With the World of Warcraft: Legion alpha back in service, we had the chance to hit the ground running in the newest build. Three areas are open and we took a trip through two of them: Highmountain and Stormheim with Val'Sharah yet to go. Taking into account Blizzard's projected release of "summer 2016" which can mean any day up to September 21st, and with the alpha in its current state, one has to wonder, "Will Blizzard make it?"
We spent the weekend journeying through the questing content that currently is in Legion, most notably the acquisition of Artifact weapons and class halls for Marksmanship Hunter, Frost Death Knight, Affliction Warlock and Fire Mage. Beyond seeing the introductory quests, we traveled exclusively with the Hunter and DK.
Before embarking on these topics, however, we want to get it out of the way right from the start: Blizzard calls this an 'alpha test' which implies that the Legion build we experienced is an ongoing work and is subject to significant alteration prior to launch or even beta. Things that we have seen may or may not remain once the expansion launches. Alpha also implies bugs and issues. But even identifying this weekend's WoW gaming sessions as 'alpha' still leaves a strong impression of things that are right on track and those things that leave lingering doubts after logging out for the day.
Zone Design - As with Warlords of Draenor, the art team has taken zone design to new levels of excellence. Highmountain, in particular, is nearly complete and features a wide variety of flora and fauna and, while the area itself is rather small from a map perspective, it simply doesn't feel that way due to the layout.
The colors in Legion seem to be richer and deeper somehow, though that is not something that has been expressly detailed in any released developer information.
New Animations & Sounds - Melee animations have undergone a significant change with Legion. Where before, characters simply struck enemies in a repetitive fashion with no real difference based on skill selection, in Legion a variety of new animations give combat for melee characters a new, much more visceral feel. Add in the new sound effects that actually add 'punch' to the attack, and combat seems much more true to life.
Questing & Leveling - Questing in Legion follows the standard "move from hub to hub" way that WoW has always embodied. However, zones are not level restricted which allows players to pick and choose where they'd like to adventure. Even players of different levels traveling together will receive rewards and drops that are individually level-appropriate.
In addition, the quests are generally interesting though this is WoW we're speaking of and there are a lot of 'kill 10 rats' and 'FedEx' types of quests along the way. They are, however, sprinkled in between the main story quests and tasks that keep the feeling of grind to a minimum.
Artifacts - Artifacts are the centerpiece of the Legion expansion. The quests to obtain them, at least the ones that we saw, are relatively interesting and take players to far flung corners of Azeroth. For instance, the Death Knight quest sends players back to Icecrown Citadel while the Warlock artifact sees travel to a Legion portal world. It is interesting to 'level' one's artifact simply through questing through the game, though it is doubtful that questing alone will be enough, nor was it intended to be. Blizzard is committed to giving players a variety of ways to level and customize their artifact weapons through PvP, raiding, high-end activities and so on.
Skill Overhaul - The skill system has been updated and made better suited to each class spec. To be honest, even with the changes, even with the additional traits added by way of the Artifact, the way that a character plays doesn't feel all that different. There are, of course, things that are different regardless, but most seem to have less impact than initially anticipated. This doesn't include Outlaw Rogues and Survival Hunters since those specs have been rewritten from the ground up.
The Present Issues
Incomplete Locations - Of course, this is alpha, but it's surprising the number of areas that are incomplete with untextured areas within each zone. There are places where players fall into the textures, either without any possible way to escape or that only require a player to walk out of them. Walking along the roads, players will encounter single pixel blocks where textures have been left off.
Again, this is alpha and it's to be expected somewhat. It was surprising, however, in the areas that are open and nearly complete that there were so many.
Artifact Grind & Needless Complexity - The initial excitement of getting an artifact and unlocking a few traits is cool, but it becomes very apparent very quickly that this system is another thing to grind in WoW. Questing and trash mobs in the main world can sometimes see tokens drop that add 'artifact power' that, once enough is collected, can be used to unlock new traits along the level tree. The required amount of artifact power increases significantly the more the weapon levels and the more traits are unlocked. While many of the traits sound awesome, it's apparent that eventually there will be a "right" combination of traits rather than, as Blizzard hopes, players feeling they have meaningful choices that will be roughly as powerful as any other player's preferred style. Meet the new min-max.
Another troublesome aspect to artifacts is that players who like to use different specs from time to time will be required to obtain and level a second (or third or, for Druids, fourth) artifact in the same manner. Blizzard has promised there will be a catch up mechanic, but have said little about how that will work.
Phasing...Again - The number of quests that were nearly or absolutely impossible to complete due to phasing issues is astounding. There were times when an objective could be seen but, on approach, it would disappear and phase out. This led to broken quest chains and the inability to complete required objectives. See: Battle at Snowblind Mesa. *frowns*
Broken or Non-Existent Features - Crafting is one of the most significantly altered game systems in Legion. However, in the current build, while there is some ability to begin the exploration, the ability to actually do so is broken.
Transmog is also nearly dysfunctional, though its potential is apparent.
The real question throughout the weekend that kept coming up is, "Will Blizzard be able to complete alpha, make a viable, better iteration for beta, work out the bugs and other issues before September 21st?" While seven months sounds like a long time, for a game as massive as WoW with the sheer number and scale of changes touching nearly every system and with the necessity for a long(ish) beta that will lead to significant improvements and balance overhauls, one seriously has to wonder. This is especially true in that the "bridging content" (the current build activities that lead up to the expac's launch) would almost have to debut no later than August and will need to begin introducing systems that are changing so drastically for Legion.
And then there is Blizzard's silence or, when devs do speak, they make everything feel ambiguous and still in the early stages of development. For an expansion that is set to release in just over half a year, that seems....worrisome.
Compare to other games in similar stages of development, Legion simply doesn't feel like something that could, or should, be released this year.
Have you played in Legion's alpha? What are your thoughts? Leave us your thoughts in the comments.