Blizzcon 2019: despite the protests, Blizzard steals the show

The 2019 edition of Activision-Blizzard’s yearly convention opened today in Anaheim, California – and what an opening it was! We’ve recapped the key points so you can share the hype.

The context wasn’t ideal, as Blizzard have a lot to make up for at the moment. They have come under fire for a variety of reasons over the last two years. Most recently, they were heavily criticised for their immediate and punishing shutdown of Hearthstone players declaring support for the Hong-Kong protests, the first one being Grandmaster Blitzchung. In fact, while inside the convention centre the announcements were in full swing, protesters outside were loudly blaming the company for being in the Chinese government’s pocket.

However, it would seem that if anything this has prompted Blizzard to deliver one of the most exciting opening panels we have seen for a long time. Fans can’t help but look forward to some of the changes announced – whether this is enough to regain the trust of the playerbase remains to be seen.

Blizzard president: we’re sorry – sort of

In an unexpected official aknowledgment of the recent controversy, the conference was opened by Blizzard president J. Allen Brack accepting responsibility for mishandling the Blitzchung situation. “We did not live up to the high standards we set up for ourselves” he said, mentioning that they acted too quickly and did not communicate adequately with their players.

However, while it was crystal clear to the audience which event he was referring to, the actual wording was left extremely vague. The general tone was that Blizzard’s ideal is that their games should be a force for good and that in this occasion, they “failed in [their] purpose”; but there was no mention of the specifics of the situation, namely the conflict between the Chinese governement and the more liberal Hong-Kong administration. Or even of the involved players’ names; or any admission that the company’s stance in itself was bad.

The result is leaving gamers unsatisfied. There’s a sentiment that this is too little too late – just as much as the rowback earlier this month of some, but not all, of the initial sanctions imposed on Blitzchung.

Diablo IV tease: hello Lilith, Daughter of Hatred

Wondering what the “May contain content inappropriate for children” warning at the start of the broadcasts was? That’s for the Diablo trailer. Blizzcon opened on a strong note with a superb cinematic trailer depicting unwitting tomb raiders ending up as ingredient for a gory ritual sacrifice – and summoning Lilith, daughter of Mephisto, to the world of Sanctuary.

Can you feel the Lovecraftian vibes? Credit: Blizzard / IGN

This is the official reveal that a new instalment of the Diablo franchise is in the works – although it was made very clear that this is not going to be ready for release anytime soon.

Blizzard are “going back to the roots” of Diablo, and aiming for a much darker, gory game. The trailer sets the mood, with floods of blood being wrenched from the sacrifices and creating a floating, organic membrane from which Lilith emerges; and we were warned that this atmosphere will translate into the gameplay and that “victory will not be clean, or guaranteed.”

A short gameplay trailer showcased some of the new features being worked on, as well as giving us a glimpse of the three classes on offer at the moment: barbarian, sorcerer, and druid. Sanctuary is expanding and mounts are being added to the game, with cool class-specific “dismount” abilities. Player-vs-Player gameplay is also coming to Diablo with dedicated PvP zones.

Gameplay trailer: “Hell is coming” – but how cool is it that you can dismount by turning into an ice storm? Credit: Blizzard / IGN

Diablo IV will be playable on PC, PlayStation and Xbox when it comes out.

World of Warcraft: Shadowlands, OP Sylvanas, and Deathwing

Where to start on the World of Warcraft news? Blizzard confirmed the recent leaks that the new WoW expansion would take place in the realm of Death: the Shadowlands. But it did so in the most epic cinematic imaginable, showing us Sylvanas taking on the current Lich King… and winning!

Doesn’t that give you the chills? And not just because it’s set in Northrend. Credits: Blizzard

The Banshee Queen then proceeds to break the Lich King’s helm, ripping apart the veil between reality and the Shadowlands – and confirming this is where player characters will be heading next. We’ve been teased four levelling zones, each with their own faction, as well as an additional endgame zone which will be so dangerous it doesn’t even have an innkeeper.

Ion Hazzikostas, World of Warcraft’s game director, explained that the new expansion is aiming to create more player agency and encourage meaningful choices – will we see some more of the “”choose your side” scenarios like the ones we had in Battle for Azeroth? If so we hope they give rise to some deeper gameplay as the current ones feel somewhat shallow.

The expansion also comes with long-awaited major revamps for several systems, giving more flexibility to customise your character’s appearance (yay) but also their levelling journey (yaaaaaay). We can expect all this to be released sometimes next summer although there is no official date as of yet.

If you’re unfamiliar with the lore surrounding the Shadowlands, we’ve set the trailer in context, along with other lore reveals, here.

In other WoW news, starting next week, players will be able to complete three in-game scenarios in order to earn a Deathwing mount (the Obsidian Worldbreaker) in honor of WoW’s 15th anniversary – we’re very excited about that.

WoW Classic is also getting some love with an update next week including new world bosses and the introduction of a PvP Honor system – you better get those Hillsbrad Foothills quests done before that if you don’t want to get ganked.

Hearthstone: Descent of Dragons

Immediately following the epic WoW reveals, Blizzard happily took us on a little emotional rollercoaster with a very lighthearted trailer for the new Hearthstone expansion, Descents of Dragons.

By the way, this is my new favorite song – and wins Blizzcon Soundtrack award of the year, regardless of how epic the rest of the music was. Credits: Blizzard

Themed around the dragonflights, this expansion includes new cards (of course), but also new game mechanics with the addition of the power word “invoke” working in conjunction with the legendary dragon card Galakrond to power him and his minions up. We also get a revamp of the quests mechanics premiered in Journey to Un’goro with new side quests. Unlike the legendary quests, these don’t start in your hand, and you can have several per deck, but they still provide a sizeable boost in power when completed.

Oh, and did I mention, there’s a Deathwing card, because he’s everywhere this year.

More exciting however is the announcement of a completely new Hearthstone mode: 8-players battlegrounds, loosely based on auto-chess mechanics. This pits players against 7 opponents and alternates phases of minion recruitement, buffing and positioning with phases of auto-combat against other players’ warbands.

Descent of Dragons will be released on December 10, 2019. The battleground mode on the other hand will be released from next week onwards as beta, first to Blizzcon ticket holders and then to all the playerbase.

If you want to know more about the Hearthstone expansion and the new games systems head on to our dedicated article here.

Overwatch 2: Overwatch recalled

Finally, Blizzard wrapped up the opening ceremony with the heavily anticipated Overwatch 2 announcement. This doesn’t have a release date yet either, but we were treated to another beautiful cinematic depicting Overwatch finally getting back together to fight global-level threats.

Should Blizzard convert to movie producers? Those cinematics are very good. Credits: Blizzard

The “integrated sequel” will include:

  • PvE modes with Story Missions, but also repeatable Hero Missions;
  • Hero progression with levelling and talent builds for the PvE content;
  • A new PvP core mode (accessible in quick Play and Competitive) with Push;
  • Several new heroes, and obviously new maps;
  • A reworked game engine with improved graphics.

Jeff Kaplan, Blizzard’s Vice-President and lead designer of Overwatch, reassured fans that all achievements and cosmetic rewards would port from current Overwatch to its sequel. Players of both games will also be able to play together. This is great news, but does make us a bit confused as to why this is a new game and not an expansion – after all Blizzard have some experience with those.

The game is still a long way from release, and many things could change until then, so let’s see how that develops. But if you want more information on what was announced, we’ve detailed all the Overwatch 2 news in a dedicated article here.

In the meantime, Overwatch 1 has some cool updates coming its way, with new cosmetics, a new “waiting” mini-game while you’re queuing for quick play or comp, and the Overwatch league to be distributed in 20 cities across the world for next year.

Blizzard Arcade: StarCraft, Heroes of the Storm and Warcraft 3 Reforged

While there wasn’t a lot of time left after the big reveals for Blizzard’s current major franchises, we did get a few tidbits on their other games throughout the opening ceremony.

Starcraft 2

Technology geeks have probably heard that Alphabet’s Deepmind AI has now mastered Starcraft 2 enough to attain the Grandmaster Level, and defeat all but a couple hundred players in the world. Well, Blizzcon attendees get the chance to check whether they’re in that number by playing against some of the Deepmind Agents in the arcade section of the conference. Good luck – your chances are probably pretty slim.

Heroes of the Storm

We got an announcement that the heavily-requested Deathwing is coming to the game. All Blizzcon ticket holders (including virtual ones) will get him for free, so that’s a nice additional perk of the VT and something to look forward for for fans of the game.

One more fiery character to play. Credits: Blizzard

No much other news yet for this sometimes neglected franchise, but Heroes is marking the occasion by having all of its characters free-to-play this week, so do check it out if you’re interested.

Warcraft 3 Reforged

No release date for this one yet, but the beta will be expanded next week to include access for all Blizzcon tickets and VT holders. It’s also playable at the convention centre if you’re lucky enough to grab one of the dedicated machines.

In short: can we still be friends?

We can’t help but be hugely hyped by all these reveals, and that was clearly Blizzard’s intention. Throughout the opening ceremony and the four panels which followed, every speaker had a clear on-brand message: “we are listening to you”; “you [players] are the most powerful people in the games industry”. And many of the announcements were consistent with those claims, and promised to deliver changes that the community had been widely asking for.

The questions remains however: is it just talk? Just as J. Allen Brack’s opening statement fell a bit short of being a real apology, Blizzard do have a history recently of saying one thing but doing another. It’s not the first time we’ve heard Ion Hazzikostas say he’s listening, but Battle for Azeroth sure didn’t feel like he was.

How the wider playerbase will respond to this damage control by Activision Blizzard is still not clear. Is this the big Blizzard comeback? You decide (literally).

We’ll cover the new releases more in detail soon – check out our blogs for posts on Shadowlands, Overwatch 2, Diablo IV and Descents of Dragons.

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