The appearance of the game world was praised by critics. Most popular was the fact that a player could run from one end of the continent to the other without having to pause at a "loading screen" while part of the game is retrieved from storage.[86] The environment was described as "breathtaking". Players found it difficult to become lost, and each area in the game world had a distinct look that blended from one to the next.[21] Critics described the environment as "a careful blend of cartoon, fantasy art, and realism".[81] The game was found to run smoothly on a range of computer systems,[10] although some described it as basic,[21] and mentioned that the bloom light rendering effect can blur things.[20] One reviewer described the ability to fly over long stretches of scenery as "very atmospheric".[83] The user interface was liked, being described as "simple", with tooltips helping to get the player started.[10]

World of Warcraft received very positive reviews upon release,[80] following a period of high anticipation before launch.[86] Although the game follows a similar model to—and was noted for using many familiar concepts from—the role-playing genre,[10][81] the new approaches to reducing pauses between game encounters were well liked.[21] A common example was the approach to character death. In some previous MMORPGs, a player would suffer a high penalty for character death; in World of Warcraft, a player is able to recover and start playing quickly.[10] Combat was another area where "downtime", or pauses between play, was reduced. By allowing all character types to recover from damage taken, players can return to combat quickly.[21] Reviewers felt that these changes in pacing would make the genre more accessible to casual players—those who play for short periods of time—[21] while still having "deep" gameplay that would attract players of all levels of interest.[20] The concept of a "rested bonus", or increasing the rate at which a player's character gains experience, was also welcomed as a way for players to quickly catch up with their friends in progression.[10]
Tras los eventos narrados en Wrath of the Lich King, Arthas ha muerto, y la guerra en Rasganorte parece haber terminado, ya que la Plaga está controlada por Bolvar Fordragon, convertido en el nuevo Rey Exánime, el carcelero de los malditos. Pero entonces, misteriosos terremotos comienzan a sacudir toda la faz de Azeroth, y poco después, comienzan una serie de ataques elementales contra las capitales de la Alianza y la Horda. Estos ataques son el preludio del resurgimiento del Dragón Aspecto corrupto Alamuerte, que las destruirá, extendiendo su dañino poder por los dos continentes. Cinco años después, en los que se suceden los eventos narrados en la novela World of Warcraft: The Shattering, Ventormenta y Orgrimmar están en proceso de reconstrucción, y la faz del mundo en Azeroth ha cambiado por completo tras los ataques de Alamuerte, que han reducido a cenizas algunas zonas y han provocado violentos maremotos y terremotos que han partido literalmente la tierra en trozos, inundando algunas zonas y haciendo resurgir otras. Alamuerte ha vuelto con un solo objetivo, el de destruir Azeroth, y no se detendrá hasta conseguirlo.