World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth has been given the unfortunate task of following up Legion, one of the best received World of Warcraft expansions in the last decade. Where Legion saw players go to space and fight hordes of demons, Battle for Azeroth brings the conflict back to Warcraft’s core: the Horde versus the Alliance in all-out war.
Thankfully for World of Warcraft players, Battle for Azeroth does almost everything right, and even succeeds in places where Legion failed. But in other cases, the expansion is left feeling a bit safe compared to its predecessor.
Battle for Azeroth opens with separate campaigns for Horde and Alliance players. The Horde is sent to Zandalar, homeland of the Zandalari trolls and their impressive navy. Players level up as they journey through the lush jungles of Zuldazar, the blood-filled swamps of Nazmir and the vast desert of Vol’Dun.
In response to the Horde’s request for naval aid, the Alliance returns to Kul Tiras, the sea-faring home of Jaina Proudmoore. Alliance players will experience the corrupted waters of Stormsong Valley, the pirate-ridden coves of Tiragarde Sound and the witch-filled woods of Drustvar.
Once players have leveled through their home continent, they’ll launch an offensive on their opposition, attempting to gain a foothold. Practically speaking, this lets Alliance and Horde players complete daily quests on the opposite continent. But thematically, it creates an incredible sense of unease and wonder when venturing into foreign lands.
When you first reach max level, you have very limited influence on the new zones. Flight points are few and far between, leaving you to run around on your mounts in strange geography. But as you progress through the campaign and increase your standing with your faction’s war effort, you unlock more outposts and footholds.
What was once a vast zone filled with navigational hazards transforms into a more functional location, and the zone is more navigable now only because you put the work in to make it that way. The difference between your home continent and the opposing one is excellently crafted by Blizzard and, even after leveling a character on each side, I found that the same zone felt different depending on which faction I was playing on.
The zones and the quests you complete within them are some of the best Blizzard has created. Even giant desert zones like Vol’dun seem to feel alive where thematically appropriate. And the quest lines within them are well placed and interesting to complete. Each area tells a story that’s either self-contained or contributes to the larger zone. But in both cases, the stories are intriguin and delightful.
While this is still World of Warcraft — expect to kill X thing and collect X item from it 10 different times — the groupings of quests keep the same activities from feeling monotonous. This is helped by the excellent crafting put into each zone’s sub-zones.
Unlike in previous World of Warcraft expansions, Battle for Azeroth boasts dozens of sub-zones that feel connected to their host. Where past zones felt disjointed and cobbled together, the areas in both Kul Tiras and Zandalar flow beautifully, creating a rich questing environment.
For example, the western swamp of Nazmir progressively transforms into a great tar pit, filled with undead dinosaurs and other nasty creatures. Moving just past that tar pit, the zone begins to transition from Nazmir into Vol’dun, the desert zone. The movement from one to the other feels natural, a new feeling in World of Warcraft. It gives the impression that the land you’re conquering or defending belongs to someone or something. It brings so much life to a world where, traditionally, nothing but experience and quest objectives matter.
World Quests, the daily questing system that lets players increase their reputation and earn extra gear, return from Legion and offer fun quests for players to repeat. The World Quests are often altered versions of the leveling quests in Battle for Azeroth, but none are so consuming that it feels like you spend all your time in one place. Instead, running around the map, full-clearing the world of World Quests feels relaxing and rewarding.
But as you gain favor with your war party, you unlock a post-game campaign called the War Campaign. This mini-questing campaign is where the bulk of the faction conflict comes into play. You’ll face off against the enemy faction’s leadership and make small advances for your side in the war. The quests are fun, but vary from silly to over-serious at times, and help you unlock new features like Allied Races or even end-game dungeons.
After the success of the Mythic Plus mode implemented in Legion, it’s no surprise that each dungeon in Battle for Azeroth feels intentionally crafted to complement this speedrun mode. All 10 of Battle for Azeroth’s launch dungeons are stellar, especially on Mythic — the hardest difficulty currently available.
All of the successes of Legion have returned in Battle for Azeroth, and most are even better than they were before. But Battle for Azeroth begins to stumble when it tries to do something new.
The games’ new Island Expeditions bring random runs to World of Warcraft. Each island is a small, mildly randomized map filled with quests to complete and enemies to slay. Each time you do either, a meter ticks up. The trick is that a group of NPCs — or other players if you’re feeling brave — are attempting to do the same thing faster than you. If they fill their bar up first, you lose.
The core idea of Island Expeditions is good, but the execution leaves something to be desired. During the first week of Expeditions, the new game mode was beyond frustrating. Attempting to defeat the Heroic level enemies felt cheap. It felt like the enemy faction had an intense rubber-banding effect, like the worst parts of Mario Kart 64. Wins felt more painful than they should, with losses feeling even worse.
But after playing more Island Expeditions on the Mythic difficulty — a step up from Heroic — my crew of three finally got into a groove. We figured out a way to win; our own meta, so to speak. While the mode still felt frustrating at times and boring at others, the process of building a strategy into Expeditions suggested that fun can be had in the mode. By the time I finished with my weekly amount, the grind finally started to feel enjoyable.
My main concern with Island Expeditions is that its weekly quest isn’t particularly exciting, although it is mandatory for players who want to keep progressing in Battle for Azeroth. The more I’ve played the Islands, the more fun I’ve had. But once they’re solved, Island Expeditions will just be a required and uninteresting activity to cross off my list each week. While I’m hoping they’ll get better with time, I’m unsure how Blizzard could change them to create an enjoyable, but still challenging environment.
The Island Expeditions are the best way to power up your Heart of Azeroth each week. This new artifact hangs around your neck, and collects a new resource called Azerite in order to grow more powerful. The Heart is paired with Azerite gear which can drop for either your head, chest or shoulder slots. These armor pieces have special abilities built into them. The higher the level of your Heart of Azeroth, the more powerful gear you can wear and the more powerful traits you can empower.
The Heart of Azeroth is the replacement system for Legion’s artifact weapon, a controversial system that left some players feeling burnt out. Like Island Expeditions, the idea behind the Heart of Azeroth is good. However, the traits themselves are currently uninteresting. Very few of the Azerite traits offer any kind of gameplay alteration. Instead, the most powerful traits are simply generic stat bonuses or random buffs.
Almost every activity you do in the end game will give you some amount of Azerite, and it’s intended to be a system that carries forward with you, growing and changing, in the coming years. But the Heart is only as interesting as the traits it empowers. And the current traits are just too underwhelming to have any impact. After playing Legion, it’s hard not to feel an artifact weapon-shaped hole within each class you play.
The success of World of Warcraft’s staple features in Battle for Azeroth, as well as the blunders with a few new features, leaves the expansion feeling excellent, but safe. Legion was exciting, adding two new pillars to the end game with World Quests and Mythic Plus dungeons. All of these incredible features return in Battle for Azeroth, but the new additions don’t bring the same level of excitement.
But Battle for Azeroth’s weakness only feel major to me and players like me, those that spent hundreds of hours in Legion only to feel very little difference from one expansion to the next. It’s entirely likely that a newer player, or even players who don’t log nearly as many hours will look at Battle for Azeroth with fresher eyes.
After over 90 hours logged in Battle for Azeroth, spread over three max-level characters, the desire to keep pushing forward remains. But the World of Warcraft that I’ve been playing for the past week isn’t the same World of Warcraft that I’ll play later this year, or even in just a few weeks.
The game is constantly evolving, and where Blizzard chooses to take Battle for Azeroth in the next two years could have a drastic effect on its overall quality. But for now, Battle for Azeroth is doing almost everything right for a World of Warcraft expansion. We can only hope that it stays this good.
Note: The new Warfront mode, Mythic plus dungeons, and the expansion’s first raid, Uldir, have yet to be implemented. All of these features will, presumably, be released on or around Sept. 4. Once they’re released, we’ll update this review after we’ve taken the time to evaluate them.
World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth was reviewed on Windows PC with a code provided to us from Blizzard Entertainment. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.