In the first two parts of this series, we talked about the ways in which I felt Battle for Azeroth fell flat – first from a story perspective, and then a long dissertation on the gameplay systems of the expansion.
There is a final look I want to take back at BfA from the standpoint of a “review” which is even more subjective. The problem with any MMO expansion, especially one for a game as long-lived as World of Warcraft, is that you’re never looking at an expansion in isolation – it is a piece of a larger puzzle, and often judged in a current state versus the idealized, final version of most prior expansions, and the marketed fantasy of the expansion to come. In these comparisons, most expansions can feel a little disappointing – sometimes correctly, and other times not.
In this comparison in particular, BfA has a lofty predecessor to meet expectations from in Legion. Legion was a solid expansion with a lot of foundational changes to the game – some of which have panned out well, others which have not. It was the point where WoW began to borrow more heavily from its Blizzard sibling Diablo – Mythic Keystones similar to Rifts, World Quests similar to adventure mode gameplay in Diablo III, etc. The artifact leans a bit on the Paragon system from Diablo III, albeit in a very different and more constrained form. Legion was also helped tremendously in the court of public opinion by being the expansion that followed the dismal Warlords of Draenor.
In a way, I think Blizzard has a perpetuating cycle of feedback that is self-reinforcing – a cycle of good/bad expansions just means that players have some degree of artificially-reinforced love for the “good” expansions which makes the “bad” ones seem worse than they actually are.
It is worth saying at this point that this is a fractional percentage point of a reason as to why WoD or BfA are poorly received in the community.
What I want to explore with this piece is more subjective – a sort of look at the role BfA plays in the current history of the game and where our perception of the content might be influenced by what comes before and how BfA will shape our perception of Shadowlands and beyond.
The core thesis that I’ve been delivering over this 3 piece series is that, for me, BfA is the worst WoW expansion to date, exceeding even WoD and Cataclysm in that regard.
I feel a need to set the scene a little bit though, to avert some common objections I imagine some will have upon reading just that statement. Firstly, this – a bad WoW expansion does not a bad game make. In many ways, WoW is still engaging even in BfA, with rough edges and all. I’ve remained subscribed throughout the expansion and have played at least some content in the game for every one of those months. Now, going forward, will that be the case? Eh…probably. I just want to start with this because BfA isn’t a bad game altogether and that needs to be said. For me, the criteria leans more into gameplay than story – there are elements of each to talk about, but when I think back on prior “bad” WoW expansions, I think the common thread that joins the two expansions on that heap (Cataclysm and Warlords of Draenor) is that both had a lack of endgame content which made them feel less than stellar. In my opinion, the content we did get in both expansions mentioned was pretty great – there just wasn’t enough and they fell flat with overlong last patches that compounded the matter.
Last bit of preface, I have to state that in the past, I’ve made the case that I think the argument of “good vs. bad” is misleading as it largely boils down to your subjective viewpoint. Several WoW personalities have laughed at the idea that BfA is seen as worse than WoD by some – and on some level, I get that. To me, BfA “wins” the contest because of the reasons I am about to elaborate, but some people will disagree. Legion is regarded as well-loved, but at the same time, I’ve seen a lot of people (fellow bloggers, largely) who were less than enthralled with Legion and the systems on offer there started a decline out of the game for those players. People come to a game as large, developed, and diverse as WoW for a myriad of different things – I love good, challenging raid content. Some people want cool armor sets and fun dress-up. There is a large audience for PvP. Some people need WoW to be a serious plot full of interesting interpersonal relationships and steady conflict, others want it to hew closer to the whimsy that exists within the setting, and when something makes someone happy in an audience of millions, it is bound to displease other people.
So, let’s dive in to the actual topic – how does BfA fit into the overall player lore of WoW?
BfA, at present, is a bit of a sore topic for most. My first two pieces on this topic break down the following: the story is a disjointed mess of cool and undercooked individual plots, the gameplay is very slightly slower while being clumsier for some min-maxer types, the reward loop exists as a perpetual grind for gear across multiple modes of content, the endgame progression mechanics are a series of unfriendly grinds with little way to avoid them and no easy way to simplify some of them on alts, encounter design has been a little less well-done, the game has too many parallel progression paths viable at a given time which leads to a crisis of choice and no clear goals, and the game is loaded with tedious mechanics that slow gameplay or artificially elongate it in such a way that it feels obviously constructed to meet an active hours metric rather than to be engaging in its own right. All of these are problems that bind together to create the missed opportunity I see Battle for Azeroth as being.
My core argument is this – BfA is packed to bursting with “content” in some form or function, with so many different activities one can partake in that it feels overwhelming to many. However, the overall quality of this content is lower than that the team has delivered in the past, and this leads to a perception that the jamming of content is to create bottlenecks where players engage with the game more than they otherwise might in order to juice the spreadsheets for the bean counters overseeing the business. In this, BfA has a variety of issues that presents – for new and casual players, there is an abundance of activities to do, each of which has its own mechanics and reward structure – for veteran players, the bar of entry to many activities requires a lot of additional grinding and offers fewer points at which you can taper off of certain activities like World Quests – for the hardcore players, there are so many routes to obtain the things you want that it feels increasingly mandatory and therefore bad.
One of my biggest examples is Pathfinder 2.0 for BfA. Part 1 was similarly awful to Legion’s model but with slightly fewer reps, which fits well enough. Part 2, however, required a ton of additional hurdles, with two factions requiring focus and a model of rotating between them that felt awful. Pathfinder is already a hotly contested topic and every expansion that passes with it makes the topic more and more frustrating. Blizzard, not knowing when to give up, made the zones of BfA unnecessarily complicated (dozens of elevation changes with limited pathways, zone boundaries broken up with obnoxious levels of mountains that don’t even have the common decency to have fun doodads or props laid out on them, and other seemingly malicious design decisions (the center of Kul Tiras is a giant body of water that splits the zones, really?) and then placed flight behind a more annoying barrier that requires tracking reputation progress with a traditional WQ model faction and a new model where you have a mix of daily quests (including some that can be easily missed!) and a daily world quest, which itself is just a fill-the-bar progress quest that is made to be annoying. Nazjatar ramps the annoying up to 11 – it’s essential for unlocking the raid story, the zone looks like an octopus orgy with so many sheer cliffs and entangled roads, and if you disliked Argus for all of the terrain it offered, well, Nazjatar packs a 3-zones of Argus sized annoyance into a single zone!
Looking at the longer history of WoW, the systems changes of BfA feel foundational to the game’s future. New applications of scaling tech to leveling are going to be pivotal for the new-new leveling model in Shadowlands. The much-needed technological updates under the hood of the game give it a shot in the arm on performance that makes it run far more predictably on more hardware. The increasing use of encryption on PTR files and streaming cinematics on live servers to avoid patched-in datamining of cinematic files shows an increased willingness from the WoW team to protect pivotal plot moments. The game’s new file system should enable more people to play PTR easily and makes updating and maintaining the game data a lot easier. The game finally has properly updated models for all races, Allied Races feel like a way to drop a race in when the story fits it instead of waiting for an expansion, Islands and Warfronts extend the scenario technology that started in Mists of Pandaria even further, and the team has used the opportunity in this expansion, much like with demons and some wildlife in Legion, to refresh older models all over the game world, from critters up to larger NPC models.
Profession updates made in BfA, while the design of the content wasn’t great, are good and extend the game’s ability to be flexible by adding future profession ranks right on to the base profession rather than as a progression of constant skill points. Scrapping as a system is a welcome improvement in some ways, as getting some raw mats back from crafting for skillups means you can stretch a smaller batch of materials further. The idea of additional profession skill being added mid-expansion is an interesting one, even if it also presents a problem of needing to grind through more intense material-cost recipes to get to the new stuff.
Artistically, BfA continues to see Blizzard push what the WoW engine can do artistically in nearly every way. The new zones present very different biomes, with the bleak grey and brown of Kul Tiras being a particularly interesting challenge that works well with the painterly art style of the game – helped by interspersed bits of deep red in Drustvar and brighter green hills in Stormsong Valley. Zandalar is a visual treat full of bright colors, but inversely, offset by the dark swamps and temples of Nazmir. Machinima cinematics are even better in this expansion, with smoother animations and more expressive characters, and Blizzard blew their CG budget on this expansion with nearly 10 minutes of brand new, high-quality prerendered cutscenes and these scenes being more than just expansion trailers. Musically, the expansion still feels strong, although I can’t help but wonder how the game would sound under the expert direction of (former) longtime Blizzard maestro Russell Brower.
From a business practices perspective, BfA has gone out of its way to remind us that for whatever happy face Blizzard puts on externally about the expansion, the game’s performance seems lower than expected, judging solely off the number of new store mounts added as freebies if you just sign up for 6 months of game time. WoD did not offer such a promotion, but Cataclysm was the template for this kind of offer – the original WoW Annual Pass offer prior to Dragon Soul required players to commit to (but not pre-pay for, crucially) 12 months of subscribed time, and in return, you’d receive Tyrael’s Charger, Mists of Pandaria beta access, and a digital copy of the standard edition of Diablo III at launch. Instead, BfA has had a cycle of sorts – nearly every major patch comes with a “please tell us you’ll stay!” plea during the honeymoon phase, offering a free, new mount with a locked-in six month subscription paid for. It is smart marketing, but also reeks of desperation – the expansion has had 3 cycles like this already, and that’s not discounting the possibility that if we are still Shadowlands-less in June, it could very well happen again! I want to say clearly that I like the idea of free mounts for longer subs as a fun extra bonus, but Blizzard has, predictably, done this at points where they expect returning players seeing new patch content might start to tune out, and it doesn’t fool anyone. I will say that it is a good thing the mounts are not exclusive, and they are cool (I have the Dreadwake and got it for free through such a promotion, full disclosure) but it looks unusually sad for Blizzard – grabbing desperately to hold onto players as much as possible.
BfA’s critical reception has been hampered in other ways outside of Blizzard’s control as well – the launch of the excellent FFXIV expansion Shadowbringers last July did put a big shadow over the patch 8.2 parade – it is, principally, the reason I didn’t do much in Nazjatar or Mechagon outside of minimum requirements for flying and raid viability. Other MMOs have been firing up during this time to take shine from WoW – Elder Scrolls Online has had some good content updates in this time, Everquest II’s 15th anniversary coincided with the same WoW event, Destiny II went free to play, The Division 2 launched, and of course in August 2019, WoW Classic arguably ate up most of people’s interest in World of Warcraft as an overall concept.
When I see stories about BfA in non-MMO outlets, they largely center on negative fan reaction. I saw posts about Azerite’s failures in Polygon, interviews about the flop of the story, questions about the narrative choice mechanics for Horde players, and generally less glowing coverage than the game has seen externally in, well, ever, as far as I can recall. MMO-focused communities have been mostly discussing the negatives, whether here on WordPress, in larger MMO publications like MassivelyOP, and even on Blizzard fan sites like Blizzard Watch and Wowhead have had posts where the negatives of BfA are unavoidable. The game did get some negative coverage during Warlords of Draenor and Cataclysm, but even at the worst of times, most mainstream game press only really picked up on the biggest beats – Warlords of Draenor was reviewed positively by nearly everyone, and then wasn’t revisited until the selfie patch.
So, that leaves us at the “bad” expansions part of the talk, and honestly, here is how I see it, fleshed out a bit more than above. I am the internet’s foremost Cataclysm defender, so hey – I’ll admit my bias going in.
Cataclysm was, in my mind, a good expansion that just desperately needed more content and a clearer progression of difficulty. Cataclysm’s leveling content was fun, the zones beautiful and well-built, and the increased visual fidelity of the armor and weapon models was great. What Cataclysm lacked was a solid endgame – factions were less important and had far fewer dailies than Wrath of the Lich King, despite having a similar progression model for them. In terms of real endgame content, Cataclysm only added a single new daily zone with 4.2 and the Firelands patch, and while the Hyjal Incursion was awesome – it alone wasn’t quite enough. Cataclysm did well with new dungeons though, adding heroic 5-player versions of classic Troll raids Zul’Gurub and Zul’Aman, and then adding 3 new dungeons to build the story of the final raid, Dragon Soul. My take has always been this – Cataclysm added great new content to the game, but not nearly enough.
Warlords is a bit harder to defend, and I won’t fully do that. My take on WoD is very similar though – it had some good content, but it just had huge gaps between releases and was trying to hard to backpedal furiously from the daily model of MoP. At launch, you had one piece of world content to do per day – maybe more for Garrison stuff like the Stables, but otherwise, yeah – one fill-the-bar quest. 6.2 added Tanaan Jungle, which was actually a solid zone in its own right, and had more content including a selectable fill the bar like launch, but accompanied with daily quests. Tanaan as a zone was well fleshed-out with lots of lived in nooks and crannies, a variety of different enemies based on subzones, and rare/treasure hunting. Warlords will forever be the expansion with only two patches, one of which was a features patch that added nothing new to change the contours of the endgame, and that is inexcusable.
Battle for Azeroth, to me, is defined by a patch cycle where each patch offers a ton of new content – which is a welcome change, don’t get me wrong! However, where BfA falters is that a lot of the new content isn’t particularly fun, engaging, or great. Nazjatar and Mechagon both have their bright spots, but are also stuck with a design that attempts to waste time – Nazjatar with steep verticality, Mechagon with large flat landmass that discourages flying through patrolling mobs that will try to blast you down. The 8.3 assault areas have the Great Worm from Beyond patrolling trying to hit you with his stink, forcing you to contemplate things about your travel route the game hasn’t traditionally emphasized. BfA’s dungeons have been good, but dense with mechanically-interesting trash that over-complicates things, and raid design has been fairly hit or miss with Uldir being less than impressive overall and the subsequent tiers all riddled with sore spots of their own. World content has struggled with scaling and finding a balance of playing your character versus playing a minigame – a matter of personal preference, but I would rather see a decisive majority of world content be me playing my character and using abilities and skill with them to beat increasing challenges.
Every BfA zone is a cavalcade of rares, treasures, vignette events, little easter eggs, and more – which is great. Artistically, BfA is a great expansion, as you would expect from Blizzard’s art team. The current gameplay model in 8.3 is the best the game has been all expansion – after getting over the hump of the legendary cloak quests, catchup is downright simple via world quests (now that Season 4 has started), there are multiple modes of gameplay and a variety of ways to play, with drastically reduced grinds through the early levels of the Heart of Azeroth and easy acquisition of a handful of essences for play. However, decision creep kicks in hardcore, and some of the more fun modes of play (Horrific Visions) are bottlenecked by currency requirements and make the grind for currency to open them feel coerced and unfun. Assaults themselves are not bad, but they are tuned on the difficult side and can feel like they drag on for too long, with the only plus side to that being that you can only do them 3x a week in total.
Overall, BfA is an expansion with some interesting ideas and cool concepts that get buried under a sea of grinds which make the whole thing feel disappointing. World of Warcraft has always been a game with some degree of required grinding – item level, enchants, etc – but it is rare that Blizzard peels back the facade so directly to reveal the beating heart of the content model. The Heart of Azeroth systems and now the legendary cloak lay bare the ways in which Blizzard has tried to pump up the engagement numbers – you can play how you want, but it’s only ideal if you level your Heart of Azeroth high enough. You can keep leveling it faster, but the pace only improves as you wait for Knowledge to kick in. Essences can be farmed, but you often need to gather dozens of an item and are stuck with a weekly limit of less than 10. The legendary cloak upgrades have a clear path, but if you don’t know that you need the quest, you can waste the limited resource of coalescing visions on them, not to mention that you are farming these bad boys for at least two hours a week to keep vials stocked, and while the early weeks have been fine, once we pass Rank 8, it becomes nearly impossible to get the items for the upgrade in a single run, and the later ranks will require more runs, which increases the risk and sunk cost of a failed run.
So overall, BfA is buried in its own systems, trapped beneath the weight of engagement-increasing mechanical tedium that guards the gate to the actual fun stuff, which the expansion does have. For many players with patience, you can still find a fair amount of reward underneath all of that sludge, but for many players, it has been too much to wade through and the end result is that WoW has reached a new low point in player engagement and satisfaction, such that the biggest applause lines for Shadowlands were the ones that drew contrast with BfA.
What would I like to see in Shadowlands? Well, that is a discussion for another time (obvious foreshadowing!).
For today, what we have is BfA, and for better or worse, it has defined a new and different path for a WoW expansion to be perceived negatively.