One of the complicated challenges of writing about World of Warcraft is sorting out the stuff that’s happening now from the stuff that’s been happening the whole time. To use an obvious example, while the game’s aversion to any sort of planned upgrades is a problem, it’s been a problem since Cataclysm; it’s been getting worse, but if you’re angry about it in Battle for Azeroth but not before, that just means you didn’t notice it before now. And yet there are actual new things that weren’t problems before now that have, subsequently, become problems in the present expansion.
So today, I’m kicking off a series of articles talking about why WoW fans are generally saying vociferously negative things about the present expansion. It’s not meant to talk about issues that may have already existed without being noticed or the equivalent; rather, it’s stuff that is distinct and specific to this particular expansion with an eye toward how we wound up here.
Let’s start in with one of the major issues of the expansion – namely, the feel of individual classes and specs in response to the loss of Artifacts.
Of course, to understand this we have to go back and understand what Artifacts were actually doing, which was not so much providing a talent tee as a means of empowering your character. When Legion released, every single spec had a web of unlocked abilities in addition to its own set of talent choices, and every single spec was designed with the intent of working alongside these artifact weapons.
Some of these improvements were not really all that interesting; artifact picks that just improved the damage of an ability by 10% over three ranks, for example. But a lot of them did unusual things, like adding healing to an ability you used regularly, or letting you summon ghostly copies of yourself to mirror an ability, or getting a cooldown reduction upon using other abilities. And every single Artifact included a marquee ability, something that was a basic element of the artifact and of the spec it was designed for.
When Battle for Azeroth was still in the early stages, people wondered how these elements would be preserved. And really, it’s not hard to see how it could have worked; for example, Blizzard could’ve added passive abilities along the many empty levels the game currently has, so that by 110 you still had the same basic lineup of passive abilities and the same core numbers.
Instead, what the designers actually did was simply remove artifacts and add some artifact abilities in as talent choices, thereby addressing the issue by more or less taking a sledgehammer to how every single spec played.
Here’s a fine example, courtesy of Enhancement Shaman. One of the fun tricks Enhancement had from its artifact involved summoning little elemental fragments to smack into opponent when using certain abilities. From a strictly numerical standpoint, yes, this was an ability where you could cut out the effect and just adjust overall Enhancement numbers so nothing was lost.
Except that the real value of that particular ability was not fixing a DPS issue; it was in giving Enhancement a fun ability that worked in the background and felt satisfying when it went off. It wasn’t constant, but it contributed to the sense of being the rolling, walking storm that’s supposed to be core to Enhancement’s identity.
What feels worse about these various specs isn’t that their numbers are wrong. It’s that the specs were designed to work without artifacts at level 100, and so this expansion just set everyone back to those workable numbers, with no thought to the fact that playing the game at 100 wasn’t actually all that fun. Sure, it was functional, but the specs were designed through and through to be used with the various artifact abilities.
The result is a series of specs that feels just subtly wrong – they’re functional and playable but without the spice that made them fun. It also revivified the same problem that the game had moving into Legion, whereby a large number of specs seemed to be balanced around “what works from a numerical perspective” rather than “what is actually fun to play and provides enough interesting things to do.”
You can see similar problems with the ongoing debate about cooldowns. A number of abilities that had previously been off of the global cooldown were moved to be on the global cooldown, supposedly for balance reasons. But the net effect, no matter what, is that it takes you longer to do fewer things than you were doing before.
The problem is highlighted as well by the nature of the big new banner feature of allied races. I like allied races a lot, as I’ve mentioned before, and I’ve got no problem with the requirements to unlock them… but one thing that they’ll inevitably do is start players focusing in hard on any rotational deficiencies. In Legion, the only reason you would notice that the rebalanced specs snag only with artifacts is if you chose to level something up. In Battle for Azeroth you’re encouraged to go back and level something new with your anemic ability selection, and you can’t help but notice that you’ll be suddenly getting your entire rotation in hand by the mid-80s or so – followed by a very long stretch of levels in which nothing actually changes.
The problem here is not the viability of one spec or another. These are problems, don’t get me wrong; if Shaman doesn’t feel good to play on literally any spec, that isn’t good, and if you can’t really enjoy a given spec, that’s also going to cause issues. But those are individual issues, and this is a systemic one. This is something that crosses every single spec in the game and then some.
A bunch of specs in Legion had significant issues, too. There were real problems with the complexity involved in Survival Hunter and how much you were supposed to be doing at the same time, for example, and that’s not counting the specs like Demonology and (ironically) Survival that had changed radically from what they had been. But there were plenty of other specs that were working well and that people found fun, often with good utility or fun tricks.
Now, though, none of the specs feels quite right. Some of them are better balanced than others, and some of them are more playable than others, but all of them feel the loss of the artifact weapons and their assorted powers. And it’s not just about the drop in power levels; sure, that could have been managed at the time, but let’s go ahead and just assume that artifacts pushed power levels too high to be effectively reined in.
A lot of the utility and survival skills that Blizzard nixed could be in the ability lineup with some numerical tweaks. But instead of being tweaked, the abilities were just removed. And so when people complain that the game’s combat no longer feels bad, it’s because we’re living in a post-artifact era when the design of the game has not actually accounted for that loss. We had specs designed around a feature that was removed and replaced with nothing.
Of course, technically it was replaced with something, which was the Heart of Azeroth. It has its own issues, and we’ll be talking about that next week. For now, feel free to leave your own thoughts in the comments below or via mail to firstname.lastname@example.org; rest assured that there’s more to come in this particular series.