BlizzCon 2017: Battle for Azeroth, the Horners, and Questioning My Fandom

BlizzCon is once again upon us. After an utterly cringey video trying to sell the Blizzard community as some warm and welcoming place (a notion easily disproved by 30 seconds in WoW), the announcements started coming hard and fast. And yet in all that news, I found very little that excites me.

The official logo for World of Warcraft: Battle for AzerothThe Battle for Azeroth begins:

Let’s get the biggest news out of the way. The next World of Warcraft expansion is Battle for Azeroth, focusing on the war between Alliance and Horde.

Again. Seriously.

Sigh…

So many awesome expansion ideas. So many potential plot threads. And they decide to once again flog the same dead horse they’ve been trying vainly to resurrect for over ten years. What a waste.

The thing is, we know this is a story that can’t go anywhere. No faction can either win or lose. We already went down this road in Pandaria, and while there was some great story-telling along the way, it was a story that ultimately went nowhere and changed almost nothing.

It makes the characters out to be such numb-skulls, too. By working together, the Alliance and Horde just defeated the most powerful army in the entire universe and saved countless trillions of lives. And now they’re back to clubbing each other over the head for land. Sure, that makes sense.

I do like her new outfit, I'll give you thatAnd honestly, it’s just depressing. Every day I wake up to news of the world spiraling deeper into hatred and despair, intolerance and paranoia spreading like wildfire, conflicts that will never be solved claiming more and more innocent lives. Do we really need that in our entertainment, too?

Urgh…

To add insult to injury, Azshara will be in this expansion as a raid boss, but that means we’ll never get an expansion all about her. The most legendary and exciting villain left in the Warcraft universe is being thrown away as an afterthought. It’s like if Wrath of the Lich King had been just one tier.

Now maybe — maybe — if she’s the last boss of the expansion, if it turns out everything else builds to her, maybe they might be able to do her justice. But I’m not hopeful right now.

I’m not sure if this is a silver lining or salt in the wound, but a lot of the actual features of the expansion are things I like. There’s two new continents this time, Kul Tiras and Zandalar, and those are both places I’ve wanted to see in the game for a very long time. I just wish they weren’t tied to such a pathetically dull meta-plot.

This time the continents are actually faction-specific, though you can access the other at max level. My guess is as an Alliance player (for example) you will never have access to Zandalar’s main stories, but you will be able to do world quests and dungeons there.

A preview of the new World of Warcraft expansion, Battle for AzerothThe most big ticket feature, at least in my view, is the oft-requested sub-races, though Blizzard is calling them allied races, and mechanics-wise they’re closer to full new races. There will be six at launch — including two new types of Elves — with more coming later.

Oddly, you’ll have to unlock the right to play these new races. The cynic in me is expecting some terrible pointless grind, but maybe it will be more story-driven like artifact quests, in which case it could be fun.

The new content types -Warfronts and Island Expeditions — are the sort of thing I’ll need to see in action to form an opinion of. And we’re getting a new artifact, but this time everyone gets the same artifact, and it’s a necklace. So basically the artifact system is continuing minus everything that made artifacts interesting. Sure, why not?

There will be leveling changes, as well, and at least some of these will be available before the expansion launches. While they’re not implementing the “One Azeroth” system I dreamed of, they are expanding level-scaling to give the old world broad level ranges. Legacy content is still irrelevant to max level players, but at least leveling will now flow a bit better. And you can skip Outland.

It’s unclear what, if any, other changes there will be. The plot of the expansion includes massive geo-political changes, most notably the destruction of Teldrassil (which means Horde are bad guys again, because absolutely everything about this has to be as tired and stale as possible, apparently), but there’s no talk of actual world changes. Will it be a phased thing? Will it only be in lore and not reflected in gameplay? You’d think if they were doing another Cataclysm, that would be a big headline.

The new Void Elf subrace in World of Warcraft: Battle for AzerothBattle for Azeroth is also missing a lot of other things I was hoping to see: No playable Vrykul, no new character customization, no new classes or specs.

Eh… I don’t know, man. I can’t muster any enthusiasm for any of this right now. Not even new Elves, and that’s a red flag if ever there was one.

Warcraft classic:

Here’s something no one saw coming: Blizzard is finally caving and planning to implement official vanilla servers.

There are a lot of people with a lot of very strong feelings on this. I’m not one of them. Honestly I never really saw the appeal. There are a few things I’d like to able to revisit about classic WoW, but it’s not enough of a draw for me to want to actually put in the time needed to actually level through it all.

I just don’t have much to say about this. I’m including mention of it for the sake of being thorough, but I just don’t care either way.

StarCraft: Meet the Horners

If there’s one thing about this BlizzCon I’m unabashedly excited for, it’s the new StarCraft II co-op commander(s): Matt and Mira Horner.

Mira Han-Horner in StarCraft IIThe idea of Matthew and Mira Han being a joint commander has been floated in the community a couple of times, and I’ve loved the idea from the beginning, but I never imagined Blizzard would actually do it. That they have is just delightful. The banter, people, think of the banter!

The gameplay video makes them look so fun, too. You can crash a space station into your enemies!

They will also be implementing the winner of the fan-made co-op map contest, though at this point I think I want a map veto more than I want new maps, so I’m not so excited for that.

The other news is that StarCraft II is about to go free to play… which is a little confusing, because it already is. And while the new update will relax some of the restrictions on non-paying players, it won’t eliminate them entirely, so really this is just a marketing gimmick more than any meaningful change.

But if it gets more people in StarCraft II, that can only be a good thing. Even if it’s winding down now, SC2 is one of the best things Blizzard’s done in the modern era.

The rest:

Blizzard’s other titles have gotten pretty much the news you would expect. Overwatch is getting a new map and hero.

The new support hero, Moira, in OverwatchThe map is BlizzardWorld, a theme-park based on Blizzard’s non-Overwatch games. It’s the most meta thing in the history of meta. The Protoss section is so beautiful I almost cried, though, and I admit I did laugh at “Snaxxramas.”

The new hero is an evil Scottish scientist named Moira. She’s a support.

They also had another animated short (about Reinhardt this time), which once again gives a hint of how amazing the Overwatch universe could be if Blizzard actually did anything with it, but they aren’t, so my ability to care is pretty much gone at this point.

Heroes of the Storm announced some general tweaks, including what appears to be massive nerfs to all stealth heroes, plus two new heroes: Overwatch’s Hanzo and Warcraft’s Alexstrasza. My enthusiasm for Heroes is greatly diminished these days, but I have to say the cinematic for those two was absolutely nerdgasmic. Man, I wish my Elven characters in WoW could look like Alex did there.

I’m probably reading too much in, but I was also intrigued by the repeated hints to “events in the Nexus” that will be unveiled at a later date. Not sure what that means, but it sounds important. Again, I may be reading too much in.

Finally, Hearthstone is of course getting another expansion, Kobolds and Catacombs. This was mainly amusing for watching the developer tie himself in knots trying to describe an expansion based on Dungeons and Dragons without using the phrase “Dungeons and Dragons.”

Alexstrasza the Dragon Queen in a Heroes of the Storm cinematicEngage cynicism:

I have to be honest: Mayhap soon the disappointment will wear off, or things will turn out better than I expect, but I have never questioned my Blizzard fandom as much as I am right now. This is a pretty big BlizzCon for news, and the only thing I’m genuinely excited about is a minor patch for StarCraft II. That’s bad.

It boils down to this: I became a Blizzard fan for the stories. Say what you will about Blizzard’s story-telling, but it always made me happy, since I was a little kid. But now we’ve reached a point where every single one of Blizzard’s franchises seems to have given up on story altogether, except Warcraft.

And Warcraft? Well, the Legion’s gone. Azshara’s about to be gone, and apparently she’s just being thrown away as a side story instead of being treated as the epic legend she is. There’s still N’Zoth, but as much as I’ve enjoyed the build-up around him over the years, I don’t really have much emotional investment in him.

It’s hard to imagine a future where I’m not a WoW player, but I think Blizzard may have finally run out of stories that I want to hear in that universe.

And I just don’t know where I go from here.

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BlizzCon 2017 Wishlist/Predictions

BlizzCon, the Christmas in November for Blizzard fans, is now just a few weeks away, and as always I’m here to make my predictions and list my hopes for what we’ll see there.

Queen Azshara at her height of powerThis year, I think we all know what the big story will be.

Something something Kul Tiras:

It is at this point about 99.9% certain that the next WoW expansion will be announced at BlizzCon 2017. We know Antorus is Legion’s last raid tier, so the time is right. The question then is not whether an expansion will be announced, but what it will be.

I’ve talked before about the datamined armour set pointing to Kul Tiras. Since then, we’ve also learned that the key art for Warcraft at BlizzCon is a lavish portrait of Jaina Proudmoore, the most famous Tirasian in the Warcraft universe, which I think all but confirms Kul Tiras as the setting of 8.0.

But what will we be doing in Kul Tiras?  As I said in the linked post, Azshara and the Naga are the first thing that comes to mind, but there have been so many false alarms on that front over the years that I’m trying not to get my hopes up.

Kul Tiras has historically been very anti-Horde, and Jaina has pretty much turned into her father at this point, so this could also be another expansion focusing on the faction conflict. I hope not, because that angle is beyond played out at this point, but it’s definitely something I could see Blizzard doing. Maybe this will be Mists of Pandaria 2 with Jaina playing the role of Garrosh.

Sadly, I don’t think that’s as far-fetched as it sounds.

One thing I did find interesting is that one of the panels on the BlizzCon schedule is devoted to the voice actresses who play Warcraft’s female characters. Maybe it’s nothing, but to me that seems a bit of a random thing to do, considering how male-dominated WoW has tended to be.

However, if this is the first expansion with a female villain — Azshara — then it would make a lot more sense.

Then again, it could also make sense for a faction war expansion focused on Jaina and Sylvanas. Hmm…

There’s also a solid chance a Kul Tiras expansion could be something totally unexpected that none of us could have seen coming. Warlords of Draenor proved anything is possible, for better or for worse. Mostly for worse, if I’m being honest.

Features:

So now that we’ve read the tea leaves regarding the story and setting, what about the features?

As always, I want to see a new class and/or new specs. New ways to play are always exciting.

Alleria Windrunner in World of WarcraftThere’s a fair bit of speculation going around that Alleria’s story on Argus is setting up a new void-themed archer class. I would love to see that proven true, because that’s pretty much my dream class.

But realistically I don’t think we’re going to see any new classes or specs so soon after the addition of demon hunters and Legion’s big class shake-ups. I think Blizzard will prefer to play it safe on that front for now — though I do think it’s very likely we’ll see new race/class combos opened up.

However, it has now been more than five years since a new playable race was added to World of Warcraft, and I think odds are very good that drought is about to break.

I’ve wanted Vrykul to be playable for years, and after Legion, I feel like that possibility is closer than ever. Legion did a lot to expand their culture and flesh them out as a people, and given that we’ve now seen equivalents of most playable classes among them (the Valkyra are basically paladins, for instance), part of me suspects Blizzard is prepping them for playable status.

If Vrykul are added, I think they would probably be another neutral race. Their culture fits in well with the Horde, but their connection to humanity gives them an in with the Alliance. It’s too hard to judge which faction suits them more, so why bother? Giant Vikings for all, I say.

The Vrykul land of Stormheim in World of WarcraftIf we don’t get Vrykul, there are still a few other possibilities for new races. I’m surprised Ogres aren’t already a playable race for Horde, and on the Alliance front, Furbolgs could be an option. They’ve long been allies of the Night Elves, so it would make sense.

There’s a lot of speculation around Nightborne being made playable, too. I think they’d be too close to our existing Elven races to really justify the development — they look very close to Night Elves and act very close to Blood Elves — but I can’t rule it out.

If any races do get added, look for them to be the first hero race(s). That is, expect them to start at a high level, similar to demon hunters or death knights. I think Blizzard has just given up on leveling at this point, and even I have to admit 110 levels (presumably soon to be 120) is a daunting prospect for anyone.

There’s also been talk of new character customization options being added for all existing races, and I think there’s a decent chance of that. The new Eredar looks on Argus could be a test of this. Personally, I’d love to be able to give my rogue blue hair.

Of course, we’re bound to get the usual new zones, dungeons, and raids. Beyond that and a possible new race, I don’t expect a lot of big news. I think Blizzard is done with adding permanent new systems or features at this point.

I don’t think class halls will continue to be relevant past Legion, but expect a mission table of some sort — with new followers to restart the grind.

The warlock class hall in World of WarcraftSimilarly, I don’t think class campaigns will continue. Even Blizzard doesn’t have the resources to maintain twelve distinct stories indefinitely. Well, they probably do, but it would cut into their ability to add more exclusive gear, mounts, and boss phases for the 0.1% of people who do mythic raids, and obviously we can’t have that.

However, class campaigns have been popular enough that we might see something similar. One possibility that I see is that instead of each class having its own story, there are a couple of different campaigns shared between several classes. For example, shamans, druids, and hunters could share a campaign, since they’re all nature-themed classes.

We already know artifacts are going the way of the dodo — though I still can’t imagine why — but I wouldn’t be surprised to see some max level progression system that’s nearly identical to the artifact power grind, just without the artifact.

I expect 8.0 zones will use Legion’s level-scaling system, but I don’t think the Broken Isles will scale past 110, and I don’t see the tech being applied to legacy content. It’s just too big a change, and Blizzard tends to be relatively conservative. Which is a shame because I’d love to see a “One Azeroth” update with global level-scaling. So much potential that could open up.

The rest of the catalogue:

Matt Horner and Nova in StarCraft IIBeyond the WoW expansion, I don’t see a lot of big news coming out of BlizzCon 2017. We already know Diablo won’t have any news, and I imagine it will be steady as she goes for the other games.

Hearthstone will get a new expansion. Overwatch will get a new map and/or character. Heroes of the Storm will announce some new heroes.

I’d love to see some more story content for StarCraft II, but there’s no reason to believe that will happen. Most likely we’ll just see a new War Chest and co-op commander. We already know that the next commander is Terran, and it will probably be Matt Horner. He was one of three unreleased commanders with achievement headings in Legacy of the Void’s beta, and the other two — Stukov and Karax — are now in-game. I’m hoping he’s focused on air units, especially Battlecruisers.

We know Blizzard is working on at least one new game, which is believed to be an MMORTS for mobile platforms. Reeeaally not sure how to feel about that, but I don’t have to decide now, as I very much doubt it or any other new title will be ready for reveal at this BlizzCon.

Similarly, I suspect Blizzard is probably working on more remasters of old games, but they probably won’t announce anything so soon after the release of the StarCraft remaster.

My monk using the Zen Flight ability in World of WarcraftGiven that Blizzard’s idea of a remaster seems to be only a minor tweak to graphics and nothing else, the idea of revamps of their older titles doesn’t excite me much anymore. The one I would like to see is Warcraft III, as it’s the only one whose gameplay can still hold up in 2017. It doesn’t need more than a graphical spit-shine.

In summary, I predict Kul Tiras will be the headline, probably with a new race(s), which I hope will be Vrykul, as well as new race/class combos. There will be only minor updates to the other games, of which Matt Horner will be the only one that really matters to me.

What do you expect or hope to see at BlizzCon 2017?