeous island zone.

A specific release date hasn't been announced yet for WoW's 10th expansion, but it's expected later this year. Members of the press got a chance to frolic in the alpha build on the Isle of Dorn, leveling from 70-73 (the expansion will cap at 80) and testing out some of The War Within's new features.

The alpha test for by-invitation-only public entry will officially start tomorrow (see our boxout on how to sign up for a shot.) Those who pre-purchased the Epic Edition of the expansion will not automatically have entry; their perks include beta access, which will be available later.

Developers have told us that The War Within refers to the underground battles to come in this expansion, but also to characters' internal strife, and that's obvious from the jump.

Stormwind's King Anduin is no young lion any more, and if you haven't seen the excellent trailer showing his post-Shadowlands-trauma moody brooding in Silithus, go watch it now. Former dwarven king Magni, speaker for the literally-tormented soul of the world of Azeroth, is beginning to resent her lack of compassion and guidance and his own tortured past. Ex-Horde warchief Thrall is back in the mix, and the traditionally-warring factions of the Horde and Alliance are working together now, however uneasily.

A big bang starts you off

(Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

The events of the new expansion start with a cataclysmic shock that I won't reveal here, since it'll play heavily in the run-up patches to the new expansion. Those events and the cinematic that will accompany them were not available in the press preview, but the echoes of them abound, and there are hints of deeper losses that may profoundly affect the game world.

The leaders of the Horde and Alliance (and you, of course) end up on Khaz Algar, the island zones of the Earthen, the historic stone ancestors of modern dwarves. The Earthen themselves are splintered into two factions: the Oathsworn, who remain followers of the Titans, and the Unbound, who are seeking their own path. The Earthen will be our next playable allied race.

Everywhere you turn, someone is trying to figure themselves out. Queen Moira of the dwarves and her son Dagran—now a nerdy teenager finding his own way—are trying to figure out what exactly family means with dad Magni in the picture (he did order her Dark Iron husband killed, after all).

The Earthen factions are abruptly brought face-to-face with the rest of the world they'd been cut off from—but, even in small ways, they're already struggling. One poignant early sidequest deals with themes of death, dementia, and when it's time to break from tradition—all rolled into a single questline that hits you right in the feels. Oof.

Stop and smell the flowers (but watch out for those max-level bees)

(Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

All of those somber themes are paired with a gorgeous, aboveground zone. The Isle of Dorn is like what would happen if Stormsong Valley from Battle for Azeroth and the dwarven starting zone of Dun Morogh had a summertime baby. 

There are bees—remember the Stormsong bees?—but also kobolds, as well as the Fungalmancer mushroom people from Shadowlands. There are fields of flowers and rock spires and waterfalls and beachy coastlines. There are some of the best-darn-looking rams I've ever seen in a video game, frolicking alongside spiral-horned shaggy sheep-like unicorns.

The capital city of Dornogal, which you see shortly after the game begins, is clearly intended to be a true hub with all the conveniences, and I do mean all. There's an heirloom vendor here, and a Trading Post hub, and all the other things you're normally sent back to your home city to do.

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An image of a forge within the new capital city in The Isle of Dorn, in World of Warcraft: The War Within.

(Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)
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An image of the capital city of World of Warcraft: The War Within, showing an earthen dwarf working a forge with metallurgic magics.

(Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)
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An overview image of the Isle of Dorn's new capital city in World of Warcraft: The War Within.

(Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)
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An image of a hammer statue within the Isle of Dorn in World of Warcraft: The War Within.

(Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

I'm unconvinced it's not Dazar'Alor 2.0 for getting around, since this whole island is designed for dynamic flying and nothing in town really seems to be easy to walk to (the Battle for Azeroth Horde capitol was notorious for being difficult to navigate). But Dornogal, with its beautiful backdrops and mossy architecture, definitely looks terrific.

Choose your talents, champion

(Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

We had the opportunity (thanks to a cheater NPC) to try out all 10 Hero Talent points, the new abilities opening up with the expansion, which normally would be gradually awarded between levels 70 and 80. Each class specialization has two options for trees, at least one of which carries over abilities and flavor normally reserved for another specialization.

I was playing a hunter, and chose to explore the Dark Ranger specialization, which would typically be more Marksmanship-like (my hunter was Beast Mastery). I got Black Arrow, a dot that refunded some charges of my core Barbed Shot ability, and Shadow Hounds—which summoned demon dogs to harry my enemies.

I also picked up Smoke Screen, which gives you three seconds of the Survival of the Fittest damage reduction every time you hit Exhilaration, the hunter's self-healing ability, and conversely a half-powered exhil if you hit SotF.

How meaningful all these talents are going to be for any class will depend on how they're tuned on release, which is a long way away.

That's pretty darned huge. Hunters have traditionally lacked meaningful short-cooldown incoming damage reduction, and being able to time a brief-yet-beefy reduction every minute or so is ridiculously fun. It's affected by talents, so the ones that reduce your cooldowns on Exhilaration and improve SotF's damage reduction to 40% do apply.

How meaningful all these talents are going to be for any class will depend on how they're tuned on release, which is a long way away. Classes with wildly different specializations (such as druids, for example, who can fill all roles) will see more oddball combinations than others.

There aren't that many choices though. You'll have enough points to get all of them, and there are only a few nodes where you have to go one way or another. But it's an interesting way to add more talents to already-sizable trees, and leaves the door open for future experimentation.

Hop in, adventurer, we're going delving

(Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

The War Within's solo expedition instances are called delves, and they're being touted as a way to get some progression gear without having to join a party. They mix some of the better aspects of previous solo dungeons and game modes—Torghast's powers and traps, Plunderstorm's "run over things to pick them up" mechanic, even Myrrit's Sniffenseeking dig objectives from Dragonflight's Zaralek Caverns.

You're accompanied by Brann Bronzebeard, who has abilities that add up as he levels. He can be a damage dealer or a healer, but his abilities are a nice balance of both. As a healer, for example, he'll drop a devilsaur egg any time you force an enemy to lose control, which eventually hatches and fears your foes.

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A delve in The War Within.

(Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)
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A delve in The War Within.

(Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)
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A delve in The War Within.

(Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)
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A delve in The War Within.

(Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)
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A delve in The War Within.

(Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

He has Tranquilizing Blow Dart, which is basically a hunter's tranquilizing shot, removing magic buffs and enrage effects. After you fight, he builds a campfire that, when clicked, acts like food and water and gives you a hefty five-minute buff (in my hunter's case, it was 5% agility).

He heals himself, and amusingly, throws giant healing potions at your feet, which you use by running over them. They're not tremendously effective, but at level 2 (the highest difficulty I could try), the delves weren't that challenging. As he levels up, he gets more and more of these powers.

Little Miss Muffet has nothing to fear

(Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

Finish the delve (which takes 10 minutes if you're being relaxed about things) and you'll get experience for yourself, experience for Brann, and rewards that include a currency for gear, crafting items and other doodads. Not a miner or an herbalist? Brann will mine and pick flowers for you if there are nodes in the delve you're running. He'll even occasionally loot and toss you some gold.

I tried Earthcrawl Mines, which was a mining-track cart escort that ran afoul of Nerubians, and Kriegval's Rest, an exploration into kobold-infested caves. Kriegval's Rest had a fun darkness mechanic: The dark drastically reduced your health. Click a candle and you'd carry it, casting a circle of light and negating that effect, but the candle died over time. Walking over additional candles added "wax"—basically, time on the buff.

Amusingly, this feature applies to pretty much every spider in the game—even in other zones, previous expansion content and for hunters' pets.

Earthcrawl Mines was hilarious because it allowed me to test another new feature of The War Within: Arachnophobia mode. Click the checkbox—now part of the default user settings—and suddenly just about every spider-like creature in the game, well, isn't. Instantly they're all crabs and crab-like Bogstroks (for the more humanoid-like spiders). I clicked the button and all the Nerubians in the Mines became snippers.

Amusingly, this feature applies to pretty much every spider in the game—even in other zones, previous expansion content and for hunters' pets.

Quality of flight updates

(Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

There are other quality-of-life features in The War Within. I got my first chance to try out non-drake and non-bird/wyvern mounts in Dragonflight's dynamic flying style, and it's a lot less ridiculous looking than you'd think. Developers told us that almost all flying mounts would get this treatment.

My unicorn looked positively majestic as it surged forward and hiked upward, and even a Whirling Surge barrel roll looks less comical than I expected—more like the horse was just trying to have a good time. Right now everything has the sound effects of drakes (yes, my unicorn was making flapping noises), but it IS alpha, after all, and it's a promising start.

The dynamic flying skill menu now offers two separate choices for enabling and disabling Ridealong mode, as well as swapping between Whirling Surge and Lightning Rush on all mounts (lightning Rush was formerly only available on the pre-order storm gryphon, and charges up vigor as you ride close to things). A button on the mount collection window allows you to swap mounts from dynamic flying to the old-fashioned static flight, and back again.

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An image of a new flight icon in World of Warcraft: The War Within.

(Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)
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An image of the new flight trees in World of Warcraft: The War Within.

(Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

New quest icons over NPCs' heads make it much easier to figure out what types of quests they have to offer, and they look great on other NPCs such as flight masters. The spellbook is now combined with the talents menu, so professions have their own mini-menu icon. Because dungeons can be done as single-player content now via follower dungeons, they're integrated much more into the main quest's story, alongside delves.

I didn't get a chance to test too much with Warbands (the feature that essentially makes your alts share in all reputation, quest progress and everything possible with your main character). But I did get my first Warband-bound drop, and I'm pleased to say that it was of excellent quality—a blue intellect axe that was the same item level as the gear my main was wearing.

How to sign up for The War Within Alpha

Anduin holds his blade out in the World of Warcraft: The War Within cinematic trailer.

(Image credit: Blizzard)

Blizzard is handing out spots in The War Within's alpha (largely) randomly, but to be considered, you have to opt in. Visit thewarwithin.blizzard.com to sign up and keep an eye on your Battle.net email account for notifications, which will come in waves.

I could only find a group for one of the two dungeons available to us (follower dungeons were not available in our build): The Rookery, a storm gryphon breeding area overrun by evil. It was a fun, vertical dungeon, with fairly straightforward mechanics. The other introductory dungeon, Cinderbrew Meadery, was not fully-voiced for our test.

The alpha preview was limited, and nothing feels revolutionary. But even in this early stage, The War Within is feeling remarkably polished and emotionally affecting, if a little sad at times.

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