Category: Battle for Azeroth


I’ve played Battle for Azeroth for some days now, long enough to talk about my first impressions. I’ve also got my main character to top level.

First off, navigation about the world is far more user friendly than it was in Legion. Finding quest objectives in the previous expansion was sometimes so difficult the majority of our guild resorted to using an addon that helped you find where you were supposed to be. There’s a new version of it for BFA but so far I’ve not had to turn it on. There are still quest items and mobs hidden in caves, but at least the dot on the map specifying where they are in the landscape is reachable without going round the outside of a huge mountain, across a few lakes, to find a tiny hole in the ground amid dense shrubbery that’s the hidden entrance to the cave you need to be in. Now – there’s simply a pretty clear path to a cave. Short of physical sign posts along the path, it can’t get any better.


(Drustvar Mountains from the Air)

BFA’s landscape is also less vertical. While there are breathtaking mountains aplenty and beautifully realised topography, pathways up the mountainsides are clear and easy to find and lead to where you want to go without any screaming, hair pulling or frantically looking things up on the internet.

The questing itself, however, isn’t quite so user friendly. It’s clear this is because at the end of Legion we had to surrender the perks of our incredibly powerful and multi-talented artefact weapons. We were used to being amazingly strong, scything our way through foes as if they were mosquitoes. While the artefacts still work as ‘stat sticks’ until around level 115, even though their special qualities have been disabled, thereafter they’re replaced quickly by questing greens – those throwaway bits of gear you hasten to replace immediately you hit top level. Your legendary items work until 115 too, so the first half of levelling feels like you’re skipping round the beautiful landscape, singing to yourself and admiring the scenery. Then… at 115 all the special qualities of your legendary items are disabled. Bam! The mobs have scaled up as you have, but you are effectively far weaker than you were only a level ago. You’re soon replacing those legendaries with more questing greens. From thereon, questing gets slower and more onerous. We’re used to being superheroes in Legion. Now we’re back to being foot soldiers, wielding a stick with a nail in it, dressed in ragged hand me downs rather than sparkly armour.

It’s always been this way at top level in new expansions. Traditionally, the moment you get to max, you go from carefree questing to being as weak as a kitten who can’t even hit a ball of string. We expect it then. The idea is that at top level we start earning new and better gear through world quests, dungeons, raids and so on. That’s what end game’s all about. But levelling to get there wasn’t taxing or that annoying – other than (in Legion) problems with navigation.

I really hope Blizzard will do something to fix this situation, because I think the effects of the recent stat squish and scaling, coupled with the disabling of our superpowers, have been more catastrophic than they realised. I’ve read forum threads about this topic, where there are plenty of people scoffing at those complaining, claiming that levelling is supposed to be hard, not ridiculously easy. The usual smug cries of ‘learn to play, noob!’ abound. Actually, levelling is supposed to be fun. It is (or should be) the easy part of WoW. The challenging content comes in dungeons and raids, in doing mythic+ content, or the various challenges Blizzard offer to the hardcore and those who really like to be tested.

My main character was equipped with heroic raid gear from Legion, so was used to having a fairly easy time of it in the open world, but he struggled through the last few levels to 120. He died to things I’m really not used to him being killed by. The main problem is that he now doesn’t regenerate energy fast enough. He’s a Druid, and I habitually level him in his Feral cat form. Now, he doesn’t have enough of the Haste stat to regenerate energy efficiently, and if more than two foes attack, making a fight lengthy, he quickly has no resources, so I can’t use his skills and have to wait painfully for his energy bar to refill. This also has a huge impact on his instant Regrowth procs, essential for a cat whose skin is rather thin. Friends who play Rogues or Monks have also reported the same frustration. Now, after my Druid’s limped to top level, hissing furiously, I’ve had to use his bear Guardian form instead of cat. It’s going fine as his personal resource regeneration is far easier to manage in that form and the reduction in damage is more than made up for by his survivability. I’m trying to finish the quests in all the zones in order to gain reputation with the various factions, and hostile creatures in more than pairs would be lethal at top level for the cat. Mini-bosses found at the end of quest chains also seem overtuned. Some quests intended to be soloable really aren’t. I know I only have to wait to get more gear and be patient but… patience isn’t my best quality, and I do think questing shouldn’t be so burdensome.

How on earth my lesser alts will fare, especially the extremely squishy cloth-wearers, I can’t bear to imagine. All my characters capable of being a tank will certainly be one the moment they set foot in the Isles. But if things don’t improve for the more vulnerable characters, (including all classes affected by the drastic reduction in resource regeneration), I can’t see me levelling them, because the experience post level 115 won’t be fun at all. As a friend said to me today as I was complaining about the situation, this will be the worst it’ll ever be in BFA. From now on, we’ll be earning gear and getting stronger. But that won’t help my mages and priests, nervously waiting in their flimsy negligees for me to take them out to level up. (I won’t include warlocks there. They are a class unto themselves and operate outside usual WoW parameters – as any player with a lock will know!) I wish Blizzard – and all the masochists banging on about loving challenge – would just remember that a game, by its very nature, is supposed to be fun and enjoyable.

Another thing I’m really not happy about is Warmode, Blizzard’s way of (allegedly) pleasing both those who like to PvP (player versus player) against real people in the game and those who prefer their enemies to be pixelated, i.e. PvE (player versus environment). I hate world PvP, which to me seems only to give unpleasant people, who love annoying others, license to be a jerk. I’m no good at it, and don’t have the gazelle-like reflexes to cope with my characters being attacked by frenzied teenagers without dying almost immediately. So I avoid it as much as possible, doing any kind of PVP only with gritted teeth, when there’s a reward I particularly want that demands I take part in it. But with Warmode, which players can elect to ‘turn on’ in their capital cities, they can do all their questing in PvP, only seeing other players in the landscape who’ve made the same choice. So ideally all the pvpers can inconvenience each other to their hearts’ delight, leaving us pvers to get on with levelling hassle-free. Except… Blizzard has dangled an immense carrot with Warmode. Players who elect to have it on get increased experience and better quest rewards. As this is an attractive prospect to any player, regardless of their feelings about PvP, they begin to think it’s mandatory to do it. A lot of players are desperate to get to max level in any way possible because the thing they enjoy most in WoW is end game content, and levelling is just a chore they do to get there. The knock-on effect of this is that quite often I’ve been playing on my own in the landscape, never seeing other players. I can only assume this is because so many have opted for the rewards and turned on Warmode, thus making themselves invisible to me and the PvE world seems empty. This makes it difficult to find other people for group quests too. I’ve tried making my own groups, but after 15 mins of no applicants, I’ve given up.

Another downside of Warmode is that Blizzard will now see world PvP in BFA as a big success. They won’t (or will refuse to) see that the majority of players only turn it on for the rewards and swift levelling, not because they want to PvP. I read one forum thread where some PvE players were discussing the hardships of Warmode levelling. ‘You only get killed about once every 7 quests,’ someone said plaintively. ‘So it’s not as bad as it could be.’ Excuse me? Getting killed by a PvP player once every 20 quests would be too much for me and would only make me angry. I want to get on with killing mobs and picking up quest items, as well as paying attention to the story, not have to fight off aggressive players as well. The impression I’m receiving is that people are resigning themselves to Warmode in order to level faster, not that they’re enjoying it. But what they don’t seem to realise is that they’re allowing Blizzard to set a precedent. Since I started playing, it’s always seemed they’ve wanted more players to take part in PvP. They’ve often forced PvE players into it to complete important quest chains or achievements, which we’ve done with a shudder and a grimace. Now, they’ll claim Warmode is a huge triumph and clearly players have wanted it all along, which could lead to world PvP being forced on us even more. Really, I think people who hate PvP but are using Warmode for convenience are stupid and doing harm to the PvE game. Why not take a bit longer to level? Is an extra day really that bad? And for how long exactly will you keep those slightly higher ilevel questing greens? The precedent is dangerous, because once lines are crossed, it’s nigh on impossible to go back over them.

Enough griping! There is still so much to enjoy in BfA. I’ve tried out the dungeons and they’re all amazing to behold, with some interesting bosses and beautifully designed landscapes and interiors. The island expeditions for three players are also enjoyable, which you can complete either against NPC foes or in PvP mode against the other faction. These are a race against time to gather resources and stop the other team from grabbing them. We still have Warfronts and the first raid to come, adding more content to end game play. On top of that we have factions to cosy up to and increase our reputation with them, unlocking vendors who sell gear and crafting patterns.

The storylines in each zone are compelling and rather like reading a story or watching a film. You want to know what happens next, which helps offset the horror of being jumped unexpectedly by multiple mobs that slash your questing greens to ribbons. There is a main narrative thread, but also multiple sub plots found in the landscape. Drustvar did not disappoint me. I adored that zone, especially the spooky child quest line. That was genius. More of that type of thing please, Blizzard. The whole zone, with its theme of dark witchcraft and tainted families, its strange wicker effigies and creatures that are seemingly constructed from sticks and bones, PLUS the absolutely disgusting pig men – apparently humans with heads of pigs grafted onto them in some obscene magical experiments. I loved wandering through the haunted forests, and in such a setting the constant sense of threat works very well.


(Drustvar Forest)

I’ve just finished questing through Stormsong Valley too, which is more of an open landscape. The theme is sea-faring communities and – naturally – pirates. Here, the minions of the naga queen Azshara begin to make their presence felt as well. There’s something funny going on, with Lovecraftian beings appearing here and there. Evil is building in this beautiful zone. The Alliance also meet with the Tortollan, a race of humanoid turtles, who are amusing creatures saying things like ‘I’ve seen things that would scare the shell off you!’ We need to be friends with them (and as they’re a neutral race I assume it’s the same for Horde) because a lot of crafting patterns are locked behind reputation gains with the Tortollan.

From what I’ve seen of professions in BFA (and I’ve only scratched the surface so far), advancing them will be more pleasurable this time round, after the horrid mess that Legion made of crafting. The fact that each expansion will have its own crafting tier is a great idea. In BfA, we start at level 1 in each profession we have and only have to reach 150 to max out – which anyone must agree is a far better prospect than levelling up to 900 through all the expansions.

So, after nearly a week, my first impressions are mainly good with only the levelling experience and Warmode to complain about. Actually, well, the levelling experience is rather important right now, so perhaps casts a dark shadow over all the good stuff. I hope not, and that Blizzard will make a few adjustments to make the process smoother, especially once everyone’s got their main characters to top level. Take pity on the alts, Blizzard.

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There is some explanation in this article for people who aren’t familiar with the story of WoW, which inevitably contains some spoilers concerning all the pre-patch events before Battle for Azeroth. Don’t read if you’ve not yet played through the Siege of Lordaeron and don’t want the surprises ruined.

Here we are at the eve of a new World of Warcraft expansion. Launch nights are always, for my guild mates and me, an exciting time. It happens once every two years or so and you really feel you’re off to discover new landscapes and races and adventures. All good. Battle for Azeroth will take us to breath-taking new lands and, having been in the Beta for it, (albeit not doing much as I don’t want to spoil the story), I can’t wait.

However, the run up to this particular expansion has been more melodramatic than usual. This is down to how the story is developing within the game. Azeroth is a huge world, with an immense amount of lore attached to it, which could give Lord of the Rings a run for its money in terms of complexity and fully realised histories of multiple nations and continents.

When you’ve played an MMO for getting on for twelve years or so, its native people feel more like friends than bunches of pixels. When I began playing WoW, back in Classic, I didn’t even notice the story and only started to become interested in it during the second expansion, Wrath of the Lich King. The story within The Burning Crusade, the first expansion that led WoW out of Classic into a new age in a lot of respects, didn’t engage me as much, not because it wasn’t compelling but because so much of it was hidden inside raids, and at the time my guild could only access the 10-person Karazhan and Zul Aman. The bigger raids, for hardcore players only, held the meat of the story within them. But in Wrath, you occasionally ran into the Big Bad, Arthas the Lich King, as you were doing quests and levelling, as well as in the 5-person dungeons. There were dramatic cinematics to further the story – and not this time hidden in raids that were simply for the hardcore elite. Raids – often the most spectacular part of the game – also became accessible to more players, specifically for guilds with smaller teams. Our guild loved this. Everyone felt involved.

WoW has built on this type of story-telling ever since, so that players can engage with what’s going on. You feel like you’re in a book or a film, and it’s not just a case of mindlessly killing 10 of this or collecting 10 of that for quests. What you do has more purpose. You’re busy helping oppressed races or fighting enemies that threaten the whole world. Through the story, players have changed the world of Azeroth, for better or worse.

In Battle for Azeroth, Blizzard is (initially) taking the story back to the faction divide. If anyone’s reading this who isn’t a WoW devotee, I’ll just explain that when players join the game, they choose either Alliance or Horde and begin playing their first character in that faction. Eventually, we might make characters on the other faction in order to see the story from both sides, and I imagine very few players don’t do that nowadays.

In the build up to BfA, Horde and Alliance are at each other’s throats again, in a tit for tat war. For the uninitiated, here is a very simple precis of a quite complicated story: Horde Warchief, Sylvanas Windrunner, nuked the World Tree Teldrassil, which was home of the Alliance Night Elves. A great many civilians perished, burned alive. In retaliation, the boy king Anduin Wrynn led Alliance forces against the Horde at the occupied city of Lordaeron. Here, Sylvanas decided to release the Blight, a hideous, fleshing-eating disease that killed both her own troops as well as Alliance soldiers, all of which she then raised gleefully as undead to fight for her. Despite this, she still didn’t win, thanks to the timely intervention of Jaina Proudmoore, a somewhat conflicted character herself (to put it mildly), and a very powerful Alliance mage. The leaders of both sides escaped the devastation, thus setting the stage for the launch of BfA.

Sylvanas’s actions at Lordaeron following the slaughter of civilians in Teldrassil has left a lot of Horde players feeling pretty angry. They disagree with their leader’s tactics and decisions – and it seems several non-player characters in the game feel the same, as shown in the movie-quality cinematic Blizzard released last week – The Old Soldier. In this, the veteran Orc general, Varok Saurfang, is so disgusted with the ways things are going – including perhaps how his world has changed since he was young – that he’s prepared to take off his armour and go to face the Alliance troops alone and unarmoured on the morning before the final battle. Sure suicide. But to Saurfang, honour is everything, and he feels the war he’s caught up in is dishonourable. He’s only dissuaded by a young Troll shaman who, as the dawn breaks over the mighty war engines of the Alliance surrounding Lordaeron, brings a degree of hope back to the grizzled old fighter. It was well-written, well-directed and beautifully depicted, and I found it profoundly moving. But the cinematic only highlighted the discord within the Horde itself.

I like the drama of this, and it makes me eager to discover how the story is going to play out. It’s clear Blizzard wants everyone to feel furious with Sylvanas and worried for the future, regardless of their faction, but I think the developers have got more story surprises up their sleeves. Some players are suggesting this plot is a precursor to doing away with faction divide completely – something I’d personally welcome, although a lot of players (perhaps even 50%?) would hate that. To me, faction divide is annoying in many ways. Story-wise, we’ve been teaming up to fight a common foe for over a decade. Everyone (player and fictional character alike) is older and wiser, yet even so, Horde and Alliance are now back to scrapping like school kids. It doesn’t make sense to me. Surely, a type of Cold War plot would be more convincing? I’m mainly an Alliance player, but I do have a lot of Horde characters I love just as much. Unfortunately, I can’t do end game group content with them, because all my friends play Alliance exclusively at top level. My Hordies are paupers in comparison to my rich Alliance characters, and because they’re on opposite sides, I can’t mail my Horde gold or resources, which is really galling when my Alliance have far more than they can use. Removing the divide, so that the factions could group for high level content, and otherwise communicate in all sorts of ways, would mean my Horde characters might even see a bit of raid and dungeon action, which I’d be really pleased about. But… if Blizzard does decide to sow permanent harmony between Horde and Alliance, a large proportion of the player base might have tantrums about it. We’ll have to see whether Blizzard wants to risk that. I have no gut feeling either way, because so much is up in the air story-wise at present.

There are many predictions about how the narrative will go and I enjoy being tantalised by this. It’s like beginning to read a novel in which anything could happen. But… I can’t help thinking that some of the narrative decisions that have been made since the beginning of the recent (brilliant) Legion expansion have their roots in what has become popular in genre fiction as a whole – whether in books, comics or film. I don’t think anyone can dispute that Game of Thrones has been a huge influence on story-telling. It was this show (and books) that popularised the idea of provoking (and perhaps displeasing) the audience by killing off major characters en masse, characters who normally readers/viewers would expect to be comfortably invested in. It seems a cold-hearted act, almost breaking the contract between writer and reader, to exterminate too many characters simply for the sake of being shocking. The Grimdark genre truly deserves its name. I hate the brutality of this story-telling fashion in fantasy fiction, the attention to gory detail, the gloating over torture and torment, and the constant soft porn, which is just boring. The way I see it, if someone wants to watch porn, they can go and watch it on a channel or DVD devoted to erotic titillation. I don’t see its place in mainstream entertainment. But there it is, and it’s probably not going to go away now. The demons are out of the bag, which means that me, and people like me, just can’t watch some shows, even if we otherwise like the story and setting. (For the record, I can stomach the soft porn, even if it’s dull and wastes screen time when some actual story-telling could be going on, but I simply cannot and will not watch drawn out torture, dismemberment, graphic executions and rape. What kind of person enjoys such scenes?)

I think WoW has been infected by this trend, which began in Legion with the slaughter of the human High King, Varian Wrynn, one of his veteran generals, Tyrion Fordring, the Horde Warchief Vol’jin (a much-loved Troll leader), and several others. The fact that WoW lead developer Ion Hazzikostas recently compared the Burning of Teldrassil with the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones speaks volumes. You can see it must’ve been an influence, however unconsciously and if only for its shock value. OK, the upsetting moments at the start of Legion moved the story along and created high impact drama. It set the scene for the amoral Sylvanas to become Warchief of the Horde and the young and inexperienced (and pleasingly pretty) Anduin to become the human High King. New stories to be told, new characters to invest in. And now we are facing its legacy in BfA. But I do think Blizzard might have gone a bit too far with the ‘realism’ in a game that’s essentially an escapist fantasy. I’m not sure I trust the creators (who are primarily game developers rather than fiction writers) to handle the story skilfully and convincingly. And the players want to be convinced by the story. The professional writers Blizzard do employ undoubtedly have to work to a predefined script, so can’t be held responsible, and certainly don’t deserve the threatening vitriol that’s been directed at them on social media, but quite honestly the current writers are not that great. I would like to read the WoW novels to discover all the story detail that doesn’t happen ‘in game’ but I can’t bear the hackneyed writing. I did try, I really did… But it just hurt my eyes, never mind my own creative sensibilities, to read it. As an editor as well as a writer, I couldn’t stop editing the prose in my head as I was reading. But anyway, those people are just employees, and it’s some committee, somewhere deep inside Blizzard, that calls the shots.

The good side of all this is that story has become very important – nowadays, people expect their entertainment, even in games, to have complex, mature themes, realistic characters and situations, and convincing dramatic tension. I’m delighted I’m sitting here writing about all this, because it means story-telling is alive and well, and that modern obsessions with technology, plus short attention spans, haven’t damaged it past repair. Quite the opposite, even if fiction has expanded far beyond the pages of books.

Part of The Old Soldier showed Saurfaung morosely removing his shoulder armour and throwing it to the ground. In an act of defiance against Sylvanas, (or solidarity with Saurfang, who is currently in the custody of the Alliance), some Horde players are currently choosing not to display their shoulder armour on their characters. I read that on some servers, (perhaps those devoted solely to role-playing, sadly I can’t remember), players congregated in the Horde capital of Orgrimmar to demonstrate, in a ‘Not in my Name’ kind of way. That shows how the story is affecting people, so Blizzard are doing something right. WoW is a game, yet its narrative touches people deeply. As a writer of fiction, I applaud this – and of course this is why WoW has held my attention for so long.

This evening, as midnight strikes in Europe, the islands of Kul’Tiras and Zandalar will open, and the conflict of the Horde and Alliance will be taken there. I’ve already seen the landscape, and it’s incredibly beautiful. The artwork has come on a long way since Classic WoW. One zone in particular – Drustvar – is a haunted land of dark witchcraft and supernatural strangeness. That’s the area I’m heading to as soon as I reach Kul’Tiras. From what I’ve seen it’s entirely my kind of place. I’m crossing my fingers that the story as it unfolds will be grand and surprising, and ultimately satisfying for all players. Sylvanas will definitely not be Warchief by the end of this expansion, I’m quite sure of that, but even though Saurfang seems the obvious replacement, I’m not so sure about that. Anduin will grow and change, perhaps pick up a wife along the way (the Wrynn dynasty needs continuance and Anduin could do with a strong partner to support him. There are several compelling female characters who’d make outstanding queens) – or… maybe the boy king won’t survive the story. Whatever happens, it begins tonight, like a two-year long movie or novel. I loved Legion, its story, its landscapes and its characters. But now we’re moving on to new horizons. I’m more than ready to be part of that.