Teldrassil has been burned to the ground. Sylvanas Windrunner steps over the corpses of slain rangers and civilians alike who were impetuous enough to get in her way, only to seal the fate of more innocents in fire and blood as her lithe frame is backlit by an inferno of destruction. The tone of your introduction to Battle for Azeroth is as clear as day: The Horde is evil, and this is no longer a fight about old territories or grievances. This is wartime, and nothing is sacrosanct. Well, apart from the planet that we reside on, the right of foisting faction politics upon new civilizations, and the art of constant, grave misunderstandings.
World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth swoops in on a plaguebat right where the previous expansion, Legion, leaves off. Everyone is ecstatic about sending the Legion back into the realm that spawned them, and people are getting on with their lives. However, in the closing moments of the last expansion, we saw the introduction of a new resource for Anduin and Sylvanas to butt heads over: azerite. This is key to the central narrative that unfolds; no one really knows what azerite does, but Sargeras left it behind and everyone’s convinced that it should be harnessed for destruction. Battle for Azeroth’s pre-patch content painted the Horde as warmongering and the Alliance as the bulwark against the violence, and to that end, this new resource is just another symbol for the two to take a moral stance on–a dance of power around yet another weapon that has power beyond our reckoning.
That dance of power is crucial to the initial motivations of both factions and plays out neatly in the narrative that guides you to the expansion’s new zones–it’s the reason that your various leaders send you out on reconnaissance missions that bring you to those areas. That said, you pivot almost immediately from the big picture concerns of your faction’s war effort to the wants and needs of relative strangers. Those familiar with the World of Warcraft canon will have some insight into the motivations of the new allied races you meet–the Kul Tirans and the Zandalari. Both new allies have their own power struggles to contend with before they display any interest in assisting either the Horde or the Alliance, and predictably, this spawns the cycle of fetch quests, reputation gains, and achievements required in order to gain their trust.
The ebb and flow of questing in the zones feels very much like the experience in Legion. It took me around 25 hours to get from level 110 to level 120 on one character, which feels like it keeps pace with solo leveling from the last expansion. Regardless of whether you’re Horde or Alliance, you’ll get to cherry pick which one of three distinct zones you want to start in. The Horde get down and dirty with the Zandalari trolls, investigating everything from political intrigue to the wrath of blood magic. The Alliance deal with fan-favorite Jaina Proudmoore and the legacy of resentment that her father’s death left behind (did we mention the pirates?). In either regard, all these zones have their own self-contained stories for you to see to fruition that indirectly speak to powers beyond our comprehension, meaning while they’re equal parts comedic and captivating; they most certainly do not stray from the World of Warcraft formula.
The fact that these condensed stories are so engaging actually works against the impact of the wider expansion’s narrative. After spending hours in the desert with the vulpera and the sethrak, and dealing with everything from shepherding cubs to thwarting the plans of long-sleeping god puppets, it’s hard to take orders from Sylvanas’ right hand. Your faction’s leaders seem so far removed from the daily bloodletting and the weariness of dangerous diplomatic relations that doing their bidding starts to feel like a chore. The inhabitants of these new zones are so colorful and so full of life that you feel incentivized to do the myriad of side quests that they tantalizingly offer up to you. It’s all too easy to put the main story quests on hold to just spend a couple more minutes in eerie Nazmir, or to risk scurvy in the Tiragarde Sound.
This lack of a coherent, meaningful connection to the overarching azerite panic that serves as Battle for Azeroth’s main narrative tension can be frustrating. At the time of writing, three weeks after launch, we’re at a point where no raids are out yet, and we’re still waiting on plenty of content, so nothing truly definitive really happens to tip either faction’s hand after Sylvanas’ initial massacre. In the meantime, you passively hoard power and skills without really knowing what good they’ll do you later on. For example, you’ll power up azerite armor in place of artifact weapons in this expansion, but your armor automatically levels up as you quest, and the selections you make as to quality-of-life skills don’t feel as impactful as before. You also don’t have to do anything special to get your hands on this armor, which in turn cheapens the gearing experience as you’re leveling. The same could be said to some extent about raising your professions; gone are the days of having to sit by a campfire to grind out every godforsaken recipe before you could learn the latest dishes. You can crack into Battle for Azeroth’s crafting right away, even if you’re a complete novice, which is convenient. But it’s hard not to be nostalgic for the days where the trek of profession leveling brought some sense of real achievement.
Once you get to 120, it’s a bit of a coin toss as to what you should do while you’re waiting for the next batch of content–you’re probably best served by doing world quests and improving your reputation in order to unlock the Allied Races. There are other things to cut your teeth on, but the narrative doesn’t instill in you a pressing desire to do (or to know) more. At this point in time, Battle for Azeroth offers War Mode and Island Expeditions as tidbits to tide you over until its next patch.
War Mode basically paints a giant bullseye on your chest, slaps you on the back and says “Venture forth, you poor sod.” This mode grants you an experience bonus, but the price you pay is drawing the attention of players from the opposing faction. If you’re someone with bad memories of Alliance players performing drive-bys on you as your friends scramble to get into Shadowfang Keep, then you may want to stay away from this mode. You may luck out if you’re on a server that isn’t particularly bloodthirsty, but even those who embrace the chaos will find that it is too much of a double-edged sword; doing well in War Mode ups the ante by letting others know that you’re a threat to be put down. If the hounds of war don’t sniff you out immediately, then the game’s intervention definitely speeds up the process.
Island Expeditions offer their own brand of excitement. While the name suggests that you’ll be relaxing on a beach somewhere and enjoying mojitos with Genn Greymane, the reality is the exact opposite. You can participate in Expeditions with AI or other players, and the focus is to undertake a mad dash for azerite within a territory where randomness controls the obstacles that you face: everything from regular to elite mobs, enemy NPCs and players, and the main affair, picking up a whole heap of azerite. While the first few expeditions can feel like a fresh change of pace, the cyclical nature of the activity means it starts to grow old fairly quickly. There are various difficulties of expeditions which offer better rewards with each tier along with tougher enemies, but it feels a like a bandage slapped over the Mythic+-shaped content hole in our hearts.
This expansion wields its central conceit of a dying world with a lack of finesse; something is Badly Wrong but not so wrong that it can’t wait for you to gallivant around collecting battle pets for a century before you deal with it. That said, the expansion is rivetingly effective at telling tales about underdogs, witches, family curses and pirate fraternities in ways that make you care. It’s in the strength of these segments that cause you to see the cracks in the other aspect of the game–even though we know there’s going to be a lot more content made available as the expansion gets patched over time. In the wake of the latest Warbringers visual, it’s certain that we’ll have some Old God-flavored questions answered sooner rather than later, and a host of new things for the factions to unite over that aren’t the giant sword splitting the very realm into pieces.
Battle for Azeroth features the exciting culmination of the intimate character storylines for some of the franchise’s most famous heroes and villains, the Allied Races themselves are so well-crafted that it’s almost worth it for lore aficionados alone, and visually, World of Warcraft looks the best that it has been in a long time. But the expansion feels like it sometimes relies too heavily on the days when both factions were at each other’s throats–the conflict now feels too manufactured to truly incite the war both leaders appear to be gunning for. It’s clear that Battle for Azeroth tries very hard to balance the needs of new players with those of long-time fans, and as was the case in Legion, it demonstrates that the line between refinement and oversimplification can feel very thin. It’s an overall good addition to World of Warcraft’s current state, but it’s a gamble as to whether its upcoming content will make it truly special.
Editor’s note: This review reflects the state of Battle for Azeroth in the weeks immediately following its launch, and will be updated once we’ve spent sufficient time with its first major content update, including the new Uldir Raid, Warfronts, and Mythic Keystone dungeons. — September 4, 2018.