With pumping beats and loud noises from Hodor himself, Kristian Nairn, there was really only one way to open an event like BlizzCon Online 2021: with a real-life giant to compliment the giant that is Blizzard. But this was just the warm-up, and with all of us in the virtual crowd well and truly heated, we began the show for real
First up, like any good gaming event, we have a montage. With players and creators of various Blizzard titles telling us just why they play games. Interestingly, none of them went with my usual answer of “because I need to escape the existential terror that is my life”; preferring instead lovely sentiments like “video games allow me to be what I can’t” and
“I can be in a world that makes sense to me”. They talk of who they play with: “my wife”, “my children”, “my dad”. But the nicest one was the older lady who told us of this one time when a friendly mage asked if she needed a hand with a quest, and whom she has now been married to for over a decade. The sequence ends by thanking the players for connecting with us, and then we’re treated to an eerily empty, but beautifully decorated stage, containing none other than J Allen Brack, president of Blizzard. And sadly it is none other than him because of course, the way of the world right now means it has to be. He referenced this almost right away by saying how unusual it is that he isn’t at the Anaheim convention hall, but in a year where nothing has been usual, we’ve learnt that being physically apart hasn’t stopped us from connecting. He recognised how whilst we’ve spent most of 2020 in our homes, gaming helped us get away, even for a little while. But he wants to look forward now, and tell us about what’s coming.
He runs through what we have to look forward to, such as Hearthstone going back to its roots, what’s next for World of Warcraft, and big news for Diablo. There's the Overwatch League in the spring, the WoW esports arena world championship, and the Starcraft III and Warcraft 3 ESL pro tour coming up too. He’s pretty excited, I’m pretty excited and when he mentions qualifiers for the first online Hearthstone masters tour are starting soon, that just topped it all off.
Of course, this is Blizzard’s thirtieth birthday bash, so of course, he’s going to remind us all how different things were all those years ago. Back in the 90s, we were playing on DOS and the SNES; they were simpler times. “If only we could relive them” he muses, and lo and behold, the old-school pixellated Blizzard Entertainment logo appears. It’s a trailer for The Blizzard Arcade Collection. This is a bundle of early Blizzard games containing Rock and Roll Racing, The Lost Vikings, and Blackthorne. The usual things you would expect from emulated classics are present such as save games, rewind features and filters. The games are expanded to 16:9 ratio now, and Rock and Roll Racing will benefit from a four player split-screen mode. It’s coming to PC and all current-gen consoles including The Switch, and if you purchase the previously-announced celebration collection, you’ll get it for free!
Next up, we have a sneak peek of what’s coming next in World of Warcraft. There’s a shocking trailer where we see Sylvanas threatening Anduin that he needs to “join [their] cause or be made to serve”. But then we see him meeting with Kyrestia. After a rather pleasant chat, he sees fit to thrust his sword into her chest. If the uncharacteristic violence wasn’t a giveaway, the blue light in his eyes and Shalamayne’s core tells us that Sylvanas has got to our hero. It all goes black, and the patch’s logo appears: Chains of Domination.
If that was a little too intense for you (it was for me) then there’s a little light relief with the announcement that there are some new pets coming. Well, one old pet and one new one. Bananas, the adorable pet monkey previously only available through the trading card game, is becoming purchasable. You can also acquire an adorable sloth that hangs from your neck whenever you need a hug. Both pets are being sold to help Doctors Without Borders, the international medical charity.
There follows a talk by WoW Classic’s lead producer Holly Longdale. The big change for Classic is going to be a return to the dark portal as The Burning Crusade comes to the game. All of the hunting in poo quests will be just as icky as we remember them, and you can choose whether to remain in pre-expansion or post-expansion state depending on your preference on a per-character basis.
Next up, it’s Hearthstone’s turn. Game director Ben Lee recaps what we’ve had throughout the last year like Darkmoon Fair, the achievement system and the new game mode. It’s time to say goodbye to the year of the Phoenix though, and hello to the year of the Gryphon. We will be seeing the biggest shake-up of standard in a long time, with the introduction of a “core” set to replace the current basic and classic sets. This set consists of a selection of classic cards that everyone loves, but with 29 brand new cards. This set is available entirely free, simply by logging in.
In addition, there will now be a new “classic” format. This will allow you to play Hearthstone just how it was when everything began; with the initial card sets only. It’s vanilla Hearthstone if you will. We’re also getting the first expansion set shortly, in the form of Forged in the Barrens, which features some of the characters that you can see in the titular Horde area. Spells are now upgradeable in strength as your mana pool grows, and have schools such as nature, which allow for new card interactions to be made.
A very interesting development for Hearthstone is the new Mercenaries mode. This brings an RPG roguelike mode to the game, with teams or iconic heroes and villains to pick from such as Sylvanas Wndrunner, Ragnoros, and the Devilsaur!
Luis Barraga now takes to the stage to talk Diablo. The big reveal is a new trailer for Diablo IV. We see a priest leading prayers with one of his congregation, but as the prayer ends, a new worshipper is in the pew. And she’s got dismembered ears with her. She disputes that it’s murder, she calls it a job well done. Yes, this expansion will be focussing heavily on the Rogue class. Lots of arrows, lots of killing, and apparently the largest world that’s ever been seen in a Diablo game. Oh, and that rogue we saw earlier? She’s got a whole room full of ears for some reason.
We’re also treated to a trailer for Diablo II Resurrected. Most of it shows just how pretty the game has been made with its new engine. In the talk afterwards, we learn that all 27 minutes of cinematics have been recreated frame by frame. It’s all been designed to keep the original look, but make it just a little more polished and modern without losing the original charm. It’s coming to consoles as well, which will make more than a few people happy.
We return to Brack, who talks of how he couldn’t have imagined 30 years ago what he is seeing now. The current Blizzard game line up, the community, the cosplay and the esports. He also mentions how there are new Blizzard worlds coming and he hopes when they reveal them that we will see what they see in them and enjoy them as places to make new memories. He thanks us for being on the journey with him and says how much of an honour it is for him to serve Blizzard’s players. Then the final word is given to a previously unannounced musical act, with rock legends Metallica taking to the stage via a livestream as they perform their classic For Whom the Bell Tolls. The advanced greyness of Hetfield and Hammett reminding us that time does indeed march on. Despite their advanced years and the rather claustrophobic studio-based performance, they still light up the event just as well as they did in 2014 when they first headlined. It’s loud, brash and full of energy: a perfect metaphor for BlizzCon.