All right. World of Warcraft: Shadowlands kicks off its beta next week. I would kind of like to be involved in that! I am not expecting any miracles. So let’s just talk about what happened in this week’s reveal stream in the most coherent fashion possible because while I did do a live blog of the stream as it happened. that’s not the same as nuanced critique.
Yes, sometimes nuanced critique does involve using the same clip from Into the Spider-verse repeatedly if you are, in fact, so tired. It is nuanced.
Anyhow, there wasn’t a whole lot of massive and meaty information in this particular stream, but it was also about 45 minutes long and didn’t feel padded, so there’s still enough to pick over and analyze just the same. So based on what we do now know, I’m going to… well, analyze what’s here as best I can. There’s still a lot of uncertainty, though, as the stream itself was vague on a lot of points – intentionally so, as near as I can tell.
For example, the whole talk about the harvesting of anima and how that feeds into building soulbinds was still… well, intensely vague. There was a sense that there is some sort of weekly cap, that you’ll earn it various ways, and that it won’t be artifact power, but what does that even mean? What are we actually talking about here, and how is this actually going to work?
My guess at this point – and I would stress that it is only a guess – is that the reason for the vagueness is that anima is meant to be more of a currency than a leveling system. Which means that you have a fixed amount you can earn in a given day or week, hence using it for a variety of different things. And that would at least make a certain amount of sense as not requiring an endless grind or dump in that regard; soulbinds have a limit to how much you can spend on them, but you can always have missions or whatever to keep spending the currency on.
At the same time, it would still cause certain issues if you’re being asked to choose between covenant upgrades or getting the next tier of your soulbind. The two aren’t really commensurate there.
That sort of disjunction isn’t exactly new to the game, but it’s the sort of thing that can easily make the game feel worse than it needs to, and it raises the question of what sort of catch-up mechanism you could even put into place. However, I think there is space to make it work; if, for example, your initial soulbind ranks are cheap enough that you can move through them quickly while covenant upgrades take longer, or if the weekly limit will easily let you cap out one soulbind while still making some other improvements, future soulbinds or respecs can be more expensive without hamstringing the player experience.
I also like the idea in broad strokes; it makes for something that’s always viable but doesn’t require escalating values a la Artifact Power, which has never been a great solution.
Beyond that, covenants are… well, the new order halls or mission tables or garrisons. Not terribly invigorating. I do like the concept of making the missions somewhat more engaging, but I also feel like a certain amount of that effort is being pointed at a concept that the same people are just never going to like. If you didn’t like missions at your Garrison, there’s no change to that system that’s going to make you enjoy them.
Then again, this is Blizzard, where “maybe this change to a system you fundamentally don’t like will make you like it” is more or less a guiding principle. I like the energy going in on it, at least. And the upgrading element does seem like a nice touch, although I have to admit I briefly got my hopes up that we were getting some limited form of housing before we learned how the whole individual “special” part of each sanctum worked.
That part I do like, although it seems a bit… at odds with the game, in parts. Like, don’t get me wrong; I love the idea of having Necrolord players craft specialized abominations. But it doesn’t quite seem to mesh with the “power and might” element of the covenant. Some of it might be that they feel a little like Paths in WildStar, which I liked, but they do lack that mechanical clarity.
Of course, a lot of this is going to depend on implementation. This is all still just concepts, and while I do like the concepts that are on display, concepts are only as good as their final execution. “Wait and see next week,” I suppose.
In the less enthusiastic category, meanwhile, is basically every element of the discussion about balance. First and foremost, we should really be puncturing this myth that Blizzard is somehow good at this. The studio has never been good at balance. Never ever. I’m sure this has come up several times by now, but it bears repeating; the whole “well, we don’t want to balance until we know the ability is worth keeping around” thing doesn’t really work as a philosophy.
Blessing of Seasons, for example, is one of the things singled out as “well, we thought it was flavorful but now we’re pulling it back.” But that is after tuning attempts, and it didn’t take a whole lot of testing for people to look at the ability and say that it wasn’t very good. People said that on reveal. And that’s the least of the issues going on for Paladins; no one’s really excited about having Holy Power back, for example, and Retribution Aura is still absolutely pointless in what it does.
And this isn’t a product of the current changes to development cadences made necessary by the pandemic. These things are not new. Blizzard has a long, long history of assuming that the studio knows better than players about balance, one that is frequently shown to be incorrect.
I realize this part is just ranting into a void, but honestly at this point I’d prefer if the developers just stopped pretending to care about balance. It’s like giving up on making people who dislike Garrison missions suddenly like Garrison missions: Anyone who still thinks that Blizzard has any superiority when it comes to balance is not really keeping up with current trends. The tuning process currently being used is not working.
Honestly, all of this is still kind of failing at the prospect of “this time it will be different” compared to Battle for Azeroth. That’s the real point that we need to have hammered on, and it’s just not happening. I was really reminded of it when one of the big selling points for the Legendary system was about planning out your upgrades and your gearing… you know, the thing the game had in Wrath of the Lich King, systematically dismantled, and that was specifically called out as a bad thing at last year’s convention.
Why is this not the default now? Why is this still being treated as anything other than a basic good idea? And why is it the more that the expansion shows off what it has, the more it fails to really buoy hopes about this being a sea change from its predecessor?
I don’t want this to sound particularly pessimistic, though, because it’s not meant to be. The concepts on display are, by and large, things I rather like. I just wish that there were more details to hang upon them.