On Friday evening Blizzard announced a seventh expansion for World of Warcraft called Battle for Azeroth. Headline features were Warfronts, Allied Races, character-level 120, and two new zones: Zandalar and Kul Tiras. We were also briefly introduced to a very important new medallion artifact, the Heart of Azeroth, which will power up other pieces of equipment you wear. Everything was explained in more detail in subsequent panels at BlizzCon 2017, which I've watched and unpacked below.
Separately of the expansion, however (which has no release date although next autumn is probably the earmarked arrival window), patch 7.3.5 will contain two key new things: the beginnings of game-wide level-scaling, and a preview of a new, dynamic control point PvP arena.
Game-wide level-scaling adjusts enemies within minimum and maximum level boundaries for specific zones, helping retain the feel that some zones are more deadly than others.
"If you're a seasoned adventurer returning from a campaign in Northrend and you come back to Elwynn Forest and find that the wolves and the bandits there are still an even match for you, that kind of undermines your progression," said game director Ion Hazzikostas in a 'What's Next?' panel.
"We're thinking about a structure more like: imagine Westfall scales from 10-60, imagine Burning Steppes scales from 40-60. You're never going to outlevel the zone while you're in it but there's still some sense of progression, and once you've moved past the entire expansion, you do feel like you have surpassed it and you are more powerful."
This system will let you tackle previous World of Warcraft expansions in a flexible order. Burning Crusade's Outland zone will scale from 60-80, as will Wrath of the Lich King's Northrend. Cataclysm and Mists of Pandaria's content, meanwhile, will scale from 80-90. Dungeons and their rewards will scale accordingly.
The new PvP arena is Seething Shore, which has dynamic control points - think Arathi Basin with multiple possible flag locations, said Blizzard. The control points are Azerite seams, which are an important new thing in Battle for Azeroth.
Patch 7.3.5 is coming to the Public Test Realm in a "few weeks".
Oh and one other thing before I continue: the option to create an upright orc, rather than a hunched orc, is coming! This will be selectable at character creation as well as changeable at a barber shop.
Warfronts are a kind of real-time strategy game with bases and resources and armies, just like Warcraft had when it was better known as an RTS series. That is the direct inspiration here, so much so that if you look on the original Warcraft 2 box, you'll see "Battle for Azeroth" on it.
Warfronts are 20-player co-operative raids against an NPC commander and army. The first Warfront will be Stromgarde Keep in Arathi Highlands - remember that? It's been completely revamped.
The first thing you'll do is build a base, either the Town Hall if you're Alliance or a Great Hall if you're Horde. Then you'll gather lumber and iron resources and take new territory to unlock new buildings, research and opportunities.
The tech tree for your faction will map out almost exactly as it did in Warcraft 3. Blizzard said it was trying to follow them as closely as possible.
To stop all 20 players squabbling, Warfronts democratically let you contribute the resources you gather towards what you would like to see built next. If everyone agrees, you'll build that thing quicker, but contradictory contributions won't be lost.
Once you have buildings that produce troops, the troops will pour out and attack the enemy, probably a bit like creeps in a MOBA. And you'll fight with them, acting as a special unit would in an RTS I suppose, the idea being to destroy the enemy walls and commander within.
Different NPC commanders, with differing troops and strategies, will keep things fresh, as will Battlefield Events and any Warfront tech you research outside of battle.
Allied Races are new race types for Horde and Alliance to play as but they must be unlocked for your account by playing through a storyline first. The idea is that you're recruiting aid, or allies, for your faction in the overarching Battle for Azeroth war.
There are six Allied Races coming with Battle for Azeroth but more are planned. The new Horde Allied Races are the Nightborne, Highmountain Tauren and Zandalari Trolls. The new Alliance Allied Races are the Void Elves, Lightforged Draenei and Dark Iron Dwarves. All of the new races have their own racial talents.
Once unlocked, Allied Race characters start life at level 20. You will be able to boost them to level 110, but if you resist and level to 110 naturally then you will unlock cosmetically special Heritage armour, which reflects the history of your race.
Heart of Azeroth
The Heart of Azeroth is a new artifact medallion which doesn't haven't its own skill tree but can unlock power-ups in special chest, helm and shoulder pieces. There are three rings or tiers of power-up on these items. The first ring offers a choice between four power-ups, the second ring a choice between three, and the third ring a choice between two.
The example Blizzard used was a shaman choosing between a third-tier power-up when her Heart of Azeroth dinged level 21. One of the power-ups improved her Ghost Wolf speed after taking damage, and the other improved her Astral Shift damage reduction.
It means that, fully equipped, you have a potential nine new power-ups in play. And Blizzard said there would be powers introduced later in the expansion we've never seen before.
You increase the level of your Heart of Azeroth by collecting Azerite, which is - ever so gruesomely - the blood of Azeroth, bubbled to the surface and solidified. Blizzard likened its discovery to the discovery of Plutonium: it's obviously powerful but people aren't entirely sure how to harness it. It's what the world is fighting over in the Battle for Azeroth expansion.
What will happen to your existing artifact weapons remains to be seen. Ion Hazzikostas said, "Your artifact weapons that you currently wield, those will be consigned to history. They will go out in a - they'll receive a proper send off. That story has yet to be told but we'll get there."
Replayable Island Expeditions
Once you've played through the separated Horde and Alliance Battle for Azeroth zones, you'll be pushed towards contested islands and the opposing faction. These Island Expeditions are a key, replayable, semi-procedurally generated high-level form of content, where you'll accrue Azerite, either in seams or chests, or as quest or boss rewards.
Island Expeditions are designed to take three people, of any class makeup, around 15 to 20 minutes to complete, and will be playable in four difficulties: normal, heroic, mythic and PvP.
Each time you arrive on an island, the time of day, the objectives, start locations, enemy types, general themes and things on the island may change. One time it may be day and there may be an enormous giant enemy crab plus bandits on the beach, and a strange statue in the background. Another time the whole island may be under a curse and a portal to a boss may be open. This is randomised but within a structure.
Mixing this up further will be a group of enemy champions from the rival faction arriving moments after you do and attempting to achieve the same goals. When playing the Island Expeditions on the first three difficulties, the enemy champions will be AI - albeit a new and advanced form of AI we've not seen before.
These AI groups will be named and have personalities. The Horde group of Spirits of Vengeance was used as an example - a group of Darkspear loyalists made up of a Shadow Hunter, Witch Doctor and Berserker. The Alliance worgen group Wolfpack Alliance was used as another example.
They'll have modes of tactical, strategical behaviour, and depending on difficulty will do things like pop up midway through one of your fights to sap your healer and then attack your tank. Or they might polymorph you and then mount up and run away. They'll be a challenging nuisance and they'll add a real sense of time-pressure to proceedings.
The ultimate challenge, however, will be on PvP difficulty where you'll be up against three players from the opposing faction.
The expansion zones
The new continents in Battle for Azeroth are Kul Tiras for the Alliance, and Zandalar for the Horde. Each has three zones.
Kul Tiras is an ancient, 3000-year-old human kingdom, famed for its naval prowess. It's also the home of the Proudmoores, with Jaina being a key figure in the expansion. The kingdom is ruled by four houses but they're in trouble, and you'll need to help them before they help you. Tirigarde Sound is the main hub of Kul Tiras.
Zandalar, meanwhile, is a 16,000-year-old ancient troll empire ripped apart by Deathwing's Sundering. Once again it's very powerful navally and once again it's in trouble and needs your help.
Blizzard mentioned a possible frog mount when talking about Zandalar, and also a mysterious underground Titan facility which must be the expansion's first raid, Uldir, Halls of Control. Here lies the key to destroying all life on Azeroth, apparently, as well as a giant slimy shark slug thing.
Blizzard also said we will, in the course of the expansion, finally face off against Queen Azshara, ruler of the naga, and a giant sea monster by the looks of things.
Dungeons and raids
There will be 10 new dungeons in Battle for Azeroth, split by faction to until you reach level 120 at which point they'll all be open to you.
We saw a glimpse of the Freehold dungeon in Tirigarde Sound. It was pirate themed, with music like Pirates of the Caribbean and a boss like Captain Pugwash, as well as an ogre with a shark for an arm. On Zuldazar, meanwhile, we saw Atal'Dazar, an Aztec temple of an instance with a heavily ornamented Tyrannosaurus Rex stomping around.
The other dungeons are:
- Tol Dagor
- Waycrest Manor
- Shrine of the Storm
- Siege of Boralus
- Temple of Sethraliss
- The Underrot
- Kings' Rest
On top of all of this, Blizzard is overhauling social features, integrating voice chat in World of Warcraft as it has done in Overwatch, so you'll be able to look who's talking without alt-tabbing out of the game.
WoW Communities are coming too, which are character-specific groups you can join - many if you like - in addition to guilds.