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World of Warcraft may as well be entombed as a cultural landmark at this point. The largest and most recognizable MMORPG has been around for almost 14 years, and in that time it’s had a lot of wild high and lows. Everyone has probably at least thought about WoW once in their lives, and now as I’ve been making my way through the game’s seventh expansion, I find myself wishing that Blizzard would think about it a little more.
There’s a lot to be said about Battle for Azeroth, some might even say enough for a potential review at some point, but for now I’ve been stuck batting around the same few thoughts in my mind. World of Warcraft is a game that has changed a lot over the years, but for all of those changes to classes, the world, or the gameplay design, so much of the game has remained trapped in a never-ending cycle of ignorance and monotony.
I’ll start off by saying I really quite liked the previous Legion expansion, which actually brought me back to playing WoW on a semi-regular basis. Legion brought a huge change to the core of the game, bringing in a more curated main story, and lots of reasons to explore the world rather than loaf around once you hit the level cap. Though that brought with it its own problems (playing through a game with alternate characters became harder than ever), it showed that Blizzard was willing to try and improve the game and learn from competitors like Final Fantasy XIV or Guild Wars 2.
For all of the good that this new coat of paint did for the house of Warcraft, it couldn’t repair the shaky foundations underneath. The narrative continued to proceed in its mishandling of women and other overdone staple WoW story conceits. Almost every player class was simplified, with plenty being whittled down to requiring only 3 buttons to play at most. These issues were widely complained about, but continue to persist two years later in Battle for Azeroth
Much like in Legion, the leveling experience for Battle for Azeroth is generally very good. Though I’ve only played through the Horde side of things so far, I’ve been impressed by the vibrant fantastical locales and reasonably engaging quest design. What I’ve been less engaged by, however, is the core combat, especially when compared to other games.
In Final Fantasy XIV, classes have a wide array of moves that combo off of each other; a Samurai, for example, will chain the same opening slash into one of 5 possible follow ups, which all have a different effect and ramp up into even bigger payoffs. Even the Bard, a reasonably simple class with a primary skill rotation of two buttons, has you hitting all sorts of secondary buttons once you get things going. It’s engaging for the player, and creates a high skill ceiling that lets players who can really get a handle on all of the different mechanics feel like experts.
In World of Warcraft, pretty much every class is a button masher. So far I’ve been playing through Battle for Azeroth as a Death Knight, a Priest, and a Demon Hunter, and none of them have felt even half as engaging as the worst class in FFXIV. Shadow Priest, the specialization I chose to play, is the closest to being engaging, though even that is relegated to small twenty second burst windows. Bafflingly, the expansion has had several disclaimers put before it about a few of the classes in the game, with the game’s director coming out in Q&A sessions to say that they wouldn’t be “done” until the game’s autumn patch. I don’t even think there’s anything necessarily wrong with a button mashing game, but a lot of MMOs end up feeling good because of the growth in your skillset as you go along. The way WoW is now, you’ll barely feel much of anything grow.
A lot of this is growing pains from the shortsightedness of Legion’s fun Artifact Weapon system. The system allowed players to have one super powerful weapon that they leveled up and learned skills and passive effects from. When Legion came out, it ended up feeling like you were continuing to level up, even after you hit the max level cap, because you were unlocking all sorts of new bonuses or moves. Unfortunately that fun couldn’t last forever, and when Blizzard phased out the Artifact Weapon at the start of this expansion, with a half baked replacement left in its place, it feels like a lot is suddenly missing.
The replacement system, called “Azerite Armor”, gives players a set of passive effects that they unlock from a wheel of options over time. Instead of the Artifact Weapons, which were designed specifically around a chosen specialization within a class, the Azerite armor doesn’t know what specialization you’ll have when you get it, meaning that the “options” you’ll get to choose from aren’t as exciting as the Legion counterparts, and are boiled down to a specific passive effect that you choose depending on your main specialization, or a generic stat increase. This new system completely misses the appeal and fun of the Artifact Weapons because there’s no choice, and nothing ends up feeling special. When Death Knights were able to get their artifact strong enough to summon flying ghost swords and a giant skeletal dragon, it felt cool. It felt like legit mechanical growth. Now when you level up your Azerite armor, you’ll be getting that one button you mash doing an extra 1000 damage. Wahoo.
The dumbed down gameplay ends up making the story of the game seem worse and worse. While WoW has always been prone to the same trite formulae, it was easier to ignore when they weren’t so overused, or you’re being distracted by a bevy of carrots on sticks. Whether it’s the way every major woman either sits on the sideline doing nothing, or eventually nobly sacrificing everything for the sake of a man; whether it’s the corruption of a heroic figure into evil for a future one-off boss fight; or whether it’s a battle with a big bad in the open world that’s quickly stopped by a loud “enough!” and a stun that lasts until the enemy you were handily beating scampers away, WoW is always the same.
These sort of tired tropes were never particularly good to begin with, but they’ve become almost comical as the expansions keep coming. As the same tired events have played out over and over, it’s wrapped around from almost being funny, into being just a sort of miserable inevitability. Blizzard is a company that, for some reason, has been praised heavily for its storytelling, though I can’t for the life of me ever tell you why or cite an example. There are certainly outlier cases of good stories to be found. There are plenty of fun little quest chains in the game, and there are a lot of companion books to the game that some people swear by, but I’ve never thought Blizzard themselves were really in the competition for being considered good storytellers. The main problem with their storytelling is a general air of ignorance, and that ignorance can hardly be excused.
I don’t believe that Blizzard is a company that intends to be racially insensitive, but I do think that they are ignorant, and are unwilling to hire differently or take action necessary to change that. When you look at these tired Warcraft tropes of corruption, you can see it applied to fantastical creatures like Centaurs, or Dragons, but the original use of this trope in the Warcraft universe was to turn Orcs into brutish monsters. That usage was originally rough in its own right, because of its reliance on the “noble savage” trope (where characters are heavily coded towards representing a minority and then portrayed continuously as being “good ones” of those). You’d think that, like so many other ill-considered gaming conceits of the 90’s and early 2000’s, something like that would be thrown out or evolved into something better. Yet Battle for Azeroth once again features a heavily minority-coded group that has been “corrupted” into savages, with no rhyme or reasoning behind the things they do, who all live in huts made of bone acting out on cannibalistic drives.
If Blizzard could even just once consider the reasonings behind their stories, or start to move on from the same tired molds, weird offensive characterizations like that could be avoided entirely. These characters could instead be rebels against the state, they could be provided with any sort of flimsy backstory or reasoning for why they are, all while staying simple and steadfast as binary enemies. Instead, we’re left with this collection of characters who are clearly riffing off of South Americans who are nothing more than mindless savages, distinctly othered by the entire world. This sort of thing was inexcusable when WoW first came out, and it’s only become harder to stomach as the years continue to go on. Especially when other MMOs like FFXIV show you can tell a complex story with lots of layers for even the simplest of antagonistic concepts, the game just looks worse and worse.
Even going back to the well on the Alliance versus Horde narrative feels like a lackadasical retread. Though the past two expansions were built off of a shaky relationship between the two warring factions, the idea that immediate extravagant genocidal war would unfold as soon as that peace was no longer required is baffling. Even Blizzard themselves seem to know this, since they initiate the entire conflict via a superpowered maguffin, instead of building off of the existing conflicts or drama that’s been unfolding over the years. In an ironic way, this sort of “back to the well” storytelling works as a perfect exemplification of everything wrong with BfA: What’s there is old and tired, and what’s new is implemented without thought.
If you’re able to deal with the issues of the narrative, or even just like a simple grind, Battle for Azeroth can be a lot of fun. Despite looming issues with the endgame, and problems with a lot of the underlying systems, I think if you wanted to come back just to play through the level 110-120 story you’d probably have a really good time. There are fun character designs with the little snakey men, the tiny fox people who have alpacas, and turtle people! Those are all really fun! The new allied races are cool and aesthetically pleasing, with some interesting conceits, but the leveling experience is such a mess right now I don’t know how many I’ll end up bringing up to the endgame. I’ll see how i feel once i’ve spent some time with the raid and an Alliance character, but for now, Battle for Azeroth is kind of a mess, for all the same reasons WoW has always seemed to be.