World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth is the latest expansion for Blizzard’s juggernaut MMO, a game fast approaching its 15th active year. World of Warcraft has been around long enough for its expansions to have run the gamut of quality and back again: they’ve wrapped up stories years in the making, shaken things up on a global scale, retread old ground, completely jumped the shark as well as injected new life just when you thought it was winding down. When first announced, Battle for Azeroth to me sounded like an odd step backward. After all, in Legion players took down a literal god so it seemed a little strange to go back to the simple Horde vs Alliance. Now that I’ve leveled to 120 and thoroughly explored the new island continents of Kul Tiras and Zandalar, however, I’ve come to realise that Battle for Azeroth is a much needed re-evaluation, a pause for breath amidst intergalactic demon invasions and planet-piercing swords, and features the most engaging narrative World of Warcraft has seen in years.
The production values when it comes to storytelling really are impressive this time around. I started my adventure in the human nation of Kul Tiras, for fans of Warcraft 3, this is the homeland of Jaina Proudmoore. Both the Alliance and the Horde are seeking new allies in the arms race for a new resource called Azerite, a magically powerful mineral that started appearing after the titan Sargeras pieced the planet with his enormous sword. To bolster their military might, The Alliance turns to the naval power of Kul Tiras with the Horde turning to the ancient troll kingdom of Zandalar.
The main narrative thread for Alliance players is to rally the different clans of Kul Tiras and to root out corruption in the capital of Boralus. Fully-voiced and wonderfully directed cutscenes with a real emotional impact bookend this expansion (with a few sprinkled in the middle) and they were always a joy to watch. At times I had to remind myself I wasn’t playing a single-player RPG, such was the quality on display. There’s more voice acting across the board than ever, and while some in-game cutscenes feature bizarre facial animations, they do a good enough job of keeping you hooked throughout the meat of the expansion.
Exploring zones and questing is largely the same core World of Warcraft experience it’s always been, albeit a touch more streamlined than it was Legion. Each zone has a main narrative thread, with each quest hub moving you from one area to the next in a logical way. Sometimes this progression is engaging: perhaps a town will be under attack and after you’ve defeated the attackers, you move behind their lines to interrupt their nefarious plans and finally onto their ships to cut off their escape. Other times the pace shuddered to a halt, returning to the far more traditional “hunt this many animals due to reasons” or “I lost 20 hammers because I’m asleep all the time”. Blizzard has done their best to make each quest feel meaningful, but there are definitely still instances of mind-numbing grind.
Speaking of grind, artifact weapons players obtained in Legion are useless now, replaced with a pretty necklace called the Heart of Azeroth which allows head, shoulder and chest armour to become infused with Azerite. This enables three tiers of talents (depending on how much Azerite you’ve collected) for each of these armour slots. These talents range from providing boring buffs like an increase in Haste for 15 seconds or something a little more interesting like summoning a spirit to fight alongside you for a set time. It’s yet another number to watch go up, and in that sense it is gratifying, but compared to the artifact weapons of Legion, which came with their own story and quests, it feels a little lacking.
The zones themselves are not only enormous but feature very few areas that feel wasted or unnecessary. As a whole Kul Tiras feels far more cohesive than Legion’s Broken Isles ever did. Instead of having a ruined elf city right next to a Vrykul temple right next to an isolated tribe of Tauren, Kul Tiras feels like an actual place, steeped in history. Drustvar is the home of House Waycrest and is reminiscent of Gilneas but if the Blair Witch was in charge. Stormsong Valley is a verdant farmland with windswept hills and ancient seaside temples. The island of Zandalar, on the other hand, is a hybrid of swamp, desert and jungle with every new vista promising a storied past just waiting to be delved into. The capital cities Dazar’alor and Boralus are an absolute joy to get lost in with their huge walls, distinct districts and winding waterways, and are the first expansion hubs that manage to live up to Classic World of Warcraft cities like Orgrimmar or Stormwind.
Socially the game is still isolated, with brief moments of real communication breaking up the silence here and there. Once your character’s collective item level reaches 305 you can queue for Heroic Dungeons (a hard mode of sorts), which demands some level of strategy and therefore people tend to speak up. Everything leading up to that, however, is almost entirely quiet. Questing with other people: silent. Doing regular dungeons: silent. Helping someone out who’s in danger of dying: silent. Trade chat at peak hours is one place that still shows signs of life, but the odds of that being a discussion of any value are slim to none.
Splitting up the factions by continent is an interesting choice, as while it allows for more focused storytelling, it also made me feel like I was missing half the content. Thankfully, through the War Campaign, which essentially replaces the Class Halls from Legion, players can visit (or invade) the opposing faction’s continent to do World Quests and the like, but it still feels separate. To truly experience the story of that continent you’d have to make and boost (in my case) a Horde character to level 110.
Another new feature is Island Expeditions. You and two other players go to a random island (to what extent these are procedurally-generated I’m unsure) to try and gather a certain amount of Azerite before a timer runs out. You fight mobs, mine nodes and carry out other objectives all of which net you more Azerite. The twist is that three members of the opposing faction are trying to do the exact same thing. You can queue up for a PvE-only version of these expeditions, with the three Horde/Alliance enemies being NPCs instead. While these are a novel way to take a break from quests and dungeons, I didn’t find them interesting enough on their own to keep me coming back.
Overall I’ve enjoyed my time with Battle for Azeroth thoroughly and intend to continue playing well past hitting the level cap. With Legion, I quit shortly after hitting level 110 as grinding out World Quests and dungeons to get better gear just didn’t appeal. The first major raid and a new mode called Warfronts have yet to be added to the game, so there’s plenty of content to look forward in the coming weeks. This time around everything feels fresh and exciting, and with such an endless framework as the war between Horde and Alliance to keep things moving, I can only see Battle for Azeroth maintaining it’s momentum in the months to come.