Steven re­turns from his quest to write the de­fin­i­tive re­view of Bl­iz­zard’s MMO ex­pan­sion.

PC GAMER (US) - - CONTENTS - By Steven Mess­ner

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.

To war

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.

Chance en­counter

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

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