What is it? A high-seas expansion to World of Warcraft full of pirates, dinosaurs, and Cthulhu-esque monsters.
Expect to pay: $50
Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Reviewed on: Windows 10, i5 3570k, GTX 970, 16GB RAM
Multiplayer: Massively multiplayer
When Rodrigo, the Freehold flight master, offers me a modest sum of gold to get revenge on the local pirates that have been bullying him, I can't refuse. Who doesn't love beating on bullies? Rodrigo asks me to fly around on one of his giant parrots dropping bombs on the brigands. It seems a little extreme at first, but then I realize Rodrigo wasn't being literal. At the push of a button, a giant green turd erupts from the parrot's nether region and splats on a unsuspecting pirate. From far above, I hear him shout "Agh, my eye!"
Welcome to World of Warcraft, a place where I'm shitting on people's heads one minute and an hour later slaughtering civilians who have become incurably infested by Lovecraftian brain slugs. Don't get me wrong though, I love that WoW flashes between serious and goofy. Battle for Azeroth embraces that tonal duality with conviction. The end result is a landscape full of moments that are sometimes bleak, sometimes hilarious, and always fun.
Blood in the water
During the finale of Legion, the previous expansion, the dark titan Sargeras stabbed his continent-sized sword into the planet, wounding it so deeply that its crystallized blood began bleeding to the surface. Without a common enemy to unite them, the Horde and Alliance are at each other's throats and Azeroth's blood, called Azerite, turns out to be the perfect weapon. After an explosive pre-expansion event that spanned two cataclysmic battles, the opposing factions set sail to find new allies to help them break the stalemate.
For the Alliance, that means trying to repair their damaged relationship with the human maritime superpower of Kul Tiras. The Horde, likewise, venture to the lost continent of Zandalar to treat with the ancient but powerful Zandalari troll empire. Giving each faction an entirely separate continent to level on massively increases the scope of Battle for Azeroth and it's an impressive achievement. Now that I've taken the time to level both a Horde and Alliance character to the new level cap of 120, Battle for Azeroth almost feels like two expansions rolled into one.
The islands of Kul Tiras and Zanadalar are some of the most exquisitely designed in Warcraft's history and the highpoint of Battle for Azeroth so far. After Legion's Broken Isles, which felt like a disjointed greatest hits of Warcraft lore, I adore how consistent yet diverse each of the new islands is.
Take Kul Tiras, for example. This maritime island is cut up into three zones that all feel like organic extensions of each other while still being individually identifiable and memorable. The bleak tundras of Tiragarde Sound house the capital city of Boralus, torn by political infighting. Drustvar, to the west, is a mountain range surrounded by spooky forests where villages are slowly succumbing to the nefarious magics of a witch coven. To the north, though, is Stormsong Valley, the verdant breadbasket of Kul Tiras where Cthulhu-esque sea priests practice their ancient rites in the shadow of a giant kraken carved out of a mountain face.
By contrast, the Horde leveling continent of Zanadalar couldn't be more different in aesthetics. It's a lush jungle full of towering spirit dinosaurs, golden aztec cities, and swamp-dwelling blood trolls trying to free their blood god from an ancient underground prison. Though the zones are so different, each is wonderful in its own way. In particular, I love the swamps of Nazmir in Zandalar, where there's no shortage of haunting vistas like the corpse of a massive tortoise being gruesomely hollowed out by blood trolls or a terrifyingly large blood red moon that hangs just above a creepy temple for the dead. Nazmir is dark and sinister and I can't get enough of it.
World of Warcraft's strength has always been in building fantastical landscapes like Kul Tiras and Zandalar, but the characters that populate these worlds are just as well realized. In the absence of an immediate world-ending threat, Battle for Azeroth compensates by putting the internal struggles of its non-player heroes in the spotlight. It's a gamble that works. Both sides have great characters, but I love the story of Jaina Proudmoore, who returns to center stage as a strong but emotionally wounded person haunted by her past decisions. Alliance players will embark on a long quest to reunite Jaina with her estranged mother and the conclusion is surprisingly poignant.
Quest for glory
Though the zones are new, how I explore them hasn't changed. Leveling a character is still that familiar routine of heading to a new area and picking up a series of quests that lead to even more quests. Rinse and repeat for ten levels. But by further building upon Legion and Warlords of Draenor's excellent quest design, Battle for Azeroth is far from a grind.
While the actual objective of quests might be mundane in the grand scheme of things (like dropping bird turds on unsuspecting heads), there's a great deal of variety in each quest, and better voice acted dialogue and cutscenes keeps the whole experience trucking along at a pleasant rhythm. One minute I'll be infiltrating blood troll camps to poison their domesticated bats and the next I'm riding on the back of a massive toad, using my tongue to snatch up enemies and gobble them up. There's not a real challenge to any of these activities but the diversity and wackiness of their objectives keeps me playing. Each zone's quests slowly weave together into overarching story that can be surprisingly dramatic—especially when taking the time to read every bit of dialogue offered by quest givers.
It's good that Battle for Azeroth's quests are fun to complete on their own because, so far, the material rewards for leveling up new characters have been one of Battle for Azeroth's biggest weaknesses. While the design of the new armor and weapons looks great, the way they effect my character's abilities is underwhelming. Unlike previous expansions, Battle for Azeroth doesn't add any new abilities or talents to classes as they level up to 120. It makes earning that coveted next level feel pointless.
Character progression is instead tied to the Heart of Azeroth, a fabled necklace that players are given early on in the expansion. This necklace absorbs Azerite, healing the planet's wounds while also leveling up and becoming more powerful in the process. Reaching certain levels in the necklace unlocks the latent powers of new Azerite Armor, special pieces of gear that can be earned through a variety of tasks but the most powerful of which is saved for dungeons and raids. Each piece of Azerite Armor has three concentric rings that contain a choice of various ability-enhancing traits. To unlock each ring, my Heart of Azeroth has to first reach a certain level and then I can choose which trait I want to permanently unlock.
It's a cool idea that is clearly inspired by Legion's Artifact Weapons, which also required farming a resource to unlock traits that changed how certain abilities worked. The difference here is that, comparably, Azerite Armor is boring. During my race to level 120, every piece I encountered would typically offer between one of two choices and neither was exciting.
Higher-end Azerite Armor from dungeons and raids offers more traits with more powerful effects, but while leveling my tank I was usually choosing between a temporary shield or a bit of extra damage—neither of which really improves how well I fight. The good news is that unlike Legion's abysmal Legendary items, a painful system driven by RNG that Blizzard spent years trying to fix, Azerite Armor is structurally sound. It's not as needlessly complex and makes switching class specializations less of a chore because I'm not having to grind for multiple weapons. If Azerite Armor just had more exciting traits it'd be a lot more rewarding.
Because Artifact Weapons and all their powerful abilities were retired at the end of Legion, my Demon Hunter actually feels weaker in Battle for Azeroth and Azerite Armor does a piss poor job of filling that weapon-shaped hole. And gods help you if you're playing an enhancement shaman or one of the class specializations that didn't receive a much-needed redesign before Battle for Azeroth launched. So many of Legion's powerful systems are now stripped away, leaving certain class specializations gutted and no amount of Azerite Armor is going to help. It's a problem that will hopefully be fixed in a later update, but some of World of Warcraft's classes are in rough shape right now.
Warfronts are another major feature of Battle for Azeroth that won't be available until September. I didn't include my beta impressions for the final review, but Warfronts are a good deal of fun. Drawing inspiration from Warcraft 3, 20 players from one faction work together to build a base, harvest resources, and fight an AI-controlled army. Warfronts feature battles on a scale unlike anything seen in WoW before, and that spectacle is really exciting. Sadly, there's not a whole lot of strategy involved and the experience is annoyingly easy. I would have liked to see the mode designed for smaller, more coordinated parties or have the option of playing on higher difficulties.
Fortunately, Battle for Azeroth doesn't need a juicy carrot on a stick to keep me playing because all of the endgame activities are fun even without good rewards. Though the real meat of endgame like Mythic+ dungeons, raids, and the new Warfronts aren't available until September, Battle for Azeroth is already promising one of the most varied endgames that Warcraft has ever had. There's just so much to do.
When I first hit level 120, I still had hours worth of leftover quests and new endgame-specific ones that tied off some dangling plot threads. But the area I had to adventure in effectively doubled because the other faction's continent becomes available to explore, fight, and quest in. Legion's World Quest system makes a return, offering a daily rotation of time-sensitive quests scattered across all six zones with lucrative rewards and even more faction reputation. There are 10 new dungeons to conquer, too, each one a gauntlet of memorable boss fights. In Freehold, for example, my party was entered into a fighting pit where we had to overcome several challenges including catching a greased up pig and defeating a giant ogre named Sharkpuncher who—you guessed it—wields two sharks as weapons.
Crafting professions also received a much-needed update that makes them easier to get into without needless grinding. Now players can start crafting gear and items that are immediately useful, which is the impetus I needed to finally invest time into Warcraft's more relaxing pursuits. It's a shame then that, at least with professions that primarily make armor and weapons, the crafted options just aren't that useful compared to the loot I find in dungeons and, when it eventually releases, the new raid.
One new addition to the endgame roster of activities is Island Expeditions, the antithesis to the structured choreography of running dungeons and mastering specific strategies for each boss. This three-player mode takes you to one of seven islands populated by a random assortment of monsters and quests that each reward a small sum of Azerite. But here's the kicker: It's a race against another team of three players.
While there's a PvP version that pits you against actual human competitors, the normal version of Island Expeditions is against one of several AI teams with their own strategy and personality. These enemy soldiers are unlike anything I've seen in World of Warcraft before because they're actually intelligent. When challenged directly, they'll coordinate spells, target weak party members, and even run away if the fight seems unfavorable. On higher difficulties, I frequently forget that I'm playing against AI opponents.
Whether I'm taking on a human or AI team, Island Expeditions are a blast because they do a remarkably good job of keeping the competition fierce. Charging the enemy head on or keeping our distance were both viable strategies so long as we were able to try new ideas if something didn't work out. I like that adaptation is key to success, which feels like a nice reprieve from the repetition of dungeons. Each of the seven islands are highly dynamic and randomized, so even if I visit the same one twice it will be populated with completely different enemies and a different AI team, not to mention all sorts of wacky events that suddenly shift the landscape and force my team to adapt.
During one expedition, Elemental Firelords appeared and opened a portal to their realm where a huge bounty of Azerite waited for whichever team could defeat the boss first. More than once encounters like these turned into chaotic three-way battles as I desperately tried to fend off the enemy team. And because Island Expeditions still reward the losing team, the few times we were absolutely destroyed didn't feel like a waste of time.
Those wanting actual PvP can turn on Battle for Azeroth's brilliant War Mode, which replaces the old dedicated PvP system entirely. Now the option to PvP is just a button that places my character in an instance populated by other players who have also opted for PvP, turning Battle for Azeroth's zones into lively battlegrounds. It's sometimes frustrating being ambushed in the middle of a quest, but I love the way War Mode inspires me to coordinate with other players. Finally, I have a good reason to actually socialize with all the strangers playing alongside me rather than acting as if they don't exist. After Horde players invaded a nearby town, I rallied a group of a dozen Alliance players to drive them out. It was thrilling to get into a fight that wasn't mandated by some scripted quest.
War Mode is supplemented by some other fun ideas, like zeppelins that periodically fly overhead that drop supply crates for each side to battle over. Score enough kills and you'll be marked as an assassin and your location revealed, challenging other players to team up and hunt you down for extra rewards. It's a great start to making open-world PvP exciting again, and I hope Blizzard expands on these ideas in future updates.
World of Warcraft has always thrived on structured activities like dungeons and raids, but War Mode and Island Expeditions are wonderful complements to the usual routine. And once the new raid and Mythic+ dungeons, which modify Battle for Azeroth's new dungeons with unique challenges that rotate on a weekly basis, an already diverse endgame is going to get even more variety.
In the wake of Legion, I was concerned how Battle for Azeroth would up the stakes. How do you go bigger than an intergalactic demon army led by the greatest villain in Warcraft history? But Battle for Azeroth simply avoids the comparison altogether. It's an expansion that proves I don't need an apocalyptic threat to inspire me to fight, I just need a vibrant world and characters to care about and some fun new features to play around with. Battle for Azeroth has more than enough of those.