I wish I could say that 2018 was a stellar year for World of Warcraft. It started off as one, certainly. Legion, one of the best expansions since Wrath of the Lich King, was winding to a triumphant close and everyone was high off of the adrenaline rush of giving Sargeras, Warcraft's chief villain, a giant noogie. The next expansion, Battle for Azeroth, promised a giant perspective shift away from intergalactic demon armies to the reason so many millions of people subscribed to this crazy game in the first place: All out Alliance versus Horde warfare.
The opening volley of Battle for Azeroth was great, as I said in my review. The new zones were lush and fun, and the new group activities like Warfronts and Island Expeditions were interesting at first. Then the dust settled and players stared ahead at the long months of pointless grinding to increase the level of your Heart of Azeroth necklace, the aggressive RNG that stood between you and a coveted piece of gear, and that hard-to-place feeling that combat just felt worse for many classes. In an attempt to mix things up after Legion, it seemed Blizzard trampled on much of what made that era of Warcraft fun.
In the months since Battle for Azeroth's release, Blizzard has been working to fix what is broken while promising that things would get better in the future. But what exactly can players expect from World of Warcraft in 2019?
Blizzard won't improve its communication
In the weeks following Battle for Azeroth's launch, players grew increasingly frustrated over Blizzard's lack of communication. There was a lot to like about the new expansion but also a lot that needed fixing, and Blizzard seemed to be radio silent. Back in September of 2018, game director Ion Hazzikostas finally broke that silence on the World of Warcraft subreddit with an Ask Me Anything where he personally addressed some of the community's biggest issues. Among those, was a lack of communication. "I know there are a ton of questions and concerns that feel unanswered right now, and a need for much more robust communication on our end," Hazzikostas said at the time.
In the months since that AMA not much has changed—and I doubt that it's going to change in 2019, either. Outside of the occasional developer Q&A that tackles a handful of curated questions, there's still a general feeling that complaints are falling on deaf ears. Case in point: Since the launch of update 8.1 in December, players have been complaining about crippling server lag that often makes playing impossible. It's been an issue that, for weeks, hasn't had any kind of official acknowledgement.
It's not like Blizzard has been dead silent—Blizzcon 2018 revealed lots of exciting details about what's coming in future patches—but players still feel left in the dark when it comes to a lot of their concerns. When update 8.1 launched, for example, there was a long list of undocumented changes with some being exceedingly unpopular. There's a lot of room for improvement, but if Blizzard wasn't able to make a noticeable change back in September, I'm skeptical they'll be able to pull it together now. Grizzled veterans have heard these kinds of placating promises before. Expect it to be a running theme throughout 2019 that Blizzard still isn't acknowledging what irks many of its players.
Battle for Azeroth won't get better until after patch 8.2
Now that we've had a few weeks to play with Tides of Vengeance, Battle for Azeroth's 8.1 patch, it's clear that this isn't the redemptive update players were hoping. Don't get me wrong, 8.1 added a lot of great fixes to some of Warcraft's more infuriating systems—the biggest of which being the new Titan Residuum currency that guarantees dungeon-runners a best-in-slot item every few weeks. But aside from the new Darkshore Warfront and two new Island Expeditions, Tides of Vengeance doesn't bring all that much to the table to keep players interested. Later in January, Season 2 of Battle for Azeroth's endgame begins with the opening of the new raid, new Mythic+ modifiers, and a new PvP league. But even that is just more of what players are already doing.
There is a glimmer of hope on the horizon in patch 8.2, which is expected to arrive sometime this summer. Similar to Legion's final major update, this major update, called Rise of Azshara, will introduce whole new zones to explore in addition to new dungeons and raids. It's shaping up to seem like a positively massive patch that will give players much more than just a few hours of quests to rip through.
Both of the new zones coming in 8.2 seem awesome. First, players will venture to Nazjatar, the once-submerged homeland of the evil naga. The sneak peek we saw during Blizzcon 2018 showcased gorgeous kelp forests and coral reefs that players will explore while taking the fight to the Queen of the Naga, Azshara herself. Once players are done there, they'll be whisked off to Mechagon, a subterranean scrapheap city full of steampunk android gnomes. While I love the variety of zones in Battle for Azeroth, these two additions sound awesome. But the most intriguing part of 8.2 isn't the new activities it adds, but the major refinements to Battle for Azeroth's various systems.
Azerite Armor will be significantly overhauled
Since launch, one of the biggest criticisms about Battle for Azeroth has been its loot system and, primarily, Azerite Armor. I won't go into a full rundown here, but the gist is that players earn Azerite from various activities to power up a special necklace called the Heart of Azeroth. When the Heart reaches certain levels, it unlocks dormant abilities found in Azerite Armor that you wear on your head, shoulders, and chest. The problems with Azerite Armor are many: The traits you unlock are boring and hard to compare, finally getting an armor upgrade doesn't feel good when all of its Azerite traits are locked and you have to grind even more to access them, and the whole system feels like a step back from Legion's much cooler Artifact Weapons.
When Season 2 starts on January 22, Blizzard will address one of these problems by stripping out many of the worst Azerite Armor traits and replacing them with abilities that should hopefully add more meaningful choices while also changing up your playstyle in combat in more interesting ways. In addition to that, the best Azerite Armor will also have a fifth tier, offering even more choice in how to customize this armor to suit your build.
Looking at patch 8.2, things get much more interesting. In a recent developer Q&A, Hazzikostas revealed that Azerite Armor and the Heart of Azeroth are both going to be significantly overhauled. While the details are still vague (it's likely Blizzard hasn't even figured it all out yet), the idea is that after 8.2 Azerite Armor traits will always be fully unlocked and not dependent on the level of your Heart of Azeroth. That means any time you get a new piece of armor, you can immediately choose which traits you want to use and enjoy those benefits right away. The Heart of Azeroth, Hazzikostas said, will be changed to have its own skill tree of passive bonuses that increase as it gains levels. It's such a massive change that it seems like an entirely new progression system—one that players will hopefully find more satisfying.
Battle for Azeroth's new activities still won't be much fun
Two of the biggest features in Battle for Azeroth are also some of its least exciting, and despite Blizzard's attempt to expand and tweak them, I don't think that'll change in 2019. Warfronts, which promised epic-scale PvE battles reminiscent of Warcraft 3, turned out to be snoozefests once players realized that their individual actions mattered little on the battlefield. You can easily park your character in a safe place and go make a sandwich and come back to find the battle is won. Likewise, Island Expeditions were really exciting at first but ended up being repetitive and unrewarding.
In Tides of Vengeance, Blizzard tried to fix both of these problems by introducing a new Warfront, the Battle of Darkshore, which tried to amp up the action and give players more interesting choices in how they participate in its big battles. It's certainly a spectacular fight the first time through, but it still suffers the same problems as the first Warfront in that there's just not a lot of meaningful decisions to be made and practically zero challenge to these fights. Island Expeditions, on the other hand, received several major tweaks to make them more varied and rewarding in addition to two new islands to explore, but they're still nowhere near as interesting as dungeons and still feel like a mad dash to kill as many monsters as possible.
While both of these features have some cool ideas, I think their flaws are so fundamental that Blizzard won't be able to fix them in 2019—if at all. Getting more Warfronts and islands is a guarantee, and these new additions will be fun for a bit, but the underlying design needs some big changes before they'll be as satisfying as Warcraft's other pursuits.
World of Warcraft: Classic will be a fun blast from the past
Blizzard surprised us at Blizzcon last year when they announced that World of Warcraft: Classic, which recreates WoW as it existed in 2006 before any expansions, would be arriving in the summer of 2019. Originally Blizzard made it seem like the project could take years to finish, but apparently development has been trucking along at a steady pace.
That's great news because after dipping my toes into the demo that was available at Blizzcon, I walked away surprisingly optimistic about the experience. Despite Battle for Azeroth's troubles, modern Warcraft is a much more fun and accessible game, but my time in old school Azeroth showed me that it has its own charms and nuances that I liked in equal measure. Since its announcement, fans have been debating whether Classic will be little more than a short-lived tourist destination or a permanent home for Warcraft nostalgists, but I think the answer is simply both. On release day, millions will flood in to experience that long lost sense of childhood wonder, but once the novelty fades I think Classic will house a passionate fanbase who appreciates just how arcane and slow this MMO used to be. Either way, Classic will be a welcome diversion from Battle for Azeroth—especially once some of its major world events like the Gates of Ahn'Qiraj kick off.