So this was quite a week for WoW, eh?
When the week first started, the Battle for Azeroth alpha test got a new build, one that unlocked Azerite testing on newly created characters. Some questing was cleaned up, Island Expeditions were re-opened with PvP mode, allowing that to be tested.
And as of Thursday, all of that has been turned upside down!
The biggest news of the week for WoW was undoubtedly the Media Day Blizzard hosted on Thursday, giving us a bevy of details for BfA.
-A Release Date: 8/14/18 is the date at which we will all set sail for the islands defining our factions and moving forward into the new storytelling. While this doesn’t tell us when 8.0 will go live (4-6 weeks prior is the expectation), it does give us a 4 month notice – we are almost there and the expansion will launch just under two years after Legion.
-Island Expeditions: there was some conversation about them at Media Day, but not much new info – mainly just conversation of the underlying technology making them work. I found it cool, but it doesn’t illuminate much of what we can expect.
-Warfronts: Still largely unknown, with no playtesting done publicly and little new information short of the fact that the Stromgarde map is confirmed as the main location for them.
-Physical Collector’s Edition!: It’s $100 USD. Oof. It also no longer has a mousepad, a behind-the-scenes DVD/Blu-ray, a physical CD with the soundtrack, or, most sadly, an art book. It instead uses a download code for the soundtrack, packages two novellas (one Horde/one Alliance), and a very large metal medallion with Horde and Alliance emblems on opposing sides. The best news I found, however, was that they have finally figured out the process of the digital pre-order offering extra goodies that are early access (Demon Hunters, Allied Races, etc). Now, when the physical CE key is added to your WoW account with a digital pre-order also on it, the cost of the intial purchase of the digital copy is refunded as Battle.net balance. Sure, this isn’t quite as good as an out and out refund, but for me, who will likely be subscribed to WoW for 4 months, a refund of the Digital CE purchase I’ve already made is good enough, since I can use that balance to pay the sub!
That brings us, however, to the one piece of news I am drastically disappointed in – Azerite armor.
With the Alpha testing revealing how the Azerite traits will work, in an inverted fashion, we now have important context to how these things will work.
I will start with the good news, such as it is – the Heart of Azeroth as a system is akin to the Artifacts but simpler in nearly every way. You never have to even touch items, they are automatically consumed to empower the item. As it gains levels, its item level also automatically scales up, so relics as a concept are gone in a way that solves the problem of item level scaling for the item nicely. Azerite is far more plentiful during the level-up process and the amount needed per level, while it has slid around a lot during Alpha (my Heart of Azeroth has been level 9, 6, and 5 – with each new build knocking it down more and more. (The amount of Azerite power needed hasn’t been visible, at least as far as I can tell.)
So now, that ends the good. Let’s discuss the traits.
To me, Azerite and the Heart of Azeroth, as systems, represent Blizzard’s awful self-sabotaging tendency – they’ll make a change in philosophy that represents a positive step forward, and then make a second change that undermines the first.
Let me wind that up – over the last several expansions, we’ve seen Blizzard push multi-spec gameplay to an easier, simpler system. It started with the consolidation of spell-healing and spell-damage stats way back in Wrath of the Lich King, moving forward to talents for caster DPS specs for healers to gain Hit rating via Spirit stats on gear, eventually leading to Warlords of Draenor making tier set bonuses switch with your spec, meaning you only needed a single tier piece to effectively have it for all of your specs. They also made it such that all armor with Primary stats would have all applicable primary stats, with one active – the one applied to your currently-active spec. This was then peeled away quite a bit with Artifact Weapons in Legion – making it such that even where specs could previously share weapons and all gear slots (like physical DPS and Tank specs on the same character).
Azerite makes this easier but also way harder.
The Azerite armor traits are constructed in tiers. The first tier is an item level increase, with generally three more tiers past that, requiring ever increasing levels in the Heart of Azeroth. As the tier increases, the number of choices does as well, and while tier 2 and 3 on Alpha are generic but understandable choices, you then progress into Tier 4, where the whole system goes weird.
Tier 4 has…3-5 choices. Why the different numbers? Well, that is because you get one generic choice and one spec specific choice for each spec you have. Demon Hunters get 3 choices total, 1 generic, 1 Havoc, 1 Vengeance, while Druids get 5 choices. Here’s the rub – these spec-specific choices are specific to abilities that only that spec has, and cannot be changed on that piece of armor. The generic choice is godawful and good for, at this point, almost literally no one. Now, Azerite traits are defined for each piece of armor and do not change between different drops of the same piece, meaning that your ideal solution for multi-spec gameplay is…to get the same piece of armor multiple times for each spec.
Now, I’ll start with a positive here – if your specs have drastically different stat weights, this is good, because it means you can take a different item altogether. I can grab Leather Chest of Raiding A for Vengeance and Leather Chest of Raiding B for Havoc, and make sure I pick the best traits for tanking on the piece with ideal tanking stats.
However – this is a major detriment to multi-spec gameplay. While the artifact was annoying in that way, particularly early in the expansion, this is a new degree of annoying. You have a few choices for how to deal with this – you can pick generic traits and keep 1 helm, 1 shoulder armor, and 1 chestpiece. You can have traits for your mainspec and just forego them for your offspecs. You can have one piece per set, in any or all of the Azerite armor slots. This is on top of having to continue to gear armor slots that do not share well, like trinkets, and weapons again now as well. All of these remain, of course, constrained by drop rates and your ability to get your hands on those pieces – which is another layer of difficulty laid upon this system.
I want to stop here for a minute to say that given the quotes from Blizzard out of media day, I understand why they did this, and why they think this is ultimately good. Gearing has never been quite so easy, and here, the problem is really only drop rates. You still don’t need to carry completely different sets of gear to be at a pretty high level of effectiveness, unless you are min-maxing to a Mythic degree. It gives a degree of choice that in many cases is difficult to get with current tier gear – you can pick the secondary stats and traits of your choice, within the possibility space offered with the gear options available. Presumably, between Mythic Plus and raids, this will be a fairly large set of options.
The problem I have with this is that while it offers more choices than we have today, technically, it does so in a frustrating way. Tier bonuses aren’t always equally great between specs, and the secondary stat loadout on a tier set may be really well suited to one spec but not another, but ultimately, the choices offered are easier to distill down and the one piece of armor offers me both bonuses, free of charge. Azerite armor adds this new (old) complication to the game, and while it doesn’t approach the amount of armor carrying we had to do back 10 years ago, it pushes us weirdly closer to that, in a way that is contradictory to the myriad changes Blizzard has pushed over the last 5 years to make multi-spec gameplay easier.
This would be easier to stomach if the generic choices were better, but they aren’t. Quite frankly, they suck really bad, and this makes the change sting. It’d be interesting and compelling if I could respec the armor at a cost, or if the generic traits sharing a tier with the spec-specific ones were great choices, but this system, as currently implemented, is effectively a force mechanism to push players to farm multiple pieces per Azerite slot.
Now sure, at the end of the day, there are only three slots to farm for, and that isn’t so bad. The traits do add gameplay and in fact adds a layer that doesn’t exist in the Tier armor system, while still overall representing an overall decrease in gameplay complexity with the removal of Artifacts, particularly with the Netherlight Crucible. However, given all of that, it seems a baffling design choice – if I could set an Azerite trait per spec that would change like I can for transmog appearances and talents, that’d be great! But I can’t, and it seems purpose-made to try to force additional gameplay.
Earlier in this piece, I focused in really heavily on the changes to make multi-spec gameplay really friendly, but kept the lens solely on gear changes. It is important at this point to note that my problem with Azerite armor is exacerbated when you consider all the non-gear changes to these systems – multi-spec giving way to free spec changing, talent system changes offering a system where you can rather easily swap talents in your specs, gear set loadouts you can save in the default UI, transmog by spec, and more. The game has taken so many huge strides to make multi-spec gameplay easier and better – so why take such an odd step backwards on this one?
And to be fair while wrapping this up, I mean, ultimately, this isn’t that bad of a change overall. Mythic raiders sometimes farm multiple unique gear-sets per character or even per spec, with secondary stats and loadouts for single vs. multi-target, raids vs. dungeons, solo play vs. group play, PvP vs. PvE, and whatever other varied scenarios they’d like to prepare for. This change, however, pushes normal players to do the same – the answer resoundingly being, “you don’t like the generic trait that tier? Guess you better get that chest piece twice, then!” Any time Blizzard’s answer, provided by gameplay, can read even close to a “fuck you, do more” to me, the more deeply seated, subconscious hatred I have for the system providing that answer. Artifact progression prior to 7.3 felt this way. Titanforging feels this way to many people. Legendaries in general during Legion have felt this way.
Is this overdramatic? Yes, I’ll admit that.
But ultimately, this is a decision that stands in stark contrast to Blizzard’s other actions on this topic, and that is what makes it stand out so poorly.