World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth official artwork showing an Orc and a Human

After an entire expansion filled with demons and universe-devouring threats, Battle for Azeroth has now brought World of Warcraft back to its basics, back to the age-old conflict between the Horde and the Alliance. Perhaps most importantly of all, it has also replaced the fel green and dark brown wastelands that have dominated most of Legion's end-game with the much more pleasant and colorful islands of Zandalar and Kul Tiras.

So if you're curious about what exactly Battle for Azeroth has done to improve upon Legion's success, as well as where it fumbles and falls flat on its face, allow me to share my thoughts after experiencing pretty much everything that's currently available. As for raids, mythic keystone dungeons and the new PvP zones, I will cover them in a subsequent review once they're finally available.

World of Warcraft screenshot of Vol'Duns snake temple

The Temple of Sethraliss - one of the most impressive vistas in Vol'dun

Unlike the past few expansions where the Alliance and Horde had pretty much the same zones to quest through, Battle for Azeroth has taken things a bit of a different direction by giving each faction their own island with three unique zones to explore. Regardless of faction you can still visit all of the zones and do the various world quests and faction-specific missions found within them, but to get the full story experience you will need to level at least one character from each faction.  

When I first heard about this I must admit I was quite worried that the leveling process would be incredibly dull given the lack of diversity, but thankfully both the Horde and Alliance zones have proven me wrong. While each zone has a unique atmosphere and theme that permeates through all of it, there are also plenty of side-areas with their own little quirks and wacky characters to break up the monotony and keep you engaged. So even though you won't be leveling through as many zones as you would in the previous expansions, things never really get boring because of how many different ideas and storylines have been put into each individual region. 

Take for example the vast desert of Vol'Dun on the Horde side. On paper it's an absolute hellhole inhabited only by scavengers, drought-maddened wildlife and snakemen that wish to (you guessed it) rule the world with an iron fist. However, instead of it being the most boring zone in all of creation, Vol'Dun is actually my favorite because almost all of its sub-regions explore entirely different conflicts and characters. You start by aiding the fox-like Vulpera as they drive lama-driven carriages across the desert, and then somehow end up staging a mutiny with skeletal pirates, helping to set up a tavern in the middle of nowhere for a guy that likes to wear bananas on his head, and eventually even become empowered by a snake god so you can blast apart hundreds of enemies by just standing next to them. It's all a bit cheesy, sure, but it's correct kind of cheesy - the one you can laugh with instead of at.

World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth screenshot of the Freehold dungeon

If you're not a fan of skeletons, there's also extra 'thicc' pirates as well

Besides simply looking pretty, the zones are also rather well designed when it comes to guiding you from quest to quest. On my first playthrough Vol'Dun took me about 4 hours as I explored every nook and cranny, but once I logged in on my second character I was able to plough through it in less than two hours - all because the quests are positioned in such a way that you can almost completely avoid downtime with a good route. Not exactly the most important thing for the start of the expansion, I'm aware, but it's something I wager many of us will be very happy about a few months down the line when the Zandalari Trolls and Kul Tiran Humans become available as Allied Races. 

If there is one negative I have about the leveling experience, it is that the character power curve is completely reversed. While you still have your legendary items and set bonuses you can absolutely annihilate packs of enemies, so much so that my Demon Hunter was able to solve "kill 20 enemies" quests in a single pull without much trouble. Once you go over level 115 and lose your legendary effects, however, Battle for Azeroth becomes noticeably more difficult and remains that way until you're almost fully decked out in Mythic gear.

It's a bit strange to have fresh level 110 characters feel significantly stronger than even somewhat geared level 120 characters, but sadly that's currently the case as there just aren't any new spells or talents to pick up throughout the leveling process. What you have at level 110 is what you'll have at level 120, and in my eyes that is a lot of wasted potential.

World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth screenshot of the Demon Hunter talents at level 120

I haven't had to change my talents in nearly two months now, and that's a bit of a problem

When it comes to the narrative, I was not a big fan of how the pre-expansion storylines surrounding Darnassus and the Undercity were handled, which is why I was quite worried about what I will see once I landed onto Battle for Azeroth's shores. Thankfully, my fears were short-lived as the very first quest for the Horde showed off everything I love about World of Warcraft's storytelling: great characters, insanely high stakes, somewhat cheesy dialogue being delivered completely straight, and most importantly, an 'epic' cinematic giving us more insight into the characters we'll be hanging around with for the entire expansion (and hopefully beyond).

I won't go into any details as I want to avoid spoilers, but what I will say is that the Alliance and Horde will not be getting the same type of experience in Battle for Azeroth. On the Horde side I spent most of my time stopping world-ending threats from rising up, with all of the quests eventually pointing towards the upcoming Uldir raid. The Alliance on the other hand mostly deals with local affairs, and while there are certainly obvious hints towards things to come, I feel like the Horde storyline just has a bit more relevance in the current state of Battle for Azeroth. This will obviously change with the second raid as it's undoubtedly going to continue on from the Alliance storyline, but as of right now I would highly recommend finishing the Horde side before heading into Uldir - just so you know what's really going on. 

As for the side-quests, they have and still remain some of the most engaging content Blizzard has created. Given that they aren't chained to a relatively simple overarching plot, a lot of these quests have a generally good amount of creativity and quality writing to them. They still err on the side of cheesiness so you'll occasionally need to play dinosaur love-doctors while taking a break from saving the world, but for the most part they add some great flavor and world-building to each of the zones... provided you actually read the quest text anyway.  

World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth screenshot of Princess Talanji

It was good to see the Horde get some interesting characters like Princess Talanji

While the leveling process has filled me with a great deal of joy, the newly introduced and much-advertised Azerite Armor has ended up being quite a disappointment. In theory the Azerite Armor is supposed to be a replacement for the Legion legendary items, raid set bonuses and the Artifact Weapon traits, but in practice it ends up falling woefully short of all three goals. This is because very few Azerite Armor traits are meaningful enough to change your playstyle, even in the most basic of ways. They're usually just small number increases or the occasional bit of burst damage, nothing quite like the legendary items or set bonuses of old that would breathe new life into your build.  

As such, despite going through multiple different sets of Azerite Armor, I've never found myself anywhere near as excited as I was when I received my first legendary item, my first set bonus, or even my first golden Artifact Weapon trait in Legion. This is partly because of how uninteresting the Azerite Armor traits are, and partly because every time I managed to get enough Artifact Power to unlock a new set of traits I quickly ended up replacing that item with a much higher level one, thus resetting all of my progress. 

There is a chance this will change in the future as higher quality items do seem bring more traits to the table, so I'd recommend keeping an eye on the sort of gear that will be dropping once the Uldir raid goes live. I say this because the Azerite Armor system has a decent amount of potential behind it, but unfortunately that potential is currently not being utilized in any interesting fashion.

World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth screenshot of the Azerite Armor

Not only are the traits boring, but most of the time they'll be locked because of low AP

On the positive side, the dungeons from which you're going to obtain most of your Azerite Armor have remained just as entertaining as they were in Legion. I won't go too in-depth about them as I plan to cover Mythic Keystone dungeons in part 2 of my review, though so far I have to say that I'm quite happy with both their the variety and quality. It's not every day you get to raid a pirate city in one dungeon, investigate a cursed manor in another, and then finish things off by heading into a World of Warcraft classic - an ancient temple where Trolls are sacrificing their gods... again!  

Some of these dungeons do have a few too many 'trash' encounters sprinkled throughout them, but luckily a lot of them can be skipped if you know the general layout of each area. I also found the dungeons to be decently challenging at the expected ~320-325 item level, so much so that I've actually had groups ask what the strategy for 'trash' enemies is, a question I have not seen in many years. How exactly they're going to fare once everyone is geared up and ready to break down their gates with extremely powerful area-of-effect spells, that still remains to be seen, but as of right now the dungeons are well worth visiting as they provide a nice balance between challenge and entertainment. 

World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth screenshot of the Troll dungeon

As is tradition, the Troll dungeon is lovely to look at 

As for the World Quests, they're pretty much exactly the same as in Legion. You're still going to be running all over the world doing small tasks in return for gear, money, Artifact Power, reputation and resources. I won't pretend they're my favorite feature in World of Warcraft, but they certainly do an admirable job of being bite-sized replacements for daily quests. After all, I would rather pick and choose the couple of missions that interest me over having to do a small number of pre-set missions day in, day out. 

While they might be the same in terms of gameplay, the Battle for Azeroth World Quests have one very important advantage over Legion's - guaranteed and useful rewards. Unlike Legion where you had to keep grinding and grinding in order to get a mere chance at a brand new mount, the three major factions in Battle for Azeroth all offer you a new mount model at exalted, as well as plenty of profession recipes and gear along the way.

The Horde definitely has the edge here given that their mounts are all unique while the Alliance gets three different horses, but whatever factions you may be, I feel like having concrete goals in front of you makes the whole experience much less tedious. These World Quests will probably stop being relevant in the next month or so once people hit exalted status with the main factions, but until then they are a fairly inoffensive take on the standard 'MMO grind' and well worth checking out every couple of days.

World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth screenshot of World Quests

World Quests are basically the same, though a bit more generous with reputation

When it comes to the Island Expeditions, however, I am not sure what to think. They're supposed to be semi-randomized instances where you and two other players have to run around and collect more Azerite than the opposing team - perfect for people that want something a bit more intense yet don't have the time for Battlegrounds or Dungeons. In reality, the Island Expeditions are incredibly predictable and the optimal strategy tends to revolve around completely ignoring all of the enemy players/NPCs, which drastically reduces the excitement and the tug-of-war aspect I found so appealing early on. 

Things tend to be more interesting in the PvP mode as those pesky enemy players love messing with your plans, but the main problem still remains - you're only really incentivized to blaze through as many NPCs as possible in as little of time as possible. Any fighting you do is purely for disruption as the 100-200 Azerite you gain from a two-minute battle with another player could easily have been gathered by choke-slamming a single crocodile. 

Much like the Azerite Armor, the Island Expeditions are a truly excellent concept, but right now they just have far too many flaws to make them engaging content. Fortunately, they shouldn't be too hard to fix as slightly better randomization, more incentives for duking it out with other players, and better post-game rewards would instantly make them an appealing alternative to both PvP and dungeons. 

World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth screenshot of Island Expeditions

Closing Thoughts

Battle for Azeroth does not represent a massive evolution for World of Warcraft, but what it does offer is a highly polished leveling experience, plenty of gorgeous zones to explore, and the usual slue of end-game content to keep you occupied for quite a while. How exactly Battle for Azeroth will stand the test of time, that's something I'll try to answer in the second part of my review once all of the major features are released, but so far I'm having a great deal of fun with it.

So if you're a fan of World of Warcraft and you're looking for an expansion that offers a more polished version of the content you've seen so far, then Battle for Azeroth will likely be right up your alley. On the other hand, if you're tired of the standard World of Warcraft formula and you are hoping this expansion will have that special 'something' to reignite your passion, I'm afraid you might just leave disappointed. Things can definitely change after a couple of major patches given that the new systems introduced with Battle for Azeroth have some real potential, so I'd still recommend keeping an eye on it, just in case.

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