World of Warcraft is now at an infallible turning point in its history. Shadowlands is very much on the horizon, with the release of the first few encrypted alpha builds over the last week. Excitement post Blizzcon 2019 is incredibly high, and people are eager to get into a new expansion’s worth of content. With the somewhat tepid response to Patch 8.3, “Visions of N’zoth,” we are now quickly finding ourselves at a critical junction. One that could very much mean the future for the world of Azeroth.
The last few years of Warcraft have been, particularly, very negative in the eyes of the playerbase. After the rampant and widespread success of Legion, there were understandably a number of focused and specific complaints on systems in the expansion’s life cycle. The major one, understandably, was player agency and choice; most major systems of Legion, including the artifact weapons, were incredibly linear. While some players such as myself enjoyed the idea of a ‘paint-by-numbers’ system that was easily completed, others understandably felt it incredibly restrictive. This was exacerbated by issues with nerfs breaking entire class specializations, on top of the controversial Paragon system.
Battle for Azeroth, to its credit, attempted to correct these very specific complaints by rebuilding these previous systems from the ground-up. The Artifact Weapon system became the Azerite Armour system. Your unique spec-related artifact became the ‘Heart of Azeroth.’ Paragon caches removed rare-drops in order to cut out the feeling of elite gear being locked behind endless grinds. Legendaries, which had littered Legion and turned gearing into a largely disappointing RNG fest, were pruned in totality. Class Halls, which largely succeeded where the Warlords of Draenor Garrison system failed, were pruned and replaced with a ‘War Table.’
Understandably, none of this worked out well in Blizzard’s favor.
Each of the above is, to some extent, a large-scale endgame progression system. While most players could level up their artifact and hit their first gold trait by level-cap in Legion, the Heart of Azeroth could still not unlock all of the traits on your gear by the time you were raid-ready. The Azerite Traits, often locked to specific pieces of loot which were difficult to see drop, were ostensibly tied to your class’ power. Like Arms Warrior in Legion, Fire Mages found a similar fate when their Combustion trait was discovered to be overpowered in niche scenarios. As such it was nerfed into the ground, effectively breaking the entire spec due to how heavily class-design revolved around these RNG-activated traits.
As such, gearing became ineffably boring. Whereas getting a Legendary was often a mixed bag, with the most optimal and ideal being lost in a sea of otherwise useless editions, it was still a LARGE power increase and something interesting. Even after their ‘finished’ progression, Artifact Weapons still had a slew of unlockables and cosmetics to achieve, something which the Heart of Azeroth has never matched. Class Halls and their storylines, for all the time-gating that occurred, offered cosmetics and rewards aplenty for the intrepid player.
All of this depth was wiped away in Battle for Azeroth. So much so that the Heart of Azeroth and Azerite Gear system were reworked in almost sheer totality for Patch 8.2, “The Rise of Azshara.” There was so much lack that, despite a stellar opening gambit in the questing storylines and systems, Battle for Azeroth was rate lower than many previous expansions before it. Even in our own reviews here on MMOGames.com, we rated both the expansion and World of Warcraft as a whole lower than any previous. Repeatable game systems such as Warfronts and Island Expeditions plagued the expansion, adding much breadth but very little depth.
Now we come to Shadowlands, the vital hope in the darkness. This was one of the many new games announced at Blizzcon 2019, where the entire convention served more as a desperate attempt to save stock prices than little else. Now is has the entire weight of a multi-year MMORPG sitting on its very small shoulders. Oddly enough, we saw this not too long ago prior to Legion’s monumental release.
Warlords of Draenor is infamous among the playerbase. Being only half as long, content wise, as any other expansion or launch in World of Warcraft’s long history it was largely considered a commercial disaster. Despite several development issues throughout its life-cycle, it also had major raids cut in the Siege upon Shattrath, a major point for that part of Azeroth’s universe. A final Patch 7.2, “the Fury of Hellfire,” was released prior to the team’s reorganization to focus on completing and releasing Legion.
Now, realistically, we sit on a similar abyss once again. Battle for Azeroth has been in many parts a massive failure across the board for World of Warcraft, reducing it in large part to a game of endless repeating treadmill systems. This is an MMORPG of now very little substance if you’re unlucky, and controversial systems if you are not.
So where do we hope to go from here?
Shadowlands is, frankly speaking, going to need to be an expansion of substance. While there are some infinitely grindable elements in Torghast, and a necessary part of an MMO in some sense, the entire game cannot be built on such systems. There cannot be a few systems that stretch far into the horizon for progression, instead there needs to be a greater focus on many smaller things that contribute to player power.
Agency is the keyword that many personalities and writers have tossed about when discussing Shadowlands. Player agency and choice, the ability for players to have control over their gameplay destiny, is going to be fundamentally important. The Covenant Halls, the foundational bases for our adventures throughout the realms of the dead, seem to roll all of the best parts from Legion and the concepts of Warlords together into that balance of depth and breadth. While, as we have seen with the Azerite Gear system, it is intrinsically dangerous to put all of one’s game-design eggs in a singular basket, this may be the expansion’s best, and perhaps only hope. We have, truthfully, seen very little of substance when it comes to the land of the dead.
And that hardly inspires a hope for the future.