World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth doesn’t have the same metric for success as other games. It’s an MMORPG, a live service; the initial playthrough is just the start of your experience. The design teams certainly had goals heading into the game, and there have been myriad reactions to the initial content that Blizzard has rolled out thus far.
But let’s look at the entire picture. Now that we’re a month into Battle for Azeroth, how is the expansion shaping up?
Let’s start with what’s working, because there are a lot of wins on the board for Blizzard so far.
Base Campaign Content: The Alliance and Horde campaigns are both fantastic and include some of the best storytelling in World of Warcraft yet. From the titular Battle of Azeroth to the final notes of Zandalar or Kul Tiras, Blizzard is firing on all cylinders, and it shows.
We’re getting objectively less story than Legion, as Kevin Martens, gameplay designer, explains... but in exchange, the campaigns are stronger and more focused.
“World of Warcraft tries lots of stuff in different expansions,” Martens told us. “Some of those things end up being things that work well for a particular expansion, but don’t have legs or would be too repetitive for the next expansion - or ended up being special and unique to one expansion’s theme.”
Class Halls are gone, along with the story campaigns that accompanied them. Now, everything is drawn down faction lines. This works well, especially because the Alliance and Horde don’t see the other side of the story except for glimpses through the War Campaign. As the Horde, you might spend a few hours learning the story of a cursed port full of doomed skeletons. You help them, find out why they’re cursed, lead a revolt, and finish their story richer for the experience and knowing you helped some new friends find a better path in life.
As Alliance, you roll through and firebomb everything while yelling about the cursed undead.
The result is that you have two rich worlds with great story campaigns and enough intrigue that you’ll likely want to make a cross-faction alt to see what the other side is up to.
World Quests: World Quests are still in the game from Legion, and they continue to work. Upon reaching end-game, players get access to a constant stream of randomly generated quests out in the world that give rich rewards. Every day, you get a prompt to complete four of those quests to earn a healthy reward for one of those factions.
Making the world of World of Warcraft feel more tangible and accessible to players was important to Blizzard; it is, after all, the territory we’re fighting over in Battle for Azeroth. The World Quest system was brought over to continue that goal. A round of World Quests can be done in half an hour, and they’re usually fairly fun and give decent rewards. World Quests are a huge improvement over the former daily quest hubs.
A bonus is that, if you want to return to an old part of the world like, say, Darkshore, World Quests can encourage players to get in there and fight for territory every day. They make up an elegant system, and it is one of the best changes made to end-game in recent memory.
War Mode: Before Battle for Azeroth, players chose whether or not they wanted to interact with hostile players in the world by selecting their server: PVE or PVP.
“We haven’t been perfectly pleased with the separation between players for a while now, but we were careful not to break the systems.” Martens explained.
However, the stars aligned to make War Mode more feasible. The old world was updated, so zones give relevant XP until players hit a new level bracket. Now, people linger. Zones feel more alive, with players aiming for goals based on their quest log and not their level. The developers realized they could put PVP and PVE players together again — contingent, of course, upon the choice to opt-in to War Mode.
“When we started going down that road, we saw structures that seemed set in stone and we were able to break them down,” Martens said. “I don’t know where it’ll be in six months or a year, but for now it’s capturing that original fantasy of WoW, where you’re out there in the world among a hostile force, and they will attack you if they see you, regardless of what else you’re doing.”
Mythic+: Mythic+ is the hardest difficulty mode of five-person dungeons in the game, and those dungeons are fantastic. The content is difficult and challenging, but it’s never unclear or frustrating. I spent an hour or two in the Siege of Boralus on Mythic+, and downing the final boss was as satisfying as killing Ragnaros in Molten Core with 40 people back in the day. We stood over his corpse and all-caps screamed in Instance chat for a while. Like World Quests, Mythic+ takes a previous end-game feature — hardcore raiding — and makes it bite-sized and accessible. It’s the best part of end-game right now, by far.
Gameplay for adults: Do you work full-time or have family obligations? Blizzard, as a whole, is building toward bite-sized experiences instead of multi-hour grinds: a rift in Diablo, a match of Overwatch, an individual raid wing of World of Warcraft or the day’s World Quests. Every game offers chunks of gameplay that can be enjoyed in 20 minutes or an hour, and the grind is becoming increasingly optional and side-lined. It’s fantastic to have a MMO that doesn’t feel like an inevitable force choking out your schedule, but there’s a downside.
While there are multiple factors leading up to what doesn’t work in World of Warcraft, the most obvious thing is the overall state of end-game. When a character hits max level, they should be able to have a whole new game open up. Battle for Azeroth isn’t there yet.
Raiding (so far): Uldir, the first raid, has just hit, but it’s largely inaccessible via Looking for Raid for a while; players can only complete the first wing for now. Players can also queue for the normal, more difficult version of the dungeon. The downside of Looking for Group, the system that allows you to find a raid group, is that some groups are already demanding that you link the achievement or prove that you are a beastly DPS. Good groups (or guilds running the content) are out there, but players need to do the legwork to find them.
Warfronts: The first Warfront in the Arathi Highlands is open to the Horde, but the experience is disappointing. The loot is amazing and you can get your character decked out in purples with very little effort, but a Warfront feels aimless, like wandering through a less focused Alterac Valley from back in the day. There is no fail-state and little direction, leading to an experience that I put down after two tries.
Island expeditions: Island expeditions are designed to fill a certain niche: They should be random and replayable, but still give players a chance to conquer goals and improve their skills. While Blizzard seems confident about the core of the adventure, and Island expeditions do provide the best Azerite rewards, they quickly feel same-y. The resource goal also means that players need to rush, with little chance to explore. Blizzard intends to return to the concept, Martens said.
Azerite Gear: We used our weapons to stop Sargeras, but now we have Azerite armor to level up. Leveling the gear select traits, but those traits are randomized, and we select from two at a time. It’s a confusing system that is linked to our Heart of Azeroth progression, so a piece of gear that looks stronger than something a player has equipped could have its traits locked due to the Heart of Azeroth’s level being too low, and that could technically make it weaker.
In short, none of these failures are enough to doom an expansion in and of themselves, and more content is on the way. Looking for Raid will open, allowing players to experience Uldir with the click of a button. But Warfronts and Island Expeditions will require a little more elbow grease, and they’re clearly meant to be some of the best ways to spend your time at endgame. Azerite Gear is also opaque, confusing, and full of odd variables and randomized elements.
It’s interesting that all of this latest expansion of World of Warcraft’s successes are linked to its strength as a story-campaign game, while it’s currently struggling to deliver on the promise of an MMO you can play forever. Casual players have a lot to love about Battle for Azeroth, and the barriers that previously made World of Warcraft an inaccessible, life-compromising grind are gone or have been greatly reduced. However, an MMORPG still builds its strength and longevity off endgame activities, and Battle for Azeroth will need to continue shoring up content. Hopefully, the game builds off its clearly established strengths instead of trying to double down on the systems that aren’t working quite so well.