Two days ago, Blizzard Entertainment jumped the gun on the MMORPG competition with the latest patch for World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth. Patch 8.2, entitled Rise of Azshara, comes after a disappointing endgame for Battle for Azeroth. Features like Island Expeditions and Warfronts did not add much to the long tail of the game and the Heart of Azeroth upgrade system was more confusing than satisfying. What's more,players feel the Horde vs. Alliance war campaign story is a repeat of Garrosh Hellscream's fall across Mists of Pandaria and Warlords of Draenor.
These issues come at a time where competition is heating up for World of Warcraft, both from within and without. On one side, there's World of Warcraft: Classic, Blizzard's return to a launch state of the game. On the other, there's Final Fantasy 14, which is riding high at the moment and is about to release its next expansion, Shadowbringers. WoW is down at a time where players have clear alternatives, and that's a problem.
Ahead of the patch's release, Battle for Azeroth game director Ion Hazzikostas offered a lengthy discussion about Blizzard's thoughts on several topics facing modern WoW, including class design, PVP gear, and catch-up mechanics. It was a frank and honest talk from the director, with him even admitting that the team agrees that it has erred on class design. Fans were excited about the video, and it represents what they feel is communication and a willingness to change direction.
Rise of Azshara is the beginning of that change and after two days in the new zones of Nazjatar and Mechagon, I can say that Blizzard is trying to move in two directions at once. That could be a bad thing, but here it seems to be a way to see what kind of content players prefer. Nazjatar is more of the design that has categorized both Legion and Battle for Azeroth. It's a mix of story-driven quests and localized world quests, with a catch-up mechanic and eventual raid unlock. Mechagon is the more interesting addition: It's a throwback to Mists of Pandaria's Timeless Isle, being more free form and reward driven. Even the endgame content will be slightly different, with Operation: Mechagon being a mega-dungeon, not a smaller dungeon or full raid.
Nazjatar - (Not) Under the Sea
You have to begin in Nazjatar, as the quest to get to Mechagon begins later. The Horde are following a magical Macguffin while the Alliance are following the Horde, only for both ship fleets to end up at the bottom of the ocean. While the zone itself isn't actually underwater, its verticality is a testament to the fact that it's supposed to be a ruined city at the bottom of a massive trench. Everything flows downward from the East, West, and South sides of the map, with the North not only the lowest point, but also where Azshara's Eternal Palace resides. You can't always see it while questing, but overall the environmental design offers up a vast sense of scale. Like Legion's Argus zone-which is Nazjatar's closest analog-but better in terms of selling the fiction with the Eternal Palace looming and the giant sea walls being held in place by magic.
Most of the questing in Nazjatar is pretty straightforward, with daily quests all aimed at picking up the new currency, Prismatic Manapearls. On day one the full round of questing and exploration left me with around 100 manapearls, which was enough to buy the new Benthic catch-up gear for every slot. The gear comes in gear slot tokens that cost 5 manapearls each, which resolve into random gear for that slot. While all the gear is useful, some might not be best for your class. The trick is to keep dropping manapearls until you get the one you want.
While you still have to deal with Azerite traits, it's a much better system overall because the randomness is pretty low. Generally, there will be a choice of five different pieces of armor each Benthic token can resolve into, so the chances of you hunting forever is pretty low. And once you have it, upgrading that gear simply costs more manapearls.
It's a remarkably clear system, harkening back to the Valor Points system that Blizzard previously removed. Points allowed players to still get the gear they wanted or something similar, even if the random rolls of dungeon and raid loot didn't go in their favor. Time spent is gear earned. World of Warcraft tends to bring the mechanics back for these catch-up zones like Argus and Nazjatar, but honestly, they should be a larger part of the primary game again. Valor Points and the like not only gave you an incentive to keep running things like dungeons, Heroics, and raids, but it softened the blow of bad RNG.
Blizzard has shied away from this system in modern WoW, but I think Nazjatar is a good case for a similar system always needing to be around. I'm more engaged because I know that I'll eventually get somewhere if I chip away at the zone each day. That's the point of daily quests. It's about allowing more player choice and letting players choose their own destinations.
The new Essence system also shows Blizzard is recognizing that choice is important. These abilities sit on top of the current Heart of Azeroth, allowing you to unlock new, unique abilities at the Heart Forge.The freebie Essence "Crucible of Flame" throws out fire that gets stronger each time you cast it. But there's also a host of new powers available. The most important part is that the interface tells you exactly where you get each Essence and its subsequent upgrades. If you want it, you know where to go. Pure choice, no RNG. Much better than the Azerite Traits system.
Mechagon - Toil and Tinker
Mechagon is purely freeform. The lost, legendary island of the gnomes-which is within swimming distance of Kul'Tiras? How did people miss that?-allows you to pretty much go wherever you want. There are fewer bespoke quests in the region, with more of it focused on your contributions to different parts of the island. King Mechagon is attempting to convert his people into mechagnomes, and it's up to players to help the resistance build up their army.
The zone itself has an esthetic that fits in pretty well with the Alliance's gnomes, while also feeling rather appropriate for the Horde's Goblins. It's a ruined island, with nature giving way to pollution and piles of scrapped cogs. The zone is all about repurposing and recycling, with the Rustbolt resistance taking anything and everything and using it to build new weapons and infrastructure.
Everything you kill in Mechagon drops scrap and other resources, like energy cells and ignitercores. Even fishing offers up spare parts and fish that can be used to make more things. (Seriously, make sure you have bag space before you head to Mechagon.) These resources can then be spent on crafting new items in the town of Rustbolt, helping improve the city, or build structures around the island. The latter opens up new encounters or further rewards for the player. But the engagement is largely based on what you're willing to put into it.
That's honestly the way forward for World of Warcraft, I think. More player options in terms of the gear and achievements they want to pursue. Less reliance on random rolls to progress and more allowing players to incrementally work their way towards desired gear. Personally, I'm not the young buck that had hours and hours to throw into the pit that is World of Warcraft, hoping the one piece of armor I wanted actually drops. Even Final Fantasy 14, the one touted by some as better than WoW, offers the Tomestone system so players can slowly march their way towards endgame gear. Being able to jump in periodically is how I play WoW (too many games to review), and if you want to keep folks like me, some systems like those make that tenable.
So I hope what Nazjatar and Mechagon represent are what's coming in WoW's future. Blizzcon 2019 should see an announcement surrounding the next expansion for World of Warcraft, and I'd like to be more excited for that title. Rise of Azshara might not be enough to keep every player around, but it's at least going in the right direction.