So, I think the first point I’d like to longform from my big review post is this: Azerite Armor is dull, boring, and doesn’t seem to be of much consequence, which makes it nice but disappointing.
This sounds a bit tangled, so let’s untangle it here today!
Azerite Replaces Three Systems, And This Is The Core Problem
Azerite fills a hole left from not one, not two, but THREE distinct systems, 1 of which existed for a long time, and two of which were Legion-specific problems.
Azerite, primarily, is the reason provided for the loss of tier set bonuses. While in theory we could have “tier” sets where the armor art is the same per armor type but each class gets the same bonuses. Hell, they did that once, where Tier 9 had the faction armor for Trial of the Crusader and there were simple color and texture variations made to the core sets. The thought here is a simple one to follow – at least one trait per Azerite piece at all levels offers spec specific choices, and you can respec it at any time for a cost to keep it for the spec of your choosing. Fair enough.
Here’s the problem – this alone is fine. If the article ends here, and only Tier bonuses are being replaced by Azerite, it is a good to great system. You have the benefit of Tier bonuses during leveling, and during those early dungeons and early portions of raids!
But…it doesn’t end there. Azerite, more troublingly, is also meant to replace Artifact Traits and Legion Legendaries. Oof.
Artifact Traits are the current gold standard of post-leveling progression – they’re also really the only XP bar mechanic we’ve had prior to Azerite. Artifact Power, from Legion launch until 7.3, was a grindy, neverending mechanic designed to keep you pushing your character through content for tokens used to empower weapons, eventually “leveling” the weapon and being able to purchase an available trait, with the only rules being that an adjacent trait must be unlocked and filled completely before you can move on. You had a choice – which path to take, what traits to fill out, and in many cases, you could deviate from the conventional min-maxed paths if you so desired.
Azerite already has none of that. Your traits are defined by the gear equipped, and while they are fixed to a piece of gear and not random, meaning you can plan to farm optimal pieces, it is a much simpler, and, sorry to say, dumber system. It is, ironically, tied terribly to RNG – you want better drops of your preferred item choice, and while the item itself cannot warforge or titanforge, another blessing, you are ultimately bound to the whimsy of the loot table of the boss containing your ideal armor piece.
The choice of artifacts is gone here, replacing it with a slightly more complicated talent tree tied to armor pieces. Then, add on the layering of Legion Legendary replacement.
During Legion, it was safe to say that Legendaries were…contentious. The peak complaint was that it was far more likely you could get a defensive legendary, one with a generic effect like absorb shields or free healing. Effects that were not bad in their own right, but in a system with a large array of actual throughput increases, this was abysmal. The expansion never really stuck the landing on acquisition of these items, and the effect of that was a lot of effort to clean-up and remove RNG from Battle for Azeroth gameplay – Emissary Caches tell you exactly what you’ll get right on the map screen, with the only exception being that armor and weapon drops from the Emissary can war/titanforge, Azerite Armor cannot warforge or titanforge at all, and the traits are fixed.
Blizzard’s fix for Legiondaries is to take those effects they liked, the defensive ones, forward into BfA via the center rings of the Azerite traits. In some cases, quite literally (an absorb effect with the exact same mechanism at Prydaz and even the same icon as the buff is a common occurrence on many items!). This is…okay. Again, like with Tier bonuses, if this was the sole system being replaced, Azerite is a capable placeholder that remedies many of the errors of Legiondaries.
Tie It All Together, And You Have Huge Gaps
So now, let’s look at it together. You have Tier bonuses via 3 slots of armor, and with choices, but you have to gain enough in-game currency to allow you to enable these traits, sharing the same system as something that is intended to replace a 54-point path where each point offered a measurable, observable power increase at the cost of tremendous grinding, and this same system also has to fit the bill of replacing the powerful enhancements offered via a random drop item system with low drop rates and no way to choose your path towards your preferred effect.
So you have less grinding than the Artifact, at the cost of tremendous player power advancement, Tier Bonuses more often and selectable, at the cost of unique art assets and the extreme spec flexibility of modern tier sets, and the passive play benefits of the defensive Legiondaries in a selectable manner, but made to be weaker.
All of these unify into a single system, the very core of the expansion’s endgame gameplay. So why is it already such a failure?
Escalating Costs Make The Reward Irrelevant And Make Advancing Your Gear Feel Awful
Azerite Traits are fixed to a piece of armor, which is great as WoW is built on this cascading difficulty system where the same foundational piece of armor is empowered more and more as the difficulty climbs. Blizzard’s solution to this for Azerite is twofold – the base item level jumps just like anything else. A normal dungeon Azerite piece is 310, and that same piece in heroic is 325. Simple! The effect remains the same, but is also boosted due to the item level. A defensive trait offering you an absorb shield might offer 1,000 damage absorbed every 30 seconds, and the heroic version of that same armor would offer the same trait, but absorbing 1,150 every 30 seconds. Fair enough. What also happens, however, is that the design then boosts the level requirement of your Heart of Azeroth to open that same tier. A normal piece might only require you to have your Heart of Azeroth at level 10 for that first ring, but then require 12 for the Heroic version and 14 for the Mythic version. This has an unintended side effect, which can result in some upgraded armor pieces actually not being much of an upgrade until your Heart of Azeroth is leveled appropriately.
And unlike the relative rain from the sky of Artifact Power in Legion, Azerite is in a fairly limited supply. Right now, if you’ve been grinding EVERY source of Azerite on a single character, you will very likely not be able to fully empower a piece of raid gear. Now, that’s fine on its own. It offers something to work towards. However, unless you’ve been grinding pretty hard, you’ll only be able to open a single trait on each piece in Uldir this week. This will get easier to work towards with the drops from Artifact Knowledge being implemented continually, but the nature of that is somewhat unclear – will it remain weekly going foward?
So you have the potential to get a piece of gear which, with most ideal traits, may actually decrease your power momentarily, further pushing a grind that is easy but also very tedious, in order to gain passive powers that don’t usually offer much to your gameplay.
As A Closing Note, The Lack of Physical Items Is Nice, But Makes The System Feel Absent
I like not having AP tokens, I’ll admit. However, look at how it works – you have nothing save for a very simple, small visual and sound effect when completing a quest offering Azerite to tell you that it has been gained. I hated filling my bag with tokens, sure, but having no physical, kinesthetic connection to the system just makes it hard sometimes to even remember.
Overall, I get the idea of the progression, and I like that it is trying actively to not be super grindy. However, right now, it just sometimes feels like it isn’t even there at all, save for those quest rewards and the occasional shout about needing to pick new traits. I’m not excited about it, and even at the worst dregs of the Artifact grind, I was excited for new traits. That, to me, is the biggest disappointment.
The Real Closing Note – Where Do We Go From Here?
I’m hoping to see the HoA rebuilt in two major ways – firstly, I want to see the effects of post-raid launch trait tuning. Many traits were buffed today, and that is a good first sign. Secondly, I want to see a greater sense of impact from the traits. Give me unique visuals that are distinct and capture my attention, give me larger and flashier effects for the acquisition of Azerite and leveling the Heart of Azeroth. Just give me more feedback – bigger effects, more gameplay readability, and shout out loud about the great powers I just unlocked.
Further, I have some concerns about the future of the system. Right now, we grow from 3 rings to 4, including the center trait which is always +5 item level, which also buffs the prior traits. In a possible 8.1 raid, do we then go to 5 rings? By the end of the expansion, are we going to have 7 ringed armor pieces requiring the Heart of Azeroth be at level 255 to unlock? How will these traits be kept interesting throughout? There are zone traits based on where the armor is acquired – will these continue to expand? If we end up at 7 rings, what traits start to occupy the additional rings?
I guess that my speculation above could be underplaying the idea, though, and maybe we’ll end Battle For Azeroth with 54 rings of traits and it will be pretty much just like the Artifact.
…okay, probably not. But that UI would be ugly in a funny way!