We’re continuing on in our tour of why people are upset about the current World of Warcraft expansion, and I think it’s important to note that most of these systems are in many ways separate from one another. If you look at the whole spread of issues (and by my count there are at least two more parts after this one), if only one of them was in place, the expansion would still have a frosty reception. But it would change the nature of things just the same, with the problems being present but not overwhelming.
This is also relevant because the issues are not inherently co-morbid. We did not, in fact, need to remove artifacts at all, but the issues with combat are not tied explicitly to the Heart of Azeroth except insofar as the Heart of Azeroth and Azerite armor are meant to affect your performance in combat. And they do, technically, but not in a way that you’re going to find particularly entertaining.
Let’s get the obvious point out of the way: Azerite armor is boring. It has powers, but it doesn’t have the spec-defining elements that made Legion Legendaries so interesting. Instead, it has a handful of passive buffs, and while we were told that they would be hand-picked none of them have the interesting sort of splits that have made set bonuses compelling in the past. You are, as a rule, choosing between one slightly more defensive option and one slightly more aggressive option… or one slightly more defensive option and one option that would never be useful, or whatever.
It’s also the sort of leveling that makes little to no impact. One of the great sleight-of-hand tricks in Legion was making sure that you felt like leveling still mattered as your artifact leveled up. Sure, they were technically unconnected, but the nature of how you tended to acquire artifact power meant that as you gained a level, you’d pick up one to three artifact levels along the way. That meant new tricks, and so you could feel yourself growing in power.
The design of Azerite armor is that you’re supposed to unlock all of its powers when you get it because your Heart should already be high enough level. This means that leveling up your Heart of Azeroth feels like nothing. It doesn’t feel like you’re getting new advantages, it feels like you’re just marking time.
We’ve heard before that the lackluster choices are somehow the split between making things interesting and making them impactful, which is an idea that I already punctured a while back. A far more believable concept is that by having much simpler traits, it’s easier to throw things together on a wider number of different armors; I’d have also believed that all of the actually interesting powers were gated on armor only a small number of people would ever see, but that doesn’t seem to be the case either.
The result is a game-wide leveling system that not only fails at feeling like you’re leveling up in any meaningful way, it fails to provide much in the way of tangible benefits. After you’ve leveled up your Heart of Azeroth a bunch, you know that you’ve achieved something… but it doesn’t feel like you’ve done so in a way that matters. A bar is now full, but you don’t care about it because you’ve been given no impact on the game that you’re playing.
To a certain extent, yes, any system following up on Artifacts was going to have issues like this. It’s hard to replace Ashbringer and feel like the replacement system is as relevant. But this system actually feels worse than just having Azerite armor. Think about that for a second.
If the core conceit of the expansion was just that this armor was infused with Azerite and you could pick out three or four powers on each piece, you’d remove the leveling system for the Heart and you’d just care about getting the armor. Without changing anything else, it makes the additional armor enhancements feel like a boost. It still wouldn’t be a great system, but why would it feel better with less power?
The reason, of course, is because the game does have a leveling system in place, which means that it treats Azerite as a reward. And since the leveling of the Heart feels so secondary at best, it feels like you’re getting less in the way of rewards than before. I noted even in my first impressions that I actively didn’t want more artifact power, and it’s weird to think that it’s a reward I don’t want in the game at all.
The core of the problem seems to be that every element of it was designed to address issues from legion. Players didn’t like how random Legendaries were because they couldn’t be acquired in any sort of structured way. Players enjoyed leveling Artifacts but the numbers with a few weeks of artifact power got kind of absurd. Balancing totally different trees of powers for all the different specs was kind of onerous. And we got a system instead that addresses those problems, but in the same reductive way that setting yourself on fire.
We have actually seen this kind of game design before, ironically. The launch version of Final Fantasy XIV was basically designed to solve all of the problems Final Fantasy XI suffered from, but in the process it didn’t find the time to actually be a fun game on its own. It ensured it would never have the same problems as its predecessor by solving things ahead of time instead of creating something worth enjoying.
All of this is compounded by the fact that designed response basically starts and stops with a shrug and a “well, what can we do about this now?” There’s the sense that the designers don’t see this as a real problem, that while players are upset you can’t revise the system now. In fact, the closest thing we’ve seen to revisions are the announcement that you should have all of the traits on Azerite armor unlocked when you get new pieces, a move that seems to make leveling the dang necklace up even more pointless.
Oh, and then there’s the whole Mythic+ armor thing. That’s a wholly different can of ill-considered worms. We’ll get to that.
Ultimately, the Heart of Azeroth is a system much like Garrisons; it’s derived from an earlier system and then hammered into a state that makes it almost completely uninteresting, and player complaints are met with a shrug and a statement that nothing is really going to be done for the expansion. By making this a central mechanic of the expansion, a high-powered light is shining on all of its problems, and in lieu of any other interesting choices to make it just shows off how banal the system is from top to bottom.
The thing is, though, that while the more open form of housing promised from Garrisons was discussed, we never actually got to play it. We have played with the good form of this system, and the best that the Heart gets is trying to remind us of the Artifacts we actually liked.
Feedback, of course, is welcome in the comments below or via mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. And since it did come up in this column, it seems like this is the right time to start talking about leveling, power, and the content curve… or more accurately, it will be next week.