There was something I couldn’t quite put my finger on as my time in Battle for Azeroth has continued on.
At launch, I really liked the game and wanted to play on my Demon Hunter at every possible opportunity. Late nights, early mornings, constantly logging in and running through whatever content I could. I did dungeons on a rotation, smashed through world quests, and progressed my gear and competency with the new design of my class.
And then I leveled an alt and repeated. And then another. And now I’m rotating two more through while I await the accumulation of rest experience on my Horde alts (DH, Monk, or Pally first…)
Should I be leveling so many alts so soon? Should I not be playing my DH, getting more raid ready and more skilled? Well…maybe?
The thing I’ve identified is this – I agree with much of the criticism leveled at the game online as of late. The core features added to Battle for Azeroth aren’t very exciting, and that is sad. Island Expeditions feel like a thing I need to be doing, but I haven’t wanted to do one in a few weeks. Warfronts are a confusing mess of a system that has few clear indicators of how to interact with them – I thought that them opening last Tuesday was supposed to be the introduction of the actual Warfronts themselves, instead of just the redone Arathi map and Horde-only contribution quests. The Heart of Azeroth and Azerite armor feels like a chore without the payoff that the Artifact had, with the benefit of at least only being done once per character instead of 2-4 times.
And yet, I still play daily. Why is that?
WoW’s Core Competencies Are Still Strong
WoW has, at it’s core, always been about dungeon and raid gameplay, with PvP being done fairly well, although I would struggle to say it’s a core competency for Blizzard. Over the years, even as they’ve fluctuated in quality in other aspects of gameplay and the overall product, these elements usually always deliver. When we’ve complained about a raid tier or expansion, it has been because not enough was delivered, very rarely because any of what was delivered was bad.
These pieces still shine in BfA. I love the dungeons, and have had a lot of fun playing them. Uldir has been a great raid so far (5/8 normal!) with a few caveats I’ll talk about later this week. World Quests are fun, repeatable bits of content which, taken in isolation, are good – they are bogged down by systems they are tied to, however.
In those core areas of gameplay, Blizzard has always delivered. I’ve never found myself hating a dungeon, even Occulus. I’ve never had a raid tier whose complete design pisses me off – the closest was Dragon Soul and it was largely because it was too short and somewhat anti-climactic.
And yet, I’m leveling alts earlier than any expansion save for one…WoD. That sentence is the biggest red flag to me, and let’s discuss why.
The New Features Do Not Stand Well On Their Own At Best, and Are Chores At Worst
(Editor’s Note: I started writing this on Monday, before Bellular came out with a video on YouTube echoing much of this section. It’s worth a watch!)
The biggest failing I can point to in the endgame design of BfA is this – much like WoD, the core new features simply don’t matter that much, they don’t add great gameplay, and they distract from the things WoW is great at.
Island Expeditions are my biggest disappointment so far, although as an Alliance main, I’m still waiting to be let down by Warfronts (so I hear!). They could be great! These bits of procedural content, with an enemy team of strong AIs. Great! However…the AI is still mostly an AI in WoW – it behaves in somewhat predictable ways, they are just new ways in which they pattern their behavior. They don’t have threat in an active way, but they tend to pick a target and adhere to it. Their healer tends to play more triage-oriented, meaning you can AoE the whole group and make the healer make hard choices, but even then, they usually only have one healing ability, so if you lock them out of it, great – they’re toast. What bothers me more, however, is that the AI simply don’t matter. The core island gameplay is simple in a bad way – packs don’t roam and migrate the island in a meaningful way, and the packs follow standard mob rules, so as a tank, I can tag everything and run while my DPS counterparts hit their AoE buttons as hard as they can. It’s not exciting, and the mid-map changes are usually made too late to spark any meaningful change in gameplay. Further, you can complete the whole scenario without ever engaging the enemy team, which is awful. The difficulty modes are good to have, but it usually just means you pull slightly less and take slightly longer. The best strategy I’ve found so far is to bring a tank who can pull mobs away from mineable nodes, then have your party mine the nodes while the trash is distracted. Done. That is a shame.
The Heart of Azeroth was discussed in a recent post, but I feel a need to say this – the pacing is bad and it feels bad. I could and would be okay with a system that uses grinding in this way – that is what the Artifact was. However, the fact that even my main stands good odds of getting a piece of Heroic gear where only one and even possibly no traits could be active is a problem. It means that lower level gear ends up being better, up to a point, and complicates what was intended to be a simple comparison. Further, the rate at which you can acquire Azerite is noticeably slower than the Artifact, and you have no means by which to influence the rate of acquisition. Not that the researched Artifact Knowledge was better, mind you, but at least you had the ability to influence the power curve. If I could put 500 War Resources into a bucket once every 5 days to grant an additional rank of the new Artifact Knowledge, that would be great. Instead, I am made to wait for Blizzard to do it, with few indicators of how it will be handled and no consistency. It has made me stop caring about Azerite, outside of doing the content I want and keeping up on Emissaries, I haven’t really chased Azerite specifically.
There is one other huge problem with the Heart of Azeroth, however…
Reputation Is The Oldest, Worst System In WoW, So Why Is It Still Used?!
This is where I am going to get a little bit mad (sort of.) I fucking loathe the reputation system in WoW. Every expansion has bolted on some sort of various sub-system to reputation, some of which have been good (Mists of Pandaria account-wide rep booster tokens, Dungeon Tabards, etc) and some of which have been awful (WoD’s complete lack of meaningful reps, the gating of other reps behind Golden Lotus in MoP). BfA feels…bad in this way, and the world quest system suffers for it. Pathfinder requires Revered with every faction, which is fine, but then you run into anomalies – like Champions of Azeroth being up intermittently, and even worse, needing Tortollan Seekers, a rep that has fewer world quests than any rep, few meaningful quests to do during level-up, and the world quests available are equal parts fun and time-wasting (but we got “A turtle made it to the water!” from it, so hey). When each world quests gives 75 reputation, and you need to amass 21,000 total rep to go from Neutral to Revered, well, the grind is real. The problem is compounded for many as their respective War Factions (Honorbound and 7th Legion) are prerequisites for being able to unlock the Allied Races added with BfA, and finally, compounded further by the lack of reward for the grind. Legion, for what can be said of the Legendary system, always had that carrot on the stick. Doing your emissaries daily was essential if you were hunting that gear, meaning that even at Exalted, there was still a reward to be had. Further, with the introduction of Paragon Reputation and caches in 7.2, Legion added even more incentive to doing the reputations. These systems served to obfuscate the pain of grinding, but it WORKED. Short of Suramar (a topic we’ll expand upon momentarily), Legion never really made me feel the pain of grinding rep, at least not in the same extent that Battle for Azeroth has made that painfully obvious.
Reputation isn’t exciting. You know what would be? Story quests per faction. MoP did this too, and it was great! As you progressed your rep level, you’d get non-repeatable story quests, which would then unlock more daily quest options for that faction. If you did that and hid the bar, or made the bar feel really worth filling, it would be fantastic. As it stands now, I have no reason to be excited about gaining rep, and once I get Pathfinder part 1, I’m unlikely to keep doing emissaries on my main unless there is some beneficial reward that isn’t Azerite.
And to return to the original segue into this point, Reputation is particularly bad here because you need to get Champions of Azeroth rep levels up to gain item levels on your Heart of Azeroth. Right now, the biggest gains you can get are from that. I’ve gained 81 item levels on my HoA at level 19, and 45 of those are from that rep. Forcing the rep grind for player power in this particular case feels egregious, given that Champions of Azeroth is one of the harder factions to level. The only way to make it worse would be to tie it to Tortollan Seekers, which, Blizzard please, no.
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
In a lot of ways, I am frustrated with this expansion, but yet, I have played daily since launch, and I enjoy it. Why? Well, the fundamental pieces that Blizzard is always good at are executed well here. My friends are still playing, and raiding is still fun. I enjoy the World Quests available, even if they aren’t particularly rewarding. I’ve started leveling more characters and Horde characters as well, the last bit of fully new content waiting for me.
To compare to Legion, well, I felt a lot of the same things at this point in Legion too. Artifact Power grinding felt bad, but the rewards were better. Dungeons and raids were strong, but the advantage Legion had is that there was a lot of additional content outside of these things. Each class had their own story, so leveling alts was much more enjoyable. Suramar, for its failings, was still a massive, endgame only zone with a larger number of quests and better overall pacing than the anemic war campaign. We already had 7.1 on the PTR with more story quests, a new dungeon, and a new raid coming! At this point, though, the daily gameplay of Legion felt a bit like drudgery; a bit of chore work needed to get into raids and Mythic Plus. But, we knew that more was coming – Emerald Nightmare had opened and mostly been cleared, but Trial of Valor was on the horizon. Return to Karazhan was promising a massive, Mythic-only 5 player experience with a lot to like and pure nostalgia underpinning it.
For as much of a bummer as large chunks of the expansion have been, I remember feeling this same way during this phase of Legion, and my hope is thus: sooner, rather than later, we should have a patch 8.1 announcement and a plan in place to remedy the issues plaguing the game at 120. Even if it’s not in 8.1, I want to see what Blizzard’s plan is to remedy Islands, Warfronts, to make Azerite more interesting and engaging, and to remedy the fun-suck of extreme reputation grinding. I’d also like to see new content that brings more to do – dungeons, raids, engaging story content, and more.
There are some aspects of the expansion that I feel are fundamentally broken (professions primarily) but I think that much like Legion, these things can be salvaged at least partially if the framework around them is better.
I want to see that better approach soon, though.