Editor’s Note: This preview covers a hands-on demo from PAX East 2018. It does not reflect the final product.
I haven’t played much World of Warcraft since George W. Bush was president, so I went into a hands-on demo at PAX East curious to see how much had changed in Blizzard’s MMORPG. What I discovered is that the game’s new expansion, Battle for Azeroth, is a great re-entry point for those players who left the game long ago.
The first thing I was asked to do when jumping into Battle for Azeroth was to join the Horde or Alliance and prepare for an Island Expedition, the expansion’s new three-player cooperative mission mode, which can be played in PvE and 3v3. I, along with two other players, sided with the Horde to face off against three Alliance opponents.
After quickly customizing our high-ranked characters, we picked a quest and were sent off to one of the game’s new island areas. The exact place we spawned in on that island was randomly determined when we activated the quest. More on that later.
For now, what you need to know is that Battle for Azeroth’s Island Expeditions require you and two others to mine an island for the new resource, Azerite. This resource is vital to the war effort and can be acquired in a few different ways. The most obvious method is to utilize the on-map “hot spots” and target areas of highly concentrated Azerite supplies, but the resource can be acquired by combating enemies across the map as well.
Our goal was to acquire 6000 Azerite before the Alliance players we were competing against did the same. How we went about defeating our opponents and the island’s monsters was very much up to us.
That’s where Island Expeditions get very interesting. Expeditions are designed in a way that allows teams to get very creative with how they approach their tasks. You can go after some of the Azerite hot spots, but you might not be prepared for the surprisingly challenging monsters that often guard them. You can hang in the perimeter and challenge lesser beings, but it’s a race against the clock, so you might not be able to collectively acquire 6000 Azerite before your potentially bolder opponents manage to do so.
The WoW team has explained that the build of your party doesn’t have to be perfect – just your strategy and teamwork. In other words, you can approach each island with a balanced party of character types, but it’s entirely possible that three tanks or three healers will devise a way to approach the island’s challenges in a way that takes advantage of their skills. Actually, one of the major themes of Battle for Azeroth is the idea that your hero is more than just another adventurer, both in a gameplay sense and in terms of the game’s narrative.
“You’re a representative in many ways,” said World of Warcraft producer Daniel Stahl during our interview. “You are the hero that is being sent to these new continents to deal with the problems that exist for those people in a sense to represent your faction and to represent here’s what the Alliance can do for you. Here’s what the Horde can do for you. You are that Ambassador in many ways that’s going to help the local people in these continents, but you’re also gonna strike out and create a foothold on the other continent, and you get to play that role.”
I learned the value of appreciating everyone’s role in this world the hard way during my demo. Since I was a little…err…rusty at WoW, and since I was trying to learn a freshly built high-level character, my play was not exactly up to par. That’s a problem because Island Expeditions may accommodate various strategies, but they offer little tolerance for mistakes. Happen upon some elite targets or other high-level monsters without a plan of attack in mind, and you will be wiped before you’re able to even glimpse the precious Azerite resources the most powerful creatures guard.
On top of this, you have the aspects of the expeditions you can’t entirely prepare for. I mentioned earlier that your spawn point on whatever island you choose is randomized. I learned that from some members of the Battle for Azeroth design team, who also explained that each Expedition could potentially feature special events or enemy spawns that we might not have seen on our particular playthrough.
“The dynamic nature of these islands is that we’ve created sort of this enemy, these advanced NPC groups,” said Stahl. “These are all different places with different creatures, different pitfalls, different traps, there are all kinds of different things there. But the consistency is that you’ll understand what you need to do.”
What that means is that it’s going to be quite difficult for even seasoned World of Warcraft players (such as my two demo companions) to form the perfect strategy for every Expedition. There are many variables in play that will require you to think on your feet and, at times, make the best of a bad situation. As Stahl explained, the presence of another team on each island leads to a lot of circumstances where you must react dynamically in order to win.
In that sense, Island Expeditions really do feel like the best possible pieces of endgame content that World of Warcraft has to offer. While it’s true that WoW has never been short on compelling endgame content, the dynamic nature of these challenges – combined with the various available difficulty levels and PvP specific options – suggests that these islands are going to be very popular among players whose greatest thrill in the game comes from besting the world’s toughest challenges through immaculate teamwork and personal performance.
Most importantly, Island Expeditions don’t feel quite like any other piece of content in the game. This mode borrows ideas from dungeons, raids, and other quests, but the combination of mechanics, challenges, and rewards offered makes it feel like a refreshing take on the things that make WoW so great in the first place. There’s some worry that the basic act of gathering Azerite could become repetitive, but these new adventures are really about finding ways to persevere in difficult and unpredictable situations. The Azerite component feels more like the tie that binds (though collecting the resource could help you in the greater war at play) all of these ideas together.
“Think of Island Expeditions as that personal scouting method into the conflict,” said Stahl “You’re going to have skirmishes with the other side and start to get an idea of this conflict is worldwide, right? Every island you go to is representing a different place in that Southsea, so you’re showing that this conflict exists everywhere.”
Blizzard has also previously stated that Battle for Azeroth is meant to tap into the Horde vs. Alliance battle that is the heart of the Warcraft series. The expansion will accomplish that through large-scale assaults, a more involved narrative that takes a look at both sides of the battle, and events that will have serious repercussions on the never-ending war. Yet, when we’re talking about returning to the heart of WoW, it is the Island Expeditions that just might remind long-time and returning players of the kind of content that drew them into the game’s persistent online world in the first place.
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