So, the Battle for Azeroth alpha is in full swing and the expansion has been dated for August 14th.
There’s nothing wrong with World of Warcraft; it’s weird to say that when you consider how the beleaguered MMORPG has been bleeding subscribers in recent years and seeing an almost wholesale collapse in its top-end Mythic Raiding scene but it’s important to ground any discussion of Blizzard’s titan of the genre in something resembling reason. There is nothing wrong with World of Warcraft; it’s largely the same game people have been playing for 14 years now, and Battle for Azeroth on the surface is more of the same kind of thing that its userbase has been enjoying for a decade now.
There are new areas, new races, new dungeons, new skills and rotations to learn and of course there’ll be new raids and new quirks like the proposed Island Excursions, a sort of randomly-generated small landmass with stuff to do in the vein of the old Scenarios. And despite early reports and examples of Battle for Azeroth being a bit threadbare – it is still in alpha, after all – nothing much seems to be radically changing.
Again, it must be stressed… there’s nothing wrong with that.
Except, there sort of is. World of Warcraft is part of a dying vanguard; an old-school MMORPG set in its ways, a lumbering behemoth that used to be the king of all it surveyed, and is still a massively impressive creature when you stand back and drink it all in. As a technical exercise, as a piece of software, as a design yardstick – World of Warcraft, all these years on, remains unquestionably one of the very heights of what video games can do. Not even modern takes like Final Fantasy XIV can boast the same huge open-world angle; it’s something you won’t see unless you boot up the likes of Xenoblade Chronicles X, or The Witcher 3 to some extent – ambitious single-player RPGs in a sprawling open world.
The thing is… it’s been fourteen years. It was massively impressive then – hell, it’s still massively impressive now. But we’ve had time to come to terms with that, and now it’s just… how it does things.
I call it “The COD Problem” because Call of Duty, another Activision-Blizzard product, has largely the same headache-inducing issue. Remove prejudice and assess the last few Call of Duty games on their technical and design merits and it’s largely impossible to deny they are solid, well-constructed and good examples of the first-person shooter genre. Sure, they have issues – WWII had that stupid Loot Crate achievement – but it’s hard to argue that they are objectively awful on a very simple merit-based system. They aren’t. Even I’ve enjoyed the games in recent years – you can’t really fault them when you’re looking for a technically solid base.
Thing is… people are just exhausted. In the case of Call of Duty, the annualised sequel methodology has left the series largely part of the industries furniture – it’s a thing that happens, and we know happens, and so trying to somehow impress people every E3 or even dare I say it, surprise people, has just become impossible. Oh look, it’s a Call of Duty game leading on the currently popular hardware with the most sales, what a shock, someone pass the smelling salts etc. I’ve said before that Call of Duty needs a break not because it’s become bad, but because it’s on the whole become formulaic, predictable and just a bit trite. Taking a year out, like Assassin’s Creed, might help to clear the air and make people notice its absence a little more keenly.
World of Warcraft has something of the same issue, but in a different way. This is a game which has been online now almost consistently and continuously for fourteen years and that’s no small feat when you think about it… but it’s just there. It feels like it’s always been there now. You don’t turn your head to notice it because it’s all so formulaic and trite and we’ve done all this before. Here’s an alpha – with no NDA, but I’ll get to that in a post in a week or so. Then there’ll be a short beta. Then there’ll be a release, and for maybe 6-12 months people will return and it will feel alive again but as things go on, it will lose people again and things will get harder to do for those left trying to eek something out of the game that is left.
Sure, the story focus changes every so often. But it’s again just so tired now; oh look, the Horde and Alliance are going at it again, this time whilst the world they’re standing on is screaming out in what is being described as death-throes.
Though that said, never has their been a more apt story line for World of Warcraft.
I think it’s just the inability to surprise people now; Breath of the Wild shocked us, and The Legend of Zelda series is more than thirty years old at this point. Why did it shock us then? Because Breath of the Wild largely tore up the rulebook; it made brash, bold and sweeping changes to the formula, dropped us into a richly-detailed Hyrule we could run around to our hearts content within reason. It posited a new methodology, a new direction, a brave hands-off approach to the storytelling on the whole leaving the player to fill in admittedly large gaps in that Dark Souls way. It was technically impressive – particularly for a game which you could play handheld – but it was also a huge shot in the arm for a series which itself had become somewhat set in its ways, at peace with its formula of three dungeons > plot twist > more dungeons > finish (and whilst many blame Ocarina of Time for that, this is technically how Link To The Past played out too!).
It’s why the new God of War looks so fresh; it’s different, making radical changes to an old formula. And hopefully, touch wood, the same is true of the upcoming Pokémon Switch. Another series old enough to buy liquor in the United States.
World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth is not going to be terrible; I can state that with an alarming degree of certainty. But that I can state that with such an unerring degree of certainty is part of its most deeply-rooted problems; nothing is changing, not really. There’s no radical rethink at play here. No bold new direction. No changes which may, in theory, alarm or annoy its most avid fans. Battle for Azeroth just adds more of an already proven-to-work thing; and I think, after all this time, that’s… maybe not good enough anymore.
The gaming landscape has changed radically; Battle Royale is the in-thing. We’ve been through dozens of trends in recent years. Games have come and gone, even many online games cannot boast the length and breadth of Blizzard’s magnum-opus. We’ve been through… well, I’d argue three console generations, the original game in 2004 arrived in the PS2/XBox/Gamecube Gen-6 era, and we’re in the Gen-8 era; potentially on the cusp of a Gen-9. What games are, what they can do, has changed considerably. Back in 2004, Azeroth was a marvel of software engineering (though as someone who was there in Vanilla… I remember its massive lag issues!). Today, it’s not. It’s just an example of it; a towering example, but we’ve just simply stopped noticing it because it’s been so unmovable, so unshakeable, so present.
And for me, that may be the greatest criticism that reviewers can level at it. It won’t be technically bad. There’ll be plenty to do, lots to enjoy even, but on the whole it will just feel… not boring, but perhaps inducing a déjà vu; a feeling that whilst this is all new, it feels remarkably old at the same time.
For now, maybe that’s what will work short-term for World of Warcraft; but the question is how a persistent online world like Azeroth can reinvent itself in a market where not only does it still remain one of the uncontested heavyweights, but in a wider market where games and trends have shifted so much over the intervening years. Battle for Azeroth will be a good expansion – again, I don’t think anyone is doubting that – but for World of Warcraft to have another fifteen years or so on the market, there needs to be a considerable reinvention, a radical shift. Perhaps a Final Fantasy XIV 2.0 Reboot; something truly terrible happens at the end of Battle for Azeroth, and we’re all booted back to lvl 1 in a WoW 2.0 – not a sequel, but a reboot, shift the timeline on a little, maybe 40-50 years (Anduin could be an old man at this point!), and tell a different story in a world which has lurched forward a little technically and politically.
As it stands, trying to get excited for Battle for Azeroth is… well, like trying to get excited for the next Call of Duty. It’s just hard to do when apathy has set in.
And as we all know, Apathy is Death.