A Trip to Azsuna
With just over two months until the launch of Legion, development on Warcraft’s latest expansion has been surging ahead. The pre-expansion patch has arrived on the Public Test Realm, allowing subscribers to check out the improved graphics engine and revamped game mechanics for themselves. The other piece of pre-launch content – a continual Demon Invasion – has also been focus tested on beta servers. While some significant updates are still in the pipeline, it looks as though Blizzard’s latest instalment will arrive bang on schedule.
That’s not to say there’s no work to be done. One of my biggest bugbears with beta over the past few weeks has been a stream of regular and consistent disconnects and rollbacks, whether it’s the game servers struggling to cope or dragging lag when looting and questing. The beta tag is still firmly in place at the moment, as these crippling issues need to be resolved before the end of August.
Despite the setback, I’ve been spending some time in Legion exploring Azsuna, a scarred and ruined zone in the Broken Isles. Between demonic hordes and mana-addled elves, the region is burgeoning with conflict. But, while the story seems familiar at first glance, there are some interesting twists to discover on the way. I’ve also taken a look at some of the new social features – both actual and rumoured – that will hopefully bring us all that little bit closer in Legion.
Located on the bottom left-hand corner of the Broken Isles, Azsuna was home to the Night Elves before the Sundering tore through Azeroth. In Legion, it hosts a long-standing conflict between a struggling Blue Dragonflight, and exiled Nightfallen and Withered elves that are desperate for the sustenance of mana. After draining the area for any mana sources they can scour, the desperate Nightfallen start draining mana from the younger and weaker broodlings directly, putting the future of the dragonflight itself at risk. But, more ominously, the mana-addled elves have started siphoning power directly from the ley lines, putting the whole region at risk.
The zone also contains the Vault of the Wardens, a high-security prison built after the War of the Ancients to hold the greatest threats to Azeroth. It is also where Illidan himself was entombed. As such, much of the zone has been ravaged by the Burning Legion, with the Illidari fighting back to stem the tide and recover their leader. It starts out as a brawl between demons and demon hunters, partly to showcase the ruthless tenacity of the new player class.
However, there is a common thread that pulls through both of these conflicts, and that’s Khadgar. The archmage arrives in Azsuna in search of one of the Pillars of Creation – the Tidestone of Golganneth – since shattered into fragments by Queen Azshara. In order to eventually defeat the Burning Legion and safeguard Azeroth, all five Pillars will need to be reunited, with the Tidestone being a single step on that journey.
As a theme, it can feel a little familiar at times, harking back to Shadowmoon Valley or the Isle of Quel’Danas, both from The Burning Crusade, and it’s clear that Blizzard has tapped from that expansion when building Legion. But there’s a nagging feeling that we’re only participating in these conflicts while it serve’s Khadgar’s greater mission to seek out the Pillars and ultimately foil the Legion’s invasion of Azeroth. As a result, I get this feeling that the Archmage might pull us elsewhere to serve his own urgent whims at any moment, leaving the upheaval in Azsuna unresolved.
The Social Question
Following my previous column on the Legion beta, an interesting theme cropped up in the comments (thanks commenters!) about how social play will work in the expansion. There’s a general gripe about how Warcraft has become less sociable, citing group-finding tools as a probable cause. The argument goes that because these tools are so efficient at getting players into group content, there’s no reason to form social groups any more. And, with the inclusion of cross-realm zones, the players you see fighting alongside you might not even be on the same server.
Personally, it’s an argument I understand. When I started out some twelve years ago, back at the launch of Vanilla, reputation mattered. If you didn’t invest time in becoming a likeable, capable player, even content like dungeons would be cut off from you. But, because of it, the ties that we made would become incredibly strong – we’d log into the game just to hang with other players, the world of Azeroth becoming a backdrop to our social antics. The desire for pristine or vanilla servers is a throwback to those early days, where tools didn’t circumvent social skills.
It’s clear that successive design teams took queues from other online games, removing friction and barriers through some simple but effective tools. With Legion, it looks as though Blizzard is starting to reassess those tools with further, tentative changes.
Firstly, cross-realm zones won’t be used in Legion, at least at launch. There’s also talk that, if you and your friends are in the same zone, you’ll automatically be shuffled to the same instance. That might even extend to dungeons, with notifications popping up when friends enter a queue so that you can join and fight alongside. While that needs some measure of control, it’s a neat way of bringing players back together.
For me, the bigger deal is an end to single player mob tagging. Instead, once a character tags a mob, up to five others from the same faction can also go ham on the same mob, and get the same rewards. It means that you’re less likely to be competing against that dickish mage who AoE’s everything, and more likely to take advantage of his useful efficiency. Blizzard is also making sure that all World Quest named mobs, loot targets, and so on all have unlimited open tagging to avoid any questing bottlenecks.
However, this needs to be the first step on a more socially aware design approach, where players make bonds in-game precisely because they’re more rewarding than using the highly efficient tools.
In my next column, as I continue through the Broken Isles, I’ll also be looking at how crafting is shaping up in Legion (including the brooding Blood of Sargeras controversy). And as always, if you have any questions or want to share your own thoughts of the beta, please sound off in the comments.