First impressions of World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth, part 2: Content

Going nowhere, going nowhere.

The first part of this first impressions series¬†yesterday was all about the mechanical changes made for this expansion. This time, I don’t want to talk about the mechanics of World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth; I want to talk about the actual content. Not the narrative text, but just the actual moment-to-moment stuff you’re doing in the game. Which, I think, is what this expansion is going to be judged on at this stage by a lot of people.

Put simply, the game could have the best combat it has ever had with the best gear enhancement system conceivable, but if the actual things you had to fight were a boring slog, no one would like it anyway. Solid content covers a multitude of sins.

There are several people who would likely argue that Legion had some of the best content we’ve ever seen in WoW, and while there’s room to debate that, I think it’s definitely worth considering. So BfA started off on something of the back foot, and that was exacerbated by the fact that it has not one but two continents to fill out almost entirely separate.

The docks feel familiar to someone who has spent a lot of time on docks.Obviously the two continents aren’t actually separate; very early on you’re sent to the other faction’s continent to start establishing a foothold, and that continues along the way. It doesn’t make things feels particularly more war-like, but it is a good effort at splitting the time between “getting the allies on board” and “actually fighting this war going on.”

It also mirrors something nicely done in Suramar while (probably) avoiding one of Suramar’s major missteps. The idea of having a whole new zone to explore and a new story to follow when you reached max level was nice; the fact that most Suramar quests felt like padding nonsense was less welcome. Here, you get a sense of these zones you’ll be exploring at max level, but there’s also a feel that max level will be more about doing world quests and the like; the overarching story is moving into the War Campaign there, which feels less errand-ish. Perhaps that’s just me.

However, you still have a situation where you’ve got only three zones on your faction’s continent, compared to the four leveling options in the Broken Isles. What helps split this up a bit more is the fact that every single zone has about a million sidequests and sidelines, so pretty much every single course has a lot of diversions you can step into if you’re tired of the main story.

The actual quests are, for the most part, what you’d think of for quests in the post-Legion era. Bonus objectives are still there, albeit less common; you still collect a mass of tasks, go do them, then run back. You also still have your random rares and treasure chests to collect, so the world feels familiar in that regard.

It’s good, clean, and solid. We can debate endlessly over whether or not it’s too many sidequests and distractions from the main thrust, and I think the main story chain could definitely use more markers for people following that (or avoiding it on alts, since you only need one character to clear Pathfinder), but the fact remains that your minute-to-minute content experience will be polished and fun.

If there are complaints to be made, it would probably be that rewards are rather thin upon the ground; it certainly feels like it takes more time to get any sort of gear rewards, and war supplies or Azerite shards are somewhat uncommon. The volume of quests seems to have increased, but the total rewards seem fixed, which means the whole thing is less dense. Not that it’s exactly worse than replacing half of your armor every five minutes, but still.

Some of this also may be a matter of remembering late in the expansion when Order Resources flowed like wine, but it generally seems like the goal, at least while leveling, is to constrain your resources enough that you have to choose. Your mileage may vary a bit.

Crafting also is here and is now helpfully broken up by expansion, which… doesn’t work and does work at the same time. It doesn’t work because it creates a really weird disconnect between parts of the world and parts of your overall book, but it does work insofar as it avoids the ever-inflating grand total and lets you focus on just making stuff and backfilling as needed.

Of course, my main is Inscription, which is a very weird beast. Inscription was a profession which many people – myself included – picked up because the whole Glyph system was very interesting. But that system has long since been banished to the land of wind and ghosts, and we’re left with… part of the system, and a profession that Blizzard doesn’t know quite how to make work.

If all we have left are cosmetic glyphs, I want to see cosmetic glyphs coming out of the dang woodwork. I want all the cosmetic glyphs. I want dozens of them. This expansion seems to have… three.

Where do we go now

What Inscription is doing now, then, is providing players with long-term buffs usually provided by other classes and Contracts to enhance reputation gains. These are useful functions! But they’re not really what people like myself picked up the profession for, and there’s a degree of irritation at seeing an entire profession have its focus change with every expansion. Especially when you’re happy if that new focus happens to line up with things you want.

On the plus side, the profession quests feel a fair bit lighter this time, compared to Legion’s regular gating of professions behind dungeons. I’ve yet to run into any profession dungeon runs, which I’m thankful for. There’s a slew of Herbalism quests that I’m working through slowly, but those feel more engaging and natural. And mercy of mercies, mass milling is easy to get early.

Speaking of dungeons… well, those are here, and my runs through them have once again been very similar to Legion dungeons for better and worse. There are still dungeons with messy layouts and unclear paths, boss fights still have rather simple mechanics that get repeated a bunch, there’s perhaps more trash than is altogether healthy. If you hated them in Legion you won’t feel different here, and if you liked them then you’ll feel much the same. They are, at least, nice setpieces.

This isn’t entirely a negative, but it’s probably the weakest aspect of pure content being carried forward; dungeon design still hasn’t evolved in any significant way. Most of the boss fights are still less about handling a mechanic and more about handling the same simple mechanic several times, and the fight stays the same from top to bottom, while failing at those mechanics generally just means a mild cleanup chore rather than a real penalty.

They’re not bad. They’re just… pedestrian. Perhaps they get a bit more engaging in Heroic mode, although based on history I tend to doubt it.

Last but not least, I want to take a moment to discuss the environments. A lot of people have said that Zandalar feels much better than Kul Tiras, and I can see why people enjoy Zandalar… but not instead of Kul Tiras because I adore the aesthetic here. The seaport really does feel like a seaport, and moreover I enjoy that the boundary between Boralus and the surrounding zone feels highly porous. It feels as if the city is sprawling out beyond its walls, like… you know, an actual city.

Zone design in general has finally hit that sweet spot where paths feel straightforward and as if they’d be easier to handle while flying, but I’ve never felt like flight is necessary or forced. The maps feel organic and navigable, both of which I appreciate.

In short, the actual content of the expansion, the things you’ll be doing, is easily a high point. There are flaws and some shortcomings, and the game’s continued weirdness around several professions does put a slight crimp in things, but I’ve certainly been enjoying the experience of just questing. Perhaps that will change once we’ve all been running this content to death, but that’s then and this is now.

Of course… there’s another side of this particular discussion, but that’s going to have to wait until tomorrow.

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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