World of Warcraft and nostalgia are inextricably linked. Often, longtime players remember in-game locations as they would childhood homes. In the real world, places such as these change: they are rebuilt, torn down, remade. New people move in and make it theirs. Eventually, they end up taking residence in the only place left to them: memory. In World of Warcraft, these places are still there for players to revisit as their own. Blizzard knows the power it holds and is not shy to use it to affect their players. Cataclysm did it, scarring all of Azeroth, yet it only went skin deep. With World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth, Blizzard has delivered a deeper cut, literally plunging a giant sword deep into the planet. But what really stung players was the burning of Teldrassil and the blighting of Undercity. With the 8.0 pre-patch leading up to Battle for Azeroth, Blizzard took from players two of the few remaining places that have remained almost untouched since World of Warcraft launched in 2004. While these locations are not technically consigned to memory, the message is clear: we are going to new places, baggage be damned. In this, Battle for Azeroth delivers what may be the most focused, cohesive, and well-realized worlds within World of Warcraft.
Prior to every expansion, there is an update that leads players into what's to come. In Battle for Azeroth, for the first time, the events of a previous expansion directly cause those of the next. Sargeras stabs Azeroth with his immense sword just before he is sucked into space prison. This causes Azeroth to bleed azerite, an extremely powerful substance, which in turn leads to a war between the Horde and the Alliance. While the premise is potentially interesting, the setup is not. The World Tree, which the two factions banded together to defend in the entire Warcraft III campaign, is burned down by Sylvanas, leader of the Horde. She does this on what seems overwhelmingly like a whim, to spite an unnamed dying elf for interrupting her speech, which is villainous to the point of comedy.
It was with disappointment and skepticism that I sailed to Zandalar, home of the first troll civilization, to recruit them into the Horde in this weird war. Once there, Sylvanas becomes far less present, and I immediately found myself distracted by how beautiful and interesting the new zones are. Battle for Azeroth's two new islands, Zandalar and Kul'Tiras, are the starting locations for the Horde and Alliance, respectively. Both these islands have a wonderfully detailed hub city filled with interesting characters and oddities. Thanks to the many quests that send you exploring them, they truly come alive. An entirely novel addition to Battle for Azeroth is that each faction now has bespoke storylines leading all the way up to level 120, giving players a large incentive to level up both Horde and Alliance characters.
The worldbuilding in Battle for Azeroth is some of the best that World of Warcraft has ever presented. Events in the zones are all connected, making the islands feel like whole places rather than pieces of different worlds glued together. All three zones in Zandalar relate back to characters in the Zandalari royal entourage, and how you can convince them to aid the Horde. There's a heavy focus on developing the culture and beliefs of the new civilizations, and the Haitian Voodoo inspirations for the Zandalari are clear if sometimes a little on the nose. For example, the loa of Death (loa are kind of spirit deities), is named Bwonsamdi in World of Warcraft, and Bawon Samedi in the real world equivalent. A fantastic detail is that when you die in Zandalar, instead of the usual Spirit Healer, it's Bwonsamdi who greets you, usually with a mocking remark.
Voice acting is more prevalent and delivered in ways that don't force you to stop what you're doing, as well as with great and mostly consistent accents. The Zandalari have an African accent, to set them apart from their Darkspear cousins' Jamaican (blood trolls also mostly go with Jamaican for some reason). World of Warcraft is known for its pop culture references, but the constant Black Panther catchphrases from city guard barks ("Zandalar forever!") quickly began to grate on me. The references are quaint in quests because you see them once, but when you are beaten over the head with them, it cheapens the experience. The music is cinematic and evocative, exotic and sometimes surprisingly upbeat, particularly parts of the Horde hub city music, which reminded me of the Dragon Roost Island song in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.
World PvP has been something Blizzard has tried to control for a long time. As you level up in Battle for Azeroth, you get missions to establish footholds on the enemy island. Eventually, you unlock world quests there too, giving you an incentive to spend time in enemy territory. The way the premise of faction warfare weaves into the mechanics of the game make both the fantasy of the expansion and world PvP play out naturally. Besides world quests getting the players to the right place, there is now also a bounty system. After ten PvP kills, you get a buff to make you stronger, but will also become visible on the map to every opposing faction member, who now get a bonus for killing you. This is a simple mechanic but it works and has great potential for creating memorable moments.
One of Legion's big additions, artifact weapons, are gone in Battle for Azeroth. Now, we have the Heart of Azeroth and the azerite armor system. The first quest in Battle for Azeroth rewards you with the Heart of Azeroth, a neck slot item fueled by azerite. As you collect artifact power, your Heart will level up. Azerite armor exists for three slots: head, shoulders, and chest, and these will each have a mini talent tree of effects. The various tiers unlock based on your Heart of Azeroth level. In other words, the artifact weapons are gone, but the artifact power grind remains. The Heart of Azeroth is essentially a bottomless well that Blizzard chucks "rewards" into to give the player a sense of accomplishment. The azerite powers you get are occasionally interesting, but mostly not, and the system feels a little convoluted and even unnecessary since they are kind of an extension of the class talents.
Then we have the Allied Races. This is a huge one because it establishes a framework for Blizzard to keep adding new races in a more streamlined fashion. Four allied races have been introduced for each faction (with Zandalari trolls and Kul'Tiran humans not yet being available). The unlock requirements for these races are usually time-consuming, such as gaining large amounts of reputation with the relevant faction. This wouldn't be a problem if the allied races also didn't start at only level 20.
What allied races end up doing, is make players work very hard to unlock the races, and then also funnels them into the worst content the game has to offer by making them level up to 120 again. The incentive behind this can't be that it's fun, or due to lore, and leaves me thinking that it's simply a way to easily and artificially force players to spend more time in the game because they have an exceptionally shiny carrot on this stick. While I would love to play a Zandalari troll, I genuinely doubt I'll bother leveling one to 120, especially after grinding all the requirements to unlock it on another character. It's a cheap tactic, and I hope it changes in the near future.
World Quests are back as one of the main activities for max level characters. Introduced in Legion, they are a great way to take players into the world. I would even go so far as to say they might be the best feature added to World of Warcraft since PvP Battlegrounds. The details could still use some tweaking, mainly the boring artifact power and war resource rewards.
War resources are also similar to Legion, and are used to send followers on real-time missions for various rewards. The missions and followers are significantly stripped down compared to the Legion version, and that makes me happier than Sylvanas is bitter, which is beaucoup. Fewer follower items, no more follower item levels, and no more "follower followers", who follow you around in the world. Seeing them scaled them back to this degree, I'm starting to wonder why they can't just be removed altogether.
Another new feature in Battle for Azeroth is the Island Expeditions. You and two other players sail to an instanced island to collect azerite. You have to hurry though because the opposing faction will be trying to beat you to it. There are four modes, three of which are PvE, at varying difficulties. The final mode is PvP, where the opposing three faction members are real players. The expeditions manage to somehow feel both chaotic and boring at the same time.
Elites, rare elites, and random events litter the island. The problem is that nothing really feels tactical, you're just killing things. The NPC opposing faction members have a new kind of advanced AI, meaning they will move out of your AoE, interrupt your spell casts, and generally try to behave as a real player might. This is an interesting addition, but at this time it's hard to judge how impactful it is. Instead of using known classes and abilities for the advanced NPCs, they have unique and tailored abilities, meaning I had no idea what they were doing and therefore couldn't react in any significant way.
It is supposedly viable to play the Island Expeditions as any combination of the tank/damage/healer trinity, yet I saw no evidence of this. A tank/damage/healer or tank/damage/damage combo is easily the most effective. They were teased as requiring "improvisation" due to procedural generation making each game play out differently. This is greatly exaggerated since Island Expeditions goes down the same way every time no matter where the rare events spawn. Admittedly, this might change at higher level play and in PvP. The main incentive for Island Expeditions is artifact power, which doesn't feel rewarding to acquire. All in all, island expeditions sound cool on paper, but in practice, they bored me. They play like a dungeon without bosses or item drops, where you're killing as much trash as possible quickly, while also clicking azerite loot nodes. I think there's potential here, but it has a ways to go yet.
The new set of dungeons are varied and visually stunning. Blizzard has a knack for nailing the particular theme for a dungeon, such as haunted mansion, pirate cove, or insane goblin town. The boss mechanics are interesting enough to keep you on your toes even after a number of runs. In Freehold, for example, you get to chase a greased up pig. It's great. Having said that, it astounded me that there is still a dungeon where you must stand for several minutes and listen to unskippable exposition. The slippery pig is in the same scenario and provides a soothing bandage to that frustration, but still.
The class design has not made significant leaps from Legion, which overhauled a large amount of the specializations. Instead, Battle for Azeroth aims to balance them further, integrating many of the artifact weapon abilities and legendary item effects into talents or azerite armor traits. I've enjoyed all of my warriors' specializations, and most other classes seem to be in good places too. Unfortunately, shadow priests and elemental shamans are still erratic and clunky to play. Blizzard has said that they will be doing a design pass on these in the 8.1 patch.
Battle for Azeroth impresses in the world design, the story, questing, and dungeons, but lets down in the overlong grind mechanics. The biggest standouts in this regard are allied races and the Heart of Azeroth. As always, the future holds much for World of Warcraft. Warfronts are on the way, 20-player PvE battles, where you construct buildings and fortifications. Mythic+ dungeons and more raids are also on the way, which will open the game up further. What will happen with Sylvanas and her end-life crisis is still a mystery, but what matters to me more is what will happen to the Horde and its fractured identity. It's odd that this is barely addressed in the entire expansion, based on what sparked the war in the first place.
There are now enough things to do in World of Warcraft to make a person giddy, and in Battle for Azeroth, you can probably find an aspect of each activity that will be fun for you. The formula hasn't changed, overall. Legion made sweeping changes that dramatically changed aspects of the game. Battle for Azeroth mostly goes with the flow, tweaking what already exists. The big new features (Heart of Azeroth, Island Expeditions) don't add a lot, but that's okay because it improves on what was there, and having two islands creates a new kind of dynamic. What I look forward to most is getting a group together and hunting unsuspecting alliance in Kul'Tiras until we all have bounties on our heads. When the puny pink-skins come, we will go down in a blaze of gore and glory.
What Battle for Azeroth accomplishes better than any other expansion besides perhaps Wrath of the Lich King is creating a sense of a real place steeped in history, and delivering it in a cinematic and exciting way. Having a second island filled with hostiles, that you don't explore significantly until the highest level, is a stroke of genius. It brings back memories of playing Pokemon Silver, discovering in the end that there is still an entire world left to explore, even when I thought I had completed the game. That is a difficult accomplishment, but Battle for Azeroth did it for me. The start of an expansion is usually the best time when the new environments still feel fresh and mysterious. Due to the two island structure, this honeymoon period might well last twice as long as usual.
Our World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth review was conducted on PC via Blizzard Battle.net with a copy purchased by the reviewer. Marcus played through all the Horde zones before writing this review.
World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth delivers the best storytelling and world design yet, but doesn't make any additional significant improvements to the World of Warcraft formula.(Review Policy)
- Beautiful And Well Realized World
- Unique Leveling Experience For Each Faction
- Absorbing Storytelling And Characters
- Too Many Cheap Grinds
- Island Expeditions Need Work