So now, with Uldir and Warfronts opening tomorrow, feels as good a time as any to discuss the fundamental launch state of Battle for Azeroth.
The game has been out for 3 weeks now, and nearly everyone I know has at least gotten their first 120 character and has been moving through story content that waits at endgame for us all. In my particular case, I have done quite a bit of the Alliance-side content, in fact, effectively all of it, minus a few random side-quest chains that are loosely dispersed in the world, and I have a lot of things to say.
Firstly, let’s start with my overall summary, which is a TL;DR of this whole post:
World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth is a well-built, fundamentally strong expansion to WoW that builds largely upon the foundation that Legion laid for the future of the game, with more options for end-game progression and advancement, but less emphasis on grinding resources endlessly. This leaves endgame feeling similar to Legion, but lesser, in that the grind of Artifact Power (or Azerite, if you prefer) is less impactful and ultimately seems not to matter very much. Into this space is woven better integration of some of the gameplay ideas of Legion, coupled with new mechanics, some of which play very well, and some of which are confusingly poor.
So, let’s dive in more fully.
The art: WoW has been a visually stunning, amazingly artful game for a long time, not in a realistic sense, but in that the game makes expert use of its art style to deliver spectacular vistas. The disaparate ecosystems of Kul Tiras and Zandalar are very different and it makes the world more interesting. However, where Legion accomplished variety by snapping together these distinct zones with no visual cohesion and harsh boundaries between zones, Battle for Azeroth pulls this off expertly by using its dual continent design to split biomes between the two. Zandalar is a temperate jungle and desert akin to Africa, with the sands and harsh winds of Vol’dun contrasting with the lush greenery of Zuldazar and the swampy unease of Nazmir. Kul Tiras has this global North feeling, with snowy peaks in Tiragarde Sound, the dense woodland of Drustvar, and the mild valley setting of Stormsong Valley. Each zone has its landmarks, whether they are the sprawling capital cities or interesting dungeon landmarks like Temple of Sethraliss or Shrine of the Storm. The dungeons are similarly artful, with the immense dread conveyed by a total lack of color in Underrot, the golden sheen of Atal’Dazar, or the distinct pirate themes of Freehold. Gear designs fit the continents, giving us twice as many green and blue armor and weapon sets, and while the lack of class-specific raid sets is still a disappointment, I ultimately can see some tradeoff in art time and appreciate what is there.
The questing experience: Leveling is made more interesting using the scaling technology from Legion but ramping it up further, building tighter quest lines into the zones that guide players towards the goal, with interesting endcap encounters that lead into the dungeons in each zone. In a lesson learned from Final Fantasy XIV, many zone stories end with larger setpiece fights which are pretty cool, even if they are the same basic gameplay quest bosses nearly always offer – dodge the frontal cone, move out of the ground AoE effect, keep on the boss. The amount of opportunities you are offered to more organically push a side quest chain or to break-up the zone quests with War Campaign footholds is a good addition. Sure, you basically get 3 zones per faction – but each zone is full of content and you have these additional side quest chains in the opposite faction zones. Overall, I find myself pretty satisfied with the quest experience for leveling up.
The Dungeons: I can tell that these dungeons were built from the ground up to be more interesting for repeated runs and even more interesting for Mythic Plus. The dungeons have a large variety of mixed up mechanics that rotate run-to-run or week-to-week, with multiple dungeons offering changing boss orders, pathways through the dungeon, or varying encounters that can shift and evolve. Freehold has a boss encounter which also changes the trash before. King’s Rest has a council-style fight that rotates boss order. Waycrest Manor has a door mechanic that shifts the first 3 encounters into different orders and alters the trash-pulling dynamics throughout the dungeon. The art is on point, the boss designs are usually fairly interesting, and the overall package is good-great. Some dungeons are unexpectedly easy (Motherlode), some are much harder than you would imagine (King’s Rest) and the majority of the others fall pretty fairly into the middle. Mythic Plus will absolutely stir this scene up quite a bit, and I think it will be great!
World Quests: Overall, World Quests feel better designed this time around, with the systems feeling more tightly integrated into the game. Several quests during leveling seem to be great for World Quests, and they are! The ability to see the emissary reward does a lot to add to the feeling of desire to do them – you are in control of that choice, and can opt to do them if the reward is appealing, or not, if the reward isn’t so great for you. Overall, I still vastly prefer them to old-school daily questing and find them a much better, more integrated experience that allows you to just start playing right away.
The New Tank/Healer Paradigm: Having played both sides in Mythic Dungeons, I actually really like the new design paradigm for these two roles. So far, in Dungeon gameplay at least, the tank model means that you need to be more aware of your healer’s capabilities, weaving active mitigation and cooldowns with healer casts to enable you to survive. Likewise, for healers, the tank is priority one in a dungeon, and to enable this relative to Legion gameplay, there is a sharp, noticeable reduction in unavoidable AoE damage, leaving the bulk of damage dealt to the party coming from tank damage and avoidable AoE damage abilities. It means that a good group, same as usual, can push hard without much need for a healer, where an inexperienced group or one with tunnel-vision DPS often places an inordinate amount of stress on the healer. In Mythics, however, this is offset by simply using avoidable damage mechanics that will just kill a DPS who screws them up, so there is that!
The Mission Table: Yes, I know, and I’m surprised too. But it feels like Blizzard finally managed a good compromise with this feature – by decoupling it from all core gameplay, it is now completely optional, constrained by slow gained War Resources, with follower leveling taking almost no time, and the reward commensurate with the amount of effort clicking some UI buttons takes. I actually enjoy that it is worth checking to see what is there, but no longer requires anywhere near the amount of management the prior implementations did.
Island Expeditions: These were touted during Blizzcon 2017 as being one of the defining features of the expansion, but in practice, they just aren’t. Some people I’ve met haven’t done ONE, and don’t even feel like they’re missing out. Others I’ve met, myself included, simply do enough for the weekly quest and nothing more. The gameplay is pretty decent, but in making it a scenario, the balance requires that a healer not be mandatory. As in Mists of Pandaria scenarios, this leads to the same kind of dead-end design, wherein if you play a tank or healer, you may be actively holding the group back, but a group of all DPS players can be a bit of a different challenge. Further, where MoP scenarios had at least a story to keep things moving, Island Expeditions are freeform to a fault, allowing players to do literally anything at anytime – like the warlock who kited a full island of adds onto me (on my team), or the rogue who broke away solo to sneak around grabbing things. The good news is that some of these are still good things to do, if planned for, but they can be bad without planning, and in the case of the failtrain the Warlock brought, thank goodness for Shadowmeld. The challenge for me with these is this: I actually really enjoy doing Mythic Islands with friends and guildmates. They can be interesting, fulfilling tests of player skills in weird situations that approximate PvP – and like a lot of the mobility mechanics in the expansion so far, out friends as clickers! But the sense of reward is just not there, and I don’t find them a fascinating or fun way to burn much time. I do Mythic Islands to get 3-4 done to get my weekly quest, and that is it.
Class Design: So far, while I enjoy the classes I’ve leveled for the most part, they feel so much slower than Legion (even early Legion with the same gearing points) and that doesn’t feel good – it doesn’t feel as much like WoW. It’s not even the GCD change so far for me, as many of the classes I’ve been playing just aren’t affected that much. While I like the overall design philosophy and paradigm of what I have played so far, it feels jarringly different, and not necessarily in a good way. Once I’ve played a bit more of the variety of classes and specs, I’ll revisit this point – right now, all I can say is that the specs I’ve picked so far have felt familiar enough, but there are some rough edges and gear has not always smoothed those out as it has in the past.
The Heart of Azeroth/Azerite Powers: The artifact was a big, long grind in the early stages of Legion, and that was unquestionably bad. However, the grind tied to it also came with a huge benefit – each trait offered a noticeable power gain. Getting a new trait point felt really good, and it made the early grind worth it. The Heart of Azeroth system is trying to take that idea and reduce the grind, which is a good thing I absolutely support. However, the effect of it is this – the traits from the Azerite armor are underwhelming and don’t feel quite that powerful. Grinding AP doesn’t really matter that much because when I get that next ring of traits, it is just a new effect I can watch or observe. So far, none of them really hold any power in gameplay, they don’t seem to alter my rotations, and they are just kind of there. I like the idea, don’t get it twisted, but ultimately, I find myself wishing they were more substantial. The idea behind them, as I read it, was that with fewer of them to balance, the potential existed to go really big on these and make them powerful. They, well, aren’t. I missed having my artifact abilities and modifiers when 8.0 dropped. Will I miss my Azerite traits when 9.0 drops? Probably not – at least not the current iteration. The artifact systems proved that Blizzard can and will pivot faster in their current designs if they see the impact they wanted isn’t being had. The question now – is this the power boost Blizzard envisioned?
War Mode: This one is highly subjective and is absolutely my take alone – I won’t claim that I think it is bad, because it isn’t, or that Blizzard should not have done it, because I think it was really smart, but I actually came to kind of hate War Mode. I played on a PvE server for a reason, and it was nice to have the ability to try open-world PvP in that kind of dedicated environment, but it just isn’t for me. I wouldn’t mind getting ganked 1v1 every so often, but the roving death squads of Horde players in Stormsong Valley made me turn it off on every alt and it’s likely staying there. Not my cup of tea, but I think that for PvP friendly folks, it seems to be a slam dunk.
The Lack of Story Cohesion: Okay, so I think we’re all still pretty firmly on the Old God train, right? Like, it’s fairly apparent from the early questing that the predominant force in both stories are the Old Gods, and that’s fine. I am excited for that! However, the expansion is selling itself as faction conflict, which is great! Give me that story! So imagine my disappointment that the leveling story for Alliance players gives you Horde conflict in exactly one zone with no real heft or storytelling. I hear you winding up that “what about the War Campaign?” I got you covered there – it’s so barely about the original kickoff of this expansion that it is hard to really embrace it. We hate Sylvanas so much as Alliance that we…sack Lordaeron, sure, and then run to Kul Tiras and only do the equivalent of playing footsies with the Horde – the foothold quests and War Campaign are all this unrelated mess where we’re chasing a San’layn who has allied with the Horde? And, like, okay, sure, that’s fine – Sylvanas making new allies that we last saw in Icecrown Citadel is all well and good, and not even new! But what does it have to do with getting our vengeance? Nothing. It is a war tale, but not really related to the other war tales that ostensibly form the fictional backing of this expansion. There are some cool moments, and I enjoyed the war campaign overall, but I have to be honest here – either this needs to snap to Old Gods HARD, or we need some connective tissue for the War Campaign to join to the pre-patch events. I feel like reading the novellas and doing the War of the Thorns was this one, separate, 3 week long expansion story, and everything since has been another different expansion all it’s own. This is a shame, too, because on the Alliance side, the Pride of Kul Tiras storyline is some of Blizzard’s best storytelling to date. I loved those quests, but I couldn’t tell you how any of it really ties back into the central themes. Oh, right, sometimes the Horde are hiding in little footholds in Kul Tiras. War is happening folks, as those guards stand there ready to attack me while Horde players…*checks notes*….kill an NPC I also want dead, and then sneak back out and head home. I feel that the expansion can stick the landing, but it seems that a part of the problem is writing two separate storylines that have to ultimately tie together and lead us into a future Expansion #8.
Crafting: I’m not a big crafter but it feels so completely unnecessary. I actually like the revamp of skill points, but Expulsom just feels like a way to compete with enchanters and pull enchanting mats out of the market, but then the enchants were still designed in that old-school way where the top end ones need a good amount of the epic crystals, and all of that for a minor amount of secondary stat on a ring. Weapon enchants aren’t particularly awesome either – I like the early tier ones and feel like they are more interesting than the “better” ones, which are all variants of “stacks X secondary stat up to 6 times, at which point you get 2x the bonus until the buff expires.” Okay, so cool – it’s easier for me to math out the benefit of Versatile Navigation compared to Gale-Force Striking, which is great – and as a dual-wielder, I can use both! But for your two-handed users, well, you might get stuck with a boring one. I know that Wrath-era is an undesirable outcome, where professions are super-intertwined with min-maxing and you had a ton of Blacksmith/Jewelcrafters because of bonus sockets added to gear, but I should feel like the professions are worth something. Now, I just don’t get that. I took Leatherworking to make a set of 355 pants, and now until Uldir is on farm, it’s basically worthless to me. Enchanting is marginally better, but not much, and the competition is on between scrapping gear for Expulsom or disenchanting gear for better enchants. I like professions being optional, but at the same time, that effort in-game should be worth something.
In (Additional) Summary
Battle For Azeroth is a good overall expansion, one that builds upon Legion in fundamentally strong ways, but has it’s missteps in plot, crafting, and gameplay mechanisms like Island Expeditions and the Heart of Azeroth. Overall, though, it is also more alt-friendly, with dungeon designs better suited to repetition, and plenty of beautiful sites to take in. Raids and Warfronts will add a lot to the game, and I can’t wait to see what comes next – especially because there is so much unknown potential for where we go from here!
To close out, here are some character stats from my 3 current 120s!