I played the alpha for World of Warcraft's next big expansion — here are my thoughts on the biggest changes

World of Warcraft: The War Within
(Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

Recently, I had the privilege of experiencing World of Warcraft: The War Within first-hand. 

Blizzard recently invited me to a press event in London, to be among the first players in the world to try out the latest expansion to the world's most successful MMO of all time. World of Warcraft is entering its 20th year, and is emerging out of the tail end of one of its more popular expansions of modern times, dubbed Dragonflight. 

Dragonflight sought to somewhat reset Blizzard's approach to World of Warcraft after the ill-received Shadowlands and mixed-response Battle for Azeroth expansions. The popularity and sheer ambition of Legion has cast a fairly long shadow over World of Warcraft in recent years, with some of the games' expansion feature sets failing to live up to the standards set previously. With Dragonflight, Blizzard focused more on evergreen permanent additions to the game rather than transitory expansion-only features.

Blizzard also introduced a small time-skip for the story, giving them some breathing space from the apocalyptic (and half-baked) delivery of Shadowlands to try something a little on the lower-stakes end.

Huge revamps to crafting systems, solid villains and characters, lifted restrictions on alt-characters and cross-factional play, and revamped talent systems all enjoyed a generally positive reception. Blizzard has also been experimenting with additional game modes, including WoW: Classic Season of Discovery, WoW: Classic Hardcore, and the Plunderstorm battle royale PvP event — all as part of the current subscription. That has kept subscriber counts uncharacteristically resilient as the Dragonflight expansion winds down and heads into Season 4. 

Many players might skip Season 4 owing to its lack of new dungeons and new rewards and instead set their sights on World of Warcraft: The War Within. The next big content expansion is expected to drop towards the end of the summer or early autumn, depending on development timelines. Once again, The War Within focuses on more local threats rather than cosmic apocalyptic entities, although it also kickstarts a new story saga, dubbed the Worldsoul Saga, with Warcraft architect Chris Metzen back in the creative driver's seat.

RELATED: World of Warcraft — The War Within FAQ and Overview

At the event, I caught my first glimpse at The War Within's story direction, went hands-on with various Hero Talent trees, and tried out the expansion's headline Delve feature. The Alpha test was in its very early days, so bugs and missing graphics, etc, were to be expected. Still, from a broad overview perspective, The War Within is definitely shaping up nicely — but many questions remain.

A new, but familiar setting

The Isle of Dorn brings a ton of dwarven heritage to bear.  (Image credit: Windows Central | Blizzard Entertainment)

Blizzard is keeping The War Within's full intro under wraps so everyone can experience it together on launch day, but the first zone in the Alpha build does give you an impression of what's going down. 

I won't spoil it for those who want to avoid them, but I suspect some of the biggest happenings will be unavoidable once this embargo lifts. But I'll just say this — if you thought Blizzard might be shying away from massive, world-shattering changes after Battle for Azeroth's controversial Teldrassil BBQ event, you'd be wrong. 

In any case, various major lore figures were recently treated to a nasty global psychic headache from everyone's favorite evil knife, Xal'atath, who has escaped her kitchen utensil prison and is doubtless putting plans in place to further the cause of The Void. Or at least, that's what we think. The Void is World of Warcraft's central antagonistic force, representing everything that is dark, devouring, and entropic. Xal'atath has a pact with similarly voidian horror N'Zoth, who players vanquished at the end of Battle for Azeroth. Or at least, that's what we think. 

Indeed, a lot of the current World of Warcraft story arc is shrouded in heady mysteries. What was Xal'atath's pact with N'Zoth? Why was Xal'atath imprisoned in a blade in the first place? What exactly is she? Is she working for The Void and the Old Gods, or against them? Well, at the very least, one thing's for certain — she doesn't like us very much. 

Major lore characters like Anduin Wrynn and Magni Bronzebeard take center stage in The War Within.  (Image credit: Windows Central | Blizzard Entertainment)

Major WoW characters like Thrall, Jaina, Alleria, and Anduin are called to face off against Xal'atath in a new location known as Khaz Algar, where The War Within expansion will take place. The region is a subterranean cluster of caverns and hollows, whose entrance is manned by the ancient Earthen race, who preceded the dwarves. It's here on the Isle of Dorn that players crash land, only to find a once peaceful land besieged by an old threat. 

The arachnoid Nerubians seem to have thrown in their lot with Xal'atath and have attacked the surface of the Isle of Dorn. The last time we saw the Nerubians in any major context was in Wrath of the Lich King, where many of them fell into undeath as part of Arthas' unholy army. We did, however, help some living Nerubians to reclaim parts of their Northrend civilization. But perhaps that alliance was short-lived. 

The Nerubians may look monstrous, but Blizzard was keen to emphasize to attendees that this is actually one of Azeroth's great superpowers and merely exists out of view deep underground. Indeed, the Nerubians are incredibly advanced technologically and magically, crafting huge cities with ancient Egypt and Aztec-inspired architecture, the designs of which actually found their way into the Scourge architecture from Warcraft 3. The Nerubians form the first supporting antagonistic faction for the expansion, and we'll waste no time getting acquainted with them. 

The damned Nerubians are up to no good again.  (Image credit: Windows Central | Blizzard Entertainment)

The Isle of Dorn is a relatively familiar-looking landscape, with lush greenery and forests that don't look far removed from Dragonflight itself. It's strangely nostalgic seeing dwarven-style architecture rebuilt using World of Warcraft's more modern tech, complete with finer detailing and plenty of flavor. Even in the Alpha, the locations felt charming and well-populated, with Earthen bars, forges, and Titan machinery that betrayed their heritage. Indeed, the Earthen were among the first races crafted by the Titans, and they had their own inter-factional conflict happening between those Earthen who decided to abandon reverence of the absent Titans and those who did not. 

The Earthen will eventually join players as an allied playable race towards the end of the campaign, and they have some really great designs. Dare I say, they might even put the actual current dwarf races to shame, with 3D hair and beard textures encrusted with diamonds and metallic skins. Therein lies some of World of Warcraft's central issues across its 20-year history, with some graphics and models looking far more advanced than older ones despite being in the same gameplay environment.

Battling this is an ongoing endeavor for Blizzard, but the raw quality of the new Earthen environments and buildings put the existing dwarven capital city Ironforge to shame, making me wistful for a broader World of Warcraft graphics pass. That's for the future, though. 

As for right now, we have Nerubians to slaughter, new talents and spells to wield, and new Delves to, erm, delve into. So, what exactly are Delves?

Delves could be fun, but might not be for everyone (and that's okay)

Exploring a Delve with Brann Bronzebeard.  (Image credit: Windows Central | Blizzard Entertainment)

So, there wasn't actually too much to test in this current version of The War Within alpha, but we did get access to the first "Delve," which is set to be a major ongoing new content feature for World of Warcraft moving forward. 

You can think of Delves as mini-dungeons, playable either solo or with your current party. These are instanced portions of content that can also seamlessly tie into the overworld and can be used for quest objectives in the campaign, as well as more dynamic content once you hit the maximum level. Delves are marked by their grey fog doors (Dark Souls anyone?), and once you click on it, you can even set a difficulty level for the challenges therein. 

Delves use World of Warcraft's new NPC follower system to give you a personal party member if you fancy going in solo. The first one you'll get is Brann Bronzebeard, a long-time Warcraft hero and renowned archaeologist. You can spec him out as either a healer, throwing potions for you to drink, or a damage dealer, wielding random dangerous archaeological artifacts to devastating effect. 

Delves are designed to be "snackable" content, with 5-10 minute completion times. I was sent there to help some Earthen dwarves escape encroaching Nerubians and was tasked to escort a mine cart through the caverns. The mine was filled with simple web traps, mob spawning events, and also random treasure chests here and there. I was also granted temporary buffs, which reminded me of Shadowlands' solo-able dungeon Torghast, with a similar interface there. Indeed, the Delve also finished with a mini-boss encounter, which I dispatched in seconds. 

You can set the difficulty for the Delves, which could end up presenting a decent challenge in endgame.  (Image credit: Windows Central | Blizzard Entertainment)

This "story" version of the Delve was incredibly easy, as story campaign quests tend to be. I found myself wondering how Delves might evolve once we get further into the endgame. Since they're part of the world and not simply in a separate tower like Torghast, there's a lot of potential for variety there, with different kinds of events, environments, and encounters. Torghast was quite heavily restricted based on its location and theme by comparison. Perhaps Delves could eventually evolve to house exclusive items and transmogs similar to the popular Mage Tower challenge from Legion as you ascend up its difficulty rankings. Indeed, I found a vendor that would exchange Delve currency for cool transmogs, one which was a Murloc skull helmet, another which was a Kobold candle helmet, and another which was a Nerubian carapace back plate as a cape option. 

The fact they're instanced also gives Blizzard some opportunities to use them as more seamless storytelling devices, similar to how scenarios have functioned in the past. The mini-bosses could get more complex, too, with raid-like mechanics or even environmental features that Torghast similarly didn't have access to, given it was just a tower in the Maw.

Delves also open up slots on the weekly vault reward track, giving solo players opportunities to progress without having to ever step into raids and group up. Indeed, I'm not sure if Delves will scratch the itch for hardcore players, but that certainly isn't their point — and that's okay. I just hope that the full breadth of Delves has a bit more depth than the one I experienced in Alpha, which, to be fair, probably isn't fully finished, either — but the potential is quite clear. 

I was able to get to level 72 during my time with the Alpha, which gave me access to some of The War Within's other headline features: Hero Talents. 

Hero talents will hopefully bring a ton of flavor 

(Image credit: Windows Central | Blizzard Entertainment)

The other headline act for The War Within is a new hero talent tree, which is essentially an extension of your current class and spec with additional flavor. 

Once you hit the cap, you'll get access to every point in the tree. I was surprised by this since, in a sense, it defeats the point of choosing points in a tree if you can just end up with everything. But considering how many extra abilities are being added, it would probably be a nightmare to balance otherwise. Blizzard already has a tough time making talent tree choices in the existing trees competitive in general, with players eager to simply seek out the mathematically "best" option as described by websites like WoWhead and Icy-Veins. To that end, there's every chance the Hero Talents could end up going the same way, with players forced to sacrifice their chosen flavor and themes for power differences. Alas, we can only hope that won't be the case. 

Obviously, I couldn't really test the endgame performance of the trees; no dungeons or raids were open, and there was limited time in general, but I did get a sense for how some of them play, and I was in love — at least with some of them. 

Here's a quick video detailing some of the spell effects from the Diabolist and Voidweaver Hero Trees. 

I'm a demonologist main, and I have been since World of Warcraft vanilla. Yes, even during the dark times when they were thoroughly underpowered/overlooked. Thankfully, demonology has been eating good in recent times, which is why I was ecstatic to see that it will be maintaining its well-fed buff into The War Within as well. The Diabolist tree doesn't add any extra cognitive load to the damage rotation for Warlocks here but instead simply augments your existing primary attacks with additional flavor. Every few casts of Hand of Gul'dan summons a greater demon in a sequence, and they look absolutely badass. The final one is a Pitlord, who zaps your target with fel flame before transforming your next Hand of Gul'dan into a nuclear meteor. 

The other demonology hero tree, Soul Harvester, is what I will henceforth call the "Death Note" anime spec since it gives you a suspiciously Rem-looking Shinigami demon who occasionally pops out on some of your attacks to mirror and match your spells. My Discipline Priest, as a "Voidweaver," gets to replace the dull Smite spell with shadowy laser beams, too, which is all kinds of awesome. My Blood Death Knight gets the ability to transform his weapon into coagulated blood for massive heaving two-handed strikes (which, unless I'm going crazy, seem to be part of a new 2H weapon animation), on top of the ability to summon the final boss from The Underrot dungeon. 

However, some of the Hero Talent trees definitely need more work. 

Blizzard has already been tweaking some of the World of Warcraft Hero Talents based on player concerns.  (Image credit: Windows Central | Blizzard Entertainment)

Blizzard seems to have already implemented some feedback from the initial reactions to the Hero Talents. For example, the Lightsmith Paladin spec no longer places weapons on the ground and instead has a Power Infusion-like buff that they can cast on themselves or a party member that cycles between granting a shield or granting on-hit extra holy damage between each cast. Oracle specs for Priests also seem to be undergoing some changes. The spell "Premonition" no longer replaces Power Infusion, which many players didn't like. However, it still cycles through different buffs on-cast, which I found to be a bit irritating given how many things Discipline Priest healers already have to track and juggle in dungeons.

Many spells also had missing effects or simply didn't have very good effects. I tried out Dark Ranger Hunter's Black Arrow, for example, and it was incredibly difficult to even see. Compared to the gigantic Pitlord graphic my Diabolist Warlock gets, it felt a little unfair. 

And sure, not everybody wants to have huge and flashy spells like that. I'm not a Hunter main, and the lack of showy spell effects is part of the reason why. But at the same time, I can't help but feel some of the Hero Talents don't lean far enough into the fantasy they're trying to portray. Maybe Black Arrow should just replace Arcane Shot instead with additional effects on top. Why would a shadowy Dark Ranger be using Arcane-tipped spells over Shadow-tipped arrows in the first place? I just hope that every Hero Talent tree ends up feeling as flavorful as others do when they're all said and done.

But hey, this is the kind of stuff that Alpha is for. It's for gathering feedback, listening to reactions, and then putting those tweaks into practice. World of Warcraft now has beta sign ups live for The War Within, so you can (and should) sign up to test if you're so inclined — but honestly, it might be even more fun to wait, and go in blind when it's all polished up later this year. 

The War Within kickstarts a new World of Warcraft saga, in more ways than one

The War Within's new "Warband" feature will let you sync progression in near-entirety between your four main alt characters.  (Image credit: Windows Central | Blizzard Entertainment)

The Worldsoul Saga represents a new phase for World of Warcraft's story, but also a new phase for World of Warcraft in general. The game turns a truly insane 20 years old this year, and as someone who played since day one, that's difficult to contemplate. Over ten thousand hours of my time has been spent in Azeroth's climbs, and I've seen the game experience the highest of high points down to the lowest lows. Incredible story beats, raids, and events have buttressed long content droughts and failed features as the MMO continues to evolve in a rapidly evolving gaming landscape. 

Dragonflight had its flaws, but it has made its mark in the modern era of World of Warcraft. It turned a page on the strange plot void that was Shadowlands and built out new evergreen features with long-needed changes to talent trees and professions. Hero Talents will extend the player fantasy more and hopefully lean into some of those side-classes like Dark Ranger that are iconic in the Warcraft universe but perhaps not fleshed out enough to warrant a whole new class. Delves could bring the variation that was lacking in Torghast. And, perhaps The Worldsoul Saga will eventually justify revamping some of the old world, too, to make the game more appealing to new players, especially given that Midnight and The Last Titan are supposed to take place in the Eastern Kingdoms and Northrend, respectively. 

Either way, come rain or shine, I'll be in Azeroth along for the ride. I just hope that WoW can continue to balance delivering quality consistently on a high cadence, given how appetites for fresh content simply never abate. 

World of Warcraft: The War Within

World of Warcraft: The War Within

Dive into the Azerothian deeps to chase Xal'atath, and put an end to her mysterious plans to turn Azeroth and its denizens over to the Void. 

Pre-order at: Battle.net

Jez Corden
Co-Managing Editor

Jez Corden is a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by tea. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his XB2 Podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!