World of Warcraft (WoW) is the only game that shows I have over a year of playtime within its virtual world of Azeroth. The MMO is approaching its fourteenth birthday, and despite its engine creaking at the seams, Blizzard has nurtured and maintained its player base with unprecedented execution.
In between major expansion drops for PC, Blizzard drops in free content patches, adding new dungeons, raids, and other gameplay features to keep people engaged. The big fully-priced expansion packs, such as Battle for Azeroth, which launched in August 2018, bring about new lands, stories, and leveling content for players, as well as other new game systems and mechanics.
Battle for Azeroth had some of the biggest hype I've seen for a WoW expansion in recent times. On the back of the successful Legion expansion, Blizzard had enough momentum to take the franchise back into the mainstream consciousness. It did so with some drastic story events, which saw major beloved in-game cities completely destroyed while releasing not one, but two, incredible CGI trailers for the events leading up to the expansion.
Indeed, Battle for Azeroth has some of the most exciting narrative and story possibilities ever, as Blizzard develops new tools and pays closer attention to building up new characters. However, the end-game mechanics and systems that govern so much of the gameplay meat are, as of this writing, completely broken and will require a significant pivot to fix.
Battle for Azeroth: What you'll love
Battle for Azeroth has the best story pacing and character direction I've seen in a World of Warcraft expansion. Blizzard has developed new tools to put your character directly inside cutscenes, adding a much-needed layer of immersion to World of Warcraft's quests, which form the basis of its leveling gameplay. These are complemented by some stunning, Pixar-like pre-rendered scenes that feature epic voice work and gorgeous character expressions, wrapped in an intriguing plot.
Battle for Azeroth puts the spotlight on the hostilities between the two player factions, the Horde and Alliance, as the events of the previous expansion have left the planet of Azeroth scarred and damaged. A new resource called "Azerite" has been bubbling up through wounds in the planet's crust and contains violently explosive and also regenerative properties. The emergence of Azerite triggers an escalating conflict between Horde and Alliance, instigated by the Horde's current leader and Warcraft staple, Sylvanas Windrunner.
In the run-up to Battle for Azeroth, Blizzard released an array of high-quality animated cinematics which adds some broader context to the story moving forward. Sylvanas has the Horde destroy the Night elf's homeland, the world tree known as Teldrassil. The events culminate in a massive revenge attack from the Alliance on Sylvanas's undead Undercity, which results in a stalemate, not long after the city is destroyed.
I spent most of my time with the Horde storyline and found it to be the most intriguing and engaging in Warcraft history. Blizzard has stepped up its game immeasurably when it comes to story content, which features a full cast of memorable characters with great voice work. For me, the loa of Death Bwonsamdi fully steals the show, with some phenomenal voice work by Alex Désert. Princess Talanji and Jaina Proudmoore also have moving performances, with scenes that gave me goosebumps.
The new zones where these stories play out are painstakingly detailed, with some truly awe-inspiring vistas, dotted with a huge array of engaging and varied quests. Join a cadre of skeletal cursed pirate trolls on a mutiny against their captain, help a creepy witch-possessed child find her toys for a big tea party with a side order of murder, and ride a gigantic triceratops into battle with a swarm of blood trolls, spreading their blood and guts with every charge. And those are just the side quests.
Each zone in Battle for Azeroth, three for Horde and three for Alliance, focuses on defeating a specific threat, which usually culminates in a mini-boss and cinematic sequences. The Horde storyline follows Princess Talanji as she fights to defend her homeland from an upwelling of cannibalistic blood trolls, who worship the expansion's first big raid boss, G'huun. The Alliance story follows Jaina Proudmoore, introduced in Warcraft III, as she seeks forgiveness from the nation she betrayed.
Both storylines set the scene for future events and patches, full of intrigue and other mysteries. The complexity of Blizzard's lore for World of Warcraft has led to plenty of plot holes and unresolved character writing and motivations. But if you take it for what it is, you'll find a world truly worth investing in. Why did Sylvanas burn Teldrassil, really? Who is Bwonsamdi really working for? How will this conflict be resolved? And will the Horde and Alliance be able to set aside their differences before its too late, with the expansion's big evil, Queen Azshara, lurking in the depths?
Battle for Azeroth has a large spread of dungeon and raid content to enjoy, with high-quality boss battles with new and returning mechanics. The Underrot, in particular, is truly impressive, taking place in mold-infested caverns beneath a decrepit Titan facility, overrun with blood-crazed monsters. The pirate city of Freehold is also stunning, with some laugh-out-loud moments. The first raid, Uldir, is also very impressive with some great encounters, full of failed experiments that have mutated over the millennia, now released by the deranged blood trolls.
The basic staples of World of Warcraft were nailed quite thoroughly in Battle for Azeroth. It has great zones, an awesome leveling experience, and fun dungeons. However, many of its expansion headline "features" are in an extremely bad state.
Battle for Azeroth: What you'll hate
While I was still giddy with excitement after hitting level 120, the way Blizzard has set up Battle for Azeroth's end-game systems gradually sucked out the joy of playing. The company's focus on user-engagement seems to have led to some puzzling decisions that undermine its mission.
Earlier this week, Blizzard's advertised "Warfronts" feature went live. These new 20-player raids take place in a revamped version of Arathi Highlands, meant to simulate the experience of a Warcraft III-style RTS battle, with you playing as a unit. The problem is, they're utterly dull.
Warfronts start with players parachuting from an airship (hard not to consider PUBG or Fortnite influence there), into a destroyed Horde base. Players must then harvest wood and iron to build up the Horde bases' facilities, eventually recruiting soldiers and siege weapons to attack the Alliance keep of Stromgarde. These battles take around 20 minutes and feature new A.I. swarm mechanics that force mobs to choose different targets, rather than pile on a single one in a zerg. The battles look cool as a result. The problem is the gameplay is devoid of difficulty. By Blizzard's own admission, losing a Warfront is actually impossible, which makes me ask: What the Fel is the point?
The lack of challenge makes Warfronts feel like a flashy chore, which could easily be rectified by adding either player-vs-player unpredictability or adding harder difficulty modes. I feel as if this had been tested more extensively in beta, it wouldn't have arrived in this state. It doesn't help either that players will only be able to experience the content around one week per month since it requires "contributions" from all players to spawn, which takes about a week, and then is available for a week before cycling back to the opposing player faction. As such, since this Warfront starts on the Horde side, Alliance players won't be able to experience their version of the scenario for several weeks.
This time-gating is ridiculous if you're a paying Alliance subscriber, and it also puts Alliance at a significant disadvantage when it comes to world-first competitive raiding. Glossing over the lag from day one, the mechanical oversights here are egregious for a company as large and experienced as Blizzard.
Another big expansion promise was "Island Expeditions," which feature advanced A.I. that mimics player behavior, and, apparently, procedurally-generated encounters that change every time you play. Sounds cool right? Sadly, the core aim of Expeditions undermines its feature set, with some staggeringly bad design decisions.
The procedurally-generated nature of the expeditions, you'd think, would lend itself well to the whole Tomb Raider island-explorer fantasy. However, Island Expeditions are races to gather resources against an opposing A.I. or player team, completely offsetting the ability to explore and engage with any of the "procedurally generated" content. Your best bet to actually win an expedition is to simply zerg around, killing random monsters as fast as you can. And what is your reward for this 10-minute busy work? A trickling of Azerite, which feeds into what is probably the worst system of the entire expansion (maybe, well, ever). You can choose to ignore Warfronts and Expeditions, but Azerite is deeply interwoven with the core progression experience.
The Azerite system replaces the Legion expansion's artifact weapons, giving players a necklace they can "level up" throughout the course of the expansion. You gain Azerite from doing numerous activities, which raises the necklace's level and stats. Problematically, though, the level of the necklace is also tied to new passive abilities on special head, shoulders, and chest gear, which can dramatically affect your character's power.
More powerful armor requires higher necklace levels, too, which means that working hard to get a new piece of gear from difficult Mythic content might result in a downgrade for you, because you didn't want to do Blizzard's terribly dull Island Expeditions or grind out world quests. It doesn't help either that most of the Azerite passive traits are, well, boring. The class-themed artifact weapons from Legion also require some gated grinding, but they weren't tied to gear upgrades, the abilities were far more interesting, and crucially, they actually looked cool and enhanced player's class fantasy.
Blizzard has also done away with class-themed raid sets, instead opting for boring raid-themed sets. A raiding unholy Death Knight will look the same as a holy Paladin, if those players choose to use these armor visuals. It feels like such a huge departure from Legion's focus on player's class fantasy. I'm also unhappy with how aggressively Blizzard has pruned out players' abilities over the years; my Blood Death Knight hasn't really changed in a meaningful way in years, because Blizzard is too nervous about introducing new abilities and skills.
Final thoughts on World of Warcraft Battle for Azeroth
Battle for Azeroth has one of the most amazing leveling experiences in World of Warcraft's history, with rich storytelling, evocative landscapes, and fun characters. However, the lack of testing in its beta in the run-up to launch has clearly impacted the end-game experience, which is a mess. Azerite armor contradicts the idea of getting "upgrades," since they're tied to grinding Azerite points for your artifact necklace. So an upgrade might actually be a downgrade.
Warfronts are far too easy to be engaging, and the randomly-generated landscapes of Island Expeditions are undermined by the fact they're a race, making you ignore the land in favor of killing random monsters as fast as possible.
World of Warcraft is really starting to show its age, too. Blizzard clearly spent a lot of art resources updating old models to HD quality, which is great, but it makes models and spell effects that haven't been updated really stand out. Also, the leveling experience for new players is as messy and chaotic as ever, with storylines overlapping chronologically due to the way expansions have been handled within the main story.
- Incredible artwork and music.
- Excellent character acting and writing.
- A fun leveling experience.
- Great dungeons and boss battles.
- Class fantasy is weak with few spells or new armor sets.
- Warfronts and Expeditions are boring.
- Azerite equipment system undermines progression.
World of Warcraft remains one of the greatest MMOs, regardless, and the way Blizzard has been able to maintain the game at this level for all of these years is unprecedented. Battle for Azeroth is worth your time for the leveling experience and core dungeon-crawling gameplay alone, but the headline features that Blizzard advertised with this expansion fall flat.
Blizzard may find time to address them in future patches, but at least right now, Battle for Azeroth feels like Legion's predecessor, not its successor.
Updated September 20, 2018: Blizzard has announced some of its future plans for fixing Battle for Azeroth's most criticized features.
Jez Corden 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 caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!