World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth embraces its war, but that may lead it back to overly familiar territory.
Anyone who knows World of Warcraft has a solid idea of what the game is. More than a decade into its life and with six expansions down, WoW has gone through significant, deep changes — and yet, there’s a distinct overall feel to the massively multiplayer online game that has come to define, and dominate, the genre.
Blizzard announced its seventh expansion to World of Warcraft, dubbed Battle for Azeroth, this weekend at its annual Blizzcon conference in Anaheim, California, and gave us a crack at it. Spending about an hour with a WoW expansion, a game many players will put thousands of hours into, can give us only a brief glimpse at what will be offered. Our Battle for Azeroth hands-on preview focused on a whirlwind tour of the Alliance starting zone, Drustvar.
New expansion, familiar war
Battle for Azeroth brings the game’s conflict back to its roots — the ongoing, endless war between the Horde and Alliance factions. While previous expansions tended to funnel players toward uniting to defeat one big supervillain enemy bent on world domination and destruction, Battle for Azeroth should focus more on the war, and on the characters on each side.
The core experience of WoW, after all, is about questing across the world of Azeroth.
For people who have a serious commitment to WoW, their affiliation with either the Horde (which includes races like orcs, trolls, the minotaur-like tauren, and the undead) or the Alliance (a faction that includes humans, dwarves, gnomes and night elves) is a big part of the experience. Bringing that conflict back to the forefront has the potential to remind players of their allegiances. It will also bring the conflict back down to earth – or, rather, Azeroth – after Legion, an expansion that eventually asked players to invade another planet.
The core experience of WoW, after all, is about questing across the world of Azeroth, and that’s what the demo available at Blizzcon focused on. We had time in Drustvar, a zone of Kul Tiras, one of two new continents added in Battle for Azeroth. As players move into the new expansion, their faction will send them to one of the two continents to seek out additional allies for the war effort. The Alliance heads to Kul Tiras, while the Horde makes for Zandalar, home of the Zandalari trolls, which have appeared – usually as villains – at various times in the game’s past.
A dark and stormy zone
Drustvar is a dark forest full of wolves and boars. In the demo, players started out near a small village called Fallhaven. The place has been cursed when you arrive, with all the villagers frozen in place, and a giant, foreboding wood and wicker effigy standing in the center of town. With nearby desolate farms and quizzical ravens everywhere, studying your every move, the entire area carries a shadowy, foggy, Halloween vibe.
The first order of business was figuring out how to deal with the curse. With nobody capable of speaking to the player, that requires some detective work as you wander around town, reading people’s correspondence and journal entries to develop a picture of who’s attacking Fallhaven. As that happens, the typical MMO quests are part of the parcel — you’ll kill eight wolves and 10 ravens as a matter of course, while you also break cursed effigies to earn a bonus objective that dumps more gold in your hands when you complete the quest.
As it turns out, the cursed village has turned some of the farm animals feral, and once you’ve cleared them out, you’re free to seek out a woman who lives outside of town — your suspected local witch. She turns out to be the one behind it all and absconds to the woods, warping from a normal-looking woman into a powerful red-hooded crone. Pursuing her lets you face her down in the woods in a tougher-than-normal battle, and finally gives you the wherewithal to break the spell.
While the quests at the start of Drustvar carried a lot of atmosphere, they certainly weren’t anything WoW players haven’t seen before. That, admittedly, felt discouraging. Legion’s leveling zones were excellent, packed full of goodies to unlock, rare enemies, and fun questlines. The last expansion did a good job of shaking up the experience with new twists and conclusions to old storylines. Drustvar feels like what Blizzard says Battle of Azeroth will be – a return to classic themes. Yet our initial impression left us wondering if those themes will be as exciting as Legion, which saw players finally prevail against a long-standing villain in the Warcraft universe.
To be fair, we only tried the zone for an hour. World of Warcraft is a game about gaining power and prestige in context of a broader world, and that doesn’t come across when playing a pre-generated character for a slice of time. Still, Blizzard would’ve done itself a favor by picking a more exciting slice of its new expansion.
The gameplay goes deep
The most interesting ideas of the new expansion are the gameplay changes that make WoW more fun to play, both for returning players, and for anyone who might be interested in venturing into the game for the first time. World of Warcraft is pushing the idea of “scaling” zones, which means the game world around players adapts to the characters’ current levels. You’ll face formidable creatures in Drustvar, for instance, but you could also venture to one of Battle for Azeroth’s other areas and be just as challenged. The game’s enemies adapt somewhat to your level, which means you can work through the expansion content however you see fit.
Blizzard introduced that scaling element in Legion, the last expansion for WoW, but it was for that expansion’s continent only. Now, it’s spreading throughout the entire game, including the old world. Players will eventually out-level these areas, but they will scale within a broad range. Currently, players trying to start anew level so quickly that outgrow zones before they complete their quests, leaving players with many loose ends, and no closure.
It’s the most significant shake-up of legacy content since Cataclysm, the third expansion, altered zones and changed quests forever. Battle for Azeroth isn’t set to change how older areas look, but it will make them more interesting to play. That’s good news if you’ve never tried the game, or you stopped playing years ago.
The most interesting ideas of the new expansion could be behind the scenes.
There’s more on offer in Battle for Azeroth that we didn’t have time to see, including new “Allied races” that players can choose for new characters. They’re an interesting addition to Battle for Azeroth, as well. Instead of just being readily available when you buy the expansion, Blizzard said players will have to work through the story content of Battle for Azeroth and earn the allegiance of the six new races (three for each faction) to use them. Other games, like Star Wars: The Old Republic, have used similar ideas to turn a character’s in-game race into a badge of distinction. See someone playing a Zandalari troll? Then you know they’ve conquered a big chunk of what Battle of Azeroth offers.
We also didn’t get to try either Warfronts or Islands, two key new features in the expansion. These are likely to be a major part of the expansion’s end-game content, but neither was ready to test yet at Blizzcon. That suggests Battle for Azeroth won’t be ready for quite some time, as Blizzard is generous about letting fans try content early at its convention.
So far, it seems players must make an investment of time to get the more interesting content Battle for Azeroth has in store for players. We hope that the new zones receive love between now and the expansion’s unannounced release. Otherwise, players who aren’t already committed may bounce off the new expansion.
- The new zones are beautiful
- Old world zones will again be relevant
- Six new races, including many fan favorites
- New zone’s gameplay was uninspired
- Core conflict is less exciting than last expansion
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