Before I dive into my analysis of what was actually announced (because you’ve probably read the core features list a few times now from various other bloggers and news sites), I think there is something worth discussing. A sort of elephant in the room, if you will.
No, not that one.
Shadowlands, the eighth expansion for World of Warcraft, was announced this last Friday. With it came a lot of bold promises, made with the right words. A return to focus on player agency. Meaningful choices. A reduction in “bad” randomness. The return of previously-removed abilities.
All of these things sound great, but one of the things that bothers me is that as I sat down at the airport on Sunday to start writing about what was just announced, I found myself including the phrase “if implemented as discussed” a lot. Rather than bog down such a post with that statement on loop, I figured it would be a better first post-vacation post to tackle why this skepticism exists of Blizzard and the WoW team.
Team 2 has a storied history of discussing things they want to add to the game that never come to light. From the Dance Studio of Wrath of the Lich King, the Path of the Titans in Cataclysm, no auto-attack Monks in Mists of Pandaria, through to the relocatable, heavily customized Garrisons we were told to expect for Warlords of Draenor, Team 2 has a bit of a streak of making bold promises and then not delivering.
In recent times, they’ve done this less, but they’ve done so through the use of satisfyingly vague statements. Azerite Powers would “fundamentally alter your playstyle.” Warfronts would feel like a real conflict between the factions. Sometimes big, sometimes small, the team’s new habit is to use these vague statements as applause lines at events like Blizzcon, only for them to fall to the wayside or be easily explained away.
This is what got my senses tingling at Blizzcon, because I hear some great promises – deterministic rewards in more ways, professions with control in crafting and means to influence the end result, legendaries, but in the slot you want with the effect you want. All of these sound fantastic, but they are also empty without action.
Then there is the unpruning. This is one of those things that is core to my dissatisfaction with live WoW – rotations can be far too simple and a little added depth and flavor could help a lot.
So, let’s touch on the big promises from the weekend, with a small breakdown of each.
-Mythic Chest Determinism: Sounds great, but not a lot of details offered. Basically, the example was that you might be able to pick from six items offered on a weekly basis as your Mythic Plus reward, with a fallback reward in case you reject all of them. This one seems promising (the number six could be an asspull but also sounds like something the team has actually discussed), but the idea of a fallback item kind of seems to reintroduce the full randomness of it. If I don’t like the six items, it feels to me like the choice is to take the one that is closest to appealing, rather than offering a seventh choice of “anything on the M+ loot table, which spans over one hundred items.” Sure, you could get lucky, but at that point, you basically offer a slot machine that also tells you you can press a few buttons to guarantee you won’t lose but it might still not be the jackpot you wanted. I don’t want to lose the forest for the trees, however – this is a vast improvement that reduces reliance on randomness to deliver a favorable outcome. I just, you know, also want to see it in-game.
-Unpruning in General: Brian Holinka, on stage Saturday, offered a promise of restored abilities – old favorites returning, and specs being brought closer together under their class vision rather than the Legion model of spec-islands where every spec was a class unto itself. This sounded excellent, were it not for two big pitfalls – my current class of Demon Hunter never existing as a whole class with a lot of shared abilities was the one that immediately popped to mind, but the other thing was that the specific changes they were willing to discuss also weren’t in the demo build at the show. Priests, discussed as every spec getting Flash Heal back, did not in-fact have that back in the build, as I played Discipline which still used Shadowmend instead. Now, it is an early show build and the idea is to show off the environment and the Kyrian Covenant abilities, so I am not pinning disappointment on that yet, but rather pointing it out for the sake of it. The 2017 BfA demo had some class changes already implemented, so to see none made as of yet save for the level squish talent row reordering was a bit of a surprise.
-Lack of Eternal Grinds: The most delightful promise and also the most vague, the team seemed to dance rather deftly around what no perma-grinds meant while also introducing some systems that seem designed to be ground out. Covenant Sanctums seem like they’ll need some TLC on a regular basis, but if there is a cap and an inability to fall too far behind, that might not be the worst. What bothers me is Anima. If I take Anima Power and abbreviate it, it spells AP, and we all know what that means.
Joking aside, however, the vagueness of details around mechanics like Anima, Covenant Sanctums, Soulbinds, and Conduits all tells me that we aren’t out of the woods on grinding yet – at least until we see a meaningful beta implementation of these ideas that shows how they integrate with core gameplay.
-All Things Legendary: Okay, so this one has the biggest potential to be appealing but also disappointing. The core idea as stated at Blizzcon is that it is Legion Legendaries without all the randomness. It led to Ion acknowledging out loud that getting Prydaz when your raidmate gets a throughput item sucked and wasn’t a great way to handle things, but again, the announcement lacked any true meaningful detail. From interviews with the team during Blizzcon, there’s a bit more clarity – basically, Legendaries come from Torgath, and are crafted. The core mats are gathered inside of Torgath, including the items that grant the Legendary effect, and you can then pick a slot and an effect to grant the completed item, allowing you to tailor (maybe even literally) the item to your current loadout. It sounds nice, but there is wiggle room in there – how do runes work, how long will the farming take, will I myself need to be a crafter to do this, etc. This is probably the most or second-most important system to get right – if they nail it, it is going to make this expansion stand apart in a positive way, and if they don’t, it is going to pull this expansion off the rails.
-Secondary Stats on Crafted Items: Crafting has been the real red-headed stepchild of WoW for a couple of expansions now. You could make an argument that content in BfA is good, and it would be worth discussing, but anyone who thinks the current state of professions is fine is either not playing the game at all or is too far gone to discuss anything with. The core problem is that there are always a few breadwinner professions (enchanting and alchemy with a sprinkling of cooking) and the rest all kind of suck. Armorcrafting sucks because you need a pile of mats to make the basic armor you can sell, and anything at raid level is bind on pickup, meaning it solely allows the crafter to up their item level, but requires so many materials that you can often get a better drop before the crafted item can be made. Even if you could benefit from the item level boost, the problem then is that random secondary stats means you might be crafting, scrapping, and recrafting the same piece a few times, resulting in piles of wasted mats and frustration. Warlords of Draenor introduced the random secondary stats crafting model, but did so with reroll items, which was fine enough and also provided easy means to gain early levels via crafting the reroll tokens. Legion did away with the reroll items while keeping the random stats, but the crafted gear in Legion was so often out of date anyways that it never really mattered much. BfA has kept the gear current, but with random secondaries and high costs of raid materials and the need to scrap to only recover those raid mats and a small fraction of the other materials, crafting any armor is a fool’s errand. On top of that, the current glyph system doesn’t build enough value for scribes, and random sockets means jewelcrafters often can’t get the gold they once could from their trade.
The proposed path forward – using gems with fixed secondaries to allow you to fix stats – is actually smart if it holds true, in two ways. One, it amplifies the value of jewelcrafting by making gems a consumable that can increase the value of other crafting, and two, it also means that gear crafting can be at least semi-meaningful. It would be nice to see a similar concession for scribes to be able to craft something to add to enhance a craft, and for the end result crafted armor to be BoE to allow armorcrafters to profit from their trade past the early item level inflation phase of the expansion.
-Leveling Being Meaningful: The squish helps this – as I’ve discussed in the past, having 120 (or 130!) levels means that not every one of them can be important and meaningful, which leads to where we are today – a single level rarely matters and the climb in particular from 110 to 120 feels awful because short of Azerite, nothing changes but your growing weakness. The new leveling model sounds fantastic (and I will write that up separately!) but until we see what the unlocks look like, I remain skeptical that every level is going to be truly meaningful. There are talents for a few and spells for others, but the rebalancing of that progression is going to be critical to ensure that every level offers something solid. They seem to be counting dungeon unlocks in that as well, which is…questionable…but I could see that feeling fine if the pacing has enough levels with gameplay changes.
-Torgath and Replayability: As someone who loves some Palace of the Dead and Heaven-on-High in Final Fantasy XIV, the deep dungeon concept appeals to me a lot. Naturally, then, Torgath really stood out as an exemplary announcement to make. The systems that seem to intertwine through it are rewarding too – enhancements through the tower, legendaries acquired through farming it, the events and procedural spawn patterns with constant changes, and the idea of lore reveals made through it sound really great! However, the deep dungeons of FFXIV are largely replayable to folks as a leveling mechanism, and tend to feel a little rough otherwise. Many folks use them for leveling alt jobs nearly exclusively and hate them as a result, since the pattern has floor sets that are favorable to farm.
Torgath seems to address some of these, with infinite floors (in theory) and difficulty adjusted on a per-floor basis, with each run focused on starting from the bottom and pushing up the tower as far as you can. Further, some interviews added other information – a potential lockout might exist to reduce burnout, and the team has in mind the durability of the content through the lifecycle of Shadowlands which should promise upgrades and further enhancements. However, I have a fair amount of concern about Torgath, mostly as concerns the large number of systems that intercept it. Some of the talk of Covenant abilities being useful to dodge certain mechanics worries me because of min-maxing. The scaling mechanics will need careful tuning to avoid being too easy or impossible depending on group size and composition – the Horrific Visions in patch 8.3 are the template for this, and the early implementation in PTR was far too simple as a solo player. If Legendaries are earned here, a lot of care must go into ensuring the tower is not farm city. Based on descriptions of The Maw, where Torgath resides, it sounds like even reaching the tower is going to be somewhat a pain, but hopefully not too much so.
Basically, what I personally want from Torgath is good challenge that I can push against for as long as my skill can sustain, with a strong roster of rewards in addition to legendaries (transmog appearances, please?), that is available often enough to be a core pillar of my gameplay but not so often that it feels grindy or excessive, and with events and strong procedural spawning that keeps things interesting (that’s all!).
Overall, the announcement of Shadowlands is exciting, and I don’t want to say that it isn’t. However, I have a strong throwback to the Warlords of Draenor reveal, where the expansion sounded incredible and yet did not deliver on all of the promises made. I’m hoping that the WoW team delivers, but there is reason to remain skeptical until a beta build surfaces.