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EditorialMay 30, 2019 10:00 am CT

Battle for Azeroth is better than WoW Classic in every single way, except one

I’ve been slamming my head against the WoW Classic beta for a while now, scraping those levels and otherwise doing my level best to see as much of the story as possible. I went through Teldrassil, Darkshore, Loch Modan, and Redridge, hitting level 19 and a half before finally going ahead and taking a break for some rested XP. In the meantime, I went to play current games like Diablo 3, and Battle for Azeroth, the most recent expansion in World of Warcraft as it currently exists.

And the strangest thing happened when, directly after clawing my way through several quests in WoW Classic, I logged on to Battle for Azeroth and started playing.

Harrison Bergeron and the struggle of old MMO mechanics

It was as if I’d been wearing hundreds of pounds of lead weights and shackled to the ground and I just snapped and burst them all. It was as if I’d spent a week training in that super high gravity spacepod Goku used — you know the one, don’t pretend you were too good for Dragonball Z back in the day. In WoW Classic, every clash in combat on my Warrior feels like I’m on the brink of death and even one add can mean having to resign myself to death. In BFA, I can take on a pack of four or five knowing that Victory Rush will save me if I manage to kill them one at a time.

It felt like I was Superman and someone finally got rid of Kryptonite.

No more having to Battle Shout every 2 minutes — it lasts an hour now! I can charge in combat! I don’t have to worry that some abilities don’t work because I’m not in the right stance! My lack of self healing won’t mean I die while Paladins casually pull whole groups and bubble or heal to full if stuff gets hard!

After a few days of intensive WoW Classic, the modern game feels like a work of profound and towering genius, designed and crafted by benevolent forces beyond human understanding just to help me cope with a stressful world. I delightedly ran through my World Quests feeling not invincible — I mean, I could see me just fine, plus I also nearly died twice because I got cocky — but simply that the game’s systems weren’t designed to make me hate the game and everything about it.

And this had me wondering — why do I still love WoW Classic so much when so often it hurts me to play it? Objectively, the modern game is better designed. Subjectively it feels like a masterpiece of design compared to its predecessor. So what’s up? If BFA is the better game, why do I keep going back?

The way a narrative changes your experience

Well, here’s the thing. I can say I enjoy the gameplay better in BFA, and that’s true. I can say the systems feel more robust and better designed. I can say the storytelling has evolved by leaps and bounds and has so many more neat permutations and vectors of delivery that it’s staggering, and I would be completely honest while saying that. But as much as I think BFA is measurably better in almost every respect, there’s one thing WoW Classic has that I have had to accept BFA does not.

WoW Classic has a whole host of stories I want to experience. Battle for Azeroth has a series of side stories I find utterly amazing, and a main storyline that I find compellingly told and well crafted but which I simply do not enjoy.

I don’t like this expansion. I’ve tried to like it. There’s a lot about it that, if it was happening in an expansion that I could get into, I would say is the best stuff WoW has ever done. But I’m finally forced to admit that I’m not one of those World of Warcraft players who cares very much about the Alliance versus Horde conflict, not even when it’s done well. Not even when it has an iconic and fascinating villain like Sylvanas has been. Not even when it surprises me and does things I didn’t expect. Not even then.

You can’t binge an MMO

MMO’s don’t operate like books or movies or a Netflix series. I can’t know how Battle for Azeroth is going to end, and I’ve come to realize I need to know that. If this were a book like Before the Storm, I could do what I did with that book and I could sit down and read the whole thing in one go and I’d be done and I wouldn’t have this gnawing feeling of unease at how it all could end.

With WoW Classic, I know exactly what’s going to happen. Even the quests I don’t remember, I remember — I know the broad strokes of every zone and every questline, I have a sense of where this thing is going. Playing WoW Classic is like going back to reread Fool on the Hill again — I loved that book on my first reading and I’ve loved it ever since, but rereading it doesn’t carry that sense of uncertainty. I powered through that book the first time because I had to know how it ended. I can’t do that with Battle for Azeroth. I can’t sit back and enjoy all the amazing work being done, the astonishing player choice being incorporated into quests, the leaps forward in acting and scripting — I can’t take it all in and revel in it because this is not a story I wanted to experience and I need to know how it’s going to end.

Basically, I play MMO’s to feel more than human — to feel heroic, to no longer be constrained by the mundanity of day to day life. In a lot of ways Battle for Azeroth does that a lot better than WoW Classic, with the latter’s grueling slogs just to get to an area, the constant knife edge fear of dying if even one more mob attacks, etc. But the story of Battle for Azeroth doesn’t end up feeling heroic to me. I feel like I’m helpless, like I decided a couple of years ago to play a Night Elf and now my reward is my people burned to death, my leadership turning to dark paths, and our ‘revenge’ is to trade off on a patch of land with the people who murdered us to steal it.

This means that no matter how frustrated I get with WoW Classic for its terrible quest flow, its backwards idea of making you run back and forth between two extremes on the opposite side of a map, quests that require you to kill a whole bunch of Ogre elites that simply can’t be solo’d by a Warrior, and so on — no matter how many different ways I feel that Battle for Azeroth may well be the best MMO ever, and certainly is a pinnacle of World of Warcraft design — I don’t like it as much as I do Classic.

Replaying WoW Classic is like re-reading a favorite book

Classic is an old game, with all the flaws preserved that BFA has been cumulatively designed to overcome. Iteration has shaped this current expansion the way erosion shapes rocks on a beach. But I can’t really enjoy it when I’m anxious and irritable, having felt like the characters and storylines I was most interested in got short shrift so far.

Telling me that Tyrande “got her revenge” for Teldrassil in 8.1 made me feel completely disinterested for a while, because it’s so manifestly untrue. Unless the canon result of the questline and Warfront is that the Night Elves pushed the Horde out of Darkshore in patch 8.1, I don’t see how you can even try and justify that idea. And even then, the idea that you got revenge for the burning of your capital city and the deaths of thousands of your people by reclaiming some of the land that was stolen from you makes very little sense to me. And it’s endemic of my problem with any Horde vs. Alliance storyline, even one as layered as this one — it always feels like there’s a hesitation there. A reluctance to just say in the narrative Yes, the people who burned infants to death in a raging firestorm after they’d already won a military victory are the bad guys that leaves me dispirited.

So I find myself running to the Master’s Glaive in Darkshore on the Classic beta, enraptured with the old school storytelling that lacks so much of what I find truly amazing about Battle for Azeroth.

I think BFA is a candidate for one of the best made WoW expansions of all time. I think the World Quest and Emissary systems are great. I love Warfronts. I think there’s so much to do, and I’m looking forward to 8.2 and getting to fight Azshara and seeing Mechagon.

And yet, that uneasiness remains. I wish I could just sit down in one night, read the entire story and find out how it concludes this chapter.

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