Making a new character and having that immense sense of promise and adventure in front of you was an amazing experience that I feel will never be topped, or at least not for a very long time, as Blizzard has moved onto other ventures and changed their design philosophy for games quite a bit since the game launched in 2004.
Flashback. It's 2004. Blizzard's acclaimed Warcraft franchise was announced as an MMO spinoff a few years ago, and it had finally been released, to much critical acclaim. Back then, MMOs were anything but mainstream. They were the definition of niche, the definitive skill and timesink wall that separated hardcore and casual gamers. WoW took much inspiration from Everquest, arguably the progenitor of MMORPGs, although it made several changes, such as the more accessible raiding system, the removal of experience loss upon death, the addition of a ghost form that you used to find your corpse upon death, the slightly goofier tone of the world, and the addition of rest experience. Since its release, it has changed so much that it is almost not the same game anymore; however, back at release, it was very much a spiritual sequel to Everquest with several quality of life improvements. This is slightly ironic, as many of the old Vanilla/Burning Crusade mechanics are now seen as outdated and needlessly tedious, such as attunements for dungeons, but I digress.
Starting out in Dun Morogh, Teldrassil, or Tirisfal Glades put you in the middle of the vast World of Warcraft, with a seemingly infinite amount of possibilities for your future. I'd even argue that starting a few months after release gave the most impact, as when you finally reached the capital cities, you would see several high level players in glowing, extravagant gear running around, giving you a sense of what your character could one day become. The sense of progression in the lower levels was still substantial, as many people had just picked up the game and did not view the lower level dungeons or equipment as worthless, or a mere stepping stone towards the endgame. Everyone else playing the game was experiencing it along with you for the first time, and early adopters filled a mentor role that made the world feel like a real, living, breathing place. Those RPG tutorials where a much cooler, older character shows you the ropes? They were made completely organic by early WoW, as that particular "character" was a real human being who had been through the steps to greatness before you. It was an amazing feeling, being a fish in a lake, with the promise of becoming something much, much greater than what you were at the moment.
The world itself was an immense treat, as well, especially to fans of the franchise, and even more so to those who wanted a conclusion to Warcraft III and The Frozen Throne. Seeing the fallen city of Lordaeron in a manner that was relatively to scale, seeing what the Night Elves had done following the third war, seeing how the Humans had relocated to a rebuilt Stormwind only to find themselves combating a group of thugs in the Defias Brotherhood - it all felt like legitimate sequel material, completely unlike the hamfisted writing you see from Blizzard post-Wrath of the Lich King.* Being a part of the world of Warcraft was a huge portion of the game's appeal, and that initial sense of wonder garnered from exploring the world in a much grander scale and scope has yet to be matched.
I still like WoW, even if it's changed, but it's not the same as it used to be. A lot of this has to do with the nature of MMOs; they promise an endless experience that ultimately cannot be delivered upon, as the content grows old and stale after a while, and there is only so much facelifting that can be done before the game begins to feel like it is trying to recapture its glory days. Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King were equally enjoyable experiences, but I'll get to those some other time. For now, I'd like to fondly remember Vanilla WoW, and appreciate it for what it was, warts and all.
*Note: The bulk of this article was written before the recent release of the Legion expansion, which, at the very least, seems to be a return to form for Blizzard in terms of good storytelling within an MMO framework. New stories are being told while still throwing bones to fans of the world and its lore, such as what the new Lich King and the Knights of the Ebon Blade have been up to, what happened to Turalyon and Alleria, and the inclusion of several famous faces from past Warcraft games. Anyone who appreciates the world of Warcraft who has been disappointed with the direction the expansions have taken post-Wrath of the Lich King is likely to feel much more at home in the latest expansion than they have in quite some time.