Running a dungeon in World of Warcraft feels like what the movie Groundhog Day would be like if Bill Murray never escaped the endless loop of February 2. It's the same experience over and over again—only instead of a weatherman I'm a druid, banging my head against the keyboard wondering why I'm fighting this same boss for the hundredth time.
I genuinely love WoW's dungeons, but they do get repetitive. Mastering the specific strategies that each dungeon demands is like a choreographed dance with timings and positioning that take tons of practice. But if World of Warcraft's dungeons are a choreography, the Island Expeditions coming in the new expansion, Battle for Azeroth, are like a night at an improv show. Except the other performers are trying to kill me. It's an injection of adventure that makes World of Warcraft feel exciting and unpredictable again.
Island Expeditions have been available in an unfinished state on Battle for Azeroth's closed alpha for awhile now. This week, I spoke with senior producer Travis Day about them at a preview event where Blizzard finally told us the expansion's release date and some other cool details.
Island Expeditions is one of two exciting new instanced game modes coming in Battle for Azeroth. It's a unique PvPvE experience where two opposing teams of three land on uncharted islands and race to gather Azerite, the new resource key to the Alliance-Horde conflict. The mode is split into the usual difficulties from normal to mythic which pits you against a team of advanced AI players with predetermined personalities and playstyles. There's also a PvP mode which pits you against a team of real players.
Unlike the static experience of a dungeon, Island Expeditions are a seven-layer dip of dynamic systems that will lead to wildly different experiences each time you play. "One of the things with Island Expeditions is that it's really just a push for player agency and decision making," senior producer Travis Day says. "I think some of the best gameplay comes out of actively making decisions about where you want to go and what you want to pursue."
Each team randomly spawns somewhere on the island and begins killing creatures, mining nodes, and completing other activities to gather Azerite. But here's where those seven layers of dip make a difference: While the base layout of the island stays the same, nearly everything about it is dynamic. "[We] achieve complexity and variability in a couple of ways," Day says. "[We] start with the handcrafted islands, of which there are six, so that's our base layer. And then there's hundreds of different NPC groupings and 'events' that can spawn on all the different locations. The last of it is we have the AI that runs around as well that have their own behaviors and that really creates these unique experiences."
What creatures spawn and where, random Azerite deposits, your team composition, boss monsters, hidden puzzles, wild random events, and the strategy of the enemy team will be different each time you play.
The kinds of choices and agency Day mentions comes from strategizing on the fly about what's the quickest way to farm Azerite. The composition of your team isn't bound the the trinity of tank, healer, and DPS, so knowing how to play to your inherent strengths and compensate for weakness is crucial. If you're a bunch of fragile DPS, you might opt to clear weaker packs of mobs but avoid a prolonged fight with a boss. If you've got a healer, maybe you'll opt to harass the enemy team or do everything possible to avoid them.
During my playthrough, we landed on a beach and began chewing through a group of powerful hydras that spawned there. Slowly we worked our way inland, killing monsters, opening treasure chests, and mining Azerite deposits. At first it was a bit underwhelming, but a few minutes in things really started to heat up when we squared off against the enemy team. They might be AI, but they were still capable of kicking our asses.
A big part of Island Expeditions is the advanced AI behind the NPC team. Until now, World of Warcraft monsters have been pretty, uh, stupid. If you get too close, they'll charge you head on and cycle through maybe one or two abilities. There's a reason they're called "trash" in a dungeon. But during Island Expeditions, the enemy team is comprised of characters that feel convincingly real. They have access to their entire class' suite of abilities, they change targets and adapt to new threats, and they even emulate the way most players pointlessly jump around like '90s teens at a school dance when House of Pain finally comes on.
It was easy for me to forget these were AI opponents, especially once they whooped our asses and scored a large sum of Azerite in the process. The tension of the race ramped up significantly, and I loved the breadth of choice my team had at each moment. Do we get revenge or lick our wounds and try and farm up Azerite elsewhere?
Compared to a dungeon run, it was refreshing how rapidly things change throughout an Island Expeditions match. At one point, the locations of Azerite nodes were revealed to both teams. Sometime later, a massive Azerite golem spawned surrounded by huge deposits of the stuff. As we tried to engage it, the enemy team arrived and kicked off an epic three-way battle as we desperately struggled to stay in the lead. After that fight, things got even more batshit crazy.
As the Azerite golem died, an elemental lord engulfed the entire island in wreathes of flame that transformed every enemy into fiery demons. Suddenly everything was different. A portal opened nearby that led to an entirely separate area where the elemental lord could be challenged in exchange for a crazy amount of Azerite. Wanting to secure the win, we chanced it. Killing that boss while nervously eyeing the portal, knowing that at any moment the enemy team could come rushing in to steal our kill was exhilarating. I can't wait to try this out against (hopefully) smarter real players.
If there's one area where Island Expeditions fails, it's in the "visual storytelling" that developers like Day told me about. The idea is that the events of each expedition are strung together in a cohesive, anecdotal way. But in my experience it felt more like pure chaos. I'm totally okay with that. The far more important success is that each time I've queued up for Island Expeditions since, the experience has felt fundamentally different.
At the same time, Day tells me that there will be a sense of repetition when it comes to certain encounters. You're meant to see the same bosses eventually because there's a satisfaction in learning how to deal with them. But what's important is knowing whether or not you should. Is the enemy team nearby? Are there faster ways this composition of classes can farm Azerite? Is that boss just really, really annoying?
I can't wait for Battle for Azeroth to launch just to see how Island Expeditions fit into the already-stuffed schedule of the casual WoW player. Blizzard hasn't spoken too openly about it, but when I asked Day, he said that Island Expedition will "sit in the same space as dungeons and raids." This is a system that is meant to become a core activity. Not only will Island Expeditions reward Azerite necessary to upgrade gear, they'll also drop equipment, currency, and probably a few nice cosmetics to boot. Similar to dungeons, there will likely be some kind of daily bonus to incentivise playing at least once a day.
Honestly, I can easily see myself wanting to play much more than that. Island Expeditions feel like the perfect foil to dungeons' choreographed, repetitive challenge. It's unpredictable, wild, messy, and a hell of a lot of fun. Already it feels like the kind of innovative idea I'd expect to see other MMOs quietly "adapt" years from now.