With 2019 effectively over for WoW, save for datamining news out of 8.3, it is worth looking at the road ahead for the game going into 2020.
Now, firstly, this piece is going to focus on BfA specifically. Obviously, 2020 holds much more for the game than BfA (a certain land of a shadowy nature!) but right now, there just isn’t a lot of Shadowlands out there to go off of. At this point in 2017, for comparison, the CDN had already been updated to 8.0 at least once and so we knew BfA news was coming. For Shadowlands, we don’t even have that. Blizzard has dropped some minor hints that more is coming soonish (the changing launcher ad for Shadowlands preorders has gained new screenshots and video in the last week or so) but until 8.3 is out the door, we’re not likely to get more.
8.3 is the major thing on the horizon for the game, and the holding pattern we’re in waiting for it is a large part of the retail version’s decline. If you have your transmogs from Eternal Palace, have your Ahead of the Curve achievement, have geared to the best of your ability, well, there just isn’t that much to do. I’ve largely taken to farming gold and transmogs out of Mythic Hellfire Citadel on multiple characters, and that is about it for my playtime outside of getting the Dwarf heritage armor unlocked.
8.3 will define much of 2020 for WoW, especially if Shadowlands is a late release as it seems likely to be. So the question on the table for this piece is simple – is 8.3 good enough to be a long-lived patch?
Well….yes, and also maybe no?
Firstly, worth mentioning is this – 8.3 is a very interconnected patch. The core gameplay systems on offer in 8.3 are built around playing all of the available content – farming N’zoth invasions and visions for currencies used to buy entry into Horrific Visions, a system intended to walk in the huge shadow of the Mage Tower. Horrific Visions link to the legendary cloak from Wrathion (the Vale is under Old God assault and Wrathion is giving us a cape, deja vu…) and upgrading the cape means you can do more within a Horrific Vision, while also aiding you with equipping Corrupted gear and helping in the fight(s) against N’Zoth in the Ny’alotha raid.
This interconnectedness is, to me, a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, Blizzard has made efforts to make the invasion content of 8.3 stand out from the existing BfA content – no new zone, not placed anywhere in Zandalar or Kul Tiras, with vastly different themes from the rest of the expansion. My problems with addressing N’Zoth in the space of a single patch aside, this is a fairly okay way to deal with the pre-eminent Old God – make his city a raid, invade the world, fight through darkness.
Since we get no directly new zones, various invasions and vision events take the place of altogether new landmasses, replacing and updating vast swathes of Uldum and Vale of Eternal Blossoms to compensate. Way back in early October, I looked at what was on the first iteration of PTR and thought it could work. With time, I am a little less optimistic, but I do think that as a compromise position, it works well enough. As long as it helps nudge Shadowlands closer to completion earlier in 2020, that is a net good to me. To be fair to the team, the zone changes for several of the invasion events are substantial and not simple Instagram-tier screen filters to portray corruption. The patch also brings the revamp of Vale of Eternal Blossoms, finally restored after 6 years shrouded in Sha. The raid zone doesn’t make up for what I wanted out of a Ny’alotha patch, though – it feels like a very guided tour through a very limited part of the region and I would have loved getting a Ny’alotha zone, even if it meant tying it to BfA as an expansion.
Back to the systems front, however, there is news that skews negative for me here. The core gameplay is built around invasions and visions, with not much else to do. Once the story content is exhausted (and it will be fairly quickly), what remains is to run off to fight N’Zoth’s lackeys in the two zones that see his forces, collecting enough currency to enter Horrific Visions, then doing them your 1-3 times per week to upgrade your cape and push your progress inside of the Horrific Visions next time. Now, to be clear, Horrific Visions aren’t bad per se. However, when 8.3 was announced, I was so excited about a new Mage Tower type of mode that I immediately went onto PTR and played them for a few hours. Here’s the thing – Horrific Visions are no Mage Tower substitute in any meaningful way. They are vastly simpler (to encourage all players to do them) which is a net good – but the challenge they offer isn’t so much one of skillful play and more one of grinding and progressing the trait tree for HVs down a strong path to set you up for future success. Early on, you’re just not going to get that far – at least, that is the idea, but as you grow the powers and your cape, you can plunge deeper and deeper, using Masks to then modify and add difficulty.
Now, this is all okay enough – it’s a less difficult Mage Tower, but you can tweak and tune via traits, cape, and Masks, until it reaches a satisfactory level of challenge, along with challenging it both in solo play and in groups. All of this is great – but the problem I have with it is that there just isn’t enough meat on the bones of this mode for my tastes. You may well disagree – and I can see why someone would! – but for me “like the Mage Tower” set out a very different set of expectations compared to the end result, and that caused me disappointment in what I’ve seen.
The other problem I have with this model is that there just isn’t a ton of content there – there’s a rotation of different invasion events that take portions of each zone rather than the whole zone all at once, there are two different Horrific Visions each with their own gameplay tweaks and varied routes, but outside of that and the raid…that is it. No new dungeon. No changes to tradeskills outside of some new BoP crafted gear (oh boy…). Argus was, to put it mildly, contentious, but it came with two major pluses – it was a large amount of new landmass to add with a patch, and it wasn’t excessively grindy on your main. Sure, you could argue that hunting Veiled Argunite was a bit grindy, but it was completely optional – having a ton of it only made getting some potential gear upgrades easier, and if you were raiding Antorus, it wasn’t even necessary unless you really wanted to get a 915-base item level Draught of Souls.
The gameplay loop in 8.3 is still grindy, although mitigated somewhat. You want to do every invasion event to get enough currency to maximize entry to HVs, which means logging in once every 3 days when they rotate. If you want to keep your cape up to pace with a raid group, then this is a minimum/maximum – the good news being that there is little to gain from logging in more than that, but the bad news being that the content isn’t going to change much after the first month or so. Once you’ve seen every invasion event and done both HVs, you are just going to be autopiloting the invasions and attempting to suss out every little gain in efficiency in the HVs.
There is one other point about Horrific Visions I wanted to hold for after that prior discussion – the frequency of entry. Mage Tower was farmable in a very real way – Nethershards could be farmed in multiple ways and were exceedingly easy to get, which would allow you to dump shards into attempts at your artifact appearances. When I focused a character through Broken Shore to build up to the Mage Tower, I’d get 10,000 or more shards, which would allow me to take 100 attempts at the tower. It was my choice if I wanted to blast an alt through dozens of attempts at the cool artifact skins in a single sitting, or if I was willing to pace myself over a longer period – both over the activation window for the Mage Tower or over the entire remaining period of Legion. The biggest problem I have with Horrific Visions is that you just simply don’t get that choice.
Broken Shore systems imposed limits, but you could act (player agency!) on those limits to make them less onerous. If you wanted to push the tower, you could dump all of your Legionfall Resource contributions to aid the tower’s construction, you could farm up excess nethershards limited only by chest respawns, rare respawns, and the rate of Legion Invasions in the Broken Isles, and you could encourage friends and guildies to help you by dumping their contributions for Legionfall into the Tower.
Horrific Visions simply don’t offer that – you need to do all of your invasion events in order to get a measly two shots a week. Want to play more? Tough luck. I can see Blizzard’s logic – they’ve gated legendary progression to the HVs, so a practical limit needs to exist and it is easier to simply make accessing the scenario at all a limited event, but at the same time, there are other solutions to that problem. Of course, the design brain I have tingles and tells me that this is a warning sign for Shadowlands being far off – if you are meant to be in here 20-30 runs to max out your cape, then this system guarantees 10-15 weeks of continuous gameplay for those wanting to do it – around 20-30% of a year! – but the problem again comes back – two scenarios just aren’t that different, they are based on existing assets, and they ultimately play the same with only differences in boss abilities and route. I don’t want to underplay those differences in abilities – the bosses in both are different and there are unique challenges in both scenarios! However, as a system, I can already see that it is going to get old before Shadowlands is even on the horizon.
Blizzard’s best case would then be to release an 8.3.5 – I’ve found myself thinking that surely there will be one, and it will help with content, but there is a catch.
Firstly, it seems increasingly unlikely that an 8.3.5 will even exist at all – I’m not 100% sold that it won’t exist, but it sure seems to be sliding off the radar for right now. However, even then, what would be added for gameplay?
You could add more allied races, which would be fine, but also just means leveling another alt through content you’ve already done. You could add more established race heritage armors – which I would like, but who knows if that’ll happen. You can’t really do an explosion of power with the Heart of Azeroth if Blizzard’s stated intention of keeping it and Azerite in the game and working past 9.0 is true, even as we know that they won’t play a role in the content past BfA and we’ll be replacing them with normally-statted armor in the 3 slots Azerite used along with a normal necklace. The fun of 7.3.5 – especially the leadup to 8.0, was in the ability for Blizzard to wildly scale the artifact out of control – rewards from existing content were meaningless anyways, so why not just let players get crazy explosions of stats from Concordance of the Legionfall while running content? Sure, a temporary state could be added for the Azerite traits and essences – maybe they reach an ascended state after N’Zoth is dispatched and the void threat is ended, which would last until 9.0, but even then, that would require designing some crazy parameters for the existing traits or simply dialing them up as if they were on an absurdly high item level piece. I just can’t see Blizzard doing it, even if there is a way.
8.3’s other major addition is new allied races, which is great, but again, creates a dilemma – players are either repeating the 8.3 content over and over on loop, or they are leveling their eighteenth alt through zones and quests they’ve seen before. Hell, at this point, I’m not even leveling my remaining allied races to 120 – I’m planning to wait for 9.0 and the leveling revamp. Even if 8.3.5 adds new allied races, or new heritage armor unlocks, how many of these will be worth doing with a 120 level cap?
Now, I could see one thing that would work exceedingly well for me personally – if an 8.3.5 introduces the leveling changes and level squish. If I could start my allied race alts on the new system now, I’d be vastly more excited to log in and get the content done, but as it currently stands, that would also introduce a lot of problems – retuning all the existing content to work on the level squish with 8.x designs for classes is something that I think is going to take a lot of work, and for Blizzard, it’s probably easier to do it at 9.0 rather than rolling it out earlier.
When I set out on this post, I wasn’t intending for it to be doom and gloom, and to be clear – I’m still excited for 8.3. However, I don’t think that means I should be blind to the flaws of its design – the game is going to lock players into a repeating loop which all but the most hardcore are going to fall off of eventually. For myself, I see that happening sooner than later – I might, MIGHT, grind my cape to max rank on my raiding main, but outside of that, I just think I’m going to wind up in a holding pattern until 9.0 (outside of raiding, which looks excellent).
As for 9.0? Well, as I said up top, that is a topic for another post, and while I think what we’ve seen of Shadowlands looks excellent so far, I find myself waiting for the other shoe to drop. I’m holding out hope, but cautiously preparing for the possibility of a wipeout. That is something I’ll revisit soon, perhaps with some wild speculation about Shadowlands, but until then – the state of Battle for Azeroth in 2020 looks…okay, maybe?
I guess we’ll find out soon.