The Core Gameplay of Battle for Azeroth Leveling – A Spoiler-Less View Into the Gameplay In Alpha

Right now, the Battle for Azeroth alpha is primarily there for testing the leveling quests and core dungeons available during that process.

I have done two of three of the zones available on alpha for Alliance players – Drustvar and Stormsong Valley. Worth noting, Stormsong Valley has only very recently opened up – so what I played was still decently buggy and not necessarily representative of what we’ll get at release, but the core beats are there. The same applies to everything I saw – it is alpha, is subject to change, and will likely be a bit different once the game launches.

So, with that out of the way, what is my initial impression?

I really, really like what Blizzard has done with this experience.

Leveling

Quests are varied, with lots of different objectives and a good mix of quest types. There are collection quests, vehicle quests, fed-ex quests, and a couple of well-implemented escort quests. Even better, the model of building quests around points of interest, which started ramping up a lot in Wrath of the Lich King, has really hit it’s stride here – the partitioning of the zones into regions which each have their ways to tie into the main zone story while also having some unique story beats is great, and it serves the pacing of the zones very well overall.

Now, having said that, this is definitely, from a gameplay perspective, an evolutionary expansion. Legion was revolutionary in that scaling gameplay, custom-ordering of zones, and the mechanism of the Artifact weapon made even the base leveling experience quite a bit different. Battle for Azeroth is effectively a part 2 of that – the Heart of Azeroth is functionally identical to Artifacts, except only one per character instead of 2-4, and while quests show an item, you never actually touch anything – you get it and it is auto-consumed to empower your necklace. Scaling still works as expected – it’s smooth and doesn’t feel any different so far. The zone selection currently still works much the same as Legion – while I recall hearing that the zones would have a specific order at Blizzcon, on Alpha at present, you can pick any zones and go and you can get the breadcrumbs to go to any zone at any time regardless of progression in your current zone. Now, I assume this is related to testing more than anything, but noting it here just in case!

The experience curve from 110-120 feels pretty great, all told. To be honest, as someone who hates leveling as an experience itself, I actually have really been enjoying leveling in BfA alpha. Now, at present, the leveling has felt really fast – probably too fast, if anything. I did two dungeons, 1 island expedition, and two zones worth of quests and even without finishing Stormsong Valley due to quest bugs, I hit 119 and was on track to be 120 short of finishing the third zone. While this feels a bit fast, after having typed that out, I think it might be okay! Honestly, it would be pretty close to Legion in terms of that first character leveled.

Back to zone composition for a second, while we get only 3 zones, it feels quite a bit better than I expected. From the Alliance perspective, Kul’Tiras has a much less diverse ecology than the Broken Isles, but it feels better, in a way. Broken Isles has this really harsh border problem, where you really feel this weirdly awkward artificial border between zones, where colors, landscapes, and flora change incredibly drastically when you move between them. Kul’Tiras and Zandalar feel far better in this way, in that both are very distinct from each other, giving that variety, but within the zones, they feel very much like real places and less like setpieces. Within each zone, you have a much larger landscape that feels like a more distinct region. It was often difficult in Legion to feel like each zone was this real place when they were so small and packed in. The zones in BfA are so much larger, and this also aids questing, as they are broken up into a larger number of regions and points of interest – around 6 or so compared to 3-4 in Legion. Each of these regions feels huge in their own right, making the space feel much more interesting.

Quest design uses the story hooks approach that Warlords of Draenor really excelled at. You get a zone story, with each region having smaller sub-plots that hook into that main story. At each hub, you’ll have a main set of quests and usually a smaller sub-plot quest chain that deviates off the path of the main line to give you additional flavor and often also reveals some other new and interesting bits of lore about the main story. Without spoiling too much, if you worry that you will not feel the faction conflict centerpiece plot during the leveling – it is there, in it’s own way. You will have encounters with the other faction earlier than expected, without having to ship off to Zandalar. (Horde players, sorry – don’t know yet but I will be trying Horde this week to find out!)

To sum up questing, so far, this is great! I really have enjoyed the leveling, the variety of quests, and the environmental cohesion of the zones. The flow is pretty great, although I want to use that to segue into the one place in which I feel that the current flow on Alpha is not great.

The War Campaign

Okay, so the theme of this expansion is faction conflict, right? Early on, we were told that you’d do your level-up experience and then go to chase the other faction on their home turf. Well, in Alpha, you can currently do that sooner – I had the option to go to any zone of my choice in Zandalar after returning with the acheivement for finishing Drustvar. I don’t know what triggered this and it isn’t clear if that was a condition for being offered this choice, but that is how I observed it!

With that out of the way, let’s talk about the actual experience of going to Zandalar. I chose to do Zuldazar, the main location of the faction hub for the Horde, and a location with cool tropical visuals. It is interesting, but the quests left a lot to be desired. I get that the idea here is that we are at war, but short of some cool gathering quests, almost every other quest was “kill X Horde NPCs.” There were reasons to do so, and they were varied and somewhat interesting, but I found myself underwhelmed with the overall experience. One quest bugged out preventing me from moving forward, and I took that opportunity to bail back to Boralus and move on. Overall, there were some actual cool quests there, but it kind of got lost in a sea of killing a variety of Horde NPCs and the story hooks presented for what we were doing felt a little empty. There is potential there, but having said that – if the faction conflict is intended to be the bedrock upon which the expansion is built, it needs to be better than this.

Dungeons

The early experience I have had with dungeons has been mostly positive. I’ll be writing about my experiences as Vengeance in them soon, but to keep it high level for now, they are pretty interesting, with more open-ended layouts that absolutely feel designed to be interesting on repeat playthroughs, like, say, Mythic Plus! Every dungeon I have done thus far has some sort of branching path or option to deviate from the otherwise straightforward layout, and this adds some complexity. There are also more interesting trash mechanics that feel tailor-made for Mythic Plus – Tol Dagor has a sequence where you can kill a lot of trash without actually fighting it – unknown if this will count towards the M+ trash counter, but if it does, it will reward groups that use it smartly. It is a small sequence, so the overall power of doing this isn’t so high that it becomes overpowered in such a setting – just a fun little segment where you can use knowledge of the dungeon to your advantage. Similar to what we saw with Cathedral of Eternal Night and Seat of the Triumvirate, there are definite hints that the launch dungeons in Legion were designed without fully understanding the M+ mechanics and the effects they would have, where the newer dungeons make clear that there is a lot more understanding of that gameplay. The BfA dungeons seem much better designed for M+ than even the 7.2 and 7.3 additions.

Island Expeditions

These are actually kind of cool! They are pretty quick, easy scenarios designed for endgame, and made to be very repeatable. The way they work is to be basically a system where you queue for a difficulty mode only, and the game selects a map from a list, an opposing NPC team from a list, and a set of modifiers. You start the island and the enemy faction aren’t usually there yet, and you take off to go gather Azerite and kill enemy mobs that are present on the island. Usually, after a couple of minutes, the enemy team shows up and starts gathering on their own. The longer you live, the more you are worth in Azerite to the enemy if you are killed, and the first team to 6,000 wins. The game usually then rotates in new events as the expedition carries on – adding new enemies, weather conditions, debuffs and other challenges.

I’ve enjoyed these, but they are somewhat in need of clarification as to how to maximize Azerite gain. The first one I did went very well – we killed the Horde team repeatedly and won by doing that, plus lots of gathering, and topped it off with managing the boss that spawned mid-expedition for a big payoff. The second time I did one, the events were pretty similar, but the vignette mobs on the island weren’t as clear on what could be done, and the group with me wasn’t doing much gathering, so we ended up losing to the NPCs (feelsbadman).

Overall – I did enjoy the two Islands I did, but there is a need for some clarity in gameplay!

Systems Changes

The biggest question I’ve gotten since talking about Alpha gameplay is the change to GCD abilities. Many offensive cooldowns were formerly off the GCD, meaning you could smash them all together at once and then immediately start using the buffs offered. In BfA Alpha, this is no longer the case – offensive CDs trigger the global cooldown, forcing you to wait that brief moment before starting your full-throttle DPS, and making chaining big cooldowns much harder, if not unwise. So far, as Vengeance, I have not noticed much change – it doesn’t really affect the spec at all. For Havoc, it is pretty consequential – you have to manage the use of your talented CD in Nemesis with Metamorphosis to maximize damage. Now, overall, it isn’t really that bad for Havoc – Nemesis has a long duration so it’s not as sensitive to this change, but for classes with multiple CDs – protection paladins with Seraphim and Avenging Wrath, for example – this feels way different. It feels awful, but not necessarily because it is a bad change – it is just so different from what the game currently plays like and has played like for a long time. It does mitigate the bursty damage you’re so used to, so the game does feel like it moves a bit slower and more calculated at times, which I do think is good – just, maybe this is too big a change.

Now, one change I think is absolutely bad – forced personal loot. Here’s the thing, I don’t care about this personally because my guild uses personal loot so I never really worry much about using anything else, but I understand how this change is awful for a lot of groups. I hope Blizzard looks at reverting this change, because with it, they have removed an important part of player management of their own groups and social dynamics, which is never a good thing.

For the housecleaning side, the new UI changes are solid, and makes the stock UI much more usable with a wider array of layouts, even while it removes some options. I haven’t been able to do anything with DirectX 12 yet because the client only seems to offer DirectX 11, which I wish I could test! Item Squish V2 works really well and feels better than V1, with one notable exception…

Item Squish and Old Raids

This feels clearly undone, but needs to be noted for the sake of feedback – old raid soloing and scaling is not done well. The raids that got the buff after squish number 1 still have it – but since nothing else is changed except your damage dealt and health, you enter Cataclysm raids as a 119 tank at 60,000 health, when tanks back then had 150,000, and while you do far more damage than a tank then did, you don’t do nearly enough, and the end result is quite unpleasant. I have yet to try Mists raids, Warlords raids, anything earlier than Cataclysm, and Legion content in general is impossible to reach right now. That’s really all there is to say for now. It’s busted!

Overall, I am pretty confident in the gameplay we’re seeing so far for BfA, and I will be sharing even more details diving deeper into dungeon gameplay, Islands, tanking, and more!

4 thoughts on “The Core Gameplay of Battle for Azeroth Leveling – A Spoiler-Less View Into the Gameplay In Alpha

  1. Thank you for sharing 🙂 I find myself less…hyped…But, as long as there is a good story and environment, I guess I will be busy and content! Gosh, I hope the scaling issues gets adressed…But nice to hear the “lower” numbers of health etc. we will run around with. How much health does a, say, level 60, has?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Really good overview, thanks and appreciated.
    Of course, I am very interested in Azerite because it means player power. Is the main reason for these islands is to gather azurite (meaning that I will see a lot of that duty in the future) and, could you farm it by, say, killing 10,000 turtles in a quest area with constant respawn or is it truly absorbed by proximity and I could simply be in perma-prowl and wander the world? Is it a quest reward or do I see it like a node on my mini-map?
    Having another artifact worries me because of the constant grind until the taste is bitter and the anticipation become nauseating.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. So far the Islands on alpha don’t give rewards. The way the Heart of Azeroth works so far is very similar to the artifact – quests and endgame activities give you an amount of power for it, but it auto-consumes it so there are no token items you have to use. It has it’s own level, and the Azerite level it has increases the item level of the necklace automatically. Then, the Azerite armor items have traits assigned to them you can select from – generally, they are assigned at set levels for the necklace. The chest they added on alpha this week has 4 tiers of traits from level 1, 5, 7 and 10. The higher levels offer fewer choices, with the maxed out trait being a flat item level increase of 5 for the item. The first tier traits offer a generic choice and then 1 choice per talent spec, buffing something specific for a given spec. It’s weird and I’m not sure how that will work with spec changes, but I plan on finding out!

      Overall, it feels way less maintenance-y than the artifacts. Nearly everything about the Heart of Azeroth is simpler – fewer traits, no paths through the traits to select, no items to use to empower it, and only 12 total choices to make for your armor set at any given time. That could change, since only one piece of Azerite armor is in game at the moment, but if that holds true, I think it will be pretty alright.

      Liked by 3 people

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