This week, after some 7000 words on this particular topic, I’m starting off by acknowledging what should be a rather obvious fact: My series does not cover all of the issues World of Warcraft is suffering from. In fact, there are some pretty massive problems the game has that this column has, at best, brushed against. And that’s by design.
One of the points of this exercise was to outline the reasons why players are upset with Battle for Azeroth in the specific. That is not to say that Legion was without its issues; indeed, its issues kept me off the game for a while during that expansion! But I didn’t want to cover issues that weren’t really distinct to this one expansion, and it’s because the real reason these problems are being commented on now has nothing to do with those problems being new.
No, this all comes down to the problem wherein these issues are now notable because you no longer have anything distracting you from the problems.
One of the things that I touched upon when I talked about why Activision is not the “villain behind Blizzard” is the idea that a lot of the problems the game has now are not novel things. They’re the continuations of bad ideas that Blizzard invested in a long time ago, a sequence of poor choices that have been shot through the game even longer than they’ve been absent. There are a lot of things we notice as problems now because we have tastes of something better and a sense that it doesn’t have to be this way.
Many of the things that people are upset about in BfA, similarly, are things that were already problems with the game. I’ve seen lots of people complaining about the fact that normal dungeons are pointless, for example, and while I don’t disagree, this isn’t actually something new to the game with this particular expansion. This has been the case for a while now, only intensifying over time.
So why are people noticing it now? Because there’s not enough stuff distracting you.
People will put up with a lot of garbage so long as they’re having fun. You can see it in action right now, and I count myself in that crowd; I’m willing to ultimately forgive an awful lot of issues in games where I’m having fun. And make no mistake, Legion did have issues running through it from top to bottom, but at the end of the day it was still fun because the good stuff overwhelmed it.
If BfA had continued on to basically just be Legion but More, I don’t think people would be as bothered. Some of the features that were supposed to serve as an underpinning for the expansion, like worldwide scaling, were actually welcomed when they arrived. It’s telling that people are now unhappy with level scaling when the idea of it had several people (including myself) pretty psyched about the possibility.
Ultimately, though, we can’t talk about the game we wish we had, just the one we have. And what do we have? A title that has, almost systematically, removed the things that keep people from paying attention to bad design decisions that could get a pass in an expansion like, say, Legion.
The Heart of Azeroth, as a system, barely merits being called a system. Far from being the idea that was originally floated of allowing you to turn items into self-determined types of Legendary items, it combines the worst aspects of both Legion Legendaries and Artifact Weapons into one tedious slog while simultaneously removing the parts that made those systems fun. It also exacerbates a serious and existing problem with the game’s loot systems and itemization.
Combat, which had been balanced into a good foundational space in Legion, has once again been hacked at in a bid to make things simpler without a thought to the fun people were having. As a result, not only does it spend an extended period of time feeling like the exact same rotation for most of your leveling experience (which is compounded by the level sync ensuring that it’s rare for a level to feel like a reward), it also completely excises elements that people found enjoyable in favor of a half-baked gameplay concept.
Leveling feels tedious and irrelevant due to a complete lack of anything being done during most of the level bands aside from just more quests, often the same sort you’ve seen for ages. You can get the entirety of zone stories without outleveling them now, which is good, but you get no sense of the larger stories tying the zones together and no real sense of continuity, path, or scope.
And the actual story itself is a mishmash of incoherent character motivations and plot beats that simply mirror earlier events without the emotional weight of their buildup. Any major story feels about half as impactful each time you do it even without those limitations, and the second go-round of “the Horde has a Bad Leader who needs to be killed” would be tedious even if it didn’t involve massively derailing the characters involved. It doesn’t even have the narrative throughline that kept Warlords of Draenor from being a complete waste of time.
It later made Warlords of Draenor a complete waste of time, of course. You know, just as an incidental.
Normally I like to look to the future and be optimistic, but at this point it’s hard to really see how. Not in the sense that there’s no way to fix this, of course. It’s entirely possible to bring the game back to a state wherein people are willing to play it and enjoy it, something to slip away from the whole frenzy of negativity surrounding it right now.
Unfortunately, doing so would require an entirely new team behind the game, I suspect. It would need people willing to acknowledge how badly this had been flubbed and taking a look at the groundwork of the game, re-examining what made people connect with the title in the first place. This is no small feat, and I suspect that it’s unlikely in the extreme that we’d go that route. You can even now see people misreading the problem, like saying that the problem is that the cutscenes are so much better than the gameplay (true from a technical standpoint, but hardly the reason people have distaste for the story).
In short, there are two problems here. The first is, well, all of the problems that I’ve mentioned over the past several weeks. The second is that with all of these problems erasing the strength of the previous expansion, people are no longer overlooking more foundational problems that WoW has allowed to fester for years. So the things that could be overlooked on account of still basically having fun are no longer being overlooked because people aren’t having fun.
Actually, “people aren’t having fun” could have just been the entire article, but that’s a little more vague than six columns on the matter, isn’t it?
All of the posts in this series: