WoW's Warlords of Draenor beta: The disappointment of garrisons

This house is not a home.
Once a player finishes the introductory quests for Warlords of Draenor, the Horde and Alliance gangs go in separate directions, and I had slightly higher hopes for the rest of my beta experience. The introduction was kind of a wash, a climactic third act delivered we'd been left out of the first two acts unless we'd read novels and participated in an event that's not yet live. But Shadowmoon Valley was where I could start seeing the pure promise of this expansion realized, the beautiful idea of a Draenor still filled with Draenei before the corruption and assault of the Horde, an alien landscape far from what was familiar on Azeroth. Not too far, of course, but just far enough to feel like we'd really come to a strange new place. And, of course, the first thing you do is unlock your Garrison.

If my first impression of the WoD beta, which I posted last week, was negative, then this is where it took a sharp nosedive into something resembling rage. But let me start off with a statement that might seem to make no sense, in this context: I've always been fine with housing never being a part of World of Warcraft.

Yes, I would want to live here.  It looks pretty nice.Those of you who follow my writing here on Massively know how much I love player housing. I adore player housing. My main in WildStar scrimped and saved as necessary to get a big house as soon as I could afford it just because I wanted to have more housing bits to place. I am torn between waiting for the full personal houses in Final Fantasy XIV and just buying a private room for my free company's house, which I helped fund; I also helped fund the company of a friend because houses. I like housing a lot.

But I'm fine with leaving out housing for the same reason that I'm fine with games leaving lots of things out: I'd rather have a game full of developed features than lackluster one. This is why Garrisons initially made me super excited. My own outpost, one which I could place wherever I wanted, gave rise to dreams of incredible customization. This wasn't going to be just housing; it was housing developed by a company that can shotgun money into development without a care in the world! It made me happy.

Of course, those beautiful dreams got shot down and picked apart piece by piece. We were told that no one wanted to play The Sims in World of Warcraft (spoiler: yes I do) and that we would be limited to either human or orcish buildings. The ability to choose which zone you could place your Garrison in was removed. And I got more and more leery because increasingly Garrisons began to look like a half-baked version of housing integrated into the leveling experience.

Having played with it a bit now, I can say that, at the moment, that interpretation is inaccurate. It is a half-baked Facebook game integrated into the leveling experience. Except those usually give more housing options.

As soon as you make your Garrison, it's already filled with NPCs, generally people whom you've seen wandering about in the game for years. On Alliance side, you have Baros Alexston leading the architecture right away, a man known to fans as being the architect behind Stormwind City. It's the sort of thing that stands up and slaps you across the face with the knowledge that this isn't your place, not really.

Your two main means of interacting with the Garrison are the architect's table and the mission book. The former is the extent of the customization you get for your Garrison. There are several plots spread throughout the Garrison of varying sizes, and once you unlock the blueprint for a given building, you can build it on a plot of the corresponding size. Plots can also be upgraded for the price of more Garrison resources. Right off the bat, you get access to the Barracks, which gives you an ability on a long cooldown when you're in the area.

I have never cared less about choosing between an ogre and a robot, and let me tell you, that's a choice which usually makes me very passionate.From what we've seen in previews, every major upgrade for your Garrison follows a similar pattern: You can choose one of two abilities on a cooldown that works within a zone, for example. This is something less than building a personal fortress. Instead, at a glance, you're just choosing between trinkets to use when you're soloing.

The mission book, meanwhile, is where you really get into the Facebook elements of Garrisons. Missions come up, and then you drop your followers in and send them off on missions for a small number of resources. Success will level them up and reward you with various things, like gear for your followers, gear for you, and so forth. Your agency here is just a matter of choosing which of your various followers are suited to the task; it's more or less the same as Star Trek Online's Duty Officer system with slightly more dials.

This in and of itself isn't new; Blizzard has always had a penchant for taking pieces of other games and working them into WoW. What sets this apart is that it's an inelegant kludge. Rather than a WoW take on housing, Garrisons seem like a series of mechanics bolted on without much regard for how fun they'll be in play.

Recruiting followers was entertaining as many of them are found just through questing, exploring side objectives, and the like. Do a series of quests for this Draenei lady and she'll sign up and help with your Garrison. Of course, she's basically invisible after that, which means that you feel less like you've assembled a team of people and more like you caught another Pokémon, but I do appreciate the effort. Having a place to call your own in a limited sense is nice, although despite the fact that my wife and I both searched, neither of us could find the option to summon a friend to your Garrison. (It may not be implemented yet.)

Garrisons also suffer at the moment from having an interface designed to require a whole lot of back-and-forth ambling. You can check on your mission progress from anywhere, but in order to send your followers on more missions, you have to stop what you're doing, head back to your Garrison, and go back to managing things. It's at once comprehensible and annoying.

This is not my beautiful house.On the one hand, great, more reason to go back. On the other hand, for something supposedly integrated into leveling, this feature keeps pulling me out of leveling and back to water my crops... er... send my followers on new missions. As I noted that this is a lot like Star Trek Online's Duty Officer system, I should also point out that STO doesn't force you to go anywhere to manage your officers.

Other bloggers have opined that Garrisons don't seem to know at this point what they want to be, but I think they have a fairly clear focus at this point -- it's just a disappointingly bland focus. They're a quest hub that you upgrade with a Facebook game built in. Maybe I'd be less disappointed if the feature hadn't been sold as housing and then systematically stripped of housing elements. I don't know.

But they also manage to undersell the point of having housing. Ideally, they offer an investment for players who want to do something other than just grind upward eternally. They're a side activity, something different to do. Garrisons, at this point, have nothing for you to do other than just set up your missions and then wait. With no decorating and a minimum of real choices, they're just daily or weekly quests that you fire and forget until you reap rewards at high levels.

Combine that with the fact that every Garrison is going to look pretty same-ish and it gets worse. When you consider that a fully upgraded Garrison is just the same dozen buildings that you've seen in outposts throughout the game and based on the architecture of the two races with the largest number of settlements... fatigue sets in early.

And this is the one big marquee feature of the expansion, I'll note. This is the big new thing that's being introduced to the game. Compare it to new races or new classes or new levels back when talents were awarded every level. Compare it to the difference between Azeroth and Outland or Outland or Northrend.

Stay tuned later this week as I finish out this trio of beta impressions with a look at WoD's questing.

Massively's not big on scored reviews -- what use are those to ever-changing MMOs? That's why we bring you first impressions, previews, hands-on experiences, and even follow-up impressions for nearly every game we stumble across. First impressions count for a lot, but games evolve, so why shouldn't our opinions?

This article was originally published on Massively.