All right. Strap yourselves in, folks, because this is when we have to start talking about narratives and story and intended emotional reactions. In short, this is where World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth becomes a seriously messy piece of work, because this is an expansion in which the game posits that maybe colonialism is super great and native peoples are evil villains in league with dark powers.
Yes, that’s a thing that happens. No, we’re not going to leave it there, but I’m trying to minimize spoilers before the cut.
I’ve said on Twitter before today that the game feels like a $500 million movie with $50 spent on the script, and that still rings true. A ton of effort has been put into the presentation of this expansion, and there’s nothing to do but praise all of that; there’s honestly very little to fault in any part of the presentation of the story. The faults all arrive once you start examining the actual text of that story. And boy-howdy, that’s a mess.
Fair warning, people, there will be spoilers below.
The first part of this first impressions series yesterday was all about the mechanical changes made for this expansion. This time, I don’t want to talk about the mechanics of World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth; I want to talk about the actual content. Not the narrative text, but just the actual moment-to-moment stuff you’re doing in the game. Which, I think, is what this expansion is going to be judged on at this stage by a lot of people.
Put simply, the game could have the best combat it has ever had with the best gear enhancement system conceivable, but if the actual things you had to fight were a boring slog, no one would like it anyway. Solid content covers a multitude of sins.
There are several people who would likely argue that Legion had some of the best content we’ve ever seen in WoW, and while there’s room to debate that, I think it’s definitely worth considering. So BfA started off on something of the back foot, and that was exacerbated by the fact that it has not one but two continents to fill out almost entirely separate.
Hey, there’s a new World of Warcraft expansion, right? When did that happen?
There’s a bit of snark there, but perhaps less than you might think. The weird thing is that Battle for Azeroth kind of does feel as if it just dropped without warning; it was outside of the usual release schedule for expansions, with a long lead-in, as if the final product just showed up on our collective doorsteps one day. Assuming you were already logged on and had your pre-orders set, you could just jump right in and start the expansion, which hearkened back to the days of midnight releases after a fashion.
Needless to say, there’s a lot to talk about with the expansion so far. Now that it’s actually live we can see the mechanics and the story with all the polish that’s intended, with nothing left behind a curtain (other than Warfronts, anyhow). Coming off the well-received Legion, this expansion has some pretty big foot gear to fill, and it’s fair to wonder if any expansion wouldn’t feel like a bit of a downturn… but let’s not start there. Let’s just start in on one aspect of the game and go from there.
Here’s something a little different: Usually, before I write a World of Warcraft column (or any column), my assumptions and data are pretty firm before I put them down on paper, else I wouldn’t be writing it in the first place. This is one of the reasons that, for example, I spent so much time showing my work when trying to predict the launch date for Battle for Azeroth; that was all about hard numbers, so it was easy to check math and assumptions in an obvious fashion.
But in this particular case I’m exploring a concept that I’m still playing with and researching, something that may turn out to be somewhat erroneous. To wit: I suspect World of Warcraft expansions have switched from selling to existing customers and into reclaiming old customers as a primary design focus.
It might seem like an odd assertion, but I think it’s an interesting thing to consider and may help shed light on a number of design decisions, several of which I think are pretty bad ones. But for this particular column I’m not interested in analyzing the merits of design choices; I’m interested in presenting the evidence and showing how it lines up in a more neutral fashion. Because I think it can shape some interesting thinking.
Let’s be totally clear about something: There is no twist waiting for this World of Warcraft story. It doesn’t exist. There’s no way that this story moves into its next phase and suddenly all of the nonsense that was added here is made all right or acceptable or… well, let’s face it, not atrociously dumb.
I’m putting that front and center because if you’re going to talk about World of Warcraft at the moment, you’re going to talk about the latest Warbringers short and the concurrent in-game events, and that means talking about the fact that this is dumb. I’m also trying to leave people who really don’t want to be spoiled for awful storytelling not forced into it, so be fairly warned; things get spoil-y real quick down below. So if you want to read about how catastrophically stupid this is, read on. If you’d rather have any remaining faith in the expansion not being a steaming pile of wombat leavings destroyed by watching the cinematic in-game, well, maybe hold off.
There’s a lot to be upset about with the World of Warcraft Battle for Azeroth prepatch. There’s stuff that just doesn’t feel good any more (and yes, go ahead and make your own jokes there about the implications of that statement, it’s justified). There are bugs and issues that weren’t adequately tested. There’s the fact that this expansion is really doing a grand job of screwing up lots of characterization.
But with the pre-expansion event, we can look at a whole list of incredibly dumb things done just in this bit of the story.
We only have the first half of the event live right now, of course, and there are lots of dumb choices surrounding this (the fact that the story is in this order, for example), but for today we’re going to be confining this solely to in-universe criticism. And there’s still a column’s worth of intensely dumb decisions being made by someone who is supposed to be a capable military commander, based on all of the military commanding she did for ages.
It took me a long time to identify what felt off about World of Warcraft’s upcoming expansion. Something was definitely bothering me, but the thing was is that we know exactly what an expansion with the bare minimum effort looks like now, and it sure as heck didn’t feel like Battle for Azeroth was Warlords of Draenor But Again. Yet something kept nudging at me, some comparison that was just slightly eluding me as I dutifully tested new quests, new system revisions, and so forth.
Then I realized that the whole thing was basically Cataclysm and it clicked.
Mind you, I say this not as an indication that the expansion is nearly as bad as Cataclysm was. (There’s still far too much of the actual game to see, for example.) But far from my own optimistic excitement, it feels like the expansion is making a lot of the same missteps as that particular black mark, and it doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence.
The Battle for Azeroth beta is here, at long last, and it feels like it might have come a little early in the process. Usually beta testing is mostly for when you have all of the core stuff in place, but this feels like it’s just officially being called a beta when some of the pieces are still being moved into the right direction. That might be more nitpicky than anything, so I’m not going to spend too much time on it; World of Warcraft has had a tricky relationship with “alpha” and “beta” terminology, but it’s still not even in the list of the worst offenders.
I got my beta invite (at the same time the official changeover happened, even), but I haven’t yet gotten a chance to actually play around in it. However, I think now is as good a time as any to talk about the things that I am actually nervous about when it comes to Battle for Azeroth. Yes, I’ve been a pretty big advocate for the expansion and what we’re hearing so far, but there are things about the expansion that still make me nervous now that we’re moving into the beta phase. So let’s talk about that.
If Allied Races show us anything, it’s that World of Warcraft is really in no danger of running out of new races to throw at us. This particular system is adding nearly twice as many new races in one expansion as we’ve had added during the entirety of the game’s lifespan thus far, there’s another one that looks to be set up for this as well (hello there, Vulpera), and there’s a deep roster of other options that people have asked to have for ages. Yes, it would take some work to retrofit Vrykul and Ogres, but considering the work going into new male orc poses, Zandalari Trolls, and Kul Tiran Humans, it is definitely not insurmountable work.
Of course, as I alluded to a while back, we sort of have a disconnect right now where we’ve got far more race options than class options. And while we’re awash in races, we seem to be in danger of running out of classes that can’t be pretty cleanly modeled by what’s already in the game. That doesn’t mean we can’t get any new classes, of course, but it’s hard to justify the inclusion of a Pirate class when we already have a Rogue spec doing everything such a class would theoretically offer. The inclusion of mechanical Hunter pets alone basically short-circuited talk about “Engineer” as a class.
Not that this means we’re out of options, of course; in fact, there’s still plenty of things left in the bank of known or reasoned class options that we can’t play just yet. So let’s talk about some of those options, and along the way I’m sure we can fit in some fun discussions about the difference between classes and hero classes.
Hooray, we have a release date for World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth instead of just a release window! And contrary to what many skeptics (myself included) expected to get, it is actually quite a bit faster than other releases. But as you all have no doubt noticed by now, my love of math means that I’m hardly sore about this. It just means that there’s another data point to consider when we look to the future.
So let’s talk about this new piece of information while using the same information from the column in which I made a reasonable estimate, based on this new information. Again, I think it’s important to note how much faster this expansion is actually releasing compared to prior expansions; it’s significant, even if it means that the people predicting things like June were being wildly wrong about “optimistic” predictions. (After all, pessimistic predictions were equally wrong, just in the other direction; my own estimates were off by 2-3 months.)
Last week, we got confirmation that Kul Tiran Humans and Mag’har Orcs are coming to the Allied Race roster for World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth. We don’t know when, but I have a bit of a theory about that as it is; from what we know, it’d make sense to have Dark Iron Dwarves and Mag’har Orcs brought in at the start of the expansion, while the Kul Tiran Humans and Zandalari Trolls are brought in after you’ve finished the leveling story for the respective factions. The former are more solidly members than the latter, after a fashion.
But we don’t know for certain when they’re getting added, just that they will be. And that’s interesting, because it means that both factions have significantly increased their race options within one expansion. And that becomes kind of relevant when you look at how many choices individual players have in terms of having something for all of these different races to do.
One of the important things to note about World of Warcraft lore is that it’s never been static. It will retcon itself six ways from Sunday letting you know that the stuff you thought was true was never actually true, and it’s something the franchise has been doing since the second installment of the series was launched. (Remember when Azeroth was the name of the human nation, not the freaking planet?) This is not a game where the lore has been carefully planned out so that you can make reasonable predictions much of the time, this is where the lore repeatedly changes as new installments come out.
This is fine. I really like games where all of the lore is written out and planned well in advance (obviously) but I also have appreciation for the way that WoW’s backstory does change with the tides. It rarely outright invalidates the past, but the past is not static as we learn more about it.
Enter the speculation about Druids in Kul Tiras, speculation that seems to be getting backed up with increasing amounts of evidence. And as I look at all of this, I can’t help but note that even a moment’s consideration reveals that this is an enormous mess for the game’s overall lore.
Last week, we looked at the composition of the Alliance in World of Warcraft. This week, we’re looking at the Horde. Makes sense, doesn’t it? If you missed the prior column, catch up and get back to us here.
One of the things that’s always been true about the Horde in World of Warcraft is that it is, by and large, a more heterogeneous collective of races and nations. This is partly by design, and partly because the Horde just seems to have a different way of handling its membership and its populace. If the Alliance needs a group of skilled trackers in a new landscape, it’ll find its best scouts and train them; the Horde, meanwhile, will just befriend a local group of existing trackers and welcome them into the Horde.
Does that sound a bit off the mark? Well, let’s take a look.