Sargeras. Illidan. Arthas. Blizzard’s Warcraft franchise is well-known for creating epic antagonists that players know on a first or one-name basis. You only need to whisper a few syllables to send a shiver down someone’s spine. But despite the many epic characters players have been introduced to over the last 15 years of World of Warcraft, there’s one particularly well-known legend from Warcraft lore who still hasn’t gotten her full due: Azshara.
Blizzard is finally giving the ancient Queen the spotlight she deserves when World of Warcraft‘s Patch 8.2 Rise of Azshara releases later this year. Parts of this update are already on the game’s Public Test Realm, but Den of Geek had an opportunity to take a deeper dive into the upcoming content at a media event in Irvine, California in May.
On top of our time previewing the new naga-infested Nazjatar zone and the whimsical world of Mechagon, we also sat down with two of Battle for Azeroth‘s top developers to discuss what goes on behind the scenes when Blizzard is crafting more World of Warcraft.
Responding to the Fans
It’s no secret within the WoW community that Battle for Azeroth hasn’t been as well received by players as Blizzard would probably have liked. Early reviews during the launch period were excellent, but once the new expansion shine wore off, players started complaining that BFA felt like a step back from the previous expansion, Legion, in a variety of ways. The community wasn’t pleased with the traits and unlocking requirements offered by Azerite Armor and found the Heart of Azeroth Neck Artifact to be particularly lacking when compared with Artifact weapons from Legion.
Blizzard addressed some of the Azerite Armor concerns in a previous patch, but 8.2 will bring a full revamp to the Heart of Azeroth.
In Rise of Azshara, players will have access to a Heart Forge that can be used to socket “Essences” onto their neckpiece. Every heart can equip three total Essences, all of which can have an active and/or passive effect. Essences are earned through a variety of content, ranging from World Quests to raids to PvP. Essences are not generally locked to specific classes like Legion Artifact traits, but certain Essences are meant for those in specific roles like a tank, healer, or damage dealer.
I played around with the Essences and I can say they’re definitely a step in the right direction. In the current version of the game, players are farming Azerite Power to essentially increase their neck piece’s level. It’s basically just a boring stat stick in its current form. With Essences, players will be given additional customization options that can change their gameplay experience, just like respeccing your Legion Artifact weapon would.
I Heard You Like to Customize While You Customize
Additional customization options will be introduced in other interesting ways:
First, every player will have access to a trinket with three empty sockets on it called the Pocket-Sized Computational Device, which they’ll receive upon arriving in Mechagon, another new zone coming in Patch 8.2. Players can then socket a variety of different stats or special perks into the trinket using “punch cards.” Special perks include the ability to breathe longer underwater or track certain kinds of creatures throughout the zone. Punch cards can be swapped in or out to give players the perfect setup for whatever adventure they’re going on next.
Players will also have some serious customization options available for their mounts for the first time ever. With Mount Equipment, players can add the same perk to every Mount they own with a simple click. For example, players will be able to use equipment that will make every mount they own walk on water, a trait previously reserved for Water Striders. Other Equipment options include the ability to prevent mobs from dazing you as you gallop across the land or the ability to deploy an emergency parachute if you get knocked off of your mount while in the air. This could prove especially useful in 8.2, as flying will finally be made available in Battle for Azeroth zones.
Mechagon will also bring Junkyard Tinkering to every player. It’s a fun way to craft everything from new mounts and toys to consumables and gear.
In short, Blizzard is going out of its way to give players more choices than ever before. Whether or not it will be enough to reinvigorate BFA remains to be seen, but you can’t fault Blizzard for trying.
A Trip to the Aquarium
Senior Game Producer Shani Edwards is in charge of the artists and animators working on Battle for Azeroth. While BFA has faced some criticism in recent months for some of its core game systems, even the harshest critic would likely concede that the art direction is as good as it’s ever been. For 8.2, Edwards’ team worked on everything from the overall vibe of Nazjatar and the Eternal Palace raid to the specific designs of each new mount, pet, and Heritage Armor set (hello, Gnomes and Tauren) that will be added to the game.
Edwards said that art design always starts with the story that’s being told, but the team frequently branches out into the real world for inspiration.
“Nazjatar was actually really cool for the team because there’s a lot underwater,” Edwards said. “So we had to start by looking at what would that zone look like without the water there?We had to research creatures you find in the ocean. What does ‘underwater’ even look like? We actually took the artists to an aquarium to get a reference point for it.”
Once the overall aesthetic is nailed down, it’s time for the animation team to figure out how all of this art is going to walk, run, or swim across your screen. According to Edwards, they really get into it.
“The animation team actually gets up, and they’re acting out these animations like, ‘How would this creature move?'” she explained. “If you ever walk into their pen, you’ll see them doing a lot of really weird… it’s like ‘What is going on right now?'”
Nazjatar serves as this patch’s traditional story zone, while the outdoor version of Mechagon is said to be teeming with secrets much in the same way the Timeless Isle was during Mists of Pandaria.
But there’s also an instanced version of Mechagon that serves as this patch’s new mega-dungeon. Players will be able to form a five-man group to take on eight especially tough bosses. If you remember what Return to Karazhan felt like in Legion, you’ll have a good idea of what Blizzard is going for here. It’s a dungeon designed to feel as epic and tough as a raid, available in Mythic difficulty only, and with better quality loot than the typical five-man.
Heritage Armor Sets
Patch 8.2 will also see the release of new Heritage Armor Sets for Gnomes and Tauren. Players will be pleased to know that since Gnomes and Tauren are two of the original races, there will not be elaborate unlocking requirements like with Allied Races such as Nightborne or Dark Iron Dwarves.
“Anytime that we’re making a heritage armor set, we’re doing the components of that race,” Edwards said. “What makes a gnome a gnome, what makes a tauren a tauren? We want to make sure that whatever we’re creating speaks to the player that plays that character and actually represents that character.
“So with Tauren, it’s tribal, it’s feathers, it’s totems, what people have come to know as aspects of a Tauren. For Gnomes, it’s mechanics, it’s tinkering. And we actually try to give (the assignment) to artists that play those races.”
Passion Creates Projects
World of Warcraft features hundreds of mounts and pets and Rise of Azshara will introduce plenty more of both, including more than 30 new mounts. I asked Edwards how the team continues to come up with new ideas for mounts or pets after all these years. She said many of your favorite mounts and pets are created simply because one specific person decides that it’s going to happen.
“One of the [Mechagon mounts] is a wheel and you sit in the middle of it,” Edwards said. “That was something one of our artists decided to make and it’s a passion project, basically. That’s how a lot of our mounts come up, somebody gets inspired.”
A Raid Fit for a Queen
While Edwards’ team is focused on coming up with the right look and vibe for the game’s content, Morgan Day is working on exciting new ways to kill you.
Day is BFA‘s Lead Encounter Designer, a fancy way of saying he’s in charge of the overall design and mechanics of all raids and dungeons, including 8.2’s Eternal Palace raid. Day has worked at Blizzard since 2005 and if you’ve ever died in a fire while raiding in WoW, chances are… well, it was probably your fault, but you can blame Day if it makes you feel better.
For Rise of Azshara, Day and his team were tasked with coming up with an appropriate raid for one of the most powerful characters in Warcraft history.
Day provided us with a quick overview of the process the team goes through when creating a new raid or dungeon from scratch. Like Edwards, Day said early inspiration comes from the story and then the team takes it from there.
“We kind of have an idea early on, this is the end boss, this is the story we’re telling,” Day said. “We’re talking about Azshara, which means there’s probably some involvement with N’Zoth, so how would that influence what takes place in this instance?”
Day said the team likes to break most raids into sections with specific themes, and they prefer to have things escalate or get darker as you get closer to the end boss. Azshara’s Eternal Palace is certainly no exception in this matter.
“We’re gonna have the first wing, which is obviously going to be very Naga heavy. Azshara is the queen of the naga. If you don’t walk into this instance and feel like you’ve been hit over the head with a bunch of naga influence, like an army almost, we have to show that representation.”
Day pointed to the raid’s Blackwater Behemoth encounter as an example of the raid escalating or getting darker as players begin to progress.
“As we go deeper, we go, okay, we’re underwater. You’re deep under the ocean. There would be these big epic creatures that aren’t just naga, so think of the biggest, scariest thing you can come across.”
The Blackwater Behemoth fight takes place almost entirely underwater, although players will have ways to keep breathing and move around quickly when they need to. It’s definitely one of the more unique raid bosses that WoW has seen in recent years, but Day said his favorite fight in the Eternal Palace is the Queen herself.
“Azshara is going to be super memorable. It’s the culmination of this humongous story and all these elements where we’ve seen her influence in the past. We’ve known that she’s been up to stuff for a long time and we always get to see a little hint of it.”
Without giving too much away, Day said he believes the fight will be interesting thanks to collaboration between the raid design team and the environmental artists.
“I’m always a huge fan when we have the opportunity where we collaborate,” he said. The encounter is mechanically interesting, but the environment itself plays a role. “The fight takes place, not in a Titan facility, but there’s definitely some Titan devices down here that you’re trying to power up to try and lock N’Zoth down forever.
“There’s these huge columns where you have to LOS [line of sight] her abilities because she’s this epic arcane mage. She’s the most awesome arcane mage ever. You’re gonna want to hide from her. She’s gonna get you.”
World of Warcraft Patch 8.2 Rise of Azshara is on the PTR now and will be pushed to live servers soon.
Jason M. Gallagher is a freelance contributor. Read more of his work here.