It’s been nearly four months now since the release of Battle for Azeroth. As players continue to get to grips with Kul Tiras and Zandalar and tackle the opening content, the first big content patch has appeared on the horizon. At the time of writing, 8.1 is still in the PTR phase but will go live soon. Before it does, it seems a good time for a brief retrospective, the story so far for the mighty Uthric.
The Big Picture
My overall impressions of Battle for Azeroth so far have been very positive; the new areas are well-designed, look fantastic and have a strong theme that underpins their environment and questing.
As a long-time Alliance player, the city of Boralus is a standout feature. The clutter and chaos of its streets have a sense of life to them that you don’t find in Stormwind; even at quiet times on my server, there are enough NPCs and peripheral activity to make it feel like a bustling hub without the presence of players. It has its affluent areas, expansive trading quarter and cramped backstreets where wandering thugs are an actual danger. All of which imbues the Kul Tiran capital with a sense of immersion sorely lacking in other Alliance capital cities.
Dazar’ Alor is similarly stunning; a city of gold at the heart of the jungle with all manner of wild and wonderful features that surpasses anything you’ll find in other Horde territories. Roaming dinosaurs aside (which are brilliantly realised) there is strong Aztec and Incan theme infusing the Zandalari capital, evoking a rich sense of mysticism and latent danger.
Heart of Azeroth & Azerite Armour
I was a big fan of artefact weapons in Legion. The interminable power grind not so much. I was pleased to see the artefact system brought forward to Battle for Azeroth, even if it wasn’t in the form of a weapon of titanic power or estimable lineage. There are those who detest the replacement of a revered weapon with a lowly amulet and gear pieces, but I’m not one of them.
The item levelling system of both artefact weapons and the Heart of Azeroth amulet has worked well in other games and WoW is no exception. The transition from Legion to Battle for Azeroth has introduced modifications that have simplified the overall system without altering its function as a companion item of burgeoning potential.
Unlike Legion, artefact power is now applied automatically to Azerite gear which is a minor, yet effective, change. The inbuilt traits have been simplified and are no longer uniform which I have mixed feelings about. Legion weapons were cluttered with incremental upgrades that harked back to the old character talent trees. Having to increase ranks in talents was removed from the game for good reason, so I think the static choices offered on each tier of the Heart of Azeroth are to some degree, a good thing.
The primary reason for this is that choice has been properly reintroduced. Although you could choose the route you took to empower your Legion weapon, the end result was always the same: every trait maxed out to the full. Conversely, Azerite gear requires you to choose something at the expense of something else. I like this shift in mechanics because I prefer having to weigh up my options rather than decide what traits I want now and which ones I’ll want later.
However, one criticism I will make is that the variety of choice seems to have suffered as a result of this new system. For each tier of the Heart of Azeroth, there’s usually a choice for each of your class specs and one general choice, with the gear’s concentric circles culminating in an item level increase as its final upgrade.
In practice, there are really only two choices on each tier between the trait for your current spec or an all-purpose pick. To frustrate matters further, choices are locked in. If I choose traits specifically for Arms on my Azerite helm, I must either find another helm for other specs or accept wearing an inert armour piece when playing Fury or Protection.
Reforging of traits is available but can quickly become prohibitively expensive. Sticking to general traits is an option, but many of them are underwhelming in terms of impact. All of this corrals players into seeking out different gear sets for different class specs. This isn’t a wholly negative pursuit, but is perhaps mildly detrimental to players like myself who like to switch between specs regularly.
PvP & War Mode
PvP saw a big revamp for Battle for Azeroth. PvP realms were removed and the new War Mode system put in place. The Honour talent system from Legion has also been truncated and rolled into War Mode. Players now choose four talents from a list rather than make choices from several tiers. To some, this may represent a diminishment of choice but personally, I prefer the new system.
In Legion, there were a handful of PvP talents that I never used so I have no issue with condensing choices down to four. I also like the new list system, as I really enjoy having to deliberate over which talents will serve me best in whatever fracas I’m about to join.
War Mode seems to work fairly well. Although it can only be toggled in your faction capital, the presence of city portals in Boralus and Zandalar makes this a simple task. Out in the open world, War Mode adds verve and danger to questing and travel. The new bounty system, where prolific killers are marked on the map for all to see, adds extra excitement as you join in the hunt to take them down.
As marvellous as War Mode is, the wider reworking of PvP has affected the Honour system. With the reprisal of Conquest points as the premier PvP currency, Honour points have to some extent been devalued. Although there are rewards on offer to those who attain specific Honour ranks, many of these have been transplanted directly from Legion. Many players (myself included) managed to attain most of them when Legion was live. Consequently, there is now a reduced incentive to pursue and accrue Honour points in Battle for Azeroth.
The introduction of Island Expeditions has been met with a mixed reception amongst players. The premise of these jolly jaunts into uncharted waters is simple: collect 9000 Azerite before the opposing faction team by mining nodes, collecting shards and slaying enemies saturated in the stuff. As a reward, players receive a hefty chunk of Azerite to empower the Heart of Azeroth and the chance to receive an item from an array of pets, toys, mounts and transmogrification items.
On the whole, I enjoy Island Expeditions. As well as being the best source of artefact power, they are moderately challenging whilst allowing players to indulge in the merry pursuit of striking down dozens upon dozens of monsters.
The primary issue that has arisen since they were implemented, was the intangibility of rewards. It was (and still is to some extent) difficult to determine how to target particular loot rewards and work out the circumstances that facilitated them. Blizzard swiftly made adjustments following these complaints by boosting drop rates and thanks to the conscientious work of Wowhead, detail of how rewards trigger has started to shape.
Another valid criticism of Island Expeditions, and one I feel is more pressing, is the pacing of the scenarios themselves. Whether you are locking horns with an AI team or enemy players, the whole thing feels less an exploration of the unknown and more an urgent dash to the finish line. This was fun and entertainingly frenetic to begin with, but over time, I’ve often felt like I can’t explore an island properly because it diverts too much from the accumulation of Azerite.
The Azerite race is the core mechanic of expeditions themselves so I know they can’t really change it that much. That being said, I do think Island Expeditions would benefit from adjusting the balance between exploration and collection. This would probably make individual expeditions longer, but overall I think it would enhance the experience.
As things stand, I think Island Expeditions are an interesting and enjoyable facet to Battle for Azeroth. With a few tweaks and a bit of focused tinkering, they could be transformed into something brilliant.
A short time after the release of Battle for Azeroth, the first Warfront, the Battle for Stromgarde, was introduced to the game. A fixed scenario representing the engulfing conflict between Alliance and Horde, the Battle for Stromgarde is a mix of PvE, RTS and MOBA gameplay. Players are required to collect resources, construct fortifications and push through enemy lines to take out their commander.
I didn’t know what to expect the first time Uthric parachuted into Stromgarde’s walls but I was quickly taken with the chaos and atmosphere of this new feature. I found the whole experience such a joyful breath of fresh air. The Warfront itself is different from anything else in-game I’ve ever partaken in, so I’ve been eager to dive into Stromgarde whenever it’s been available.
On a lengthy rotation timetable, when your faction controls Stromgarde, players gain access to a revamped Arathi Highlands, complete with wandering enemies who can drop gear, mounts and toys when defeated. This is an excellent addition in my opinion. Blizzard could have easily just implemented the battle aspect, so I like that that even after claiming victory in battle, there are still things to see and do.
Naturally, the Battle for Stromgarde hasn’t been to everyone’s tastes. Some have vocalised their disdain for the periodicity of the feature, and others have flown into an apoplectic rage that any player can jump into a Warfront and come out with a guaranteed piece of high-level loot. I won’t attempt to deconstruct these mordant criticisms in this article, but will say that some of this anger misses the point.
It is clear to me that Warfronts are not designed to be repeated ad infinitum every time they are active. Of course there’s nothing stopping players doing that, but the rewards simply aren’t structured for hard grinding. I have to be frank here, I think we have enough grinding in-game as it is, so I’m glad Warfronts forging a new path. Instead of more of the same, Warfronts seem to be an active effort on Blizzard’s part to bring new experiences into the game, and I applaud them for it.
With the release of a new expansion comes a host of new dungeons for players to get their teeth into. Battle for Azeroth currently offers ten dungeons with a variety of locations and challenges based on the new areas and events of expansion. Whether it swashbuckling with buccaneers in Freehold or descending into the etiolated caverns of the Underrot, there is an excellent variety of settings and foes on offer. My current favourites are the dank, verminous Tol Dagor and the sprawling mess of the Motherlode, complete with the incomparable coin machine boss.
There has also been a continued shift towards a more considered style of gameplay. No longer can the Tank round up the entire population of the dungeon and have the damage dealers burn them down. With reductions to threat generation, empowerment of dungeon mobs and the renewed danger posed by wandering enemies, the quick dungeon blitz is no longer an effective or successful option.
This is a change that is long overdue in my opinion. Although it was instigated long before Battle for Azeroth, the new expansion seems to be entrenching a more tactical approach to dungeons. Instead of hurtling through without a care, groups have to pick their targets, manage threat, utilise crowd control abilities and keep a lookout for potential sidesteps and shortcuts.
All of this has made dungeons an enjoyable event again, rather than the robotic race for gear they once were. I can now see dungeons in all their glory and have time to take in dialogue and cut-scenes, instead of being hurried through by an impetuous Tank.
This renewed focus on encounters has brought additional requirements for dungeon groups. DPS classes can’t just stand there and headbutt enemies to death as many of the new instances require active engagement with the fight mechanics to ensure success.
Continuing the pattern laid down in Legion, damage dealers have to actually work to overcome these obstacles. This ranges from baiting sharks in Freehold, to trickier challenges such as the positional damage soaking in the Temple of Sethraliss.
Overall, I heartily approve of this direction in Battle for Azeroth dungeons. Putting aside the impact on PUGs, I appreciate having to do more in a dungeon than just obliterate foes. It feels more immersive and more enjoyable tackling encounter mechanics alongside the usual hammering of the enemy. It also encourages me to keep running them, as there is always an element of unpredictability in the expansion’s instances, something which keeps the indomitable Uthric on his toes.
The inaugural raid for Battle for Azeroth is Uldir; a perilous descent into a defunct titan facility facing all manner of horrors from amorphous beasts to raging blood trolls. The presence of malfunctioning titan machinery and crazed ritual worship is an odd conjugation, but this disjointed setting is strongly linked by an overarching theme of putrid blood and virulent disease.
At the raid’s heart is G’huun, a bloated, slug-like monstrosity whose rippling bulk towers over players. Dotted with pustules and long spines, this corpulent horror attacks with all manner of devouring infections, along with its proboscis-like maw.
G’huun’s menacing appearance is powerfully presented in game. Each time it has broken out of its recess in the wall, I have to stop and marvel at its swelling, slithering mass before I press the attack. After the monotonous tide of demons in Legion, it was gratifying to be able to fight such a disgusting, ugly aberration, even if to date I’ve only managed to vanquish G’huun three times!
Such limited success is indicative of the wider raid environment in Uldir. Similar to the direction dungeons have taken in Battle for Azeroth, Uldir is quick to punish the idle and inattentive. Many key boss fights require all players to focus not just on defeating a looming opponent, but also manage a variety of encounter events as well. The room-swapping when facing Mother is but a gentle introduction to what is to come; even on LFR difficulty, a host of raid-decimating threats remain built into boss fights which only increase in prevalence as the raid goes on.
If you thought the Kil’Jaeden fight in the Tomb of Sargeras was bad, wait until you try the G’huun fight where DPS classes have to do a lot more than just mindlessly swing at the boss. The amount of failures on this fight far outweigh my paltry number of successes. However, frustration aside, I’m still an advocate of the inclusion of these mechanics. It is rewarding to see a story through to its conclusion through LFR. It’s even better to feel that you’ve worked for it.
With Patch 8.1: Tides of Vengeance waiting in the wings, a quick glance over the ever-enlarging patch notes gives the reader an insight into what is to come. Many of the areas I’ve mentioned in this article have been given adjustments and a vigorous polish.
The reward system in Island Expeditions has been simplified, making item chasing easier. Two new Islands are incoming and a couple of new mechanics will be implemented to add to the experience. Warmode is also due to be altered and expanded with some working fixes to address faction imbalance out in the open world.
More exciting though, is the second Warfront in Darkshore, where players can experience the aftermath of the burning of Teldrassil. With new gear sets, mounts, currency and vendors, Darkshore looks set to be a signature part of the new patch. With an atmospheric trailer already released to tease the chaos to come, it’s great to see the Night Elves back on form. Emanating a feral lust for vengeance, I’m keen to see how the story plays out between them and the marauding Forsaken.
A similar point of interest is the introduction of Incursions. Modelled on the invasions seen in Legion, Incursions represent the opposite faction making a concerted push into your territory. The job of players will be to stop them in their tracks and take out their commander in the process. It’s encouraging to read that Incursions will be a more truncated version of Legion invasions, emphasising quick strikes by the enemy and urgent responses from allies.
The other headline feature of 8.1 is the next raid, the Battle for Dazar’ Alor. Like the Darkshore Warfront, I’ve deliberately refrained from looking too much into it (no spoilers please!) but the fragments I’ve seen and the comments made by veteran streamers indicate that it’s going to be very good indeed.
Of course, for LFR runners like me, there will be much wiping, hurling of abuse and vacant navel-gazing as groups struggle to organise themselves. This hasn’t detracted from the thrill of the raid for me in previous tiers, so I doubt it will this time either. I’ll just need to reacquaint myself with my happy place before the seething accusations and apportioning of blame begin…
8.1 won’t be the silver bullet to eliminate every problem with Battle for Azeroth since launch, but in all fairness, it could never hope to be. It’s no secret that the expansion has been dogged by numerous issues since launch. What is reassuring though, is that the developers are listening to concerns and attempting to address them. I don’t think their work will be complete with 8.1, but even the most contrarian of player must recognise that their efforts are, at the very least, purposeful steps in the right direction.
Expansions tend to start slowly as numbers are refined and game elements embedded post-launch, and Battle for Azeroth has been no different. However, with patch 8.1, it appears we are now starting to see the pace pick up. With a generous slice of storyline to get our teeth into and a host new features to engross ourselves with, there’s much to look forward to when Tides of Vengeance goes live. Armed with a sharp blade, stout heart and tireless steed, I for one am eager to get stuck in.