Hands-on Preview: World of Warcraft - Battle for Azeroth

All the details on WoW’s new Island Expeditions from our exclusive hands-on at Blizzard HQ.

Hands-on Preview: World of Warcraft - Battle for Azeroth

Developer Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher Blizzard Entertainment
Due 14th august 2018

Tropical islands conjure glorious imagery. Sandy beaches. Shady palms. Salty goblins ready to cut your throat to beat you to the Azerite.

Yes, this is an island expedition of the World of Warcraft variety, and we have good news from our hands-on access on a visit to Blizzard HQ in Irvine, California. This new feature coming to the Battle for Azeroth expansion is looking like the standout upgrade when it comes to replayable content.

Put simply, if you’re the kind of player who doesn’t really like PvP but want something more dynamic than running the same raids and dungeons on a loop, this is going to light your fire.

The island brochure

When your first character reaches a certain milestone in the Battle for Azeroth War Campaign (expected to be around halfway to the new level cap of 120), it will be time to explore the high seas to bring home critical resources for the war effort. And that’s where Island Expeditions will unlock.

Once you have access to Island Expeditions on your first character, it is unlocked for your whole account, so you will be able to dive straight into Island Expeditions as a levelling experience for any characters that follow.

An Island Expedition is a three-player group experience, labelled as ‘role agnostic,’ so you won’t need to make sure you have tank-dps-heal combos to succeed. That said, based on our hands on, having some kind of healing on hand will make things a LOT easier.

It’s designed as a PvE experience from the outset, a race against an opposing faction AI team to collect a target count of Azerite from the island you’ve landed on. Expeditions will last around 15-20 minutes.

The islands are dynamic, with enemies, Azerite node positions, weather effects and other points of interest changing each time you play. One island might be lousy with dinosaurs, another with evil cultists or a portal to an elemental boss. Some inhabitants could even give you a quest to complete.

With an opposing team chasing the same target as you, you’re basically running against a clock, watching a scoreboard tick steadily toward the target number until someone wins.

A bit of backstory…

Battle for Azeroth is an expansion where Horde and Alliance dive back into all out conflict after two expansions of getting along pretty well to tackle world threatening bad guys from other times and planets.

During the Legion expansion, we’ve learned that our planet, Azeroth, is actually the name of a nascent Titan because, well, our planet is basically a Titan egg. In the process of finally defeating the big bad boss Titan of the entire Burning Legion, Sargeras delivers a final “SCREW YOU” by thrusting his gargantuan sword into Azeroth, because if he can’t have her then no one can. Yep, he’s a galactic jerk, but he’s imprisoned now, with Illidan acting as his space jailer, so he’ll NEVER EVER come back because no one ever comes back from imprisonment in epic fantasy, alright?

So, the giant sword in our planet is now causing Azeroth to bleed out slowly, and this blood is oozing up into the world in the form of Azerite. Funnily enough, the blood of a Titan is very, very powerful, so the Horde and the Alliance are now mining it to gain the upper hand because the other guys started mining it so we’d better mine it too. Things escalate as any arms race is wont to do.

As heroes of the realm, we’ll be mining Azerite throughout the BfA expansion, using it to empower our armour with fancy new tricks, as well as offering it up to the faction leaders to fuel open conflict. And no amount of Azerite will ever be enough (until we get to the endgame of the expansion, of course).

Smarter than your average AI

What has us so hyped about Island Expeditions is that mobs are looking really dynamic and much smarter than your typical AI cannon fodder. Blizzard is calling them ‘Advanced NPCs’ and that’s a pretty apt description.

The enemy teams are hand crafted, not just random groups of three bad guys. These are named enemies, and they even sport fun team names – Horde teams like Warbraves and Gazlowe’s Greasemonkeys, and Alliance teams like Riftrunners and, my favourite, Jaina’s Angels. This means you’ll get to know certain groups and their team tactics the more you play.

But in general, they’re so much smarter than what you see elsewhere in the game (which hopefully means some of these smarts will appear in other places if things go well with this concept).

For example, mages won’t just stand there and accept you punching them in their squishy faces. Like any proper mage, they will try to maintain range on you, or blink away to get back to a safe distance while their tougher buddies worry about the melee.

There are even flavours attached to the different teams you will face. Some teams might have an aggressive bent, trying to get up in your space and stop you in your tracks. Others might focus more on playing the island objectives and actively avoiding the PCs to just outscore you for victory. When you land on an island, working out which team you’re facing and what to expect from that team could end up playing a big role in success and failure.

Pirates must have their dubloons

Run an island, grab Azerite, hand it over, rinse, repeat? What’s in it for us max level PCs? Why, treasure, of course!

We actually don’t know much about this side of things just yet, but we know there are faction vendors and a currency called Seafarer’s Dubloons that you’ll earn from your expedition exploits. So far in the Alpha the vendors will sell you items to make future expedition runs a little easier, which could support your effort to ramp up the difficulty levels.

These include items like a ‘Trick Vest’ that shields you for damage before eventually exploding, damaging nearby enemies when its shield is used up. Or items that let healers fire bolts of magical power at enemies every time they heal.

What we’re really hoping for are what we hope for from everything in WoW. Collectibles! Pets, tabards, mounts, the works. So far it’s just a few helpful items, but any time we see a dedicated currency we have a feeling there’ll eventually be cool things to buy if you can collect enough of the stuff.

Location, location, location

For all the variety that Island Expeditions promises thanks to the dynamic content, the Blizzard team is also aiming to have a good list of different island destinations to offer us too.

The map we experienced was called Un’gol Ruins, an island with distinctly tropical vibes. From other announcements we’ve seen elements of a map called Havenswood, which features a dense town to hunt through.

Beyond these, we simply know that the team wants to deliver a good range of map styles, so that in combination with the dynamic content you’ll be island hopping for years to come without ever feeling like things are getting stale.

How does it play?

In our first three attempts at running an island, we failed. The first was miserable, the second a close finish, and the third actually worse than the second as we hunted for some new strategy to push us over the top, but instead only found a faster path to failure.

The big issue seemed to be that the AI was being very smart at keeping its Azerite score ticking along at a nice pace. Us humans were first-timers getting caught up in fights that were hard work but didn’t earn us much Azerite.

Things also change up around the ten-minute mark, with fresh Azerite nodes appearing and even the chance of new bosses spawning. It gives things that ‘phase two’ feeling that keeps you on your toes as the race gets closer to the finish line.

Environmental hazards can also get nasty. We encountered blizzarding weather due to some sort of ice boss spawning into the island, which slowed us down when we entered the effect. Another run saw stormy weather dropping lightning zones onto us that could even stun us if we didn’t get out in time.

Finding the smart ways to avoid brawling without a good reason will be an important part of succeeding. And that’s so refreshing – the ‘you win by killing things’ story is found in plenty of other parts of this game, so something that requires a little more thought is a welcome change.

This also means communication is going to be an important part of the experience. Sticking together seems critical to success, because it will take teamwork to quickly take down a rare or elite spawn that’s guarding a chest full of Azerite and you especially don’t want to get caught out of position when the enemy team rounds a corner in front of you.

This does ring alarm bells for joining random group queues. With dungeons and raids, you can learn the routines because they are well defined and always occur the same way. As long as everyone does their job, you’ll get there in the end. But this is a time-based moveable feast of randomised objectives. If you get teamed up with even one person who isn’t up to scratch – and who refuses to engage in teamwork – you’re heading for failure.

But even at that, a 15-20 minute completion time means one bad run isn’t taking up your whole play session. This feels like a sweet spot addition to World of Warcraft that throws in a new variety of play in a game that already has so, so many options for what you might do with a couple of hours of your free time.

At our hands-on preview at Blizzard HQ, one of the most promising signs was how closely the dev team was watching our experiences. We had team members standing over our shoulders, laughing along and offering pointers. But most of all you could tell they were trying to gauge how we were enjoying things. The team was clearly devoted to polishing and tweaking their work to perfection – an attitude that has always seemed at the core of Blizzard games.

It’s a pleasure to watch in action and it adds to the sense that Island Expeditions are going to be a truly outstanding part of the Battle for Azeroth experience. 

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