First impressions of World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth, part 1: Mechanics

Dead in the water.

Hey, there’s a new World of Warcraft expansion, right? When did that happen?

There’s a bit of snark there, but perhaps less than you might think. The weird thing is that Battle for Azeroth kind of does feel as if it just dropped without warning; it was outside of the usual release schedule for expansions, with a long lead-in, as if the final product just showed up on our collective doorsteps one day. Assuming you were already logged on and had your pre-orders set, you could just jump right in and start the expansion, which hearkened back to the days of midnight releases after a fashion.

Needless to say, there’s a lot to talk about with the expansion so far. Now that it’s actually live we can see the mechanics and the story with all the polish that’s intended, with nothing left behind a curtain (other than Warfronts, anyhow). Coming off the well-received Legion, this expansion has some pretty big foot gear to fill, and it’s fair to wonder if any expansion wouldn’t feel like a bit of a downturn… but let’s not start there. Let’s just start in on one aspect of the game and go from there.

You can't see the Azerite, somewhat by design.Battle for Azeroth continues one of the trends started in Legion in that you have another 10 levels to get through for absolutely no reason whatsoever. You don’t get new abilities, you don’t get access to new zones, and you don’t really level anything up except for the number of your gear and even that means virtually nothing. The actual levels that matter are the levels on your Heart of Azeroth, and your main experience bar is mostly just there providing escalating numbers that mean nothing.

On the plus side, I suppose this means that the level scaling still works pretty well. I never felt as if leveling up was detrimental as I started in on the expansion. But I also never felt as if it was anything more than a chore; it’s a pointless gating mechanism in which your rotation and abilities don’t change at all as you level. If anything, it gets less interesting as you level, since any and all Legion legendaries lose their secondary effects at level 116.

It’s a small thing, but it’s significant. The bright side, as it goes, is that you’re assured a replacement in the form of your Azerite powers. The down side is… well, Azerite powers are kind of boring.

The idea here is really neat, and it was one of the many things that I was looking forward to with the expansion. Instead of just getting an item with pre-set powers, you get to select your preferred powers from rings with a few options, and certain sources always provide the same powers. In execution, though, none of the powers feels particularly important; it’s all “get bonus damage for doing the things you were already doing” or “use your ability cheaper” or “have an easier time surviving.” It’s a bit pedestrian.

Of course, this also means that you’re less likely to run into a situation wherein you don’t have access to a vital bonus that defines your entire playstyle. This is a positive thing. It’s just that coupled with the emptiness of your actual levels, it’s hard to get terribly excited about the powers available to you.

Part of the issue here, naturally, is that Legion overwhelmed you with new power right out of the gate, so anything is going to feel like it’s a bit of a slide. It’s also quite possible that the more “pedestrian” stuff on the basic gear acquired by leveling is intentional. And the Heart works to do what it’s meant to, arguably far better than Legendary items ever did; you may not have control over random drops, but you have lots of means to acquire Azerite pieces, and you have a pretty clear picture of what each one enables you to do along the way. It mitigates randomness far better than any other luck correction ever managed.

Combat feels, well, very much as it did in Legion. Some of this is going to change a lot based on your spec and playstyle, which is relevant since I’m leveling on Enhancement Shaman. I gained some talents, lost some others, but largely play the same; all the loss of the artifact functionally means is losing a cooldown and a few cooler effects. Other specs will have different experiences. It definitely seems balanced, albeit a bit simpler; those who were already in the “this is too simple” camp will likely not be happy.

Some specs have, yes, received pretty significant overhauls; I’m looking forward to playing with my Survival Hunter, since Survival had a wonky rotation all through Legion. Fights retain that same frantic and constantly active feel from the last expansion, though; that’s the real takeaway.

I am glad that Shamans once more have things orbiting them. Fair warning, though, the totem talent for Enhancement isn't worth it.You can also buff out your ability rotation by turning on War Mode, which matters a lot more now than it did during the pre-patch. At these early stages, it’s actually highly advised to have War Mode on; there are few to no players of the other faction running around on your continent, which means that it’s a straight experience buff with extra abilities. Except, as I found out, that’s not completely accurate; the overarching War Campaign sends you over to the Horde continent fairly early, and that meant popping into a bit of a donnybrook as part of the questing experience.

This is actually really good design right here. By keeping the two factions mostly separate through leveling, you’re actually more inclined to keep War Mode on because it’s usually safe. But you do get the feeling that it isn’t always safe, and I appreciate the split there. This may change as more people hit the level cap, but at the moment, I’ve really enjoyed that the decision has consequences that are neither game-destroying nor irrelevant.

The actual campaign, at this point, feels like a version of Garrison and Class Hall missions which are ashamed to be in the game. They’re stripped down even further from the Class Hall setup; you have a very small number of (faction-wide) champions, your troops are randomized, and resources are harder to get while everything costs less. It definitely feels like a sidelined feature. Good news to those tired of checking on the mission table; bad news to people who would like to see the system really improved or made more interactive in some fashion.

Then again, this does seem to be something of a theme for the expansion mechanically. Most of the stuff on display is very similar to what we saw throughout Legion, but simpler. Combat feels similar, but stripped of some nuance and ability; mission tables are simpler; leveling your artifact is simpler, since the item just auto-consumes instead of sitting in your inventory. (This is also the case for reputation tokens, which I appreciate in advance.)

Dweedle dweedle fingers.

As before, the caveat is that this may change as we get into the upper levels of power with more options for Azerite armor, an additional power ring to choose from, and so on. But I don’t want this to sound like a negative; this is a case where “simpler” is not the same as “worse.” It’s far more grounded compared to Legion’s flares of power, but in some ways that makes things feel more balanced and grounded.

People are going to miss the powers they got accustomed to, and the fact that your leveling is totally irrelevant in terms of abilities or anything else is a problem. You’re really just gaining one level, but the game counts all of the milestones in between, actually decreasing your abilities at the halfway point. Still, the cleverness of War Mode and the bits and bobs we do get keep me from feeling like it’s a massive downgrade.

Of course, there’s naturally more to talk about with this expansion; there’s a reason this says “part one” at the top. But let’s stop here for now and cover more stuff as we move forward. For now, it’s enough to know that if your main concerns are combat feel, you won’t have anything to worry about.

At the same time, perhaps that’s a bit odd? A lot of things were added and changed, but nothing actually feels all that different. So bear that in mind as well while we move forward.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with a decade of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.
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