As I worked my way up in levels and through more of the zone stories in World of Warcraft over the weekend, I realized something odd that summarizes just how different Battle for Azeroth feels from Legion. For some reason, I actively did not want any Azerite.
This struck me as wrong immediately. Azerite is quite literally powering the heart of this expansion. It grants you artifact power, which feeds directly into the Heart of Azeroth, which is also the actual leveling mechanic for this expansion (just like how your artifact was the real key to leveling in Legion). Why would I not want it? Why was I annoyed when a quest rewarded me a chunk of Azerite?
Then it struck me. It wasn’t that I didn’t want Artifact Power; it was that whenever that was my reward, it meant I was getting only that power, and it was boring. I would much rather have a piece of gear, or a new reputation unlock, or almost anything aside from a chunk of artifact power. It didn’t feel like a reward; it felt like a replacement for an actual reward. And if your main mechanic feels like it’s not actually a reward… boy, that’s an issue.
It’s particularly relevant when you consider that Azerite is the primary and almost only reward from island expeditions, which are so poorly designed that it feels like the whole system got rushed through start to finish. Warfronts and expeditions were two of the systems I was most heavily anticipating ahead of launch, but having actually played around with the latter, I find myself worried about the former.
The idea behind island expeditions is still a great one. Head off to randomly generated islands to compete against another team of NPCs or players to complete objectives. It’s role-agnostic and randomized, like City of Heroes radio missions! How could this go wrong?
Well, for one thing, you could make sure that you can queue for these things only by standing in one specific place in the city and clicking on a table. That’s a great way to make it particularly unappealing. You could also gate this pick-up-and-play casual content behind higher difficulties which require a preformed party, negating that the point of this sort of thing is the aforementioned pick-up-and-play nature. And then you can gate the cosmetic rewards behind randomness and higher difficulties, making the only reliable reward piles of artifact power.
Herein lies the problem with Azerite as a reward. In Legion, more artifact power meant more artifact powers well into the upper echelons. Yes, you reached a point when you were just sinking more power into increasingly marginal passive gains, but it took you a lot of time and play to get there. Even those marginal passive gains felt like they were tangible.
The Heart of Azeroth doesn’t feel that way. A new level feels more like “oh, that’s something” most of the time. I don’t feel any new power or new effects. Azerite armor is uncommon enough compared to artifact power that it’s rare to have new armor which isn’t immediately and completely unlocked as soon as I get it. There’s no real feeling of progress from getting this reward.
Thus we have a very, very odd effect by which the more progress you make, the less rewarding further progress feels. It’s the sort of thing that’s not immediately on display as you start leveling, but it becomes more and more tangible as you keep earning new stuff and seeing your core lineup of abilities and attributes not actually change.
It’s not bad. It’s just… well, bland. It’s whole wheat toast with plain oatmeal; filling, and it’ll do the job it’s meant to do, but the luster wears off pretty quickly. (Unless you don’t like whole wheat toast or oatmeal, I suppose, but that’s overstretching the metaphor.)
That’s the biggest problem BfA faces right now. The expansion isn’t actually bad. We’ve seen what bad looks like, and I’m sure Warlords of Draenor is fresh in everyone’s memory as an expansion that aimed low and failed to hit even those targets. But I think a comparison between the two is relevant because both expansions seem to have been made with an eye toward just doing the same thing as the last expansion, only more. You could even argue Cataclysm had the same problem.
BfA is trying to just do the same things as Legion with less. You all liked artifact power, so now here’s a simpler version. Everyone liked Legendaries, so here’s a version without quite so much randomness. World quests! Emissaries! Another mission table, but this has been trimmed down to uselessness! It’s the same stuff, only all a bit simpler and a bit slower and…
If Warlords was Mists of Pandaria but simpler (which in turn exposed the flaws with that era’s design), BfA is Legion but simpler. That means that it’s already doing a decent job because it has something with a solid foundation to build upon. But it’s still not what I’d call robust, and it falls far short of what was advertised. There’s a lot of potential here that excited me, and the actual execution seems to be flubbed at multiple opportunities.
I’ve said before that Warlords fell down in part because it aimed low and then missed even those targets. BfA aims similarly low but appears to be hitting its target thus far, which is strictly better. And so a lot of the reaction to things is going to be reliant on the follow-up. A lot of the flaws rely on some time having passed and some levels under your belt; taking the expansion slowly doesn’t fix them, but it does mean it takes longer for them to become obvious.
It’s possible for this expansion to pull itself upward, of course. Patches are a thing. Island expeditions can be made more relevant and given more meaningful paths to rewards. Better Azerite options can be added to gear. Heck, it’s totally possible we’ll get a mid-expansion update like the Netherlight Crucible that radically changes how we see the system right now; refining and expanding the Heart to be something more useful alone would work as a twist, and it would certainly help the fact that it feels half-developed right now.
But none of that is assured right now. It’s also possible for expeditions to continue languishing, new patches adding nothing more than new azerite pieces with the same sort of lackluster passives, and more story beats that feel sadly predictable rather than engaging or genuinely shocking. Given the usual trajectory of WoW expansions, I’m not terribly hopeful of this one improving.
When the expansion was first announced, I remember looking back and being very excited about the potential it had, to the point that I was eager to point out how well all of the facets of the expansion could be implemented. And the concept is still a good one. This didn’t need to be a bland expansion, but thus far, that’s what we have. It’s better than bad, but it’s not good.
Sorry, ten-months-ago-me. Your optimism was misplaced.