Games Preview: World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth Beta (PC, 2018): Back to Warcraft

I’m going to assert something here in the intro par, something that I cannot prove but that I have suspected for a while. I think Blizzard is working on, at the very least, a Warcraft 3 remaster and I think Battle for Azeroth is the latest in a series of significant hints that the series’ strategic roots are coming out of retirement. The beta version of World of Warcraft‘s latest expansion Battle for Azeroth only served to reinforce this notion for me. Let me explain.

The Battle for Azeroth beta picks up a short time after the conclusion of the previous expansion, Legion. With that crisis put to rest at the cost of an Azeroth now sundered and dying, the terse partnership between the Alliance and the Horde is broken once more. Instantly, they are at each other’s throats in a way they haven’t been in many years. King Anduin Wrynn enlists a betrayed and mistrustful Jaina Proudmoore to help battle back the resurgent Horde, led by Thrall and Sylvanas Windrunner. The winner, for whatever good it will do them, gets what remains of Azeroth.

I don’t know about you but that sounds like a campaign pitch for a Warcraft strategy game, doesn’t it? Side-eye number one, Blizzard, side-eye number one.

Depending on the faction your character belongs to, the Battle for Azeroth beta begins with you one side or the other of a single pitched battle. The Alliance have pushed The Horde back into the shattered remains of Lordaeron and they want it back. As an Alliance character, you will pursue Sylvanas and her thugs through the city, pressing the attack and allowing Alliance forces to move in and secure areas behind you. As a Horde character, your job is to help the Horde mitigate their losses as they fall back. The Alliance are going to take Lordaeron, Sylvanas knows it and she’s getting the hell out of there.

Regardless of your faction affiliation, you are but one of many on the ground, surrounded by grumbling war machines and familiar units from Warcraft‘s strategy days. For a child of the 90’s like me, the sensation of being in the midst of the sort of battle Warcraft was known for in its pre-MMO days is pretty heady. Conceptually, it reminded me of Command & Conquer: Renegade, a game from 2002 with a similar thrust. Renegade‘s whole pitch was putting you on the ground, one unit in the middle one of the then-popular strategy game’s large-scale battles.

From there, Alliance characters will head back to Stormwind for further orders before heading off to one of the expansion’s new areas, Kul Tiras, and the usual questing, dungeons and raids that lie beyond.

The new races appear to have been more or less fully implemented in the beta, and there are plenty of them running around. You’ll get the odd player still running their regular PC but for the most part I saw a lot of players taking the opportunity to build a brand new toon from the ground up, take the Level 110 hike and get straight to work.

Warfronts, Battle for Azeroth‘s new large-scale PvE battle mode that simulates the sort of legendary pitched battle Warcraft is known for. It’s the next stop on the “Blizzard is definitely up to something” tour because a great deal of Warfronts’ mechanics are pulled straight from the old strategy games. Players must collect resources like lumber and iron, they must take specific territories and establish strongholds, there is literal base construction involved. This then feeds into the building of an army with which to secure victory. Again, if the plan was to re-introduce the concepts on which the Warcraft brand was founded, I really don’t know how much more obvious Blizzard can be about this.

Being a less experienced WoW player myself, I stopped to ask a number of beta players what their thoughts were so far and here’s a truncated chunk of the feedback I received:

– Mythic dungeons and keystones are staying put after Legion which is great for those players looking for a raid experience that doesn’t take hours to complete.

– On the subject of raids, there are a number of new raid mechanics on trial in Battle for Azeroth that make it easier for raid parties to continue their run if one person messes up and doesn’t execute the right move or spell at the right moment. Those who’ve suffered raid wipes in the past due to a mis-click or ill-timed spell will be breathing a sigh of relief, I’m sure. Others were cranky that the raids are now, on the whole, easier to complete because of this change.

– I saw numerous players expressing relief at the amount of new PvE content that isn’t tied completely to grinding dailies. The new island expeditions and Warfronts mode play into this and were some of the most popular areas in the beta, crowded round the clock.

– Legion‘s shaman class hall, the Heart of Azeroth, now grows in power by simply playing the game rather than going on lengthy farming runs for artifact power as in the last expac.

There were a number of players who expressed delight at the way the faction war has been crafted and the stakes involved. More than every, they felt like a real, contributing member of the Alliance or the Horde. This is good news, especially considering the scale at which Battle for Azeroth is operating, on top of the already massive scale on which World of Warcraft conducts itself.

It wasn’t all mead and dance emotes however. There were a few complaints from the crowd. One of the common complaints I heard was the lack of certain artifact traits that had made the jump from Legion. The main thrust of player gripes under this umbrella was to do with feeling less powerful overall, and I heard this particularly from raid fans who were unhappy to see their class-specific armour sets going away. “I want my character to look like a paladin,” one said, “not a plate wearer.” A few complained about the yanking of tier set bonuses, many of whom saw them as a real goal to chase and are sad to see them go.

Others were bummed to see World Quests disappearing. In Legion, World Quests were completed in blocks of four, the reward for which was a chest full of goodies. From what players can see in Azeroth, they’ve been pulled out.

Others still were unimpressed with the beta’s quest threading, the typically well executed transitions from one zone to the next feeling quite rough and without the usual polish and flow. I expect we’ll see a lot of that ironed out in the full game as the beta is still a very early build (at the time of writing, the game is riddled with placeholder text and cutscenes from previous expansions).

The biggest and most divisive change is the one that many World of Warcraft fans have heard of by now — the dreaded stat squish. There was no one unified opinion on the current state of the damage dealing game. Some players were outraged that they could no longer land 2 million damage on a single hit, feeling that they were being robbed the big combat numbers they’d worked so hard to achieve. Others openly admitted that anything that can deal 2 million damage per hit should rightly be regarded as ridiculous, and that the nerf was both inevitable and a long time coming.

These cheers and jeers aside, my personal favourite part of any WoW expac is the chance to explore a new part of Azeroth we haven’t been to before. I want to be clear, what you think of as adventure and what I think of adventure are likely very different. When I say explore, I mean I literally walk the game world on foot or on my land-mount just to check it out. This, as I understand it, is deeply boring to your every day WoW player for whom the lustre of being in Azeroth wore of years ago.

Regardless, each of the game’s two new areas present interesting, varied landscaped to check out from the jungled, Incan-inspired ruins of Zandalar to the Gaelic-inspired Kul Tiras, home of the Proudmoore clan. It’s great to see Blizzard haven’t lost their touch for worldbuilding after nearly 15 years because wandering around these areas have been some of my favourite after-work gaming activities for weeks now.

As it currently stands, Battle for Azeroth looks to be a promising, if potentially polarising entry in the series. There are things long-time fans already love and things they’re already moaning about, which is usually a good sign Blizzard’s onto something.

There’s plenty of other signs that suggest Blizzard’s up to something entirely different behind the scenes, but on that score we’ll have to wait and see. But I’m watching you, Blizzard. I see you. I see those Warcraft 3 PTR updates. Those Back2Warcraft Twitch streams. I know a ramp up when I see one.

World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth is currently in closed beta to registerred users and portions of the game are available as early access content to pre-order customers. It launches on August 14, 2018 on Windows PC and Mac OS X via the Battle.net app.