It took me a long time to identify what felt off about World of Warcraft’s upcoming expansion. Something was definitely bothering me, but the thing was is that we know exactly what an expansion with the bare minimum effort looks like now, and it sure as heck didn’t feel like Battle for Azeroth was Warlords of Draenor But Again. Yet something kept nudging at me, some comparison that was just slightly eluding me as I dutifully tested new quests, new system revisions, and so forth.
Then I realized that the whole thing was basically Cataclysm and it clicked.
Mind you, I say this not as an indication that the expansion is nearly as bad as Cataclysm was. (There’s still far too much of the actual game to see, for example.) But far from my own optimistic excitement, it feels like the expansion is making a lot of the same missteps as that particular black mark, and it doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence.
So… this is what we’re focused on now
As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve got no problem making the faction war a focal point of storytelling for an expansion. Done properly, it could provide a lot of storytelling meat. Unfortunately, what we actually get is an attempt to roll back the clock to Wrath of the Lich King and then act as if the intervening stuff didn’t happen, which is where the comparison first resonated for me.
At the end of that expansion, it would make sense that the Horde would attack Teldrassil, because it would make sense to assume the Alliance was heading to Lordaeron. Seriously, it was set up pretty well by that expansion. Varian had already attacked Undercity once, he clearly didn’t like leaving it without conquering the city, and the Wrathgate was fresh in everyone’s mind. Launching a pre-emptive strike on Teldrassil would be a logical move.
Here, though? It winds up feeling like yet another example of Half Of The Horde Is Just Awful. This has been a real problem the game has kept hammering on for years, and it’s not getting better here. The writers try to insist that neither side is actually bad, but then we see literally every awful thing come from the Horde, which makes the whole thing ring false.
But I could spend a few thousand words ranting about this, and there’s more comparison to draw out. The core issue here is that Azeroth is dying, hence the whole Heart of Azeroth. Except that the actual chain of storytelling goes from fighting a war to… sorting out another nation’s problems on a completely different continent, without the other side actually in sight.
Yes, this makes a certain amount of sense. Yes, I can buy that the factions would be busy warring instead of sorting this out. But much like Cataclysm, it feels like we’re focusing on the solution to problems three or four steps down the ladder. The faction war is going hot again, but we’re only taking part in the most backwards sense, and the Heart of Azeroth is more or less wholly left off to one side. It’s a concern, but not something that we’re supposed to be actively worried about.
So instead of feeling like an expansion focused on the faction conflict, at the moment it feels like a whole bunch of stupid conflicts advanced to give people a reason to fight, and then an excuse to go faff about Kul Tiras or Zandalar. Despite the fact that the two do not lead into one another. Seriously, we could just search out these allies without the assaults on the capitals.
Breaking what was already fixed
The part where this starts to really feel a lot like Cataclysm are the many, many ways that the game tries to fix issues with the game’s systems… systems that were working fine and were not actually broken. Some of that is just a matter of Artifacts being handled in the worst possible way, but I think it goes a little bit deeper than that.
At the end of the day, the biggest problem in Legion was Legendaries. They were just too random and too prone to giving you things you either would never need or definitely needed ages ago. Artifacts were designed as a part of the spec from the ground up, so rather than feeling like a huge power bump, they felt more like the part that made the whole spec sing. Sure, some were better or worse about it, but the extra powers they granted felt like they should really just be a part of the class.
The solution for removing them was mostly just number tuning and then maybe tossing the ability somewhere on the talent tree, instead of filling out the frankly shameful number of levels in which the game does not give you anything. And the replacement system, thus far, feels less complimentary.
The idea of having Azerite armor functioning as “build your own Legendary items” is pretty cool as a concept, but it doesn’t feel particularly organic. If anything, it feels like socketing gear (something the game has walked away from) with fewer chores associated for non-gemcrafters. Nor do the powers granted feel particularly great; they’re passive abilities that, at least from what I’ve seen, don’t really change how you play your spec. Perhaps I’m just a bit cynical after everything else, it’s certainly possible.
Now, this isn’t to say that combat feels terrible; it’s just to say that far from getting a bunch of fun new toys (such as the class utility that was promised and then yanked out for bad reasons) we wind up with more or less the same toys, and a few have been taken away. For most specs, this isn’t terrible. You’re still playable, even if you have to sort of kludge it a bit.
But that’s the road that led us to Legion in the first place, where things getting yanked left us with some specs like Enhancement that had lost basically everything core to their identity. Again, my optimism was misplaced; instead of ushering in a new area of holistic class design, the designers just yanked stuff out and made some numbers adjustments in the hopes that no one notices too much.
Wait, is it all bad?
Thankfully, no. Once you get past the fact that none of the big NPCs like Anduin are acting like themselves and the overall arc has the aforementioned issues, you can get into the core of the expansion. The individual zone quests retain the same snappy writing from Legion, and the new NPCs are a joy to interact with and offer plenty of character right out of the gate. (This does make me somewhat nervous that we’ll also get a repeat of Legion insofar as the “main” story is the least interesting part, but at least Illidan’s gone.)
But each time I start typing something positive about the expansion, I find myself having to edit it. Sure, the new Allied Races are fun… assuming, of course, that you can ignore the dizzying awfulness of the Mag’har recruitment scenario. Combat is still fast-paced… although you have to overlook the stuff that’s been lost which was still a core part of the design. The questing is fun… although it’s also questing you’ve done before, and I haven’t seen any particular innovations in that department.
In other words… it’s a lot like Cataclysm. It’s not Warlords where it can’t do anything right, but it makes a whole lot of missteps. My hope is that this is something that’s improved through patches rather than exacerbated; it’d still be a disappointment, but not nearly as much of one.