My thoughts about the Legion alpha

A week ago, I got invited to the alpha test of World of Warcraft’s sixth expansion pack, Legion. It took me about a week to download the client – 40 gigabytes on 1 megabit DSL aren’t exactly done in a day. This week, I finally got to play what most WoW players are currently merely dreaming of: new content! This is a very long article filled to the brim with spoilers – read on if you dare.

Demon Hunter start experience and gameplay

My demon huntress in flight.

My demon huntress in flight.

Of course, one of the first things I just had to try was the new Demon Hunter class. Limited to the Night and Blood elf races, these new mêlée fighters are a cross between Warrior and Rogue with a bit of Monk thrown in for good measure. Demon Hunters can either tank – the Vengeance build – or deal damage: the Havoc side of things. For simplicity’s sake, I chose to dish out damage instead of taking it.

The Demon Hunter starting experience is mostly complete in the current alpha build (7.0.1.21021), although there are still some placeholders to be found. New characters start at level 98 and will easily reach level 100 while questing through Mardum. In fact, when I got dumped into Dalaran with little fanfare, I was already quite far towards level 101, which is a nice head start.

Unfortunately, I had to play through the ordeal twice since my first Demon Hunter got stuck in Stormwind with no way to get back to the action. I experienced a client crash during the quest to acquire my artifact glaives and when I logged back in, my character was standing on the bridge into Stormwind. I quickly learned that without the spell to return to my base of operations in Mardum – a spell only learned after obtaining the artifact weapon – there would likely be no way back to wherever I needed to go. Of course, I tried to contact a few mage players to get a portal, but unfortunately, there was no response from any of them so I gave up and created a new character.

The second time through, things went more smoothly and I was able to complete the starting experience and artifact acquisition in about two hours. I didn’t exactly measure time but it should be in that ballpark.

The introductory quests all take place in Mardum, a zone overrun by the Burning Legion, as well as the Vault of the Wardens where Illidan’s body is supposedly safe from anyone trying to resurrect him. Of course, someone in fact does exactly that and the world is doomed once more. Hooray!

That's a lot of ... arms.

That’s a lot of … arms.

The player is the one Demon Hunter trying to take back the Vault and Black Temple from the Legion, and thankfully, the quests usually don’t consist of boring fetch quests. Instead, they more often than not are mundane “go there and click a thing” tasks with no danger of challenging anyone. There’s even one quest letting the player make a moral decision – sacrifice someone else or themselves – but in the end, the outcome is exactly the same. This point is driven home especially by a quest asking the player to choose between two non-player characters as their advisor or mentor. No matter who the player chooses, the result is just a different character to look at more – and the quest even tells the player there’s no real repercussion in choosing one or the other.

Visually, Mardum is well designed and looks appropiately alien. Some character models are rehashed from older content – like the Shivarra demons pictured above – but there are also excellent new visuals for the various demons found in the zone. The only thing that irked me slightly was the model for one of the main villains – I must admit I forgot the name, some kind of demon queen? – which looks like something out of a (bad) cartoon mixed with Starcraft. I should have taken a picture, that model was really grotesque and out-of-place, not to mention the really low resolution textures. I just hope it’s a placeholder, but there was no sign of that anywhere, so it might as well not …

Combat as a Demon Hunter is very simple: one attack to hit stuff and gain Fury, another to hit stuff harder and spend Fury. That’s mostly it. There’s more, however, like the absolutely amazing Eye Beam which eradicates entire packs of monsters without even blinking once, and Glaive Toss, which is supposed to be AoE damage but feels rather underwhelming right now. It gets better later on, but only barely so. A nice touch is the interrupt skill which not just pummels the opposing caster into not doing the stuff they wanted, but also maxes out the Demon Hunter’s fury resource on a successful interrupt. Take this, lazy Rogues who don’t want to interrupt because their DPS might be oh so hurt! And I shouldn’t forget the amazing charge ability which goes really far really fast and lets the player zip around the battlefield with ease. It’s also sorely needed because Demon Hunters have no way to heal themselves except by collecting the purple orbs they produce by killing enemies, and these orbs go everywhere (even the sky, as I found out during a quest later), just not anywhere near the player’s position. While I mention mobility, I really enjoyed that Mastery not just increases damage, but also the player’s speed, adding to the already twitchy nature of the class. The fact that you can spread your wings while jumping and glide down to earth is just the cherry on top – since you can’t fly in Legion, this saved me from endless runs back to a quest turn-in by just jumping off the highest cliff I could find.

It's a-me, faux Illidan!

It’s a-me, faux Illidan!

The ultimate ability is Metamorphosis which basically turns the player character into something like Illidan – aim anywhere, and the Demon Hunter slams into the ground and turns into a demonic figure with greatly increased damage. Of course, there’s a downside: the massive six minute cooldown which can be brought down to baseline 5:20 minutes later on and can also be lowered by collecting Soul orbs if you aim for that talent, but that’s still rather long given the short duration of the buff.

I am aware that other players criticize the Demon Hunter combat as boring because there’s really not much to it, but I for one welcome a class that doesn’t ask me to get a degree to achieve a perfect rotation (I am looking at you, Shadow Priest!). To me, the combat feels satisfying enough, although even I find some of the skills a bit underwhelming. In a way, Demon Hunters play like Retribution Paladins of old – not much to it in terms of mechanics, but they just worked for me. Doesn’t mean other players will like them, but after years of playing Shadow Priest, I just yearn for something that’s fun to hit stuff with. Again, your personal mileage may vary, but I don’t need everything to be a total challenge. That’s what raid mechanics are for.

(That being said: Shadow Priests are very strong in Legion, but their Void Form is just dull. There’s no real visual change at all, I expected them to become a tentacle monster or something, but nope, just darker shadow form.)

The Demon Hunter class hall still needs work.

The Demon Hunter class hall looks pretty, but still needs work.

The Artifact Weapons and the Order Halls

The first thing you’ll get hit with out of the gate – be it as a Demon Hunter or any other class – is to get your artifact weapon. With (almost) no other weapon drops in Legion, this weapon will stay with your for the rest of the expansion, so it needs to remain interesting and powerful for a while. You will then be introduced to your Order Hall, a place where players of your class will gather, start new quests and improve their weapons.

Each class gets their own artifact acquisition scenario, and they all differ greatly. So far, I tested Shadow Priest, Mistweaver Monk and of course Havoc Demon Hunter. Of these experiences, the Priest one was probably the easiest even with the measly starter gear provided on the alpha realm: despite rather bad latency issues, I was able to get my reward after only dying once to a bad pull. The Demon Hunter scenario was about on par with the Priest, probably thanks to better gear and the previous combat experience due to the class introduction.

The healing Monk however gave me trouble, as the scenario expects the player to heal several NPCs through an encounter that wouldn’t feel out of place in an entry level raid. Unfortunately, these NPCs are not only really squishy, they are also extremely bad at tanking, so most of the mobs went right up my poor face until I either died or beat them into submission. Since Monk healing has changed drastically and I had no idea what I was doing, I had the worst time pushing through that scenario. Thankfully, the NPCs can’t really die – once healed just a bit, they’ll come back to life – so with some time and effort, I was finally able to push through, but compared to the other scenarios, this felt like a chore and just wasn’t as fun.

artifactweapontree

Artifact wepons are more than just mere beatsticks as they will level up with your character and can even be modified using Artifact Power and Runes. Basically, they are exactly what the Path of the Titans endgame leveling thing was supposed to be: another way to improve your character after reaching the level cap. For that purpose, each weapon features an unique talent tree that can be unlocked by spending Artifact Power. You’ll gain some through quests along the way, but for me, most of it came through random drops or treasure chests I found in the world. Dungeon bosses also drop items granting a bit of Artifact Power, and I assume they’ll be the primary source in the end.

Runes also come from quests at first, but can also be crafted and I assume (raid) bosses will drop them as well. The Runes not only add one (or possibly more) levels to an artifact talent, but also improve the weapon’s item level by at least 10 per Rune.

The artifact’s talents need more and more Artifact Power the more you spend, so the process won’t be exactly fast, but in the end, it’s possible to unlock and master them all. I suspect It’ll be quite some grind, and that’s where the problem starts. Once you settle for a spec, you’ll get that spec’s weapon, but there’s no going back. Right now, there seems to be no way to get the other spec’s weapons, but of course, there will be one later on. It just means you wasted a lot of time leveling up your artifact should you decide later down the road that the role you initially chose might just not be for you.

The artifact talents are rather diverse. Not all give a flat bonus to something, they also alter your skills and spells a great deal. For example, one of my current favourites is an artifact talent that adds a debuff to all targets I hit with Eye Beam. Once the debuff expires, each affected mob gets even more damage on top of the rather massive hurt Eye Beam already inflicted. That’s quite something, but the price is high: you need to connect to that talent on the tree by fully upgrading all connecting talents, and since the cost to do so increases exponentially instead of linear, this will definitely take a while to get.

One thing that really irks me about the introduction of artifact weapons is the fact that every player of one class/spec uses exactly the same weapon. Retribution Paladin? He’ll wield The Ashbringer, a legendary blade you’d not expect to see twice, let alone on every Paladin that comes your way. You can transmogrify them, sure, and I bet that’s what many players will do just to stand out a bit more, but this idea falls apart for classes with very specific weapons. Demon Hunters are supposed to use glaives, but there aren’t nearly  enough of them in the game to offer diversity through transmogrification.

Another issue I have is with the setup the Order Halls offer. Every player is basically supposed to be the leader of his class – you even get a new title to underline that fact even more. The fantasy of that falls flat on its face when you realize that you aren’t the leader anyway since the same rules apply to everyone else as well. You aren’t exactly treated like a leader during questing either – it’s all the same to the NPC characters you meet. At times they will call you “the champion” or something like that just to send you on the same fetch quest as the next schmuck, leader or not.

The Order Halls aren’t really a complete experience yet, so I don’t really know what’ll happen there in the end game, but now, this entire setup feels like fan service without much substance.

Stormheim, home to Vrykul and many an impressive monument.

Stormheim, home to Vrykul and many an impressive monument.

Questing: Stormheim

The first leveling zone I tackled was Stormheim. Not that it would have mattered, since the zones level with you – regardless of where you go, the monsters and quests will always be your level. That’s a nice addition and well needed to reduce server stress at launch.

Stormheim is home to Vrykul tribes and Storm Drakes and offers fascinating sights. Visually, the zone could not be better – huge monuments, high mountains and steep cliffs dominate the landscape. In many ways, Stormheim looks and feels like an improved version of Howling Fjord, which is underlined by its inhabitants as well – the Vrykul have a new skin but are about the same as the ones encountered in Wrath of the Lich King, and the manifold fauna – mostly bears, elk and wolves – feels very similar as well.

The new view distance makes it possible to see Dalaran from across the continent.

The new view distance makes it possible to see Dalaran from across the continent.

There are still some placeholder mobs here, but the zone looks to be rather complete on a visual level.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about the quest flow. At first, you’ll get moved quickly from hub to hub with enough stuff to do to bring you to level 103 with ease, but at some point, I ended up with nothing left than a dungeon quest – unfortunately one for exactly that dungeon I just did before getting it. Since dungeon queues are extremely long right now, especially for DPS, I didn’t get around to see if there’s anything else after that (there’s no reward for it anyway) but the quest flow felt severely disrupted at that point. I assumed you’ll get sent back to Dalaran or your Class Hall after finishing all quests in a zone, but at least in case of Stormheim, I wasn’t.

One thing I have to remark about the quest design is that it’s extremely generic. Most quests are simple “go there, kill this, fetch that” missions without any kind of substance. It almost feels like the quest designers didn’t like the modern way of storytelling introduced by Mists of Pandaria (and in a way even the oftentimes really bland Cataclysm) and just went back to the dull, cookie cutter quest design of The Burning Crusade. Vehicle quests? Yeah, you get one, and it’s lame as hell. While Jade Forest and Valley of the Four Winds quests offered a variety of fantastic voice acting, interesting characters and entertaining storytelling sometimes paired with mechanics never seen before, there’s absolutely nothing of that here. Maybe the most memorable part of the entire zone was when your character gets sent to Helheim – the Vrykul equivalent to Hell – and has to appease the mistress of the underworld to get out.

Too soon! You have sent me to Hel(l) too soon!

Too soon! You have sent me to Hel(l) too soon!

If you expect to have to go through some pretty crazy stuff to leave Helheim again – don’t. Yeah, the zone is appropriately dark and looks pretty hellish to me, but all atmosphere gets thrown out of the window quickly when you are tasked with exactly the same kill-and-collect quests as in the overworld. The Helheim experience’s pacing also felt rather sluggish, with quest after quest after quest until you may finally leave the place.

King Genn Greymane and [PH] Nurse don't really care for your status as long as you help them with Sylvanas' shenanigans.

King Genn Greymane and [PH] Nurse don’t really care for your status as long as you help them with Sylvanas’ shenanigans. Not much to see (or do) here, move along!

What I also greatly missed was: fun. Where are the funny quests? Where are the gnomes or goblins with their ridiculous, oftentimes dangerous ideas? Where’s Harrison Jones in a zone full of artifacts? Where’s Hemet Nesigwary and his band of merry huntards in a zone full of game? Instead, we get King Genn Graymane and his barely fleshed out hunt for Sylvanas who apparently did something terrible. The only time I found something remotely funny was when I stumbled onto a small zone populated with Murlocs. The fish-men had apparently raided a Vrykul village, killed them all and looted their gear, so the entire zone now crawled with armored Murlocs swinging Vrykul weapons. That’s it. Brann Bronzebeard does make an appearance, but he doesn’t offer a quest yet, so maybe there’s something coming in the future.

At some point, as mentioned before, I ran out of quests. I knew there was a small hub somewhere in the south-central part of the map because I had seen the exclamation mark flying over the place, so I went there. It turned out to be a small hunting shack populated with Tauren hunters who sent me on several quests. Some of these missions had me hiking all across the zone just to kill one named mob, a poor design choice I had not seen since The Burning Crusade. I would be okay with that if these quests led to something more, but with the exception of one that led me to the aforementioned murlocs, none of them seemed to have any other goals other than to have me trek through rather bad terrain – and back! –  just for one wolf tail or whatever.

I sure hope it's AWESOME because so far, it wasn't anything like that.

I sure hope it’s AWESOME because so far, it wasn’t anything like that.

The “bonus objective” areas known from Warlords of Draenor – now called “World Quests” – make an appearance as well, although they aren’t as frequent as before and don’t require any effort beyond “kill everything”. Basically, they are exactly the same as the ones found in Tanaan Jungle, although the rewards are “just” experience and some gold. Since they usually overlap with areas you quest in anyway, that’s okay, but it also looks like they aren’t really all that optional if you want to level at a steady clip. One thing I liked about these World Quest areas is that other players can’t tag mobs. Everyone can hit on the same stuff and get appropriate credit and loot, no camping required.

I've seen you before!

Hey, what’s she doing here?!

All in all I felt rather underwhelmed by the Stormheim content. Much of it felt like an uninspired rehash of stuff already seen in Wrath of the Lich King – oh yeah, Titan constructs make an appearance as well, so there’s that.

Val'Shara has an almost painterly art style thanks to excessive use of blur and bloom.

Val’Shara has an almost painterly art style thanks to excessive use of blur and bloom.

Questing: Val’Shara

After I exhausted Stormheim’s content, I went to Val’Shara. This zone’s art style is probably the best I have ever seen in World of Warcraft, so I had high hopes the content might actually improve here. In a way, it did: as soon as you land, you are greeted by Malfurion Stormrage, who brings you to Cenarius. The demigod has just escaped the Emerald Dream but has fallen under a terrible curse, and it’s our duty to help him. On the way through the zone’s quests it becomes clear that Xavius is the source for the corruption, but for the most part, we’re just helpless against whatever the satyr has in store for the Arch Druids and in the end, even Tyrande, Malfurion and Ysera.

That’s a lot of name dropping in just one paragraph, and it’s there for a reason: in Val’Shara, stuff actually happens. It’s an engaging story line filled with memorable characters, and while I can barely recount my adventures in Stormheim without resorting to checking my notes, the tale about the druids’ problems made a better impression on me.

They might be still alive if only they had gotten some abilities ...

They might be still alive if only they had gotten some abilities …

It’s a shame that the actual quest design is so damn generic. I can easily break down the zone’s general quest flow for you:

  • Player gets sent to a hub, meets NPCs, gets introduced to the problems at hand
  • Player gets a handful of quests
  • Player completes these quests while also doing the World Quest present in every subzone
  • Player gets breadcrumb to return

That’s it. Every single hub follows that single pattern without exception. At the end of the story line, I got really tired of everything I encountered being based on that very blueprint, but at least the story felt interesting enough to carry on. The actual quest mechanics aren’t anything to write home about either – barely anything special going on aside from the usual kill-and-collect we know since the dawn of time. While the designers managed to use phasing to make the player’s actions look meaningful in previous expansions, I was surprised to find out that defending the Temple of Elune from the Burning Legion did not actually make things better – even after the last encounter against a corrupted Ysera, the temple was still under siege from the Demons, as if nothing ever happened.

In the end, I got sent back to Khadgar in Dalaran, where the quest line just stopped in a placeholder. That’s at least an improvement over how Stormheim just suddenly ended without anything to follow-up on.

[PH] Furbolg Droppings?

[PH] Furbolg Droppings?

Val’Shara might look pretty, but there’s still an awful lot of work to do. The zone is littered with placeholder mobs using placeholder abilities and placeholder skins. Even some subzones are still placeholders, not to mention that most cutscenes are missing.

As much as I enjoyed the story and the visuals, there’s barely any sign of creativity here either. Apart from the quest design feeling decidedly lazy, all the things that made World of Warcraft the best MMO in terms of leveling content are missing as well: the funny side quests, the nods to pop culture, the often colorful characters – there’s just nothing here. I know this is an alpha and stuff can still happen. The writing, however, is done, and there’s no beating around the bush that it’s just not all that great this time around.

One point to note though is that I’m not done with Val’Shara yet. One breadcrumb quest led me to a small Gilnean village where things are just a bit unsettling: the mayor’s daughter has apparently been taken and I have been tasked with finding her. Doesn’t help that the mayor doesn’t really want my (or anyone’s) help because he doesn’t trust outsiders. This actually looks like it could be a fun little idea unless it just dumps me into the next World Quest area …

At the time of writing, the last zone I can visit is Highmountain, home to Tauren clans I don’t care for in the least. What little I saw so far didn’t inspire much confidence, unless everything’s a placeholder – not to mention that we already met the Taunka tribes in Wrath of the Lich King, making this feel like yet another rehash of the game’s most beloved expansion.

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