Patch 8.1, Tides of Vengeance, comes out tomorrow, and the large question, the elephant in the room, is as follows:
“does this save the game?”
As extreme and perhaps hyperbolic as such a question is, it does address the root of concern for many players.
The game of WoW is in a bit of a rough spot, with stories of guilds and player groups disintegrating due to player departures looming large over player communities. The pages of the WoW subreddit fill with complaints and concerns on a daily basis. Yet, there are still people, and a lot of them at that, playing the game. Short of a few newcomers who quickly faded out, my raid group is intact, and while our playtime has slowly faded, raid nights are still animated and enjoyable.
For as many elements of the game as there are in a broken state (professions, world quest reward loops, etc), there is still something there worth logging in for to many.
So, with the scene set, it’s worth asking now – with a new patch tomorrow, is the game saved?
The answer is complicated. So let’s dig in!
The Core Feature Fixes of Battle for Azeroth – Azerite Armor Acquisition, Island Expeditions, and Warfronts
The core new features BFA launched with were…interesting. There was something to each of them, I think, but they were ultimately lost on players as they struggled to establish themselves against the, frankly, much better systems of Legion. Against Artifact weapons, Azerite was a clunkier, more complex system that was also more boring, as the net impact on your gameplay was far less. Islands were a massive grindfest, with the word “expedition” being there in name only. Warfronts are odd, somewhat interesting bits of world content, but the namesake instanced content is fairly bland and boring, only done by many for the once-per-cycle item level 370 piece.
So, what does 8.1 bring to these systems?
For Azerite, there are some clear improvements. New gear in Season 2 having a second spec trait ring with multiple choices offers a greater degree of customization and power through the system. New traits offer more gameplay alterations and active choice in your moment-to-moment combat rotation. Titan Residuum gives the ability to target specific Azerite pieces and slots by offering a currency with multiple acquisition methods and a choice between specific pieces or random pieces by slot, adding the incentive of faster acquisition for the random pieces. While these changes do not ultimately bring the system up to the level of interest that the Artifact weapons had, even in 7.1, they do make Azerite more interesting and less annoying.
Islands are more of a mixed bag, but generally better. The Azerite extractor system offers an interesting, different mechanism to win, but the fact that you must actively be defending it for it to work means it can make the gameplay more dull, if the AI does not engage with you while you watch it. It does offer a different means of playing, however, and that is good. You have a choice between the extractor and the enemies. The spawning pattern changes are generally good and allow you to better plan your pulls. The changes to rewards further improve islands, removing some of the tension in a group between players wanting to simply farm the Azerite cap as efficiently as possible versus those wanting to maximize opportunities for rare-drop rewards. The two new islands offer a bit of variety and some welcome scenery, which is also nice. Overall, I imagine how you feel about these will largely depend on how you feel about Islands already – if you like them, this is great! If you don’t really enjoy them, well, then you probably still won’t.
Warfronts themselves are not really changing, in this patch at least. They will continue to be relatively dull instanced content, which does at least offer multiple paths to victory via how players strategize. The new warfront is set to offer new gameplay via a different set of objectives and map layout, which is nice. The world zone changes and rare farming is changing from the current, loosely defined rare mobs and quests, to a set of 4 daily quests available when the zone is under your faction’s control, which is a nicer way to go and will offer hopefully more rewards. There is also a currency system coming in for Warfronts, which will offer additional rewards for purchase – a welcome improvement over random drops for all rewards. With the new Warfront also comes a new world boss, Ivus the Forest Lord, and with him comes additional chances at Heroic level gear. Lastly, by the nature of having two warfronts with their own cycles, this means (in theory) that you’ll nearly always be able to do one at any given time – when your faction has Arathi, the other will have Darkshore, and so there should always be some content that isn’t just contributions.
A New Raid – A Good One At That, But Wait 5 Weeks First
Battle for Dazar’Alor looks awesome, and has some fun little mechanical touches, like Jaina iceblocking on you when your raid uses Bloodlust (and it is always Bloodlust because you are Horde characters for the fight regardless of actual faction). That being said, it isn’t anything we’ll get to be too excited about for now, since we have to wait until 1/22/2019 to enter it. This alone is a disappointment for me, because Uldir, while I do like it, and quite a bit at that, is wearing thin. My guild is already moving to acheivement runs over full Heroic clears because we got everyone Ahead of the Curve acheivements and there’s not much left in it for us past that. Having said all that, BfDA looks like an awesome raid but holding off discussion of that for later!
The War Campaign Comes Around
This is probably the piece of content most of us will get involved with, and one that was most lacking at launch. There are big chunks of each faction’s experience that goes completely unrepresented in the other faction’s content? Now that I’ve completed both, it bothers me that the Alliance see the Horde working with San’layn, which is completely absent in the Horde content, while the Horde is resurrecting all these Kul’Tirans as undead which goes completely unremarked upon on the Alliance side. The biggest exception is the main pillar of the Horde story, though – Derek Proudmoore, who the Horde retrieve in 8.0, unknown to the Alliance (despite the fact that the Horde quests involve the ENTIRE KUL’TIRAN FLEET CHASING AFTER THE HORDE FOR THIS) is a key component of the 8.1 content for both factions, as Sylvanas’ brings him to undeath against his will, while Jaina and Katherine Proudmoore take grave (ha!) offense to this act.
Otherwise, the campaigns retain a lot of flavor similar to the 8.0 versions – the Alliance campaign is more whimsical and light-hearted (somehow in the face of all this war) and consists heavily of raising an intelligent gorilla as a war machine, while the Horde campaign centers heavily on actions ordered by Sylvanas and as such is very edgy and dark.
The problematic aspect of the war campaign for me is that it doesn’t hold a candle to Suramar in the slightest in terms of single-player quest content. Even with the annoying rep-gating, Suramar offered far more content with its quest chains and the Insurrection questline added in 7.1, which the war campaign doesn’t come close to matching. Granted, the idea of the war campaign is that it isn’t supposed to be quite as long, but unlike Broken Shore (the point at which we all pretty much complained about the pointless 11-week time gate), Insurrection was well thought-out and the longer pace worked really well for it, I felt. Coupled with the lack of class stories from Legion, and while I’m glad there is a Horde/Alliance story happening to give incentive to have both factions, and that the War Campaign stretches this further, I’m disappointed in how this results in far less content.
Sure, the class campaigns were fairly minor bits of content, but they had coherent stories that came back into play in a few cases. The War Campaigns just don’t carry the same weight, and it really annoys me seeing the huge disconnects between the experiences. I wish my Horde alt could see the San’layn working for Sylvanas – that might even give me fuel to choose to rally against her in the separate Saurfang questing! Instead, it is completely inconsequential, and I have no faith at this point that it will pay off in any form later in the expansion. At least my Alliance character will finally be aware that the Horde have had Derek Proudmoore’s actual corpse strung up in Tiragarde Sound for a long time now, so I guess that is nice.
I should take this moment to address the other quests that are not technically a part of the War Campaign. The Saurfang quests are pretty cool, and feel pivotal in the scheme of the expansion story. Of course, it also dumps a lot of fuel on the roaring fire that is “Sylvanas=Garrosh” so that is a growing problem. The choice element seems pretty cool – but it doesn’t have a set endpoint yet, and that means the potential exists for the choice between Sylvanas and Saurfang to not pay off. The Vol’jin quests seem much cooler, and are something I am legitimately very excited for!
The Darkshore warfront introduction quests seem alright, although they have weird payoff. Even with the changes made to the scenario, it doesn’t quite portray what some of the quest text and cinematic shown at Blizzcon aimed for – the Horde are supposed to be terrified of Tyrande as Night Warrior, and yet, Nathanos deals with the situation pretty well. Having said that, it’s not as though Nathanos is a pushover, so I’m okay with it for now – but it does make a poor first showing for this new power that is supposed to be a difference-maker for Tyrande.
Lastly, for Alliance players, we get some Proudmoore stuff in the wake of the raid and due to Derek’s forsaken-ness, along with the teasing of a bit of a rift between the Night Elves and Anduin, and that seems to be it for now.
Ultimately, I feel like in quantity of story content, I am left wanting for what Legion had on offer. For quality, I am in the same spot, wanting what Legion had and failing to find it. I am glad that the stories seem to be converging more, as it seems necessary to start bringing them together knowing that Crucible of Storms and the continent of Naz’jatar are coming down the road. I will still gleefully consume this content, but I do feel slightly let down by it.
Other Gameplay Tweaks – The New Experience Curve, Class Balancing, And Professions
I am, firstly, jubilant about the new XP curve and massive leveling XP reductions. These are solid, substantive changes that have me excited to level my allied race alts on Horde side (already have Void Elf and Lightforged Draenei heritage armor unlocked from Legion!) and to finish grinding for Mag’har Orcs so that I can level one alongside my Dark Iron Dwarf monk. The slight improvements to 110-120 leveling, alongside incursions and their XP buff, is going to make leveling all of my alts feel better, which I am excited for.
Class balancing feels a little less exciting – while I have not played Shadow Priest much on my second 120, I do enjoy it for weekly BRF farming and seeing some positive movement in the spec’s performance is heartening. On the other hand, hearing about the lack of changes to the Shaman is disappointing, although having not played mine since Legion, I am not sure how much of the talk is hyperbole amplified by the community and how much is legitimate underperformance.
Professions, on the other hand, feel legtimately broken, and it seems that the 8.1 changes don’t really bring much to fix this. Crafted armor can be slightly higher level – okay. Sanguicell has use in a few recipes – nice, but not huge. The economy of the game still feels like it is trying to pop the bubble economy of Warlords of Draenor and Legion, draining the gold out of the economy through a deflationary spiral. Even with the bandaids in 8.1, art imitates life – and the economy continues to drain the gold hoards piled up under WoD and Legion gameplay (and mission tables).
The Frills – Gnomeregan Pet Dungeon and Heritage Armor
Gnomeregan pet dungeon looks cool, but I haven’t tried seriously doing pet content since MoP, so I’m not a definitive source on any of this.
Heritage armor quests for Blood Elves and Dwarves look awesome, and I look forward to doing both. Currently, my Horde alt I play most is a 120 Blood Elf Demon Hunter, who is wearing a Silvermoon tabard and soloing old heroics all the time trying to get the reputation needed. It is, thankfully, much easier than an Allied Race unlock rep grind/level-up/heritage armor quest run, and can be done in multiple ways at your own pace, which is nice.
My Actual Favorite Feature of Tides of Vengeance…Multicore Renderer
Oh man, this makes my inner tech nerd sing. So way back in the halcyon days of BfA alpha, I wrote a piece singing the praises of what switching to DirectX 12 could do for World of Warcraft. It is built with multicore CPU support enabled at a base level, so surely it would automatically translate to highly improved performance in WoW, right?
Well, as a commenter on that post after launch mentioned, I was quite wrong. See, what I didn’t count on was that the code of the game would still need to be written to account for multicore support, which Blizzard, puzzlingly, did not do for BfA launch! In 8.0, turning on DirectX 12 will either slightly lower your performance (if you have an nVidia GPU) or slightly raise it (if you have an AMD GPU), as the core improvement needed to realize the gains of DirectX 12 (a multicore optimized rendering engine) was not in the cards – until now.
While Wowhead has talked about it on PTR, Blizzard had not yet confirmed that the properly written multicore renderer was coming in 8.1 – however, nVidia spilled the beans this week in a post touting a 5% WoW performance uplift with their new 417.22 drivers. While the main point of their post was to brag about squeezing 5% more performance out of WoW in DirectX 12, they go on to specify that 8.1 will be including a multi-threaded renderer, which will improve performance a lot more.
How does it work? Well, as long as your WoW computer has at least a dual core processor and a supported graphics card for DirectX 12 (on PC) or Metal (on Mac), you stand to gain a fair amount of effectively free FPS – with a catch. Yes, you do need to have a dual core CPU, which at this point, pretty much everyone does have. However, you also need Windows 10 and to be running in DirectX 12 mode in WoW. If you are playing on a Mac, you can still get this performance boost by meeting similar computer specifications, provided that the graphics processor in your Mac supports the API Metal. If you have a fairly newish Mac (probably around 4 years old at the oldest), then you’ll be able to get a similar boost in performance, as Metal also enables the multi-threaded renderer.
But what is the gain to be had? Well, Wowhead’s (admittedly basic) benchmarking when the code was discovered on PTR revealed a gain of 23% in Boralus over the DirectX 11 and non-optimized DX 12 code at the same settings on the same systems. With this code further optimized, coupled with driver updates for those of us with GeForce cards, and the end result should be impressive!
It is worth noting that there are some of us who will benefit more from this change. Those of you with newer Intel CPUs with high clock speeds will see some improvements that stay pretty close to what Wowhead saw, as their test rigs were both outfitted with newer, high-end Intel CPUs. For people like myself with an AMD Ryzen, the benefit will likely be more felt, as these CPUs have lower clock speeds but more CPU cores and are able to crunch slightly fewer operations per clock cycle, meaning that in the current state of WoW, our CPUs are prohibitive of higher performance. As an example, my system can still chug with a Ryzen 2700X with 32GB of RAM and a GeForce GTX 1080 Ti, because the fastest a single CPU core can run on my machine is 4.2 GHz, where the fastest single core clock speed on a similarly-priced Intel CPU is 4.7GHz or even 5 GHz.
While this will generally be a boost, only some components of your graphics experience are affected. Geometry details are the biggest one, so if you struggle to run the WoD updated character models, this will help. The renderer change also means that View Distance setting can be turned up higher without as much of a performance hit, since View Distance is one of the most-impacted settings in WoW by CPU performance. If you have an older, but still multicore CPU, you stand to gain the most, as WoW is likely currently strangling one core of your system to death while leaving the others unhindered, where spreading the work out stands to gain you nearly double the available CPU horsepower, if not more (it is uncertain how many cores the new renderer can effectively load up, so I would only count on dual-core for the time being). This seems, from the variable names discovered for the renderer on PTR, to also improve shadow performance. Other graphics settings are largely handled by your GPU, so texture resolution, anti-aliasing and other such settings will continue to be GPU-bound.
Overall – Is This What WoW Needs Right Now?
This is where my opinion is going to really come out. Overall, I am of two minds about 8.1 – it offers a lot of substantial content that is going to offer us more to do. At the same time, however, it doesn’t go far enough in addressing the communities’ core grievances with BfA and as such, will be seen as a half-measure. There are also frustrating exclusions, like Kul Tiran and Zandalari allied races not coming until 8.1.5, a complete unknown on the implementation of Crucible of Storms and the related knife-romancing content, the 5 week wait for Battle for Dazar’Alor, and with it, Season 2 and the Azerite 5th ring that comes with it. That being said, I do like a lot of what is here, and even if nothing else, it will let me do my weekly runs of Blackrock Foundry at higher graphical fidelity while also making alt-leveling less of a chore. While I am bought into the game as-is for right now, I hope to see substantial developments on 8.2, including some unannounced things (a similar change to Azerite systems as we got for the Artifacts in 7.2 would go a long way, I feel).
Overall, I can’t help but compare it to 7.1 and feel disappointment. We had more single-player content, better raid pacing, a new dungeon, new questlines, a more satisfying reward loop, and increased novelty from features like World Quests and Mythic Plus. While we are getting Faction Incursions earlier than Legion Invasions, and we also have Islands and Warfronts, I kind of feel like there’s less on the table right now, and that is a letdown.
Of course, for me, I know I will still find my own fun in the 5 weeks we must wait for the new raid. My guild is doing acheivement runs in Uldir, and I’ll have alts to level. Incursions seem cool, and I am excited to try them. While I feel like there is more to do, Titan Residuum, Warfront Currency, and the expansion of Island vendors and available items for Seafarer’s Doubloons do get us closer to closing the gap between a complete RNG hellscape and the utopia of player choice. I’ll probably level a Dwarf to do that Heritage Armor quest as well!
So, I look at 8.1 kind of bitterly, in a way – it’s coming later in the game than 7.1, with less content and the game in an overall worse state, but at the same time, I am aware that for me, it checks enough boxes to keep me engaging with the game.
Really, though, I can’t wait to see those higher frame rates, and everything else that comes along with is just a pleasant afterthought. 🙂
Does Tides of Vengeance save the game, however?
Eh, vision is murky on that one. Check back later.