The Battle for Azeroth beta is here, at long last, and it feels like it might have come a little early in the process. Usually beta testing is mostly for when you have all of the core stuff in place, but this feels like it’s just officially being called a beta when some of the pieces are still being moved into the right direction. That might be more nitpicky than anything, so I’m not going to spend too much time on it; World of Warcraft has had a tricky relationship with “alpha” and “beta” terminology, but it’s still not even in the list of the worst offenders.
I got my beta invite (at the same time the official changeover happened, even), but I haven’t yet gotten a chance to actually play around in it. However, I think now is as good a time as any to talk about the things that I am actually nervous about when it comes to Battle for Azeroth. Yes, I’ve been a pretty big advocate for the expansion and what we’re hearing so far, but there are things about the expansion that still make me nervous now that we’re moving into the beta phase. So let’s talk about that.
Azerite and the Heart aren’t Artifacts
There was a lot of dislike about Artifacts, and a lot to like about them as well. Sure, the system was kind of unnecessarily messy, especially since it was designed to be a one-expansion system that’s now just another bit of design cruft, and it didn’t have to be that way. But at the end of the day, for all its faults and issues? The system did what it was supposed to do. It gave you a leveling mechanism with new stuff and felt exciting.
Sure, the top end was ridiculous for no good reason. But you really felt like this was a big crackling source of power that gave you the option of making some neat choices. It felt satisfying.
The Heart of Azeroth has always had issues on a conceptual level, to the point that I devoted an entire column explaining how it was supposed to work. But at its core, the idea was sort of like a meta-artifact. Unlock powers on your various bits of armor! This time there are actual choices, that’s good! And we won’t have Artifact Knowledge, which was messy! It’s all the fun of Artifacts, without the down sides!
Except looking at what we have right now… I’m not seeing it. In fact, I’m seeing all of the worst parts of Artifacts with none of the positives.
One of the problems with Artifact design was always that players had no choice involved. Given time, you were going to max out all of your traits; it’s only when you get down to the Netherlight Crucible that some actual choice was involved. Azerite armor currently seems to be much the same way; the choices are so segmented and so obvious that you’re pretty much always going to be making the same ones. More abilities would/will help a lot here.
More to the point, the Artifacts felt like a source of power, having big effects and really changing the way things worked. Sure, a lot of those effects came down to passive damage boosts, but then you got to the neat things that weren’t quite abilities but still felt special. At this point, the Azerite powers just don’t have that feeling of being big sources of power; they feel like the blandest of passive boosts.
In short, they just feel like additional talent bars that open up eventually. Not exciting. And if the system just works without being exciting, that’s going to feel like a collapse right after we had Artifacts to sling around. We’re already having all of our abilities pared down by one button; reducing it further isn’t really exciting.
We’re still unclear on Warfronts
I honestly think that this is the biggest reason we’ve got a beta going on. Warfronts request and demand a nice pile of players to test them, and you can only invite so many people to an alpha before it starts feeling ridiculous. But this is the most ambitious thing from a design standpoint going into the expansion, and at this point we still know little to nothing about it. It’s just there, and it’s going to be tested.
What else should we know? Well, anything. How it’ll play. What the rewards will look like. How often players can participate. What sort of things will be emphasized. What the battleground actually looks like. You know, dozens of different elements that all have a big impact on the way that this content is played.
For something that’s really vital to the expansion as a whole, there’s little to no information on this, and it feels like it keeps getting scaled back or pushed aside in discussions. That’s not to say that there isn’t time for it to be fixed up and improved, of course; there’s lots of time for that over the next few months. It’s just that with this much not nailed down, there’s a lot more space for things to rattle. Badly.
The early promotions for the expansion suggested that Warfronts were something really new and different, but increasingly they’re looking like a footnote we can ignore once we move on to the next phase of the expansion. Considering the weaknesses of the game’s existing raid and dungeon design, this is not a good thing; even the island explorations aren’t enough to be an anchoring feature on their own. (They’re just Scenarios with more random widgets, which is nice, but we already had Scenarios and enjoyed them then.)
Maybe it’s just a matter of numbers and time. I hope so.
Leveling is still pointless
One of my biggest complaints about the leveling process in the Broken Isles is that it’s pointless. You gain absolutely nothing of note for 10 levels. It wound up mostly all right, simply because you were gaining Artifact Power at a decent clip and that served as your “real” level, but as I already mentioned that’s not quite making the jump so far for the Heart of Azeroth.
The problem we’re running into here is that for most classes and specs, you get all of your “interesting” tricks by the time you’re hitting 60. Talents flesh things out a bit, but for all intents and purposes you’re not looking forward to new skills or new options past that… and if you are, they’re a long way off. Considering that this is already a game where most classes have regular rotations of 5-7 buttons, it makes the process of leveling feel like more of a chore.
Adding another 10 levels doesn’t help matters, and as far as we’ve seen there’s nothing new coming in that level band. We won’t get another big ability or two, and that means that a new level is going to feel less like a nice surprise and more like “oh, I guess that milestone is taken care of, we’re that much closer to getting gold for quests.”
Seriously, we might as well just stop the leveling altogether if all we’re going to be doing is rearranging the deck chairs again. The only functional change is getting better armor to obsolete the stuff you already have, and that seems like more work than it needs to be.
It gets especially bad when dealing with the allied races; we’re getting another quartet in the expansion, after all, and those middle level can still be a chore. I’m glad that none of the specs we’ve seen thus far are getting radical overhauls so much as tweaks; even the big changes, like the removal of Retribution’s Judgement cycle, mostly feel like tweaks to make the spec play more comfortably. But it seems like we’re still stuck in a problematic setup here, a constant dance of patching things up with “good enough for now” instead of “actually update and re-examine.”
Feedback, as always, is welcome in the comments down below or via mail to email@example.com. Now, let’s see if I can’t set aside some time to actually sink into that beta. That’ll be fun.