Season 1 of Battle for Azeroth has ended, and we are now in season number 2 for the beleaguered seventh expansion to World of Warcraft. In this post, I’m going to take a look back on the full breadth of season 1, covering the launch window of the expansion, 8.1, and the various tweaks to content and rewards we’ve had since then.
Dungeons – Trash Heaps (They’re Also Okay)
The 8.0 dungeons are a mixed bag for me. While I like many of them, and found them to have largely interesting mechanics and designs, there is also something that pervades all of the designs – gimmicks for Mythic Plus. Temple of Sethraliss has the lightning ball mazes, which are awful, not to mention the gauntlet for the snake eyes. Freehold has the dense trash layout leading to the first boss and the parrot poop that forces repositioning which will often lead to extra pulls. Atal’Dazar has large patrols that tend to be difficult to deal with. The MOTHERLODE!!! has the dense but non-threatening trash near the beginning, interspersed with larger, deadlier adds. Trash went from being less dense and more manageable in Legion, to messy, large pulls with multiple mechanics in BfA. Now, if Mythic Plus didn’t scale the way it does, this would be fine – giving the standard difficulties something to chew on is a great idea. However, while these mechanics are simply nuisances in many cases on normal, heroic, and base Mythic, they are deadly on Mythic Plus, especially on weeks with bad trash buffs. Teeming weeks in Legion were fun AoE fests, but in BfA, they are awful slogs with a lot of problems.
Infested, the season 1 special affix, hurt this even more, by making trash pulls with the buff even worse. It can be easy to deal with, but there are several pulls where it requires a degree of precision that can be tough to manage in the moment, and since the buff has a chance to increase the number of mobs with it, this can cause some pulls to go very poorly if not properly managed. While I did appreciate many of the pulls it was added to and the degree of improved gameplay required to manage, overall, I think it wasn’t the best affix Blizzard has ever made and I look forward to playing a bit with Reaping in Season 2.
Overall, despite my concerns with trash packs, I find the dungeons in Battle for Azeroth okay overall and I still enjoyed them in Season 1, which is good, because I have several max-level alts that will enjoy farming them in Season 2 for gear upgrades.
Questing – A Good Level Up Experience Gives Way To Excessive Repetition and Tedium
One of the consistently good to great pieces of WoW content is leveling up, and BfA was no exception. The quests use the framework started with Legion, with zone scaling, zone selection being left up to the player, and dungeons introduced in 5 level increments, with all the main zone dungeons on your faction’s continent available immediately, with a single new dungeon per faction added at 115 and then the opposite faction dungeons added at 120. On this framework, Blizzard has found ways to distinguish BfA leveling from Legion by further expanding the number of quests in each zone (leaving a similar number of total quests due to the reduction in fully available zones for questing) and by using a level and quest gate to the opposite faction’s continent, which enforces a different sort of pacing to the content. In general, BfA leveling feels slower than Legion, due to tweaked combat mechanics like the GCD and the way objectives for quests are structured in BfA compared to Legion. However, I haven’t found it too slow, and similar to ConsLegion in Legion, Azeroth Auto Pilot offers an addon mechanism for accelerating the experience, once you’ve gotten the lore and quest text reading you wanted to do out of the way.
Ultimately, however, the questing is largely left to be judged on how it does at introducing you to the scenic vistas and important points of interest in the expansion’s content, and at this, BfA does well enough. Some moments are very well sculpted (the Alliance intro quest to Freehold keeps the city hidden behind mountains until you reach a summit and can see the whole thing in a single, picturesque view). Some are less so polished (Atal’Dazar is gorgeous on its own, but I wish it had a similar reveal to Freehold). Overall, I would say the core level-up questing is good, but not great. The story is okay and builds over the course of the available content, but WoW’s storytelling in-game remains largely relegated to zone-specific stories that do a lot to build up the zone and its characters, but little to tie back in to a full and total story.
As for post-120 content, I have mixed feelings about the War Campaign. It is enjoyable enough, but having done both factions, I feel like there is far too much disconnection between the two experiences, especially when the story describes the other faction. I cannot get over the fact that the pivotal villian of the Alliance campaign is a San’Layn, and yet the Horde never once see this character – at all. Likewise, Thomas Zelling would be an interesting plot hook for Alliance characters to know about, but that isn’t explored for Alliance players at all, leaving the Horde’s awful necromantic streak under Sylvanas a mostly open secret. While I do find the idea of an expansion-wide story campaign a great one, especially when executed well, I find the war campaign to be a bit of a blunder in places. 8.1’s added quests start to push the two stories closer together, but there are still large chunks of each faction’s story that are missing from the other. While I would be content to believe that fog of war is a real effect happening to both sides, the problem is that it doesn’t logically make sense when you take the events into account – the San’layn, my pet example for this, is supposed to be this horrid transgression for the Horde and someone of pivotal importance in their war…so important that Horde players never see him at all! I can’t really say that I would rate the War Campaign as of season 1 above mediocre. It’s an okay start, but these plot threads need to start unifying to the central plot ASAP.
Finally, there are the world quests. They are okay the first time through, but there aren’t as many memorable world quests as there were in Legion, and the quests we have tend to repeat a lot with a few unique ones thrown in. This seems largely due to the fact that each faction has their own with few shared ones, leading to a degree of repetition after a while grinding through them on one faction. Incursions, added in 8.1, have generally better design, with more mixed objectives that surprises me in a feature whose very theme is “kill the other faction.” My hope is that 8.2 offers more chances to make world quests unique, maybe by making a stronger pool of shared world quests and then using only a few faction-specific ones to sprinkle in some flavor.
Raids – Bring the Class, Ignore The Strategy
I’ll start with the positives, because I have less to say here than in negatives. The world boss rotation is great, and I like the interesting variety of bosses you get in the open world. I’m glad that Blizzard went back to world bosses in Mists of Pandaria, and I’m glad they make so many unique ones these days, just for the visual distinction of it. World bosses have few actual mechanics, but they are there and it is not uncommon to see people have to change up execution every so slightly, but ultimately, these mechanics are minor and world bosses are just fun, zone out and beat down the loot pinata, which is, to me, their proper role.
Uldir is a visually interesting raid, taking this unique fusion of Troll and Titan aesthetic and underscoring it with the unsettling void of color that made Underrot one of my favorite looks in all of WoW. The blank white fungal life has this surreal quality to it that enhances the feeling of dread – it gives the impression that something is not quite right. The mechanical designs of some of the bosses are pretty great – Fetid Devourer has some interesting takes on the Patchwerk-style DPS race, Zek’voz is an interesting race against death and mind control, and in theory, I like the idea of the G’Huun reorigination machine.
However, Uldir as a raid tier suffers from compounding problems. The first is that the unintended nature of a first tier raid is to be forgotten, and so many of the fights are just not that memorable or interesting in the long run due to the short amount of time spent in the raid. Of the NPCs involved in Uldir, only MOTHER will be of any lasting significance going forward, due to some future quests. It would be nice if there was story leading into the raid, which is a half-problem: the Horde get a great amount of storytelling, including the full zone story for Nazmir, whose finale is what knocks Taloc into the raid, the story of Zul’s descent from the Zanchuli council and death, which lead into the raid, and Mythrax, who emerges as the big bad of Vol’dun and the Zandalar Forever scenario, and then returns to be fought in Uldir. For Alliance players, on the other hand…well, we get Brann Bronzebeard doing adventure-y stuff just because, which is not nearly as good!
Lastly, however, this next one hurts me to say, as I have been a huge proponent of most of Blizzard’s raid design over the last decade – Uldir just kind of sucks on a fight design level. Taloc can be easily one-tanked and poses few threats. MOTHER can then also be one-tanked, and a well-geared raid can simply stomp her down in the first chamber without engaging any of the more advanced fight mechanics. Most of the boss strategies for later fights involve cheesing or outright ignoring mechanics – you let Fetid Devourer eat, you send your mind-controller Zek’voz DPS to far edges of the room to die in peace, you use lazy stacks on Vectis to control debuffs with little need to move or swap, Zul is a clusterfuck of lucky critical strikes on whom your best bet is to ignore the add mechanics and cleave everything on top of Zul while racing to beat the second big add spawn, Mythrax charms can be frustratingly random, and G’huun encourages a ridiculous degree of class stacking for orb running, such that if you don’t have warlock portals on both sides or extremely high mobility classes like warriors or demon hunters, the fight can feel downright impossible. Every fight is a gimmick, with few viable strats, lots of class stacking that leads to problems for small guilds, and then, to make matters worse, there is the raw tuning of each fight. The early fights get easier with gear, but the later ones often require such tight DPS checks that even using ridiculous zerg strategies meant to push the fight to the end quickly, and you can still fail if you miss out on a bit of DPS, to the point my casual guild started fighting about pre-potting! Uldir was a frustrating tier and one of the few in which I got my Ahead of the Curve and wanted nothing more than to quit raiding until Dazar’alor, which my guild agreed with and did.
Even with the way BfA has been, I’ve rarely so directly taken Blizzard to task on something, but I have to say this – from my casual perspective, Uldir sucked. I wanted to like it so much, but it was just a bad raid, assembled with seemingly little care for tuning or mechanical intrigue and the end result was that Uldir just added to my desire to not play after a while, instead of being the saving grace for my gametime, like raiding was in WoD. The early reviews of Dazar’alor are very promising and I am optimistic Season 2 will be much better in this regard.
PvP: Don’t Ask Me (I Hear Good Things Though!)
I don’t really PvP, so short of a few unrated BGs, I can’t say much, but every time I did PvP, I had a great time. While I still think the GCD changes aren’t very fun, the one place they tend to get some positivity is in PvP, in that they constrain the burst that can be dumped on a player, which can help to smooth damage intake and keep you from getting globaled. The PvP maps offer some fun gameplay as usual, and the Brawls that were added during Legion continue to offer fun, engaging gameplay for the most part. If you’re PvPing during this expansion, you’re probably happier than most players, even if some sore spots like gear acquisition are still present.
BfA Specific Miscellany – Islands in Small Doses and the Arathi Borefront
The BfA specfic gameplay we got at launch came via Island Expeditions and the Arathi Warfront. Islands are, to me, overall good, but the reward mechanics in 8.0 were lacking and as Azerite proved to be less of a motivator to many, myself included, farming it was quickly found to be a poor way to spend time. 8.1 has improved on those points by a fair amount and I hope that some further tweaks to mob density and events in 8.2 are made, because I think you could end up seeing Islands being really great with some additional modifications. Warfronts, on the other hand, are just kind of okay. Arathi, I think, was just not well designed – the emphasis on resource gathering through non-combat gameplay detracts from the atmosphere, even if it also helps capture a bit of the old-school RTS vibe, and this makes Arathi matches somewhat dull and lifeless, as the best strategies involve minimal enemy contact while gathering resources. Darkshore warfront, to its credit, does this much better, building in the resource gathering to more combat-oriented gameplay, making it much more exciting. On top of that, the map of Darkshore is just better designed for conflict, with narrower lanes, less spacing between points of interest, and a stronger sense of flow that keeps the game pushing forward to the enemy base. It is intuitively easier to read the map and play in Darkshore, and with less resource gathering, there are far fewer reasons to stray from the paths into the woods, keeping everyone grouped together. Coupled with better-designed enemy packs, and the Darkshore warfront offers a much better version of the idea communicated with Warfronts.
Overall, the new modes of play with Battle for Azeroth can be good, but right now, there is just too little incentive to play these things on repeat, which is too bad, because I think they could be great and could rope more players in. But there is a bigger problem looming which is hurting the game and these modes of play…
Gameplay Rewards: Broken AF
I hate to have to end on a negative note, but man, I saved this one because it ties together the rest of the threads of season 1 and the current BfA experience neatly – there is little sense of reward for anything anymore. As someone who enjoys playing many characters casually, I like that the game throws out a lot of loot – it has been doing that for years now and it has never bothered me like this. What is really cutting into my enjoyment of the game is that much of the reward mechanisms the game offers are fundamentally broken for the sake of predictability on Blizzard’s part. They want you to receive a reward on a fixed schedule, so the promise of more playtime means that you’ll always be getting something, and it is difficult to go even a short play session without receiving something.
The problem is that much of the gear you can get is meaningless and only serves as a milestone on a larger gearing journey, which is further broken by the fact that you reach a point of diminishing return where the rewards for playing drop off a cliff, and while there is always newer and more powerful gear to obtain, the rate of acquisition slows to a crawl. On my Demon Hunter, world quests were worth it for gear for about 2 weeks, and then only occassionally afterwards. Dungeons were only worth running for gear for about a month, Mythic Plus included. In around 14 weeks of Uldir raiding, I very quickly hit 355 average and climbed above during Normal, and then ended heroic at 377. Short of 1 item a week from a Mythic Plus cache or doing Mythic raiding, I can no longer gear unless I get a high WF/TF, and those are not worth the time spent.
That, to me, is the biggest problem season 1 of BfA had. The reward loop can make me endure a lot of content, good, bad, or otherwise, but couple a bad reward loop with sharply diminishing returns on time spent with questionable content that I couldn’t wait to stop playing or was so frustrated with playing that it made me angry, and the game was just reaching a point of pure frustration, where even logging in made me feel defeated. Often, nights where I wouldn’t play were motivated by this lack of incentive.
This one deserves its own section, but not a full detailed one. Azerite, I think, has been talked almost to death, in that in 8.2, the current implementation is in fact dying. Azerite has not had the hook that Blizzard expected, and the reasons are well-tread. I think this largely tied together the problems with other methods of reward, leading the game to feel very unrewarding in a very bad way. While Season 2 is tied to it, and perhaps even longer, if 8.1.5 yields its own season, it is obvious that Blizzard is moving away from this system going forward. In the meantime, the changes for Season 2 with the additional ring will offer additional options, with lower tier availability of powerful spec traits, but the system itself remains fundamentally flawed and these changes do not remedy that (the 8.2 ones definitely do, though!).
So now that Season 1 has ended, was BfA season 1 all that bad? Arguably, no. I wouldn’t say its bad. The problem is that the game was mediocre, offering a lot of options with drawbacks for content and sharply ramping rewards that make a lot of people jump off the ride when it starts to level out for them, wherever that point is for each player. Bad gameplay makes people mad, good gameplay makes people happy, but mediocre gameplay just makes people tune out. Season 2 looks to be making some small but meaningful changes that will help some of this, but for now, in many ways, we’re stuck waiting for 8.2 for the larger, more substantive changes. But we have a new, shinier raid with better gameplay (from PTR, at least) and a slight relief of things to do, trading a bad season affix in M+ for a better one, scaling up player power higher which should make gameplay smoother, and making the less fun of the two Warfronts less rewarding in comparison, which should make the available options moderately more fun, which is a good start!