Battle for Azeroth – more observations

Look at the title – if you don’t want to know, don’t read.

Yesterday I spent several hours on the Battle for Azeroth beta with my copied main BM hunter. In general, it was a positive experience (with some reservations). I took my time, but even so it only took me about 8 hours to get to level 112. Along the way I noted a few things.

Artwork. Once again, I think Blizz has outdone themselves in the artwork for this expansion. Prepare to be blown away with the detail and variation of the new zones. Towards the end of Legion, it struck me that Blizz was pretty much just mailing it in when it came to Broken Shore and Argus — feel pools, lava, and rocks seemed to be the extent of their effort. But Kul Tiras is rich, varied, and there has been a great deal of attention to detail. With the exception of my first “foothold” mission, I have not quested in the Horde starter zones of Zandalar, but from what I have seen, those areas, too, are exceptional.

I won’t deny that some parts of the new zones look suspiciously like recoloring of existing areas (is Boralus really just Suramar City reskinned?), but at least if that is the case, it has been done well. On a personal note, I am dismayed by what seems to be too many dark, gloomy regions — I prefer bright, sun-filled ones — but that is a personal preference, not a flaw in the artwork.

Intro scenario. The introduction to Battle for Azeroth — basically what everyone will be doing initially on launch day — is similarly well done. As most of you know, I am not a lore person, but to me the story was well told, hung together, and serves well as an introduction to the factors that will be recurring themes as BfA unfolds. And there really are some fun bits, including piling into mechanical devices and mowing down vast swaths of mobs.

It is, however, quite long and drawn out. As with most mechanics, it is interesting the first time through, but I think will not wear well at all more than once. I hope Blizz will offer a vastly abbreviated version for players’ alts once they have taken one character completely through it. As it is, even in the beta, they have given players the choice to skip the additional introduction to Kul Tiras — if you do that plus the first (currently mandatory) scenario, it is at least a couple hours before you can even start questing for real.

Handy and not so handy supplies. By all means, stock up on Goblin Gliders before you start. They work in BfA and are exceptionally useful when you need to get to a distant point below where you are — they really can cut down on travel time under the right circumstances, and there seem to be a lot of those circumstances.

Also go ahead and bring your special foods, flasks, and potions from Legion. I don’t know how long they will be effective in BfA, but they certainly are helpful at least during early leveling. I think a half stack of each would be plenty, but if you use them a lot then a whole stack might be better. They will end up at some point just being vendor trash anyway.

Do not bother with the crafted leather bardings that keep you from being dazed off your mount in Legion. They do not work in BfA. I learned this the hard way. Also, that handy little Lightforged Augment Rune you can buy from the Army of the Light in Antorus changes to be ineffective above level 109. I did not try the regular consumable Augment Runes, but I assume they are the same. You won’t need them, get rid of them.

Gear. If you are fairly well geared in Legion, your gear should last several levels in BfA before you will need to equip most gear drops from quests. The exception is your Azerite gear, which you get very early in the introduction quests.

For those of you unfamiliar with the special gear in BfA, it works very basically like this: Early on you get a neckpiece, the Heart of Azeroth, that you will keep the entire expansion. Its function is to absorb Azerite as you obtain it through various means. (The neckpiece itself seems to increase in ilevel rather automatically.) Once it absorbs a certain amount of Azerite, it will empower a new trait in one of the pieces of actual Azerite-powered gear you will collect.

You get an early quest that awards one piece of Azerite gear — you can pick helm, shoulders, or chest (I think). So your first accumulations of Azerite will go to empower the traits on this piece of gear. Like the neck piece, you will likely keep this piece throughout the expansion. Other pieces (up to a total of 3 equipped) are eventually obtained through raids and dungeons as loot. (It’s not clear to me yet if you can actually obtain more than 3 pieces and equip only 3, or if switching them out is a good idea even if you can.)

So, on a simple level, what BfA does is automate the legion AP/artifact mechanisms and spread them out among 3 pieces of gear plus an enabler piece. The neckpiece really is just a way to keep track of Azerite, and it eliminates the need to actually collect AP gizmos and click on them. The amount of Azerite needed for gear traits will of course increase exponentially with each trait, just like the AP requirements in Legion. Your action bars will include a tweak to the AP/artifact bar that will keep track of how long until your next Azerite trait upgrade.

If you want more detailed information on this gear in BfA, check out the Wowhead guide on it.

Your artifact weapon will transfer to BfA with you, basically as just a weapon with a relatively high ilevel.

The other gear thing to be aware of is how legendaries seem to work. Your legendaries will also transfer with you, again as gear with relatively high levels. But unlike artifact weapons, legendaries do retain at least some variation of their unique abilities from Legion. (Up until level 115, I believe.) So do tier pieces. So as you prepare for BfA you may want to give some thought to the relative value of legendary and tier bonuses, and how important these are to you in the early stages of leveling. Once you have decided that, then factor in that you will get one major piece of Azerite gear right away, and you will want to decide how or if that requires you to restructure your equipped Legion tier and legendaries.

As I said, I reached level 112 fairly quickly. My ilevel going in from Legion was 964, with 4-pc tier 21. So far most of the quest gear is just vendor trash for me, except of course for the Azerite piece and the neck piece. Towards the end of level 111 I did get a piece that made me dump one piece of tier, and I suspect by the time I reach 113 I will be replacing my Legion gear more often. Obviously, my lesser-geared alts will start dumping gear earlier.

Professions. As I suspected, if you start BfA with level 800 professions, it looks like Blizz will give you credit for the now-separate profession leveling from other expansions. The beta still has a few profession bugs in it, but that’s what it looks like. You will level to 150 (or 155??) for BfA, so even though it is a bit of a surprise to see your profession start at level 1 again, it seems like it will be a reasonable change. Gathering professions seem quick, and I am somewhere around 135 already on my skinner. No clue yet if herbalism and mining will be as fast. I have not yet done any leatherworking quests, although I do already have a couple in my quest list. So I don’t yet have a feel for how long and involved they may eventually be.

BM hunter. This post is not really about hunter specifics, but so far I think the experience is a mixed bag. On the one hand, BfA does seem to give us more decision options and thus more interesting play, but honestly most of that comes from an automatic switch to what we used to call the Dire Frenzy build in Legion.

Overall, the addition of  global cooldowns to hunter shots/commands that have not had them makes the play style seem somewhat clunky and slow, even given that BM hunters have all instant casts. The global cooldown going from 1.0 sec to 1.5 sec unhasted makes it even worse. Things that were off the GCD in Legion — like Bestial Wrath — are now on it, and I was amazed at how much slower and clunkier this change makes BM play seem.

The other really crappy thing about talents is the Hati replacement talent, Animal Companion. This simply has to change before BfA goes live, because as it now stands it is pretty effing useless. The additional pet has no pet special abilities (does only auto attack), does not share in Beast Cleave or Bestial Wrath, appears a few seconds after your main pet is summoned, has major pathing problems, seems to be back to the ambling mode when going to a target, and does not even camouflage itself when you do (resulting in unintended pulls).

I said it simply must change, but unfortunately we all know Blizz does not give a rat’s ass about hunters — especially BM hunters — and thus I would bet a week’s worth of gold that nothing will change. What we have is what we will get, because Blizz is clearly back to the mode of being pissy about getting pressure to give us some semblance of our artifact abilities — which they have happily and willingly done for many other classes, I might add — so they have reverted to their standard approach best summarized as, “Oh, ALL RIGHT! There. Now you got Hati so sit the eff down and shut up.”

Blizz remains uncomfortable with giving BM hunters any significant pet power, despite their fancy words on how committed they are to class and spec “fantasy”. Well, except for making Beast Master hunters actual masters of beasts, that is…..

Okay, that is enough bitching for a Monday. Overall, I am relatively pleased with what I have seen about BfA. I have not yet tried any War Fronts or Islands, but the leveling process seems solid. Of course, the initial leveling in any expansion is one of Blizz’s best design features, so we will see how the expansion eventually unfolds. I hope they learned a lesson about the eternal AP grind in Legion and will make the Azerite-gathering more pleasing in BfA. Of course we will have to grind it throughout the expansion — how else will they keep their MAU metrics going? — but maybe, fingers crossed, they have figured out a way to make it seem less onerous.

New leveling, continued

In Friday’s post, I described my experiences so far with leveling a void elf under the new leveling structure. As nearly all of my weekend play time was spent leveling my new alt, this will be an update on additional observations.

Having now played a total of 17 hours in the new system on my void elf, I have to say I still have mixed feelings about the leveling and zone changes.

In my 17 hours I managed to get my VE to level 50. Allowing for the fact that they start at level 20, and allowing some non-leveling time for afk’s, incorporating new talents into action bars, setting up a bank and getting new bags, running back and forth to the Darkmoon Faire to get the leveling buff, etc., that is probably — very roughly — 2 levels per hour. (Not sure how much the DMF buff speeded things up, but it did help a little, even though it seemed like every time I freshly applied it, my next series of quests involved long intervals of road travel, with not much actual leveling going on. 😡)

That really is not a bad rate, but it is quite a bit slower than before the patch, so of course it feels really tedious. (Plus, I expect that rate to slow as I get higher.) These days I consider myself to be an efficient leveler — not a speed leveler, but also not wasting time on things like professions and extraneous exploration. I handicapped myself a bit this time by choosing a mage to level, and an arcane one at that. One of my guildies started out yesterday at almost the same level I was, and by the end of the day she had reached 60 while I only got to 50, playing about the same number of hours. But she is leveling a monk, and that xp buff they get is pretty significant. Also, my leveling an arcane mage means I have to spend time after every 2-3 pulls to replenish mana (arcane really eats mana fast) and health (squishy clothie). It adds up.

Pluses so far:

I do like the idea that I can select any zone I want to level in. For example, I am really burned out on Redridge, so I am avoiding it this time around. I did Western Plaguelands but when it came time to go to what traditionally would have been the next zone — Eastern Plaguelands, which I hate with a passion — I opted for Theramore instead. You can jump from zone to zone or continent to continent easily and not suffer any bad effects on the leveling process. (With the possible exception of some additional travel time.)

I also like the addition of zone quest sets. I was never big on going after the Loremaster achievement, but I do like the mini-achievements you get now when you finish a set of related quests in a zone.

I still like the heirloom gear, even after Blizz nerfed it. (A lot.) It saves me having to re-equip most gear after quests, and of course the added transmog expenses every time you re-equip. (Because of course fashion while questing is everything, Dahling!) Yeah, I know void elves get a slight break on transmog costs, but I am still a cheapskate in that area. (More about heirloom gear below.)

Minuses so far:

Something that did not occur to me before I started this process, but which I now find is pretty important, is that I never get the “oh, I must be making progress” feeling, because every mob is always pretty hard. They level up as I do, so I never get that “cool, this used to be hard but now they are dying much faster” internal feedback. Everything is just as difficult at level 50 as it was at level 20, even the exact same mobs.

In some ways, this absence of a sense of progression reminds me of the Legion AP chase — you never really feel like you have finished anything, it just grinds on and on with no noticeable change. Leveling an alt is now like leveling your artifact weapon, and it feels bad. I am astounded that Blizz just does not seem to understand this. It apparently is not important to the devs, but I can assure them it is very important to the majority of players.

I have not done any dungeons, so I can’t speak firsthand as to how or if that would affect the leveling process. However, the guildie I mentioned above ran a few on a different alt — a tank she is leveling — and described her experiences as a “disaster”, mainly because healers just could not keep up with the extra damage to the tank and dps. She is an excellent tank, knows the fights and is very situationally aware when it comes to pulling, and she will stop to let healers get mana and such, so when she says dungeons are “disasters” I tend to put some stock in it. If they give extra xp, is it really worth it if they take longer to do and require more repair costs?

I have also heard that the healer leveling process is significantly more difficult now than before the changes (if any of you have direct experience with this, chime in). Of course, it is not new that some classes and specs have an easier time leveling than others, this has always been the case. But I wonder if the new system, because of rushed testing or slipshod balancing, disproportionately punishes the “loser” classes and roles. It’s just a thought, I really have no data to go further with it.

Doing a major overhaul of the entire leveling system is certainly a daunting task, and I suppose we should be somewhat understanding if Blizz has not covered all its bases in the process. But honestly, my patience shelves for Blizz are pretty bare these days. They seem to rush things out the door, rarely if ever listening or reacting to the serious feedback they claim to want from players.

Not everyone wants the new prescribed and approved leveling “experience” every time they level an alt. The forums are full of people loudly braying this truism. It seems to me that Blizz might, for a change, listen to the drumbeat behind the comments and realize they could actually — and easily — appease both camps in this case. They could keep the new system in place, but structure heirlooms this way:

  • Keep the new nerfed versions, but add a level of enhancement, based on the player having attained certain achievements (max level, certain level of gear, certain reps, a high level quest chain, whatever) on at least one character.
  • The new enhancement would be purchased tokens, applied to each piece of heirloom gear after each has reached level Level 3 for that piece.
  • This new “Level 4” token would go into effect immediately and would basically grant greater gear power (yes, rendering mobs and many bosses trivial), as well as significantly increase the xp bonus for each piece. (Essentially restoring the old leveling experience.)
  • The token would be applied once the heirloom gear was equipped and soulbound, thus applying only to the character being leveled. (Like enchants do now.) If a player wished to level another alt, they would have to re-purchase these speed tokens for that alt.
  • The cost of the tokens should be reasonable, neither too cheap nor prohibitively expensive, maybe something like a few hundred gold each.
  • Players not wishing to rush through the leveling experience would not have to add this token and would get the full benefit of whatever “immersive experience” they want. (Of course there would be the inevitable argument of “I love playing this way, and so everyone else should have to play that way, too”, but that is an argument that should be ignored.)

I honestly do not see who would lose with such a system (except, probably the Blizz execs who now equate “tedious grinding” with “my quarterly MAU bonus”). But I think what Blizz has done with the new leveling system actually will discourage some players from leveling new alts (especially once the newness of Allied races has worn off), and by giving an option for speed leveling it might entice more players to participate, which in the long run will increase MAU.

None of this will happen, of course. First, Blizz has shown they do not give a rat’s ass if players feel they are being shoved into one endless grind after another. (All while Mr. Game Director Hazzikostas sanctimoniously tut-tuts about the evils of “grinding”, a prime example of alternative-reality thinking.) Second, Blizz is in the midst of a major game redirection — ongoing now for a couple of years — away from any form of player option or choice and towards a highly centralized and prescribed play style.

Meanwhile, I need more mage food.

Allied races so far

On Wednesday I plunked down my money to pre-purchase Battle for Azeroth and get the opportunity to recruit and level a couple of allied races. As I don’t play Horde at all, for me that meant Void Elves and Lightforged Draenei. I am not big on hooves, so I will leave that race for later, and I opted for a Void Elf mage (arcane).

As much as I see through why Blizz is making this part of BfA available now (monthly active user metrics), I have to admit it is a pretty shrewd move. I am having some fun with my VE. I had already (several weeks ago) met the rep requirements, so for me the recruitment was a simple matter of running a few Fedex-type quests and doing the final scenario. I found the scenario appropriate — it established a bit of lore for the VEs, and it was long enough to be engaging but short enough to not be tedious.

I think the VE models are attractive, and armor really seems to look good on them. (Though I was disappointed at the paucity of hair styles available. ☹️)

five-02

There was a lot of to-do over some of the Allied Races racials, and there was some speculation that the VE Spatial Rift racial would break PvP. I have tried it out, and honestly it is not big deal. It seems to transport you about the same distance or even less than Blink, and it is not really instantaneous — you have to hit it twice to make it work. Some of the other damage-reduction and damage-enhancing racials for VEs may be more useful, but even they do not seem anything much to write home about. I suppose at max level they might make a tiny difference for all the min-maxers out there, but I am kind of underwhelmed by them.

So far I am just leveling her up regular. Some of my guildies went ahead and used their boost on their Allied race character, but I think I will save mine. When you use the boost, your character does not gain access to the special armor for the race, but that is not a consideration for me — I think the armor set is bulky and ugly, but then I am sort of a minimalist when it comes to armor. I just want to save my boost for a while and see if I might have a really good use for it. At the very least, I will level this character to whatever level necessary to get the profession boost too, if I decide to use the character boost. (I am guessing that is still a thing, but honestly I don’t know, as it has been a long time since I have used a character boost.)

Late Edit. Couple more things have come up regarding leveling and boost. For one, Blizz has weaseled out on the normal profession boost accompanying a character boost when you do it after a certain character level. They now grant professions up to 700, but are requiring the entire long, dungeon-and-raid-and-quest-lines profession leveling to ge to 800. (MAU, baby!)

Second — and this is strictly anecdotal, I have not done any calculations yet — I have noticed what seems to be a significant decrement in the length of the rested buff you get when you log out. I had my VE mage logged out in an inn for about 36 hours, and the buff disappeared within 20 minutes after I resumed leveling. I was not doing any crash xp turn-ins or anything, just normal quest chasing. Could be a bug, could be my imagination, but it was pretty disconcerting, given how slow it is to level now anyway.

In general, I am not happy with the “experience” of slogging through low levels, nor am I pleased that Blizz has seen fit to nerf the character boost regarding professions.

The Allied Race characters start out at level 20. I have leveled my mage to 36 after a couple of nights. I can definitely see the difference the new zone leveling and xp amounts make. It takes noticeably longer to level up and even to kill some mobs. Our GM did some research, and apparently it is about 30% longer to level up across the board now, so that for example if it took 60 game hours to get to 110 before, now it takes 90. I have not run any instances yet, so I cannot speak to any changes in those in terms of relative difficulty.

So far I am enjoying the leveling process, but I think it will wear thin fairly soon. I expect somewhere around level 50 I will just want the process to be over and will want only to get to 110 as fast as possible. Even when it was current, I did not enjoy the level 50-90 zones. In theory the new zone leveling helps with some of that, but I still think it will be tedious. By level 50, I have had all the “classic experience” I can stand.

At any rate, so far Blizz’s move to give us access to some of the BfA Allied Races gets a thumbs up from me. I don’t know how much longer I will continue to enjoy the “experience”, but it is definitely a nice diversion for a while.

And speaking of diversions, time for a weekend diversion. See you on the other side.

Mixed alt messages

Over the weekend I spent a few hours on my outlaw rogue alt. I like this alt, but he is not one of my “main” alts, if there is such a thing. He was already at 110 and had worked through the basic parts of Broken Shore and the class hall quest lines (but not the class mount one), but he had done nothing more than the intro quest to just get him aboard the Vindicaar.

The reason I hauled him out of mothballs is because he is my inscriptionist, and I usually provide most of the vantus runes we hand out in raid while we are doing progression. I craft them and send them to the RL, who passes them out to the raid just before whichever boss we think will be the toughest one for the week. They may be a crutch, but we have found they often make that small bit of difference — especially early on in a tier — that lets us walk away with a kill instead of a series of wipes.

So I dusted him off and ran a quick LFR to get the level 1 vantus rune recipe for Antorus the Burning Throne. My experience, if anyone is interested, is that it takes approximately 100 herbs at level 1 to mill enough mats to make one vantus rune, maybe a bit less with Dreamleaf which gives a bonus, or Astral Glory which seems to have a higher drop rate. So about 2000 herbs — 10 full stacks — for 20 vantus runes. Last tier I never did get beyond the level 1 recipe, mainly because of course the higher levels are random drops in the raid itself. (*sigh* RNG is such fun™)

Of course, if I regularly ran LFR on my rogue, I would theoretically increase my chances to get the level 2 technique, paving the way for level 3 and greatly decreased mat requirements. To make that LFR experience a little more pleasant, I figured doing Argus dailies and invasions would help gear him up (he is currently sitting at something like 905 ilvl) and increase his artifact level/effectiveness.

Unfortunately, for some reason Blizz has seen fit to require that every character has to unlock the various Argus dailies. It is not an account-wide achievement. At this point someone will inevitably assert something like, “Oh, you can knock those quests out in 20 minutes,” but trust me that is just not true. It takes me hours, and I suspect that is the case for most people. My rogue is the 4th character I have taken through the process, and it is starting to get old.

Blizz will proudly list for us all the “alt-friendly” changes they have made to Legion, and I do not deny they have made quite a few. But the fact remains that Legion started out as probably the most alt-hostile expansion in recent history, so to throw us a few bones that serve to make it only slightly less alt-hostile is not much to brag about in my opinion. Ion Hazzikostas believes that the only legitimate way to play alts is to force them into the same end game cattle chute as a main, and he has finally shaped the game to implement his personal opinion on the matter.

Now, finally, my point. Legion — by design — discourages alt play. I suspect (of course I do not have any publicly disclosed numbers to back this up) Blizz has seen the number of alts at max level take a nosedive in this expansion. By introducing Allied Races, suddenly Blizz is encouraging us to start brand new alts. Why the new ones? Why not just make some more changes that will nudge us to finally spend time with the ones we have?

As an aside, I am totally confused about what Patch 7.3.5. will bring. Suddenly it seems like it will include a whole bunch of things I could swear we were told at Blizzcon would be part of Battle for Azeroth. What gives? Has Blizz discovered they cannot possibly meet a reasonable BfA deadline and thus need to give us a bunch of new shinies to keep us busy? Are some of the promised changes so complex that they need to use 7.3.5 as a testing ground for them? Have they given up on making significant class balance changes — as they told us every “dot 5” patch would be — and need something else to make it seem like a major patch? Maybe it is all part of a grand plan for 7.3.5 to ooze into BfA, but it sure is confusing.

It is true that players have been whining for new races for a while now, so certainly this will be a popular move. But consider:

  • You cannot start one until you have met some rather lengthy max-level rep requirements on your main (and possibly other requirements, too, we don’t really know yet for sure).
  • The new alt leveling will coincide with what from all reports is a significantly lengthened leveling process due to Blizz’s zone leveling and increase of XP required for most levels.
  • Just encouraging players to play with alts they already have would absolutely not require as much play time as leveling a new one under these circumstances.
  • It will come at the end of an expansion, historically the time when players lose interest and go do other leisure activities until the next expansion.

Yeah. It is almost certain that the Monthly Active User (MAU) metric is at work here, notably the need to maintain high MAU numbers as a corporate measure of a game’s success. Although Blizz has often said the nature of WoW is that it is cyclical, and it is something they plan for and accept, clearly they are working furiously to change that business plan.

Will I level a new Allied Race alt? Sure, and I expect it will be a nice distraction during the waning days of Legion. My choice, even though I know I am being manipulated: Blizz discourages me from playing alts, except the ones they approve of, at the time they approve of, at the leveling pace they approve of, with the preconditions they have set.

I love Big Brother, and there are five lights. Life is so much easier when you accept these things.