Closing in on 15 years of World of Warcraft is certainly an achievement in itself. It’s not the first MMO to celebrate such a birthday, but it’s certainly the biggest to ever do so. World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth is here. The expansion scored instant fan points for bringing the original faction war back into the forefront, but was we naive to expect any major changes when even the story premise is a literal step backward?
World of Warcraft’s latest expansion is elevating subscriber and returning player numbers just as every other expansion has in the past, but it feels like while the hype brings players back every two years or so, each one sheds them faster than before as they realize that practically nothing has changed. We expect it with each, but the obvious need for an evolutionary overhaul to the whole game becomes evidently more apparent with each attempt at refreshing its somewhat stale gameplay.
So what is it about Battle for Azeroth that disappointed me so much this time around? It starts off slow, that’s for sure. I was already at the old level cap of 110 when I booted up the expansion this time around, but whether it was down to loose ends from Legion that would have been tied had I played toward the end of the last expansion or not, I spent my first session with the game barely gaining experience points at all. Any MMORPG player knows that getting to the level cap is basically where the game itself starts, so having a good few hours of practically zero progress wasn’t a great first impression.
The story starts off strong with the Heart of Azeroth becoming a thing, but the fact that I barely heard a whisper of that particular plot point again for the next 10 levels despite gaining 11 “Heart of Azeroth” levels through makes very little sense. Sure, we’re introduced to Island Expeditions to mine Azerite at some point, but I’ve been mining and fighting my way through Kul Tiras already. How is this really any different?
One of the first things that stood out to me with this expansion is the growing dependence on cinematic cutscenes and voice acting - two things World of Warcraft really should have embraced far more quickly than it did. I originally started playing back in the early Wrath of the Lich King days.
Things felt very different back then with the game still technically in its infancy, but after seeing real-time cutscenes like the Wrath Gate and the final fight against the Lich King, I couldn’t understand why more of these weren’t peppered into every major event in the series already. Thankfully, Blizzard looks to be doing that a little more now, and it really adds an extra level of drama and depth to the whole thing.
But, given the literal earth-shattering events of the last expansion, it might just be too little too late for this individual. Going back to a Horde and Alliance war that I still don’t fully understand to this day feels a little petty after finally facing off against the series’ long-running antagonist.
The story feels a little diluted at this point. Would it have helped if the entire leveling experience had more than one mention of the Heart of Azeroth you’re expected to grind for in the end-game? Probably. I like that idea a lot, but starting the expansion with an urgent need to fix the core of the planet only to barely hear about it for the next 20 hours of game time felt like a wasted opportunity to really hook me with a story that doesn’t require decades of exposition to even begin to care about.
I can honestly say that I don’t at all care about the faction war that started this whole franchise anymore. They’ve tossed it aside too many times for me to feel like it’s even warranted at this point. There’s bigger fish to fry, and they’re infinitely more exciting when put to good use.
Blizzard has done another terrific job with world building in the architectural sense. Splitting Horde and Alliance leveling zones into two completely different islands is like building two games in one - I’ll give them that. And while I can’t say I particularly like the look of Zandalar (given I’m no Hordie), Kul Tiras had plenty of eye-catching sights and sounds.
But due to sheer luck on my part, my experience in Kul Tiras actually got worse as I moved from one location to the next. Stormsong Valley was a particularly beautiful autumnal starting point for more 110-120 leveling adventure, but the other two, the Witch-infested Drustvar and the pirate-themed Tiragarde Sound weren’t quite so enjoyable.
The issue wasn’t necessarily the stories being told there, either; those were relatively interesting at best. But due to the fact that it was practically impossible to move three feet in either direction without getting into a pointless fight against a single person, bird, bear or wolf that, for whatever reason, still thinks it can win.
For one reason or another, one of my original World of Warcraft memories comes from a tip on a loading screen that told me that just staying on a path will usually guarantee safety as aggressive mobs are usually off the beaten track. It made logical sense, and I’ve held onto that idea throughout the years. But it really feels like Battle for Azeroth has tossed that aside, leading to just about every mundane interaction out in the field being ruined by another pointless encounter.
I can appreciate that my leveling experience was a mixture of questing and gathering. I love how Blizzard has really taken to dropping more collectibles around the world to break up the grind of questing just a tad, but when every point of interest on the map is still following by a needlessly boring fight with a mob that wouldn’t win unless you happened to be asleep at the wheel adds nothing more than a annoyance. We’re fighting something 90% of the time we’re moving in Warcraft; gathering treasures from boxes and nodes shouldn’t add to that.
It doesn’t help that World of Warcraft combat has barely changed over the years. While this felt fine in the early days, other MMOs like Black Desert, TERA, and even the more traditional Final Fantasy XIV all carry far more weight behind attacks. World of Warcraft is just button mashing with empty sound effects thrown on top. There’s still a method to the madness there with optimized rotations, but it just doesn’t feel good when there are much more combat-oriented systems out there. And when almost every productive minute of your life in this game is about fighting something, the cracks really show.
While I commend Blizzard on the deeper dive into voice acting and cutscenes to push the story in a more direct nature, the leveling experience and overall feel of the game hasn’t evolved anywhere near enough to feel even remotely satisfying at this point. There’s little reason to think that Blizzard’s newest expansion will convince any newcomers to try out the game, and I’m struggling to see why those who came back from some time off will bother sticking around.
WORLD OF WARCRAFT: BATTLE FOR AZEROTH VERDICT
Unless Blizzard has some real story shake-ups and a phenomenally tuned raid on the horizon, I’m honestly expecting the sharpest player decrease to set in within the next few months. The expansion itself has some interesting ideas, but sticking to a World Quest grindfest is quickly becoming the norm, and the Island Expeditions aren’t exactly exciting.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Heading back into Stormwind after 8 levels to find out just how much the Gold market has changed over the years. 8000 Gold for the ores I smacked out of rocks while leveling? Yes please!
Generally still really pretty to look at, with another gorgeous score
Shift to more active storytelling with voice acting and cinematics is a boon
Weightless and unsatisfying combat
Days of questing followed by a World Quest grind is nothing new
Everything is interrupted by another fight
Story pacing feels disjointed