It’s always hard to judge a World of Warcraft expansion. The first few weeks are filled with the spark of light that fresh content always creates. There are new levels to gain, new environments to explore, quests to complete and challenges to be conquered.
And in World of Warcraft’s latest expansion, Battle for Azeroth, those things are all pretty good. But now that we are a little over a month in, it’s easier to look back and see the cracks that lie underneath the initially promising expansion.
More hours in
Battle for Azeroth’s endgame is mostly held up by two types of content, and the good news for the game is that those two pillars, Mythic+ and raiding, are the best things about it.
Raiding is a structured series of fights designed for large groups of players and represents World of Warcraft’s hardest challenges. Battle for Azeroth has one raid, called Uldir, with plans for more in the future.
The raid is made up of eight bosses that each have interesting and unique mechanics. Some bosses might put extra pressure on the DPS players to kill an add before it can heal the boss, while others might require players to move around the environment in a specific pattern or order, all the while still doing as much damage to the boss as possible or keeping the group alive through healing. While past raids often repeated mechanics or had one or two boring fights that didn’t ask much of the players, each encounter in Uldir feels unique and challenging. It’s been a long time since we had a raid where each fight was as much fun to do over and over again as the fights in Uldir.
This system also lets casual groups clear the fights in a few weeks, after they gain more gear and can do more damage. The most dedicated players may grind toward finishing the content on the hardest difficulty much more quickly by focusing on flawless execution.
This top-end difficulty was missing entirely from Legion’s first raid, Emerald Nightmare, which was cleared by top guilds in around 11 hours. Meanwhile the first guild to clear Uldir’s hardest difficulty, Mythic, spent somewhere around 70 hours attempting to kill the raid’s eight bosses. Even after all that time, the guild, Method, still had members say they loved the raid, and that it was one of their favorite in recent memory.
Mythic+ has some similarity to raiding, but it’s designed for just five players, instead of the 10-to-30 that can make up a raid. This mode tasks players with clearing the game’s dungeons, but with specific changes that make them harder, scaling up until it’s impossible for groups to finish. Players receive a keystone in their inventory that assigns them their dungeon, one of the game’s 10, and gives the dungeon a level. This determines how difficult enemies are and what effects might make them harder. If the group completes the keystone in time, they get a new, higher-level stone; if they, don’t they get a lower-level stone.
The bones of Mythic+ are fairly simple, but it’s that simplicity that makes it Battle for Azeroth’s most rewarding mode. It’s fun, generally only takes about 40 minutes per dungeon and allows small groups of players to push themselves exactly as hard as they’d like. Battle for Azeroth’s dungeons are extremely well-designed and consistently entertaining, even after doing some of them 20-plus times, which makes the challenge of Mythic+ a great way to keep people playing.
It’s not all good news
Each of those modes existed long before this latest expansion; raiding is a basic concept in MMOs, and Mythic+ was added in World of Warcraft’s last expansion. The problems with Battle for Azeroth’s endgame come from the systems it adds, which most often artificially gate progress where most of the fun can be found. If raids and Mythic+ are the carrot, we’re about to talk about the stick.
At the heart of the expansion’s systemic issues is an item called the Heart of Azeroth. It’s a neck piece given to all players that gets upgraded as you collect Azerite Power, or AP. New levels may unlock a new trait on certain pieces of armor called Azerite armor, which occupy the head, chest and shoulder armor slots.
But the system offers a painful and mindless grind. At worst, it feels like a cheap and artificial wall blocking you from playing your character to its full potential. Levels of your heart come fast at first, but the costs become prohibitive when you get up into level 20 or so. This wouldn’t be an issue if the most powerful Azerite gear didn’t require reaching level 22 to unlock even 75 percent of their full damage, leaving players left out of features from gear they’ve already collected. This means more grinding.
The best way to collect AP is through world quests, a system that allows players to complete menial tasks to earn moderate rewards. A finite amount of AP spawns on the map through these quests — generally at least 2,000 a day. I’ve likely done most of these quests close to 20 times in the course of preparing my various characters in the 45 days since the expansion launched. In some cases, I’ve replayed them as many as 50 times.
The world quests aren’t necessarily bad, but they aren’t good either. I wouldn’t mind killing five of a type of monster or fighting one particular boss a few times, but after seven or eight, it starts to wear pretty thin. But going from levels in the mid-20s can take nearly 30,000 AP, so you’ll need more than world quests if you want to get your heart up in a reasonable time.
Unfortunately, that means turning to the expansion’s worst mode: island expeditions. The AP grind that exists in Battle for Azeroth also existed in Legion, but the one saving grace of that system was that the most efficient way to gain the AP was through Mythic+ dungeons. Those were at least a little fun. Island expeditions are not. At all.
Island expeditions require groups of three players to venture to islands with randomly spawned enemies and piles of AP. The island expedition ends once they collect a certain amount of AP, and they are granted about 300 AP as a reward — unfortunately, players don’t get any of the between 6,000 and 12,000 AP they collect during the expedition. These missions can take anywhere from three to 20 minutes, and never once offer any real challenge or depth.
They instead highlight the least enjoyable and most monotonous features of World of Warcraft. What’s worse, according to plans announced last week, is that Blizzard plans to continue releasing new islands for players to explore. Without a fundamental fix to the way the mode works, I’d rather skip out on ever having to do them again.
I did close to 50 of these, while players that were aiming to be the first in the world to finish pieces of content cleared well over 500, all in the hopes of getting a little more powerful and better compete in the content they actually enjoyed.
This is, ultimately, one of the most difficult hurdles to overcome in designing a new World of Warcraft expansion: All content has to be gated. Completing the most difficult experiences in the game should feel like a genuine challenge, something players have worked up to and earned the right to do.
Sometimes that requires players to earn gear to give them greater powers that they haven’t yet unlocked. That sense of progression is at the center of what makes World of Warcraft great and so successful over the last 14 years. There should always be a balance between gaining gear and strength through lower-level content and taking on the hardest challenges the game has to offer. With Battle for Azeroth, Blizzard has missed the mark. Getting to elite status just requires grinding content that isn’t fun, instead of players demonstrating their skills.
What’s worse, it’s rarely satisfying when you do make it to a new milestone in your grind to unlock the gear you need. Legion had legendary items that changed the way an ability functioned, which would also completely change the way classes played; the Azerite traits in the Battle for Azeroth are rarely as interesting. Instead, they are simply passive bonuses that, in most cases, help you do more damage without any extra effort on your part. While some classes are lucky enough to have traits that change their gameplay slightly, Blizzard has so far seemed to favor nerfing those traits out of viability for most specs.
This leaves players chasing an endless loop of trying to get higher level Azerite gear — which can only reliably be gained through raids and isn’t available in Mythic+ — but only the pieces with exactly the right traits will actually be an upgrade. It’s even possible that some items that should be huge upgrades are nullified by the loss of a specific trait that makes one ability do more damage than the others.
This may sound like just a balancing issue in the short term, but the truth is that it’s more of a fundamental flaw in the system itself. Because it doesn’t affect the way the classes play, Azerite gear will always feel unsatisfying, no matter how weak or strong the traits are.
As for the classes themselves, they almost all play like slower and slightly less interesting versions of their Legion counterparts. This is thanks in large part to the loss of one ability from each class that came along with Legion’s own AP dumping system: the artifact weapon, which added a unique ability to every spec in the game. The loss of these abilities left most classes feeling frustrating and incomplete, and though Azerite gear was supposed to be the replacement, it missed the mark completely. There will always be one Azerite trait that reigns supreme for each spec, meaning that the frustration of that particular loop will be unavoidable as long as the system is in the game.
Despite all of these problems and this laundry list of glaring systematic issues, the crowning achievement of Battle for Azeroth’s endgame is that it still remains enjoyable all due to those two pillars of raiding and dungeons. That won’t last forever. As the expansion goes on, and the grind necessary to progress becomes even more demanding and the time spent in content that simply isn’t fun increases, it will be harder and harder for raiding and Mythic+ to carry the expansion along.
But the greatest testament to Blizzard’s design in this expansion is that it’s worth wading through Battle for Azeroth’s seemingly endless and frustrating grind, all in the hopes of helping your group of four friends push their keystone up one more level than you thought was possible — at least, for now.