World of Warcraft: Rise of Azshara seems more mini-expansion than update

World of Warcraft's next update is venturing into expansion territory. Some content updates are happy to quietly tweak things and flesh out newer systems, but not Rise of Azshara. It's currently in the Public Test Realm, but it will eventually kick in the doors to the live game and and start throwing its weight around with new zones, system overhauls and a climactic confrontation on the ocean floor. It's a big update, then, and one with several objectives.

There's a lot in the large list of features that's been in the works since the beginning of Battle for Azeroth, but Rise of Azshara is also where Blizzard aims to fix one of the expansion's biggest problems: the Heart of Azeroth and the Azerite Armour system. The size is partly in response to player criticism that goes all the way back to the expansion's launch, but it equally seems like a forward-facing update, progressing the Battle for Azeroth storyline through new quests and dungeons, while also giving players a bounty of new toys and diversions.

"It's definitely on the larger side," says lead designer Kevin Martens. "I think a big part of that is Mechagon as an idea has been around for a while now and there are a lot of passionate people, about mecha-gnomes in particular, so we've been looking for an opportunity to get that done. We knew Nazjatar was always going to be here, but adding that extra zone, making it its own thing with its own special PvE content, finally getting a chance to go into the city and do the giant dungeon—it took a life of its own. Everything we always do takes a life of its own."

While Mechagon hasn't doubled the size of the update, it's made it considerably beefier. Unlike Nazjatar, which is wrapped up in main Battle for Azeroth campaign, Mechagon is a break from all the drama. Compared to the war and now the conflict with the Queen of Tides, Mechagon is silly and whimsical, full of junkyard tinkering and messing around with mecha-gnome contraptions. You'll be able to build a resistance base, unlock schematics, open up new areas through construction projects and even create a customisable trinket. 

Eventually, you might fancy tackling Operation: Mechagon, a new eight-boss Mythic dungeon that's more like a five-player raid. That's where you'll face King Mechagon himself—a massive robot, of course—and stop his plan to turn everyone else into robots. He's not particularly tolerant. 

"King Mechagon will destroy the entire world, he'll replace everyone with robots if he can get away with it," says Martens. "It's an existential threat, but it's the most laughable existential threat we could create."

Azshara seems like a more serious concern. After years of being a nuisance and spreading her influence, she's finally managed to trap both the Alliance and Horde, or more specifically their fleets. The ocean parted, the ships plummeted to the seabed, and thanks to Azshara's magic, everyone's trapped in Nazjatar. It's an underwater area that, for the most part, is on dry land. Unless Azshara brings the water crashing down again, that is. 

"We find that exotic types of gameplay underwater are best when visited occasionally," says Martens. "I think that's true of a lot of content—something can be a lot of fun in small portions but not in the long-term. A lot of balancing the game this big with this many systems is a matter of cadence: how often do you do something and how long do you have to do it for. Generally we use reward systems, timers or calendar events to keep the balance reasonable for players, so they have a variety of things to do but not so many that they get bored or overwhelmed."

It's distinct from Catacylsm's underwater zone, Vashj'ir, where players spend most of their time entirely submerged. It was my favourite Cataclysm zone when the expansion launched largely because there was nothing else like it. It sacrificed the sandbox for a more direct journey that favoured the storyline, the result being a refreshing change of pace. I haven't returned in years. It's a great zone, but not one that inspires many return visits.

"We've already been Vashj'ir, so we wanted a different way to show the ocean bottom," says assistant art director of environments Ely Cannon. "And we still have a lot of flavours: We've got the naga city, the shipwreck area full of Horde and Alliance ships that have been destroyed by Aszhara's trap, and then there's the walls."

Azshara's magic is holding back a titanic and monumentally impressive wall of water that surrounds all of Nazjatar. It's impassable for the most part, and you'll want to watch out for pesky naga jumping out of it to attack you. They really are everywhere; it's their home. It's a constantly visible reminder of Azshara's ridiculous power.  

"So it's actually new tech we're using for the walls which uses images to move all the individual vertices on the geometry around which gives us actual displacement," adds Cannon. "It's a brand new thing we can do and this was a great opportunity to show off the technology."

As well as building up to the big fight with the Queen of Tides in the Eternal Palace raid, there's a lot of other things going on in Nazjatar. There are special profession quests, follower quests, functional toys, treasure hunting and experimental world bosses and elite beasties that'll take a bit of extra work to put in the ground. You might encounter an enemy with a reflection shield, for instance, so you'll need to pull back and deal with its minions or it will store up all that damage and just fling it right back at your face. There are around six or seven affixes that give these enemies a bit more bite.

These encounters require players to be more communicative and prepare before leaping into the fray. While between 80 to 90 percent of Rise of Azshara can be experienced on your lonesome, a lot of players have been clamouring for some more engaging group shenanigans—hopefully this will be one way to scratch that itch. The new Heroic Warfronts could be another. They're challenges designed for experienced warbands thanks to more dynamic, reactive opponents that are meant to be able to identify weak points and taken advantage of them. They might even outsmart you. 

Much of the criticism surrounding Battle for Azeroth has been aimed at the Azerite Armour system and the relentless Heart of Azeroth grind. It's a novelty with diminishing returns. It's gone. Excised from the game, essentially, and replaced by a system that retains some of its predecessor's basic ideas while drawing from Legion's excellent Artifact Weapons. Azerite Armour now unlocks traits automatically and lets you pick and choose, while the Heart of Azeroth itself has been transformed into this customisable tool with a skill tree full of stat bonuses and slots for active and passive abilities. The Heart becomes more powerful as you get more Azerite, but then but you can also go out and find more Essences to augment it.

Essences are made from old Titan energy and give you an active and passive ability. There are around two dozen Essences, along with multiple ranks and modifiers, so there should be a lot of opportunities to mix and match as you test out different synergies. You can get them from PvP, raids, expeditions and all sorts of activities, and they're not random. Then you can upgrade them by taking on an even greater challenge. If you defeat a boss you might get a basic Essence, but doing it again in Mythic will then net you an upgraded version.

"The Essences this time around are particularly compelling," says Martens. "There are some really good active abilities with a lot of tactical depth, and there are some good passives, too. One of the major abilities that happens to be passive but is still awesome is Vision of Perfection. This is one that takes your super ability for every spec and lets you do it a lot more often. If you're a demon hunter, for instance, any of your attacks have a 35 percent of popping your Metamorphosis, so you're just playing and all of a sudden you're a giant demon for a while."

There are damaging abilities, like spike rings and various Azerite-themed attacks, and best of all a teleporting ability that ends in an explosion. "This is Blizzard," says Martens, "so we've got to make you explode." And there's a cosmetic component, too. The most powerful artefact in Azeroth should have some panache, so there are different Azerite visuals connected to the Essences that you'll collect, which get even flashier when they hit level four.

When Steven spoke with Ion Hazzikostas in April, the game director said that one of the problems with Battle for Azeroth was there wasn't enough time to do the external playtesting a system of that sope really required, especially at max level. This time around, testing has been more of a priority. The update, or at least parts of it, has been playable in the PTR for a month, but there's still more to add, and the PTR might be extended to make sure it all gets plenty of time to be put through its paces.

The dissatisfaction with some parts of Battle for Azeroth has lead to a lot of fuming on forums, but Martens doesn't see the relationship, even with the most vocal players, as adversarial. He views the criticism as people sticking around and wanting to make the game better, and comparatively rarely does he see people threatening to quit the game because there's something they don't like. 

Not all of the criticism has been directed towards Battle for Azeroth's new systems; the storyline has proved to be divisive, too. There are a lot of people not currently impressed with Sylvanas's leadership of the Horde, or the atrocities she's been committing. There was even an in-game protest, Shoulders for Saurfang, where players showed their support for the orc High Overlord and the Horde's old ideals. I was so put off by Sylvanas that I joined the Alliance. There's a distinction, however, between being critical of the character and not gelling with the story. I actually really dig the direction Blizzard's taking her in, even though I think she's just awful now, but some players think it's too similar to Garrosh's arc and that her turn to mega-villain hasn't been earned. There's a lot more of her story to come, however, and it will move forward with Rise of Azshara.

"It's a real luxury to have people care enough to be hit by it emotionally," says Martens. "We do want to try to be true to Sylvanas's hurt and pain, as well as what her hopes are, and I hope by the time this is done, people will be able to see that whole tapestry."

That kind of storytelling is what's most effective, adds Cannon. "Those things you get really passionate about that affect you on an emotional, human level—that's storytelling."

Players that are sick of Sylvanas's rule can find solace in the fact that a lot of the Horde is, too, like the aforementioned Saurfang. He refused to follow Sylvanas after the Battle for Lordaeron and was last seen wandering through the Swamp of Sorrows. Thanks to a new cinematic, we now know where he was going. Check it out below. 

 Yep, Thrall's back. If you need a counterpoint to Sylvanas, you've got one. It looks like WoW is gearing up for a war over the Horde, but who's going to end up in charge? I reckon Saurfang deserves a shot at the big chair, frankly, but I get nostalgic just thinking about Warchief Thrall. Blizzard likely knows, but that's not necessarily set in stone.

"We have a lot of plans and potential storylines going on decades, maybe even 100 years of stuff we could do with Azeroth," says Martens, "but we always do it with a light touch because we know we might want to adjust it according to what feels right at that time, or we have stories that have surprised us with their power and they became the inspiration for something else. We try to stay light on our feet but also have a big universe we can always pull from."

After bouncing off Battle for Azeroth—I ain't got time for that grind—I do find myself edging closer to returning to the war, maybe even the Horde. I took a jaunt through Nazjatar recently and I was faced with countless shiny things vying for my attention, but that's often the case with updates and expansions. Once I finish the Nazjatar storyline and muck around in Mechagon will I just return to grinding? With the Mechagon Arena, Ashran's return to the PvP queue, new Expeditions, more Warfronts and a lot I'm forgetting, it looks like I might be too busy.