Intimidation isn’t something you run up against very often as a games critic. There are very few titles for which the writing of a review brings out a cold sweat but World of Warcraft is the exception to the rule. With 14 years of history under its belt, there is so much to do, see and comprehend about World of Warcraft before any kind of informed opinion on it can be written down.
That said, I will now attempt to review Battle for Azeroth.
From the outset, the seventh full expansion for Blizzard’s enduring MMO World of Warcraft, Battle for Azeroth sets out to reignite the old conflict between the Horde and the Alliance. Both sides are racing to capitalise on a newly-discovered resource called Azerite. Meanwhile, a greater, forgotten evil begins to stir.
Y’know, Warcraft stuff.
War Never Changes
Battle for Azeroth picks up where 2016’s Legion left off. The godlike Titan Sargeras, creator of the Burning Legion, has been defeated. But in a last, desperate act of rage and destruction, he’s plunges his colossal sword into Azeroth itself. Both in and outside of the game, two years have passed since this occured.
Two years since Illidan Stormrage sent players back to Azeroth to deal with the fallout. Two years of a blackened tower, thousands of feet high, looming over the inhabitants of Silithus. Two years of a big-ass sword looming in the backdrop of your daily farming run.
Naturally, the first thing Battle for Azeroth asks players to do is to revisit this loose end. Located in an area now referred to as The Wound, the sword’s energy has given rise to a valuable new mineral called Azerite. When refined, Azerite allows for the channeling of incredible power. This discovery has sparked an arms-race between the Alliance and the Horde.
Previously united by the shared threat of Sargeras, the two are bitter enemies once more. Fans of Warcraft’s RTS roots will be pleased to see the series getting back to its basics with this new status quo.
This renewed enmity between the Horde and Alliance factions forms the spine of one of Battle for Azeroth's big new additions: War Mode.
With War Mode switched on, the entire world becomes one seamless PvP battleground. Should you run into players from the opposing faction on your travels, you are encouraged to wipe them out. Doing so nets you Honour Talents, which take over from Legion’s Prestige system. These can be invested back into your character for an extra edge in PvP. Individual talents have also been changed to be a better fit for War Mode, since its skirmishes tend to be smaller scale than what you may be used to in Battlegrounds. Rather than a group of talents that are only useful in specific, pitched PvP battles, talents are now balanced for hit-and-run clashes between four or five people at most.
Griefers who lie in wait for unsuspecting players end up with a bounty on their heads. After ten kills, they’ll even earn a map marker indicating their location to nearby players. This turns the tables a little, making them a valuable target for any group looking to make fast cash. War Mode, thankfully, isn’t compulsory so if you prefer adventuring without the threat of semi-regular ganking, you can just turn it off.
Experienced in War Mode, Battle for Azeroth’s first major area - the clash between the Horde and the Alliance over Lordaeron - plays a bit like a traditional dungeon run but feels like a throwback to Warcraft’s strategic past.
Storming the ruined city with your Alliance character - or trying desperately to fend off the assault as your Horde character - feels more like the old Orcs-vs-Humans conflict than any previous expansion. Sylvanas isn’t about to let Anduin have her. And she’s willing to slaughter even her own Horde forces in the pursuit of a dramatic escape. It feels like you’re just one of many caught in the fray.
The Heart of Azeroth
Most of Battle for Azeroth’s story content takes place over the expansion’s two new regions - Kul’Tiras and Zandalar.
Kul’Tiras is very European-inspired zone and home to three Alliance states: Tiragarde Sound, Drustvar and Stormsong. What’s more, the region’s largest city, Boralus, plays host to House Proudmoore.
Led by Lord Admiral Katherine Proudmoore, mother of Warcraft mainstay Jaina, House Proudmoore finds itself at a tipping point. The discovery of Azerite has brought marauding Horde forces across their borders, and renewed demands by the Alliance for aid in the war effort. Worse still, Jaina, detested throughout Kul’Tiras for her hand in her father’s death, rides with them.
Until now, Kul’Tiras have sealed themselves off from the rest of Azeroth’s brawling and infighting. Battle for Azeroth sees them reckon with the inevitable and overdue fallout of that isolation.
By comparison, the Horde land of Zandalar is steeped in Aztec and Mayan aesthetics. Filled with golden pyramids, swamps, jungles and deserts, it features three zones of its own: the capital of Zuldazar, swampy Nazmir and the arid Vol’Dun.
Zandalar is threatened by an unknown foe that lurks in the shadows while the Horde and the Alliance vie for military dominance in the region. Blizzard spent a lot of time fending off fan claims that the Old Gods were returning in the lead up to Battle for Azeroth’s launch. I can’t say for certain these are the Old Gods we’re dealing with, but they’re definitely old and possess all the hallmarks one would associate with gods. You may draw your own conclusions.
Still, a round of applause must be given to Battle for Azeroth’s environmental artists and world designers. Kul’Tiras and Zandalar are two of the most meticulously crafted and beautifully realised zones the game has ever seen. Clouds gather around mountaintops, the terrain undulates and changes in ways that feel very natural and believable. At times, it’s possible to see the civic planning than went into the placement of any given road.
The effect is even more pronounced when you first arrive direct from Stormwind or Orgrimmar. These legacy zones are made to look positively crude by Kul’Tiras and Zandalar. Boralus dwarfs Stormwind in both size, layout and building density. This, combined with an upgraded draw distance and more complex building meshes, allows the world to feel more expansive than ever.
Merely existing while in Boralus made my GTX 1070 drop to 40 frames. World of Warcraft, at the ripe old age of 14, made my machine chug. Respect, Blizzard. Respect.
For Those About To Raid, We Salut You
Both Zandalar and Kul’Tiras have been showered in Azerite since the fall of Sargeras. Luckily, your character is granted an item called the Heart of Azeroth early on. This device that allows them to manage their exposure to Azerite and leverage it for big gear bonuses.
Each Azerite-infused piece of gear can have three or four specific stat buffs placed upon it, allowing min-maxers to wring every last drop of value out of their favoured stats. There are full sets of Azerite gear available - everything from pauldrons to boots - so the potential for significant stat spikes is high. Raid gear will never be the same.
Battle for Azeroth also brings a number of brand new races to the table.
Alliance players will have access to the Dark Iron Dwarves (who resemble the Duergar from Dungeons & Dragons), as well as the new Lightforged Dranei and Void Elves. Horde players have access to the new Highmountain Tauren, Mag’har Orcs and the twisted Nightborne elves. Most of these races are locked behind certain achievements so you’ll have to put in a bit of work if you want to roll one of them. This might be a turn off for newer players, but not a problem for the dedicated Wowhead.
Beyond the new locales, Battle for Azeroth follows many of the same MMO conventions as its predecessors. The level cap has been raised from 110 to 120, and the new areas feature the level scaling feature introduced earlier this year. Questing is still the fastest way to start building experience before leaping into dungeons, but remains an interminably dull experience.
All the bells and whistles Blizzard have included in an attempt to shake questing up - like bombing runs on Horde camps and daring prison breaks in Stormwind - can’t make the drudgery of collecting 20 crab claws feel any less tedious.
Every other quest makes me feel like an errand boy. “You’re the Champion of Azeroth, who has saved the world countless times, faced gods and kings alike and lived! Listen, I know the Horde’s coming and everything but can you help Granny Codswallop pick like 10 flowers real quick?”
I feel like everyone’s priorities are out of whack but mine.
Dungeons make a return, and see heroes teaming up to tackle everything from haunted houses to booby-trapped, goblin-controlled Azerite mines. This, for a lot of players, is the doorway to the real World of Warcraft experience, and it's easy to see why.
Battle for Azeroth’s dungeon scenarios are, across the board, quite fun and imaginative, though “The Motherlode!!” (the aforementioned goblin mine) will test your patience with the amount of mobs and adds you have to grind through to secure victory.
At the time of writing, endgame content like Warfronts and Raids are still off-limits.These will reportedly be arriving in game within the first week of September, once Blizzard feels enough people have hit the level cap and are starting to put the required gear sets together.
The Bottom Line
Battle for Azeroth is a good expansion but, ultimately I think, a safe one. It returns the Warcraft universe to a place familiar to the old guard, and is new enough for those who’ve only known it as an MMO. It introduces a lot of sweeping changes while actually altering very little.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. World of Warcraft has survived for 14 years because its loop and lore are engaging. It would be easy to suggest that Blizzard aim higher in their aspirations - but that’s not the key to World of Warcraft’s success and they know it.
Just look at how many people have come back to the game since Battle for Azeroth’s launch. It wouldn’t matter what was happening in the expac, it’s just nice to come home every once in a while.
A good World of Warcraft expansion is about the pilgrimage and the homecoming. The journey and the destination. Blizzard’s point with Battle for Azeroth, cloying though it may be, is that the game survives because the real heart of Azeroth was in each of us all along.
World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth is available now on PC and Mac.