Editor's Note: Reviewing a massively-multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) is a long haul. Sure, some dude hit the level cap in one day. Sure, there are folks that are already halfway there. But I'm here to give the expansion a full shake. I'm playing the Alliance content, then I'll turn around and do the Horde stuff. It'll take a while.
Editor's Note #2: And with this final update, the review is complete and scored!
Entry 1: Our Ships Launch to New Shores
The Battle for Azeroth has officially begun! Well, technically it began a few weeks ago with the Burning of Teldrassil by the Horde and the Siege of Lordaeron by the Alliance. Everyone's mad and ready to fight, just in time to meet some new allies!
It's interesting that in the beginning of an expansion pitched on the war between the Horde and Alliance, you actually spend it cloistered off on separate islands, doing your best to draw two new factions into the conflict. The Alliance seeks to convince the naval-focused humans of the lost island of Kul Tiras to join them, while the Horde wants Zandalar, home of the Troll civilization, to rise to their cause. The snag is both island nations have their own problems; like any good RPG, you need to solve their issues before they'll help you out.
Kicking off the Alliance story, our crew of hapless do-gooders decides that the best way to convince the Kul Tirans to join their cause is to... send the worst traitor in the history of the nation as an emissary? Obviously, King Anduin isn't great at tactics, because they send Jaina Proudmoore alongside the player.
Back in Warcraft 3, Jaina sided with Thrall and his fledgling Horde over a Kul Tiran invasion fleet led by her father Lord Admiral Daelin Proudmoore. In the battle at Theramore Isle, the Lord Admiral was killed and Kul Tiras suffered heavy losses. The Kul Tirans blamed Jaina for his death and the loss of its shining fleet. The Alliance at the time decided not to help the island nation in its counterattack because, to be honest, Proudmoore was kind of a zealot at the time.
Fast forward and Jaina is fully onboard with her father's zealotry, but the nation still hates her as "The Daughter of the Sea", said in hushed tones and sung in mournful sea shanties. Her mother, Katherine Proudmoore, now sits in the position of Lord Admiral and she wants nothing to do with her daughter. Worse, the great houses of Kul Tiras have splintered. House Proudmoore controls the capital city of Boralus, while the regions of Tiragarde Sound, Stormsong Valley, and Drustvar are controlled by others.
The core of Battle for Azeroth is built from this status quo. Kul Tiras has one giant city in the center, with each of the three regions surrounding it. Each region has a critical story path that ends in a dungeon: Shrine of the Storm for Stormsong Valley, Freehold for Tiragarde Sound, and Waycrest Manor for Drustvar. Then there's a final dungeon, the prison Tol Dagor, which finishes out the launch content on the Alliance island.
Level scaling remains the new norm in World of Warcraft, so you can choose any of the three regions to start. I picked Stormsong Valley, because it looked the most idyllic. Drustvar, with its darkened woods and ancient magics, looked like the coolest one, so I want to save that for last. Stormsong looks nice on the surface, but it becomes clear that House Stormsong has given itself over to Old God corruption. The corruption itself is a running theme over the main story path, ending with the player at the foot of the Shrine of the Storm.
The story path is only half of the region though. In the midst of finishing quest hubs related to the story, you'll occasionally get feeler quests that will send you elsewhere. In one, I had to help a scientist who had somehow created sentient honey and giant bees that overran his land. In another, it was a matter of saving a town overrun by Bristleback quilboar bursting from underneath their fields.
I was sort of missing from central conflict of Battle for Azeroth until I picked up a side quest that took me to Brennadam (shown above), which is supposed to be the largest trading spot outside of Boralus itself. As I stepped into the peaceful town, the camera panned up to show an invasion fleet of Horde zeppelins descending upon the town. What followed was a series of missions rescuing townsfolk, putting out fires, and destroy the Horde war machine. The Battle for Azeroth is there in these questing regions, it's just not the focus... yet.
One thing that stands out about Battle for Azeroth is the excellent, excellent work of the art and environment team. World of Warcraft can sometimes switch between a theme park and real world feel in terms of composition; in the theme park style, the change from one biome to the next is quite noticeable. The biomes themselves are also a bit weirder, like Legion's Val'sharah switching from blighted human farmland to Night Elven ruins in a short span. On the real world side, that transition is far longer and feels more natural.
Kul Tiras is definitely on the real world side. All three regions feel like they belong together; they have their own flavor, but you can see how the world itself gradually gives way from one to the other. Comparing it to past World of Warcraft expansions, Kul Tiras in Battle for Azeroth feels a lot like Wrath of the Lich King questing zones Borean Tundra, Howling Fjord, or Grizzly Hills. All three felt like real places touched by magical majesty and calamity; Kul Tiras is the same.
And the crowning achievement of that is Boralus, the capital city. It's frankly huge, in a way that most World of Warcraft cities haven't been outside of the original faction capitals. Boralus is a maritime city of huge walls and massive canals. Fishing and trade comprises much of the city, but there's also the walls of Proudmoore Barracks, the criminal slums in the docks, crowds milling about in front of public executions, and ancient god cultists hiding in plain sight at Stormsong Monastery. It's the kind of place you can wander around for quite a while and you won't learn the layout in one run. Boralus is an impressive monument to Blizzard's art team and I've heard from others that Zandalar's Zuldazar is as impressive, if not more so.
I have had a little experience with Zandalar via the War Campaign. This sends you to the fringes of the opposing faction's island to wreak havoc and cause problems. You'll unlock it pretty early on, though it's optional when you finally decide to jump in. These quests look to take the place of Legion's Order Hall campaigns, with the player trying to stymie the enemy in their new home. You establish basecamps at various points, which give you the ability to teleport between both islands, so you can jump back-and-forth between the Story and War Campaigns. I don't know where it's leading, but I'm looking forward to the escalation.
Regardless, with one day behind me, I've polished off one region and its adjoining dungeon. Shrine of the Storm was on the easy side, but that's no longer really a problem with dungeons, because the Mythic+ system exists. If you want a challenge, it's there. House Stormsong's wayward leader is dead and I have three pieces of Azerite Gear.
If you're wondering why I haven't written more about the new gearing system in Battle for Azeroth, it's because my mental jury is still out on it. I like being able to choose between different abilities on gear, but I'm less a fan of those abilities being locked in. I just don't have a strong grasp on Azerite Gear yet; I feel like I need more gear to really understand the thrust of the design.
So, that's day one polished and Battle for Azeroth is feeling about as strong as Legion did at launch. Let's hope it holds up beyond this first run.
Entry 2: Kul Tiras Unified
Well, that's most of the Alliance side of Battle for Azeroth polished off. If you've been wondering where I was in the campaign, I wanted to wait until I had more to actually relate in this review diary. As of last night, I've finished all three regions of Kul Tiras—Stormsong Valley, Tiragarde Sound, and Drustvar.
The more natural styling of the Kul Tiran landscape that I noted in my first entry remained across the other two zones. It's clear that Kul Tiras is meant to be somewhat realistic; that's a strength or weakness depending on where you stand in regards to World of Warcraft zones. If you were a fan of Northrend in Wrath of the Lich King, most of Kul Tiras will feel like home. If you want something more "high fantasy" like a Deepholm or Crystalsong Forest, none of these regions really reach that level.
The composition of Stormsong Valley that I noted before was largely carried forward: around half of each zone is the critical path story campaign, ending in that zone's specific dungeon. Stormsong was a tale of Kul Tiran priests turned into Old God worshippers. Tiragarde Sound is a more straightforward adventure involving pirates and smuggling that threatened all of Kul Tiras. Finally, Drustvar has a gothic horror feel, with the local populace falling prey to ghosts, witches, and ancient gods of wood and stone.
None of the regions is bad, but Drustvar is the most successful of the three. It relies on a unique atmosphere, acting as a creepy jaunt into darkened, twisted forests. That's been done before in regions like Duskwood, but Drustvar is much more successful at pulling it off. The opening moments of the region show a town frozen in time, under the control of a witch leaving bone-laded effigies everywhere. Drustvar's soundtrack is underpinned by slow chanting, which only enhances the horror effect. And Blizzard's art team did a grand job with the new character models for the witches and the bentbranch familiars.
The build-up is great, with your character saving the local heir and eventually re-establishing an order of ancient witch-hunting inquisitors. Drustvar feels really cool and well-crafted, while Stormsong Valley and Tiragarde Sound are good enough, but don't hit the same highs. Drustvar also contains these fun treasure chest puzzles that actually require you to look around environment to determine the order of activation for runes that cover the chest. Do it wrong and you take heavy damage. It's a nice addition that prizes a tiny bit of environmental awareness and Blizzard should do more of this.
I have two problems with the overall zone composition. The first is that some of the sidequests can stall the overall pacing of a zone's story. Stormsong Valley has Briarback Kraul and its nearby farmland; the entire questline just drops everything to a crawl. (No pun intended.) The quilboar aren't intriguing villains and the entire area is full of tunnels and ramps, making it annoying to get around. Tiragarde Sound stumbles at the Norwington Estate, but is saved by some interesting characters. Drustvar's Crimson Forest has a mob density problem; you can't go anywhere without running into two or more enemies, making it tedious to get around.
The second problem is there's no real indication of whether you're following the main story or a side-quest. If it's sticking with this zone style, World of Warcraft needs to have something visually denoting side quests and story quests. Veteran players jumping back with alts will know what quests to skip, but if it's your first time around, you have to rely on feel. "This doesn't feel related to the zone's theme," you'll say to yourself. I understand that for Blizzard, all quests are created equal, but that's not really the case. Let me stick to the story quests if I want; make it easier to see which is which.
Somewhat early on in the leveling process, you'll open up the War Campaign. This is a rough replacement of the Order Call Campaign from Legion. You can send Followers on missions, Research upgrades, and complete related quests. The War Campaign sends you to opposition's island in Battle for Azeroth, which in my case was Zuldazar. Once there, you undertake a small series of quests in each of the three regions to establish a foothold. This not only opens up the enemy island as a questing zone—thank you for the PVP-free option of War Mode, Blizzard—but also revives daily World Quests from Legion and the new Island Expeditions.
Island Expeditions are an excellent addition, something that I hope Blizzard pushes forward into future expansions. It's essentially Scenarios blown-out into a repeatable mode: you join a party of three heroes looking for Azerite on a randomly-generated island. Everything you do nets you Azerite, from killing enemies, to finding chests, and simply mining the stuff. The trick is there's a team from the opposing faction doing the same. It's a race against time to see who can reach their limit first.
When you queue up for Island Expeditions, you can choose if it want to do them in PVE or PVP. The PVE versions put you up against an AI-controlled enemy team, with difficulty levels mirroring dungeons: Normal, Heroic, and Mythic. The PVP versions are the same mode, except the opposing team is controlled by real players.
Island Expeditions are a lot of fun. Having an opposing team keeps the tension up and you're constantly making strategic decisions. Do you push further into the island to find an event or larger boss? Do you focus on your own collection of Azerite, or kill the opposing team to slow down their efforts? I can easily see Blizzard rolling this into its esports efforts like PVP Arenas or the Mythic Invitational.
A lot of this has been largely positive, but Battle for Azeroth does have a few systemic issues. Rewards feel a bit lacking at endgame. Blizzard says the drop rate in dungeons hasn't changed from Legion, but some dungeon runs end without any loot for your character, which feels like a waste to the player. Likewise, to run Mythic dungeons you need to have an overall item level of 315, but it can be difficult to grab that gear from World Quests and Heroics. Instead of building towards a specific thing, you have to rely on random rolls or Titanforging bonuses to make some gear worthwhile.
Towards the end of Legion, Blizzard introduced Wakening Essences, allowing a player to collect currency to eventually buy their Legendary of choice. You could luck out and get the item, but if you didn't, there was a way forward. Currently, Battle for Azeroth doesn't feel like it has that option. It's just a hope and a prayer.
Level scaling also has some issues, especially for veteran players. Tier bonuses and Legendary effects stop working around 116 and you'll replace those pieces with new armor. The issue is the loss of bonuses sees your stats drop. At a certain point in the leveling curve you actually start to feel weaker than you were before. It evened out again for me, leveling as a Protection Paladin, but the forums are rife with complaints. I'd be interested to see how leveling feels with a fresh character that doesn't have any Tier or Legendary gear; my guess is the issue would be less noticable. Either way, it's a perceptual issue that Blizzard should probably address at some point.
That's the end of my time with the Alliance though. Tonight I boost up a new Horde character and see how the other half lives. Once I finish the Horde campaign, I'll be offering up the final review update with a score.
Entry 3: For the Horde, Richmon
And so we come to the close of this review. Not my time with Battle for Azeroth, as Blizzard Entertainment has more coming over the next few months. Warfronts, multiple Allied Races, and the first raid of the expansion, Uldir, are coming very soon. A review is a snapshot in time, not a final statement; nothing illustrates that more than a review of a massively-multiplayer online game.
Zandalar is a very different place than Kul Tiras. Kul Tiras is a land of lush grasslands, lakes, and snow-covered mountains that look like a wonderful place to live. Despite that, it's a nation full of a people without hope. Zandalar is the opposite, with harsh jungles, swamps, and deserts that look hostile to any humanoid life. But in this climate, the Zandalari Trolls have carved out a majestic empire.
From a visual standpoint, the capital city of Dazar'alor easily outshines its Alliance counterpart Boralus. It's a magnificent ziggurat of stone and gold, with a number of terraces built to let you look out upon the city and jungle below. The small details are wonderful: the guards and their dinosaur mounts decked out in golden tribal armor, the unique shopkeepers or other non-player characters like the storyweavers I found in one spot, or the statues of the loa, the gods of Troll culture. There are also trolls from nearly every tribe that has previously appeared in the game: the Zandalari lead, but you'll find trolls from the Darkspear, Amani, Sandfury, Bloodscalp, and even the defunct Shadowtooth clans. The city feels like a monument to a culture that World of Warcraft only scratched the surface of previously. It's the second most impressive city in World of Warcraft as a whole; I still think Suramar is a crowning achievement, but Dazar'alor is damned good.
Like Kul Tiras, each zone has its distinct theme that plays out over the course of its main quests. Zuldazar is about the infighting among the tribes of Trolls; King Rastakhan rules, but other Trolls scheme for his throne. Vol'dun shifts the focus to the various races of Zandalar, bringing them all together to face a threat larger than any one race. Finally, Nazmir is the spiritual core of the Horde experience, casting a light on the Troll loa and the blood trolls who worship the Old God G'huun.
Zandalar overall is a bit of a miss aesthetically. I don't necessarily fault Blizzard's artists on this, because there's only so much you can do with the jungles, swamps, and deserts stretch out across entire zones. Zuldazar, Nazmir, and Vol'dun don't wow me in their composition overall. I feel like the artists knew this, so they placed specific care on some amazing visual highpoints: looking at the Necropolis under a red moon in Nazmir, seeing the might of the troll empire with King Rastakhan, or watching the lightning storms surrounding the Temple of Sethraliss. These all feel like epic moments in Battle for Azeroth.
I also feel like the Horde storyline characters are just more memorable and enjoyable. Two of the Troll gods are complete standouts. Bwonsamdi is the loa of death and when you die in Zandalar, you're greeted with his humorous taunting instead of the emotionless Spirit Healer. Then there's Jani, the Lord of Thieves and God of Garbage, a small raptor loa cackles as it sends you to mess with others.
There are other races too. You have the Vulpera, a race of fox creatures trying to survive in Vol'dun; their leader Kiro is fun to interact with. There's also Keeper Vorrik, an upstanding member of the sethrak, a race of snake people. There's an entire area of Vol'dun that features a whole pirate crew of undead trolls, each with their own unique names. Or Rhan'ka, a troll making a rest stop for travelers with the ghosts of his friends. Zandalar simply has more character variety than Kul Tiras did, and part of that is the types of characters you can run into.
Unfortunately, the composition of the upcoming raid means that the Horde storyline just stops dead in its tracks. Uldir is a raid that springs out of the Horde storyline, featuring many antagonists built up in each zone. This means it ends on a cliffhanger. The Alliance storyline caps off with the Siege of Boralus, which feels like a more satisfying ending. All in all, Alliance and Horde are two very different experiences in Battle for Azeroth. The War Campaign allows for some crossover, but if you're not playing the other side, you're missing out more than you did in previous expansions.
With both sides finished, I'm left with a look at Battle for Azeroth's current endgame, where a few problems persist. The first is an issue of gear progression, notably with weapons. Once you reach level 120 and finish the story campaign, it becomes prohibitively difficult to find weapon upgrades for your character. In Legion, the Artifact Weapon system meant you were always powering up your weapon, so the progression was straightforward. In Battle for Azeroth, there doesn't feel like a clear path to a weapon upgrade.
I can't tell if this is a problem with context or reality. Expansions before BFA had weapon drops, where you had to try your luck in a dungeon or raid to get an upgrade. Is the problem that there really aren't any weapon drops, or that we as players got used to Legion's relic system? This should lessen as the expansion moves forward, but the problem feels acute now.
I'm also finding the Allied Race unlocks to be a bit punitive for the casual player. If you play daily and dive deep, you're probably Revered with the 7th Legion and the Honorbound, the reputation factions needed to unlock the Dark Iron Dwarves and the Mag'Har Orcs. But if you're casual, Exalted with those factions feels like a far off journey.
This is also true of the previous Allied Races. The Allied Races are one of the bulletpoint features of Battle for Azeroth, but returning players have to go back to Legion to grind out the Exalted rep needed for the Void Elves, Highmountain Tauren, Nightborne, and Lightforged Draenei. I've done them, but I've seen more casual players feel like it's a bit of a bait and switch. Blizzard has said that Allied Race unlock requirements won't be changing, but I'd personally knock them down to Revered.
Finally, I have some issues with the Azerite gear system. I'm onboard with the new system, as the traits feel useful and meaningful when you pick up certain pieces of new gear. There's a good amount of choice available. My issue is with the logistics of Azerite gear. Way back in a previous expansion, Blizzard made it so that gear would shift stats if you changed from one spec to another; outside of my weapon, I can shift from Protection to Holy on my Paladin and wear the same armor. But Azerite gear is essentially attuned to a specialization. Traits are only unlockable if you're in a specialization and once you've made a choice, a respec requires going back to a city and paying gold. It's very much like an older version of WoW.
That's a small annoyance, but the real problem is I have absolutely no way to tell which gear goes with which spec, outside of using the outfit system. There's no option in the user interface to say, "This is the chest for Protection and this is the one for Holy." I just have to remember that the Exiled Veteran's Cuirass is the one I made the Protection choices on, while the Rastari Breastplate is my Retribution chest. It's not an elegant system for players who switch between different specializations for various content in the game.
Battle for Azeroth is a good expansion so far. I'm enjoying it a great deal and I honestly think Blizzard will patch over many of the holes I've mentioned in this lengthy review diary. I like the renewed focus on the Horde and Alliance conflict, even if I think the expansion will eventually see both sides turning to face a larger threat. The opening salvo of Battle for Azeroth is as strong as Legion's was two years ago, though it retains different issues from its predecessor. Blizzard has the content release structure down, now it just needs to tighten up the ship in a few areas. This review is a snapshot of what the game is today. I think in a few months, it'll be excellent. Right now, Battle for Azeroth is just great.
Battle for Azeroth launches strong by renewing the conflict between the Horde and Alliance. Blizzard offers two very different experiences this expansion with each faction having their own storyline on unique island nations. It's an enjoyable expansion during the leveling experience, but endgame currently has some issues with sparse weapon drops and clutter stemming from the new Azerite gear system. There are improvements to be made here, but what's available at launch is still very good.