World of Warcraft, Blizzard Entertainment’s massively multiplayer RPG, spent most of this spring in a deep content drought. Rise of Azshara, one of the most-ambitious content patches ever in the game, seeks to drown players in new content.

The patch offers two new significant zones of content with new reputations, types of encounters, islands, the reintroduction of flying, an uplift to the crafting system that includes new leveling and crafted items, and a host of other changes big and small.

Two weeks after its initial launch, on July 9, Blizzard released a new eight-boss raid dungeon, Azshara’s Eternal Palace; and an eight-boss, five-player “megadungeon,” Operation: Mechagon, something that hasn’t been seen since the days of Return to Karazhan.

Since that time I’ve reached exalted reputation with both factions and regained the ability to fly; experienced every piece of new content the zones had to offer; completed the raid dungeon on Normal and Heroic difficulty; completed the new megadungeon on normal and hard mode; done all PvP battlegrounds and open-world competition; done the new Heroic-difficulty Warfront; completed the new islands; maxed out new crafting skills; gotten to Heart of Azeroth level 58, and picked up major and minor traits along the way; and generally spent far too much time playing, like a pig in the newly-rejuvenated mud.

Overall, Rise of Azshara is just what Warcraft needed: a long-overdue shot in the arm of new and novel content. While not perfect, it presents happy players with so many options that in some cases, it feels like going from starving to becoming overstuffed with things to do.

Mechagon is one of two new zones.

Above: Mechagon is one of two new zones.

Image Credit: Blizzard

What you’ll like

New zones and content unfold as you go

A nice extension to World of Warcraft’s storyline leads you into two new zones: Nazjatar, the until-recently-underwater home of the evil Naga snake-people empire, and the island of Mechagon, home to mecha-gnomes and the Rustbolt Resistance. In each, the more you do, the more there is to do. Unlock reputation with the Resistance and more quests open up; loot rare items and you’ll have things you can craft and, more importantly, things you can do. In Nazjatar, you’ll build experience with your chosen bodyguard, and as you do, more quests and storyline will open to you.

Even with this careful approach, the Rise of Azshara patch has an overwhelming amount of content. This unfolding-style reveal of new things to do makes that deluge exciting and challenging, instead of overwhelming, and Blizzard’s design does it with subtlety and grace.

New group content for PvE players

The Eternal Palace raid and Operation: Mechagon megadungeon are two of the best instances Blizzard has ever created. Both do an exceptional job of making the environment part of the encounter; while there are still plenty of boss battles that (sometimes literally) trap you in a flat arena, most involve tricksy bits of technology that use your surroundings to put you in peril or just make the fights more immersive.

In Operation: Mechagon, the five-player, eight-boss megadungeon, you’ll climb through trash piles and fight battling robots in an area that includes BattleBots-style hammers and saws that come up from the floor. In the Eternal Palace raid, an underwater boss is (finally!) extraordinarily well-designed, with the Blackwater Behemoth using platforms and jetstreams and the need for breath and healing to challenge your group. Za’qul offers three “phases” existing simultaneously on a single platform, forcing players to hop from one phase to the next and back again to defeat the bad guy.

Both instances are incredibly enjoyable, and the difficulty seems well-tuned. Eternal Palace is a bit easier than Battle for Dazar’alor, at least on Normal and Heroic difficulties, but poses a good challenge for groups, particularly in Mythic. Operation: Mechagon is difficult, but not impossible, on its basic Mythic difficulty; and Hard Mode offers some terrific challenges based on your group’s ability to handle mechanics, not just the power of your gear.

The new Heart of Azeroth.

Above: The new Heart of Azeroth.

Image Credit: Blizzard

The new Azerite essences system

Azerite armor disappointed players in Battle for Azeroth. It was the successor to the incredibly fun legendary weapon system in Legion, and it didn’t fulfill its promise. Instead, players had to work over and over again in new levels of gear to earn the same traits they had in the last tier.

The new system uses interchangeable “essences” on players’ Heart of Azeroth neckpieces, each with multiple ranks, and it’s been a hoot. Not only does leveling up those essences require nearly every type of gameplay, giving players a million things to do to progress, but they’re balanced well enough that they feel slightly overpowered (yay!) and offer some real options to players swapping between different types of content.

The system isn’t perfect, and new essences are hopefully coming along as we slurp up all this delicious new gameplay, but it’s a huge improvement and works smoothly.

Professions and pets and achievements and mounts

Rise of Azshara’s meat lies in how much there is to do in nearly every aspect of the game. Professions got 25 new skill levels and a pile of new recipes, earned in a wide variety of places. New pets and mounts and rare spawns and achievements and hidden tricks to obtain them are stuffed into this patch. New islands and PvP battles and even new types of daily quest mechanics added to the variety.

This content update pony performs more than just a few tricks. It gives players an overwhelming, wonderful pile of things to do. In an ideal world, this is what every patch would feel like.

What you won’t like

Welcome back, grindy content

Rather than time-gate some of this content goodness — a system that generally frustrates the most committed players — Blizzard returned to a more-grindy system this time around. While unlocking some content does require time, whether it’s to increase the experience of your bodyguards in Nazjatar or your reputation with the factions in both zones, much of it can be ground out a little at a time if you want to … which means many players did.

Surprise quests sometimes lead to missing out

Rise of Azshara doesn’t hold your hand. Breadcrumbs quests almost don’t exist, so knowing where to go and what to do can be a challenge. Some content isn’t identified anywhere, so either careful scrutiny of third-party guides or random activity, such as kill every neutral mob in a zone, turn out to be your options for finding everything. The Secret-Finding Discord has been working overtime on this patch.

Sometimes that’s really fun, and makes the zones feel more alive. Killing neutral Algon creatures gives you two mana pearls you can use to upgrade Benthic gear, and eventually spawns a rare monster? Charming a critter in the open world and dragging it to another mob can net you a pet or activate a rare? Neat!

But sometimes it results in missing out on major parts of the content. The most egregious example was Chromie’s “Alternate Timeline” in Mechagon. This fun questline sent you into an alternate future for the zone, where you did a couple of quests and got to see the island in a new light. It was a blast.

But if you didn’t read any guides and didn’t get lucky with the drop for a set of plans for an item that would let you return, you soon discovered that while other players could return to the Alternate Timeline day after day, doing additional quests that got them additional reputation, you had literally no way to return or to correct the problem until Chromie herself returned, days later.

Azshara.

Above: Queen Azshara.

Image Credit: Blizzard

Faction imbalance continues to get worse in PvP and PvE content

While Horde and Alliance populations are roughly equal overall in World of Warcraft, the percentage of players taking advantage of end-game content (raids, PvP battlegrounds, open world PvP content, high-end Mythic Plus dungeon runs) is overwhelmingly imbalanced. Horde outnumber Alliance on leaderboards for Mythic raids and dungeons more than 6:1, a problem that only worsens as players swap factions after having difficulty finding guilds and groups.

Rise of Azshara included some truly fun open-world PvP encounters, which form the core of new PvP currency systems. The Battle for Nazjatar was supposed to pit Alliance and Horde players against each other for control of the zone and currency rewards, for example. Instead, the imbalance was so extreme that either Horde won the battle over and over again as raids formed in zones to capture those objectives, pulling people in from multiple shards; or faced no competition at all, because there were so many of them that they ended up in shards of their own, with not a single Alliance player in sight.

Eventually, the event was changed so that it wouldn’t even spawn if the shard was imbalanced, instead presenting a much less-rewarding PvE option. The Mechagon Fight Club treasure chest was similarly removed from an achievement altogether.

Overwhelming high-end faction imbalance makes Rise of Azshara less fun for both factions in PvP, and for Alliance players who struggle to find groups in high-end PvE dungeons and raids.

Bye bye, bag space

Everything takes up bag space now. PvP currency. Things to summon other things. Things that are clearly quest items. Parts that combine into other quest items or essences. Even with a full slate of 32-slot bags, it requires daily inventory maintenance, which is not fun gameplay.

Conclusion

This is the patch that Warcraft should have received several months ago. There were signs that at least some of the content was planned to go out earlier; the in-game “new things to do” screen enticed players to join Heroic Warfronts weeks before they were actually available, for example, before it was quietly changed.

That said, Rise of Azshara and Season 3 present an amazing amount of options for current, new, and returning characters, and most of them engage you and offer some surprising fun. The grindy bits aren’t too horrible, and as you progress through the zones, you unlock additional things to do. The raid and the megadungeon are well designed, the Heroic Warfront certainly feels a ton more fun than the standard setup, and while the crafting system needs a significant balance pass, the new systems are generally fun and rewarding.

Judged on its own merits, this is one of the best patches the game has ever seen. In the overall context, however, it feels not-to-little but a-lot-too-late. Battle for Azeroth needs more love that patches like Rise of Azshara provide.

Score: 95/100