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

    
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Get thee hence.

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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Matt & Krissy

Loved the article. Totally agree with the levelling up for no reason feeling. I would have rather have had the choice to play through the questlines on both my horde and alliance characters and then all my alts wouldnt have to go thru the same chore to reach endgame.

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Sally Bowls

I think perhaps this is a case where annual expansions would have helped. (But they can’t do them and planning for yet failing on an annual expansion is a disaster.)

I.e., Legion seemed like a checklist of fan favorites or at least fan checklist items (the people who had Illidan-pun names reserved for nearly a decade, Emerald Dream, Argos, Saguaros, Artifact lore weapons,…)

Whereas, BfA seems like a preparatory tic before the toc expansion happens (TBD whether the 9.0 toc is Old Gods, or Light/Shadow conflict/factions, Lich King as speculated by the class story, or ???) I could be wrong but 8.0 seems more like the start of a path rather than the big payoff. I.e., perhaps 8.0 could benefit from 9.0 coming in 1 not 2 years.

Cynically, there are people who are going to be happy with about any new WoW expansion. And the “I never like any popular game/band” hipsters were going to criticise any WoW expansion. After the launch dies down in say three months, we will have a handle on the verdict of the silent majority.

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Dreema

I didn’t expect to like BfA but so far it’s been surprisingly fun. Questing seems much more interesting than the past few expansions and I’m really enjoying the look and feel of the new zones (only made it to 112 so far, so it’s a little early to say for sure, but I’m having fun). Saying that, I remember finding the first few weeks of WoD great fun and then running out of things to do and eventually taking a long break from WoW because of how bad it became.

On the down side, leveling up does seem kinda pointless. I dinged 111 and got nothing and then dinged 112 and got nothing either. No new abilities, and the level scaling means I’m able to travel to any zone at any level so it’s not like leveling up really gives me anything. It seems a very broken system now and they need to do something to fix it. If they’re not going to give me anything new when I level up, why even level up at all?

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Serrenity

I kinda wonder that too — my thought is maybe they are trying to slowly phase out levels altogether? People had meltdowns when we only got 5 levels in an expansion, so I wonder if they are like “look, you are still getting the levels …. they just don’t mean anything.” Then next expansion they just use another equipment-based system (like artifacts, heart of azeroth, etc), potentially without levels at all. I think they might also do something like Elite Specs / Paragon levels / Champion levels or something because they won’t be able to keep people engaged without something that grows the character.

They pretty much did what I expected them to with the artifact system, which was basically to rip out the system, everyone drops down a peg or twelve and the power creep expansion over expansion is significantly reduced. It’s reasonable to expect that our Heart of Azeroth gear will go through a similar ‘nerf into obsolescence’ period towards the end of the expansion. The goal of which is, I can almost guarantee, is to level out the power creep. The item-based power increase makes it really easy to drop everyone back across the board.

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Vicarious Fan

absolutely love this expansion. For me it feels like they managed to create new areas that feel completely new yet still feel very Warcraft like. Something we haven’t seen since Mists or Wrath.

Legion, Cata, and WoD all the zones just felt like upgrades of old zones, nothing unique about them. But man the zones and enemies in BFA are just amazing. They did a great job of expanding the world.

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Utakata

The criticisms I have towards this expansion are many, and the release of it hasn’t really changed my opinion on that. Nor, like others here have noted, has BfA expectations warmed up to me the way Legion did. That said though, I am not sure I really care at this point…

…it seems that the story telling and leveling dynamics have currently sucked me into a state of immersed bliss. Where both depth, intrigue and distraction seem to have woven a rich tapestry on my experience that has allowed me enjoy this regardless. Furthermore, I feel for the first time that skill is allowed to shine over gear. Something to a degree I have appreciated over at Blade & Soul, but was entirely lacking in WoW mostly due to gear creep mechanics. As well, there seems to be a real effort made on exploration and a sense of danger that comes with it…

Or tl, dr: So some where along the line I’ve stopped caring about the issues and simply enjoy what this expansion has to offer thus far. o.O

Note/Disclaimer: Due to this being the very early stages of this expansion, my opinions of it are subject to change. So do take this this a grain of salt and a dab of pink colored candy floss. <3

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Alatar

Character level exists to establish relative power levels in the post-stat squish era. Two words: OLD CONTENT. My level 110 walks into a WOD dungeon or raid and sees level 102 mobs that seem to have very close to the same level of health as the level 112/113 mobs he sees in a Legion dungeon. Only, he does a GAZILLION damage when he hits them, and they barely scratch him. Why? Disparate character levels.

When Blizz first talked about the stat squish they reassured players they would still be able to solo old content. Character levels are why. In the “good” old days (which really weren’t good at all), we could solo old content because we had ten million health and the mobs had a lot less. Stat squish brings the numbers closer.

I haven’t played nearly as much BFA as I would like (damn that whole “job, family, responsibility” thing!) but I’m very impressed with it so far. They have made it very approachable in bite-sized chunks. And reducing the number of buttons to push (I think) has more to do with Blizz eyeing the console market for WOW as well as D3 and their other games than anything else. It’s very close to being workable with a controller now.

WOW is a game that has adjusted itself to its aging audience. I’m almost 58 now. My eyes and my fast reflexes aren’t as good as when I raided back in TBC. But I enjoy doing some quests, an island expedition, and a little farming of mats for crafting, then logging out for a nap. And I pay the same $15 per month as a high end raid player who is constantly pushing for new content. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, both playstyles are fine, but it just feels to me like Blizz is angling WOW more towards the “I can do a little of this or a little of that but not a whole lot of anything in one sitting” crowd.

What puzzles me now and always will is how players consume the content so fast. World first level 120 came five hours after launch. If that was just a one off speedrun from someone who likes speed running, cool. But I watched enough Twitch streamers to know there are a lot of the “pro” WOW players who are chafing at the fact that the first raid isn’t open yet.

It was a great game and it still is a great game, and it gets my money every month. It’s a very DIFFERENT game than it used to be, but it might be the game we all need right now. (“In a world where games are second careers, one hero rises above the fray. One game willing to be mocked for easy mode, unafraid to look for the lowest common denominator, saves all our work calendars from unexcused absences.” Hey! Transmog run, anyone?)

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Jokerchyld

Absolutely loved Legion. Couldn’t wait for this release. But from the pre-event until launch my expectations dropped and the overall experience, while acceptable, simply left me lacking.

It’s just not giving me enough reason to continue to push through. Where in Legion I couldn’t wait to logon.

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Atomic Toaster

The whole expansion felt a little empty for me, but that just me because this expac seems to be pvp focus and iam not pvp person.

I do however like the small numbers, while i like legion expac overall, the numbers is so bloated (1 mil damage) it turn me off

And creating new char is pretty refreshing to see you hit stuff for 10-20 damage lol

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starbuck1771

It’s not. There is a toggle since they did away with PvP centric servers.

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Stephen Winson

I didn’t expect to be playing, but a friend of mine had already bought, and I asked how it was, and he said it was fantastic, despite the pre-launch event. Haven’t played since the flight-in-Legion patch. First thing I did was the Battle for Lorderon event and I was fuming angry just like everyone else. Quite simply the worst anything I’d ever experienced in WoW since launch. Worst writing, worst plotting, worst animations, worst everything. So horrible. Was pretty sure I’d made a terrible mistake when I actually started the expansion.

Now I’m completely unbalanced because every bit of this so far (Alliance side for the moment) has been spectacular. Emotional depth. British women voicing characters with English accents. What in the WORLD happened with the launch event? How did they let any of that get out of QA? I’m enjoying it so far, but boy howdy I nearly didn’t entirely because of that awful quest.

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agemyth ?

A lot of things were added and changed, but nothing actually feels all that different.

An accurate description of most of every expansion pack in video games and probably every WoW expansion after WotLK.

I love the Zandalari stuff <3

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Xshinobi

Can we talk about how freaking awesome the Nazmir region is.