With the announcement made in the last 24 hours, we now know how long we have left to wait. On the week Shadowlands would initially have expanded the World of Warcraft to the realms of death, we instead have news of a new release date, less than a month away, and a pre-patch event date.
Unlike my worst-case scenario prediction, there is no delay into next year – the full content of 9.0 including Season 1 of Shadowlands endgame will be live by year’s end. With this comes a new global release calendar (technically, the release date is 11/24/2020, but with global simultaneous release, a good portion of the audience will be playing on 11/23/2020, the 16th anniversary of the launch of vanilla WoW).
My first thought, upon hearing this news, was a simple one – what has changed since the delay was announced nearly a full month ago?
Class/Covenant Retuning: A ton of changes have been made to the covenant abilities, conduits for soulbinds, and core class design – an interesting proposition given that the “try your class changes now!” prepatch is live, but nonetheless, tweaking has been done across the board. Are covenant abilities “fixed?” Well…I can’t really say for sure. I can say from the class I’ve paid most attention to, Demon Hunter, that an effort has clearly been made to bring the damage figures in-line more closely with one-another, and the effort does make picking one less of a crapshoot of single-scenario gameplay. Where before, the choice was down to AoE vs. Single Target (assuming damage balancing brought the raw output into line), it now has all sorts of modifiers and is, to my satisfaction, an interesting choice. Sinful Brand does less damage on one target than both other abilities that cause damage, but has a powerful defensive component for tanking, stronger AoE than all but Kyrian, and remains easily usable. The other abilities have been buffed substantially – to the point that even the Night Fae ability now is a beastly single-target hit that has some benefit in AoE and provides self-healing for a tank. There are now interesting choices – as a tank, I could see even taking the Necrolord ability (the extent of the redesign of it was rather small, but it makes it pretty decent), where as Havoc, there’s an appeal to nearly all of them.
As for Conduits? Well, it remains sort of hard to say here as well. Numbers tuning is always a thing that needs to be mathed out by those that really understand the formulas to it all (and that is not me!) but anecdotally, it seems slightly better. My impression is that ranking up Conduits still seems like a giant pain in the ass, but one that is better overall than either Azerite or the Artifact, in that it offers choice improvements and provided that you can really easily control the growth of your preferred conduits, then I have few remaining objections, mostly over the annoyance of obtaining them via drops in a system with vastly reduced droprates for all loot.
Are these live ready? Well, in a sort of way, sure. I think that within my class perspective, things are at a reasonable point where further redesign is no longer needed and the go-live “oh shit” moment is going to be down to tuning more than anything. From what I’ve looked at for some of my other past raiding main classes, I see some bothersome designs but some of the worst bits have been smoothed out a lot. Priest in particular had some abysmal choice options if you mained Shadow versus either healing spec, but those have been corrected, to my estimation, fairly well and seem to offer interesting gameplay wrinkles for both types of play. I’m sure there are likely still a few duds in the mix (the Necrolord DH ability design is still very weirdly anchoring of your gameplay to a single spot, but it makes more sense to me as a tank spell where that isn’t a negative, at least in the raid setting or on most dungeon bosses), but overall, I do think there is a good faith effort here to tweak and improve things to a degree that we wouldn’t have had if the game went live 4 days ago as initially planned.
Refined Endgame Content Structure: This one is sort of hard to pin down. I haven’t seen any clear indication that the changes discussed for the Maw have been implemented, but as of the last beta build I was playing regularly (about 4 weeks ago now), the Maw was actually kind of fun. They’ve added better UI tracking for Renown so you don’t have to be at the Covenant Sanctum to see it and the reward tiers, the pacing still seems pretty good (from what I’ve read) and the general structure of activities was already a strong point in my opinion. Torghast remains awesome as a gameplay mechanism, and the reward cycle has been clarified a bit more with additional details around legendaries, their item level, and some new information about Conduit rank ups. I still think there are some gaps here, mostly around new systems and explaining them, but I am happy to have seen the work done here as well, given that it is where the game’s design is built for the most time spent.
These were the largest identified changes, and I think that Blizzard has (given everything I’ve seen/read/played) done a pretty decent job of addressing concerns. Now, are these solutions and designs going to please everyone? No, of course not. I have concerns myself about activities in the Maw, how Conduit ranking is going to work outside of simply acquiring a higher-ranked one via drops, questions about the longevity of Legendaries and what happens to them in the patch cycle as we move forward, but mostly, I just want to get my hands on the finished product to play it and see firsthand.
That leaves me with one sort of iffy point – the release schedule chosen. 11/24/2020 is Thanksgiving week here in the States, and I am bothered to see that the staff at Blizzard are likely going to be stuck managing hotfixes and rapid-fire solutioneering at a time when they should be enjoying time off, even though they can’t (or shouldn’t) realistically visit anyone given that the United States is more akin to the Plaguelands than a functioning country. From a player perspective, sure – I’m not travelling and so great, I can play it all I want with only minor breaks for whatever new gesture replaces an in-person family meal. I still feel empathy for the employees stuck pushing the game back on track as the playerbase smashes through the new content. It will be the first real test for the new sets of connected realms, for one, a cause for concern for me, on what was an original launch realm with no merges that has gone through 3 sets of merges now (and the players on the new server connections are awful trolls, but that’s neither here nor there!) and has previously had fairly manageable queues if any for every expansion launch except Warlords of Draenor (due more to the Garrison issues and the DDoS attacks than actual player login activity).
But it gets worse! With Season 1 starting on 12/8/2020, and Mythic Castle Nathria the next week, we’ll be bumping right up against the Christmas holiday globally, and while Mythic week 1 should be the main focal point of balancing issues, changes, and probably our first large-scale set of class balancing hotfixes, that also sucks for the employees but it creates challenges in raid rosters as well. Our guild is discussing not even starting raids until the new year, or, provided enough people are on and leveled in December, doing smaller flex raids for learning and gearing. I suspect we’ll probably be raiding in December and the initial wave of concern was without cause, but I can imagine a fair number of guilds having a slow first month of the endgame season for this very reason. Again, the holidays take on a different meaning in a world fraught with pandemic, but many people will choose to honor the holidays in different ways, some covidiots will undoubtedly make bad decisions motivated by a good cause, and others will just want the time to reflect. On top of that, with the announcement from CD Projekt Red of the further delay of Cyberpunk 2077 to 12/10/2020, you may have some hesitant to show up for raid over trying out a game that many have been hyped for over the last several years. Unless, of course, the game is delayed to its titular year, resolving this conflict for our purposes entirely (good opportunity to say that crunch in game dev is godawful and not worth it, CDPR is among the worst developers at it and they often lie and misdirect about it in public – sometimes so bad that the co-CEO has to apologize to employees as happened this week, and game developers are human beings worthy of our compassion and, perhaps, some sort of shared interest group to represent their needs…which I think has a word…).
Given all of this, though, I think Blizzard has done a reasonably good job, from my perspective, of cleaning up the biggest messes in Shadowlands design and getting them polished up to a good standard as we can see them today. Questions still remain about how well this will all play when it is in our hands, and your class might well be one with some tuning issues in core class play, covenant abilities, conduits, or all three – but I do think that the time spent back in the labs tuning things up will result in a better game and I have some hope returning that the expansion might be able to live up to a higher standard than we’ve grown accustomed to throughout Battle for Azeroth.