WOW: BATTL E FOR AZEROT H
Steven returns from his quest to write the definitive review of Blizzard’s MMO expansion.
When Rodrigo, the Freehold flight master, offers me a sum of gold to get revenge on the pirates that have been bullying him, I can’t refuse. Rodrigo asks me to fly around on one of his giant parrots and drop bombs on the brigands. I soon realize Rodrigo wasn’t being literal. At the push of a button, a green turd erupts from the parrot’s rear and splats on a pirate. Far below me, I hear a scream, “Argh, my eye!” Welcome to World of Warcraft, a place where I’m shitting on people one minute, and an hour later slaughtering civilians who have become infected by Lovecraftian brain slugs. Don’t get me wrong, though, I love that WoW flashes between serious and goofy. Battle for Azeroth embraces that tonal duality with conviction. The end result is a landscape full of moments that are sometimes bleak, other times hilarious, and always fun.
Blood in the water
During the finale of Legion, the previous expansion, the titan Sargeras stabbed his continent-sized sword into the planet, wounding it so deeply that its crystalized blood began bleeding to the surface. Without a common enemy to unite them, the Horde and Alliance are at each other’s throats and Azeroth’s blood, called Azerite, turns out to be the perfect weapon. After an explosive pre-expansion event that spanned two cataclysmic battles, the warring factions set sail to find allies to help break the stalemate.
For the Alliance, that means trying to repair its relationship with the human maritime superpower of Kul Tiras. The Horde, meanwhile, ventures to the lost continent of Zandalar to treat with the ancient but powerful Zandalari troll empire. Giving each faction a separate continent to level on massively increases the scope of this expansion. Now that I’ve taken the time to level both a Horde and Alliance character to the new cap of 120, Battle for Azeroth almost feels like two expansions rolled into one.
Kul Tiras and Zanadalar are some of the most exquisitely designed locales in Warcraft’s history and the high point of Battle for Azeroth so far. After Legion’s Broken Isles, which felt like a disjointed greatest hits of Warcraft lore, I adore how consistent yet diverse each of the new islands is.
Take Kul Tiras, for example. This maritime island is cut up into three zones that feel like organic extensions of one another while still being individually identifiable and memorable. The bleak tundras of Tiragarde Sound house the capital city of Boralus, torn by political infighting. Drustvar, to the west, is a mountain range surrounded by spooky forests where villages are slowly succumbing to the nefarious magics of a witch coven. To the north, though, is Stormsong Valley, the verdant breadbasket of Kul Tiras where Cthulhuesque sea priests practice their rites in the shadow of a kraken carved out of a mountain face.
By contrast, the Horde leveling continent of Zanadalar couldn’t be more different in its aesthetic. It’s a lush jungle full of towering spirit dinosaurs, golden Aztec cities, and swamp-dwelling blood trolls trying to free their blood god from an ancient underground prison. Though the zones are so different, each is wonderful in its own way. In particular, I love the swamps of Nazmir in Zandalar, where there’s no shortage of haunting vistas like the corpse of a massive tortoise being gruesomely hollowed out by blood trolls, or a terrifying blood red moon that hangs just above a creepy temple for the dead. Nazmir is dark and sinister and I can’t get enough of it.
World of Warcraft’s strength has always been in building fantastical landscapes like Kul Tiras and Zandalar, but the characters that populate these worlds are just as well realized. In the absence of an
Battle for Azeroth almost feels like two expansions rolled into one
immediate world-ending threat, Battle for Azeroth compensates by putting the internal struggles of its nonplayer heroes in the spotlight. It’s a gamble that works. Both sides have great characters, but I love the story of Jaina Proudmoore, who returns to center stage as a strong but emotionally wounded person haunted by her past decisions. Alliance players will embark on a long quest to reunite Jaina with her estranged mother and the conclusion is surprisingly poignant.
Quest for glory
Though the zones are new, how I explore them hasn’t changed. Leveling a character is a familiar routine of heading to a new area and picking up quests that lead to even more quests. But by further building upon Legion and Warlords of Draenor’s excellent quest design, Battle for Azeroth is far from a grind.
While the actual objective of quests might be mundane in the grand scheme of things (like dropping bird turds on unsuspecting heads), there’s a great deal of variety in each quest, and better voice acted dialogue and cutscenes keep the whole experience trucking along at a pleasant rhythm. It’s mindless fun, sure, but it’s hard to care because few quests are ever the same. One minute I’ll be infiltrating blood troll camps to poison their domesticated bats and the next I’m controlling a wickerman colossus to singlehandedly devastate an entire army of stone soldiers. There’s not a real challenge to any of these activities but the variety keeps things interesting. Each zone’s quests slowly weave together into an overarching story that can be surprisingly dramatic—especially when taking the time to read every bit of dialogue offered by quest givers.
It’s good Battle for Azeroth’s quests are fun to complete on their own because, so far, the rewards for levelling up new characters have been one of Battle for Azeroth’s biggest weaknesses. While the design of the new armor and weapons looks great, the way they affect abilities is underwhelming. Unlike previous expansions, Battle for Azeroth doesn’t add any new abilities or talents to classes as they level up to 120. It makes earning that coveted next level feel pointless.
Character progression is instead tied to the Heart of Azeroth, a fabled necklace that players are given early on in the expansion. This necklace absorbs Azerite, healing the planet’s wounds while also leveling up and becoming more powerful in the process. Reaching certain levels in the necklace unlocks the latent powers of new Azerite Armor, special pieces of gear that can be earned through a variety of tasks—the most powerful of which is saved for dungeons and raids. Each piece of Azerite Armor has three concentric rings that contain a choice of various ability-enhancing traits. To unlock each ring, my Heart of Azeroth has to first reach a certain level and then I can choose which trait I want to permanently unlock.
It’s a cool idea that is clearly inspired by Legion’s Artifact Weapons, which also required farming a resource to unlock traits that changed how certain abilities worked. The difference here is that, comparably, Azerite Armor is boring. During my race to level 120, every piece I encountered would typically offer one of two choices, and neither was exciting.
Higher-end Azerite Armor from dungeons and raids offer more traits with more powerful effects, but while leveling my tank I was usually choosing between a temporary shield or a bit of extra damage—neither of which really improves how well I fight. The good news is that unlike Legion’s abysmal Legendary items, a painful system driven by RNG that Blizzard spent years trying to fix, Azerite Armor is structurally sound. It’s not as needlessly complex and makes switching class specializations less of a chore because I’m not having to grind for multiple weapons. If Azerite Armor just had more exciting traits it’d be a lot more rewarding.
Because Artifact Weapons and all their powerful abilities were retired at the end of Legion, my Demon Hunter actually feels weaker in Battle for Azeroth, and Azerite Armor does a piss poor job of filling that weaponshaped hole. And gods help you if you’re playing an enhancement shaman or one of the class specializations that didn’t receive a much-needed redesign before Battle for Azeroth launched. So many of Legion’s powerful systems are now stripped away, leaving certain class specializations gutted, and no amount of Azerite Armor is going to help. It’s a problem that will hopefully be fixed in a later update, but some of WoW’s classes are in rough shape right now.
Fortunately, Battle for Azeroth doesn’t need a carrot on a stick to keep me playing, because all of the endgame activities are fun even without good rewards. Though the real meat of endgame like Mythic+ dungeons, raids and the new Warfronts aren’t available until September, Battle for Azeroth is already shaping up to have one of the most varied endgames that WoW has ever had. There’s just so much to do.
When I first hit level 120, I still had hours’ worth of leftover quests and new endgame-specific missions that tied off dangling plot threads. But the area I had to adventure in effectively doubled because the other faction’s continent becomes available to explore, fight, and quest in. Legion’s World Quest system makes a return, offering a daily rotation of time-sensitive quests scattered across all six zones with lucrative rewards and even more faction reputation.
When I first hit level 120, I still had hours’ worth of leftover quests
There are ten new dungeons to conquer, too, each one a gauntlet of memorable boss fights. In Freehold, for example, my party was entered into a fighting pit where we had to overcome several challenges, including catching a greased-up pig and defeating a giant ogre named Sharkpuncher who—you guessed it— wields two sharks as weapons.
Crafting professions also received a much-needed update that makes them easier to get into without needless grinding. Now players can start crafting gear and items that are immediately useful, which is the impetus I needed to finally invest time into Warcraft’s more relaxing pursuits. It’s a shame, then, that, at least with professions that primarily make armor and weapons, the crafted options just aren’t that useful compared to the loot I find in dungeons and, when it eventually releases, the new raid.
One new addition to the endgame roster of activities is Island Expeditions, the antithesis to the structured choreography of running dungeons and mastering specific strategies for each boss. This three-player mode takes you to one of seven islands populated by a random assortment of monsters and quests that each reward a small sum of Azerite. But here’s the kicker: It’s a race against another team of three players.
While there’s a PvP version that pits you against actual human competitors, the normal version of Island Expeditions is against one of several AI teams with their own strategy and personality. These enemy soldiers are unlike anything I’ve seen in World of Warcraft before because they’re actually intelligent. When challenged directly, they’ll coordinate spells, target weak party members and even run away if the fight seems unfavorable. On higher difficulties, I frequently forget that I’m playing against AI opponents.
Whether I’m taking on a human or AI team, Island Expeditions are a blast because they do a remarkably good job of keeping the competition fierce. Charging the enemy head-on or keeping our distance were both viable strategies so long as we kept killing monsters for Azerite, but I like that adaptation is key to success, which feels like a nice reprieve from the repetition of dungeons. Each of the seven islands are highly dynamic and randomized, so even if I visit the same one twice it will be populated with completely different enemies and a different AI team, not to mention all sorts of wacky events that suddenly shift the landscape and force my team to adapt.
During one expedition, Elemental Firelords appeared and opened a portal to their realm, where a huge bounty of Azerite waited for whichever team could defeat the boss first. More than once, encounters like these turned into chaotic three-way battles as I desperately tried to fend off the enemy team. And because Island Expeditions still reward the losing team, the few times we were absolutely destroyed didn’t feel like a waste of time.
Those wanting actual PvP can turn on Battle for Azeroth’s brilliant War Mode, which replaces the old dedicated PvP system entirely. Now the option to PvP is just a button that places my character into an instance of the world populated with other characters who have also opted for PvP, turning Battle for Azeroth’s zones into lively battlegrounds. It’s sometimes frustrating being ambushed in the middle of a quest, but I love the way War Mode inspires me to coordinate with other players. Finally, I have a good reason to actually socialize with all the strangers playing alongside me rather than acting as if they don’t exist. And after Horde players invaded a nearby town, I rallied a group of a dozen Alliance members to drive them out. It was thrilling to get into a fight that wasn’t mandated by some scripted quest.
War Mode is supplemented by some fun ideas, like zeppelins that periodically fly overhead and drop supply crates for each side to battle over. Score enough kills and you’ll be marked as an assassin and your location revealed, prompting other players to hunt you down for extra rewards. It’s a great start to making open-world PvP exciting again, but I hope Blizzard expands on these ideas in future updates.
World of Warcraft has always thrived on structured activities like dungeons and raids, but War Mode and Island Expeditions are wonderful complements to the usual routine. And once we have new raid and Mythic+ dungeons, which modify Battle for Azeroth’s dungeons with unique challenges that rotate on a weekly basis, an already diverse endgame will get even more variety.
In the wake of Legion, I was concerned how Battle for Azeroth would up the stakes. How do you go bigger than an intergalactic demon army led by the greatest villain in Warcraft history? But Battle for Azeroth avoids the comparison altogether. It’s an expansion that proves I don’t need an apocalyptic threat to inspire me to fight, I just need a vibrant world and characters to care about, and fun new features to play around with. Battle for Azeroth has more than enough of those.
I don’t need an apocalyptic threat to inspire me to fight