WoW: The War Within Is More Of The Same, But That’s Not A Bad Thing

After two disappointing expansions in a row, World of Warcraft’s 2022 Dragonflight expansion righted the ship with its back-to-basics approach and focus on evergreen features. The numbers, as they say, don’t lie, and Blizzard has reported increased player retention and recovering subscription numbers over the last two years, thanks not only to Dragonflight but a steady stream of new content and events that have kept players coming back for more.

It’s not surprising then that the long-running MMORPG’s next expansion, The War Within, is looking to continue that trajectory, and from my hands-on time playing the expansion’s alpha, it succeeds in that goal. Like Dragonflight, The War Within puts more of an emphasis on game-wide features that will outlive the expansion’s lifespan. It’s a smart move in the long run, but as a result, aside from the usual WoW expansion additions like new zones, a new playable allied race (in this case, the stone-dwarf Earthen), and new dungeons, The War Within’s list of new features, much like Dragonflight before it, is relatively small.

Now Playing: World of Warcraft – The War Within Expansion Features Overview Trailer

Warbands open account-wide progression

Dragonflight proved to be a great reset the game desperately needed, and more of that, alongside a few new bells and whistles, certainly seems like a recipe for continued success. The War Within adds a new form of endgame content designed for solo players or small groups, a new PvP battleground, and a few more talents for each class to play around with, but it does, for the most part, feel like more of the same. It even carries forward Dragonflight’s best addition, dragonriding, which now works with the vast majority of the MMO’s hundreds of mounts and has been rebranded as dynamic flight. That The War Within and Dragonflight feel so similar isn’t a bad thing, but it does say something when the expansion’s most exciting new feature is Warbands, which enables account-wide progression across multiple characters after years of players begging for such a feature.

That’s not to minimize the potential impact the new Warband system will have. It’s a big deal, marking a fundamental shift in the way the game will work for those who play multiple characters. No longer will players have to grind reputation or play through the game’s story campaigns on multiple characters. No longer will players throw their hands up in rage after unlocking a cosmetic item that can’t be added to their transmog collection simply because the item isn’t usable by their class at that particular moment. Finally, players will be able to easily exchange gear between their different characters. As game director Ion Hazzikostas said in a pre-recorded episode of the WoWCast announcing the launch of The War Within’s public alpha, Warbands is a major change, and the system’s launch with the expansion will serve as a foundation that will be expanded upon for years to come.

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Warbands are the account-wide progression system players have been waiting for.
Warbands are the account-wide progression system players have been waiting for.

“This is a system we want to build the next generations of World of Warcraft on,” Hazzikostas said. “In 2004, WoW launched with everything character-based. In 2024, WoW is going to shift to everything being account-based.”

Unfortunately, it’s hard to get an exact feel for the long-term impact Warbands will have from playing the expansion’s alpha, which currently only features a small portion of The War Within’s story campaign and caps players at level 73 (the new max level will be 80). But it’s clear Blizzard thinks it’s a major shakeup, one best exemplified by the fact that, for the first time in 20 years, there is a new character-select screen. In The War Within, every character on a player’s account, regardless of faction, is now displayed standing around a campfire a la Diablo 2, rather than in a long list of playable characters on a particular server, as has been tradition since the game’s 2004 launch.

Putting the war back in Warcraft

One way The War Within does differentiate itself from its predecessor is with its core story and focus on the franchise’s legendary cast of heroes. In Dragonflight, the various leaders of the Alliance and the Horde largely took a back seat, with the game’s story more focused on helping the titular Dragonflights discover and rebuild their lost home. The stakes were undoubtedly lower compared to previous expansions, and while it was a welcome reprieve from the poor-man’s Thanos-style plot to uncreate the universe in 2020’s Shadowlands expansion, Dragonflight’s overarching story wasn’t exactly one that had players clamoring to see what happened next.

That’s not the case in The War Within, which immediately ups the stakes and centers around core Warcraft characters like Thrall, Anduin, Alleria, and Jaina as they work to stop a threat to all of Azeroth. Though the alpha doesn’t feature the expansion’s introductory scenario and is missing cutscenes through which much of WoW’s story is told, it’s clear that The War Within is putting a little more “war” back into Warcraft. Players crash land onto the new Isle of Dorn zone amidst the rubble of the beloved floating city of Dalaran, which is at least partially destroyed in an attack by the spider-like Nerubians, under the command of the expansion’s big-bad, Xal’atath. During the battle, the archmage Khadgar, who in previous expansions has served as both a key character in the game’s story as well as and a guide for players, is seemingly killed (or is at least MIA). That causes Thrall and Jaina to rally their respective factions, convinced of the danger Xal’atath poses and willing to dive into the depths of Azeroth to see the Nerubians that comprise her army defeated.

“Khadgar has in the past been that guiding figure for us, but the story of The War Within, it’s not just about that,” associate art director Tina Wang said in an interview with GameSpot. “We have our main characters, Alleria and Anduin, who are big drivers of the story, and so much of The War Within is about their journey as well and their discovery, them healing the wounds of the past and really delving into that layer of who they are.”

Xal'atath and her Nerubian army will serve as The War Within's initial threat.
Xal’atath and her Nerubian army will serve as The War Within’s initial threat.

Xal’atath has already become a fan-favorite and has come a long way from when she was trapped within the Shadow Priest artifact weapon during the game’s Legion expansion. Though she’s been glimpsed briefly prior to The War Within, the expansion in many ways serves as her true debut, complete with a new character model that has already spawned plenty of fan art.

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“Something we wanted to do with her design was create something where she’s elegant, she’s airy, she’s of the void, but also she’s very intimidating,” Wang said. “That was one of the balances we wanted to strike with her.”

Fleshing out The War Within’s world

In one major shift for WoW’s storytelling, The War Within will for the first time require players to complete dungeons as part of its main story campaign. This is because, as was introduced in Dragonflight’s 10.2.5 update, WoW now supports what are called Follower Dungeons, where players can team up with NPC companions and complete Normal-difficulty dungeons. The system allows solo players just in it for the story to complete dungeons without ever having to team up with another player, and opens up new possibilities for WoW’s storytelling.

“We can really path a story to flow directly through dungeons in a way we couldn’t in the past, in ways that at times was frankly awkward, because sometimes major villains die in dungeons, Hazzikostas said. “Dungeons are places of great importance to a zone but we couldn’t tie them directly into the questing because we didn’t want to create an obstacle for players who really just prefer to keep playing solo.”

It was a sentiment lead quest designer Dani Merrithew echoed in an interview with GameSpot.

“It did allow us to in general focus more on what dungeons are really good for, which is that awesome environmental storytelling that kind of fills in the gaps,” Merrithew said. “We’re really excited that we can do that now going forward and it’s something I believe we are going to continue going forward as well.”

The War Within's first raid, Nerub-ar Palace, has drawn comparisons to Legion's Suramar zone.The War Within's first raid, Nerub-ar Palace, has drawn comparisons to Legion's Suramar zone.
The War Within’s first raid, Nerub-ar Palace, has drawn comparisons to Legion’s Suramar zone.

As was the case in Dragonflight, it already feels like some of The War Within’s best and most memorable stories will be told through its side quests. One poignant questline in the Isle of Dorne revolves around helping prepare an Earthen who is essentially suffering from Azerothian Alzheimer’s prepare for their final moments. Another sees players helping to create pottery to help remember a fallen friend. These quests stand out thanks to their emotional moments, and make me want to seek out each side quest not just for the XP or gold rewards, but to see what other stories are out there, waiting to be found.

Though much of the expansion technically takes place underground, Blizzard has gone all out when it comes to providing some stark contrasts in The War Within’s zones, something that was a key goal from early on in the expansion’s development, Wang said. In addition to the mountainous, moss-covered hills and forests of the Isle of Dorn and the mines of The Ringing Deeps, players will also get a new look at Nerubian civilization, Azj-Kahet, for the first time since Wrath of the Lich King. The Nerubians will take center stage in the expansion’s first raid, Nerub-ar Palace. Additionally, a long-lost human civilization called the Arathi calls the zone of Hallowfall home, where a massive crystal embedded in the cavern’s ceiling changes from emitting light to void and empowers enemies found within the zone.

Delves and Hero Talents leave something to be desired

This all brings us to Delves, multiple of which are present in each zone and which should be The War Within’s biggest new form of content. After all, it’s not every day Blizzard’s 20-year-old workhorse gets a new way to progress through its endgame, and on paper, Delves sound great. They are essentially short, instanced encounters that scale in difficulty for up to five players and can be completed solo. Along the way, players get an NPC companion in the form of Brann Bronzebeard, who can be tailored to fill a support or damage role in combat. Higher difficulty Delves will count towards The Great Vault progress and reward endgame gear, giving players who prefer to play solo or are mostly concerned with completing the game’s open world content a way to stay current without having to join a raid, form a PvP arena team, or participate in the game’s Mythic+ system.

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Unfortunately, at least from the two (out of a total of 12) Delves I played, it’s hard to say whether or not they will be as enduring as the game’s other tried-and-true forms of PvE content. Though there are some unique mechanics present, like one Delve requiring players to find candles to fend off an encroaching darkness that reduces vision and max health, or another that had players avoiding spider webs lest they summon additional enemies, they provide little challenge and felt too similar to one another to make me want to run them repeatedly. Each had me progressing through linear hallways underground, clicking on items or NPCs, battling enemies, and facing a brief boss battle at the end with little else to mix up the gameplay. Players will unlock more challenging versions of each Delve as they complete the expansion’s campaign and grow in power, but it remains to be seen if Delves will be able to hold the attention of players week after week without more variety, even when faced with more challenging enemies at higher difficulties.

Delves are a new form of endgame content, but already feel like they lack variety.Delves are a new form of endgame content, but already feel like they lack variety.
Delves are a new form of endgame content, but already feel like they lack variety.

Hero Talents, The War Within’s other key addition, also leave something to be desired. Each class, according to their specialization, gets to choose what are essentially one of two new mini talent trees that largely consist of new passive abilities that modify existing skills. Players will unlock all 10 talents in their chosen Hero Talent tree as they level to 80 in the new expansion, meaning there are no wrong choices when it comes to specific talents within a tree.

Which Hero Talent tree to choose, however, is another story. Since the announcement of Hero Talents at BlizzCon 2023, players have criticized the system for tying specific class fantasies to character power (players, as it turns out, just pick whatever is best, aesthetics or lore be damned). It’s a road WoW previously walked to unpopular results back in Shadowlands. While it feels like Hero Talents aren’t nearly as impactful as Covenants were in Shadowlands, and are thankfully free to change or swap between at any moment, it does feel like the idea is fundamentally flawed and that new talents and unique class fantasies should be two separate things for players to choose. What if a Hunter player really loves the idea of being a Dark Ranger but feels forced to pick the Pack Leader Hero Talent tree because it’s simply better from a DPS perspective? I’m not sure what the solution is here, other than maybe letting players dabble between multiple Hero Talent trees. However, it seems clear something has to give, lest players find themselves in a similar, albeit less punishing, situation to that of Shadowlands’ early days.

The War Within will kick off what Blizzard has coined The Worldsoul Saga, a storyline that it says will take three expansions to tell and one that will tie up many of the storylines that have been present in WoW since its earliest days. One would think then that The War Within might be kicking off all the doors to help ring in this new era of WoW, but what will be the game’s 10th expansion instead seems to be a little more understated. It’s clear Blizzard is continuing to bring Dragonflight’s lessons of gradual improvement to evergreen systems forward, all the while putting a bigger emphasis on Warcraft’s iconic characters and finally listening to player cries for account-wide progression. Those, at least, do seem a fitting way to celebrate the game’s 20th anniversary. Whether or not The War Within’s other new features can live up to their full potential is still as unclear as Xal’atath’s true intentions, but if it’s anything like Dragonflight–and it certainly seems to be–WoW heads should be in for an enjoyable, if not exactly earth-shattering, new expansion later this year.

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