Game Reviews

World of Warcraft: Shadowlands Review

Blizzard saves their long running MMO from the brink of death with one of their best expansions to date.

by Brandon Adams
World of Warcraft: Shadowlands Review

World of Warcraft: Shadowlands could have launched in a mediocre state and it still would have beeen considered a success after Battle for Azeroth. Arguably the long-running MMO’s worst expansion, Battle for Azeroth set the bar so low that all Shadowlands had to do was step over it. That’s not exactly the stiffest of challenges, and had Blizzard simply phoned Shadowlands in no one would have been too surprised.

Instead, Blizzard knuckled down and crafted an expansion that has the foundations required to become as one of the best expansions ever created for World of Warcraft. The afterlife isn’t all angelic choirs – there are some small issues and concerns Blizzard will need to address in the coming months, but as it currently stands Shadowlands demonstrates a trip to Hell and back is actually a pretty damn good time.

Infinite afterlives; yet another world-ending threat.

The Shadowlands are World of Warcraft’s version of the afterlife, and things are not working as intended in the great beyond. Turns out Sylvanas was committing all those war crimes for a reason, and we learn almost immediately that she’s aligned herself with the mysterious Jailer (WoW’s first major villain to not appear in the original Warcraft games) since destroying the Helm of Domination and fleeing Azeroth. With the help of Bolvar Fordragon (current Lich King) our hero is jettisoned into the giant hole in the sky looming over Icecrown. Once on the other side we find ourselves trapped with the Maw, Shadowland’s version of Hell.

Naturally everything that can go wrong does. We are in Hell after all, but we learn a couple of critical things: all the major surviving leaders of Azeroth have been kidnapped and are imprisoned within the Maw, and that the Jailer is building yet another endless army we’ll have to take down. So far, so very Warcraft, but the general narrative conceit makes far more sense and is infinitely more engaging than Battle for Azeroth’s. The devil is coming for the soul of the world, and we have to stop him (essentially).

We eventually escape and find ourselves in the afterlife’s nexus, Oribos, where we discover the finely tuned bureaucracy of the Shadowlands has collapsed. Formerly, every soul that entered the Shadowlands would be judged by the Arbiter before being sent to their ideal afterlife, but the Arbiter was attacked by a mysterious force during the events of Legion, and now every single soul is being funneled into the Maw. Once reserved for solely the most irredeemable of villains, the Jailer is now farming up all the souls from everywhere. It’s now our task to figure out why, and from here the expansion kicks into full throttle.

Unlike previous expansion, Shadowlands introduces a strictly linear leveling experience to World of Warcraft. If you’ve ever played Square-Enix’s Final Fantasy XIV you’ll already be familiar with how this works, but for those of you who are accustomed to Warcraft’s more freeform format allow me to catch you up to speed. You’re not free to go where ever you like to level as you were in Legion, nor do you have two starter zones to choose from akin to Wrath of the Lich King. If World of Warcraft is a themepark MMO where the endgame is the ride, then Shadowlands introduces its most organized “line” to date.

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You have to complete the story before unlocking the endgame, whether you have reached the new level cap of 60 or not. Story “campaign” quests have a new icon to differentiate them from standard side quests, and experience has been balanced in such a way that all I had to do to keep pace was run a daily dungeon or two between zones. It’s all very snappy and ensures the overarching story isn’t littered with gaps, abrupt leaps in logic, or disjointed. You’re still fundamentally killing 10 boars and picking 15 flowers for each and every quest, but the stronger narrative flow overcomes this great MMO sin.

That’s not to say the zone stories, which World of Warcraft has always excelled at, are no longer compelling. Granted, the zone stories all feel slightly similar at a core level, since every one of the Shadowland’s factions are suffering from an Anima (the afterlife’s form of energy) drought, but there’s enough distinct personality to each that they still feel unique. Each zone is also so damned visually distinct from one another that it truly feels like you’re experiencing something new every time you jump between them. The art team has been carrying World of Warcraft on their backs for a while now, and Shadowlands is easily their best work yet. Ardenweald alone is a standout, which can best be describe as “Teldrassil, but on mushrooms,” with its vibrant purple hues and massive trees whose canopies spiral away overhead like miniature galaxies.

Whether you are assisting the ethically dubious Kyrians in Bastion, contributing to the skeleton war within Maldraxxus, pushing back against the Drust invasion of Ardenweald, or joining a peasant uprising in the Bloodborne-meets-Dracula inspired Revendreth, there’s a distinct story and visual design for each zone. They’re all up there with the best zones we’ve seen in World of Warcraft, but the more linear approach to leveling and story-gating of content means the main plot concerning the Jailer and Arbiter doesn’t lose focus.

It’s a delicate tradeoff, one where we lose the ability to explore with absolute freedom in exchange for a narrative that actually makes sense on a larger scale. Battle for Azeroth’s story was a mess, and it continued to spiral downward as the expansion aged. Shadowlands is already a more coherent, focused narrative with characters I care about and threads I can easily grasp. I may have been stuck on rails for the entire level 50 to 60 grind, but I personally didn’t mind. I can see how fans of World of Warcraft’s older leveling experience will dislike this change of pace, and the lack of any genuine challenge will likely annoy them further, but they’ll at least be relived to hear this only applies to their first character.

The art team has been carrying World of Warcraft on their backs for a while now, and Shadowlands is easily their best work yet.

There are more cutscenes in Shadowlands’ campaign than there are in perhaps any other World of Warcraft expansion prior. Even during quests characters will have lengthy voiced conversations as they bring you up to speed with their current plight. Shadowlands is a much more narratively dense experience than we’ve seen in the past, and that’s either going to click with you or not. Those trying to blast their way to endgame won’t give a mawrat’s ass about the Kyrian’s questionable mantra that requires aspirants to purge themselves of all their memories from life, yet they’ll have to sit through it regardless. Lore-obsessed fans on the other hand are going to, and have been, eating all of this up with a greedy smile. You can’t please everyone, but after Battle for Azeroth’s massive nothing-burger of a tale I’ll happily take the stronger story and more linear leveling.

Another big reason I believe this format works is it allows players to sample the various Covenant abilities in a more natural setting. As you play through each of Shadowlands’ four main zones you’ll be granted access to the two different Covenant abilities associated with that zone’s faction. One ability is a utility skill shared across all classes, and the other is unique to your class. Players are able to toy around with the Covenant skills early-on while playing through normal content and combat, helping them better decide which Covenant to join later on. It’s a smart call, and since players have to go through each and every zone and see their stories to an end, it makes it easier to figure out which Covenant works best for them once they do arrive at the endgame.

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World of Warcraft: Shadowlands already has a more compelling endgame loop than Battle for Azeroth.

If leveling is the “line”, then endgame is the roller-coaster we all queued up to ride. While I appreciate a well-designed line, we’re going to be strapped into that roller-coaster for months, if not years. Shadowlands could have gotten away with an equivalent or lesser leveling experience than Battle for Azeroth’s, but it had to surpass that last expansion’s endgame. Battle for Azeroth’s endgame was a litany of boring activities fueled by an oppressive and equally boring infinite treadmill – farming Azerite for our Heart of Azeroth grew stale within the first few days of Battle for Azeroth’s launch, and it remained that way for two years.

Island Expeditions were tiring, and their rewards were not worth the time invested. Warfronts sounded like a great idea on paper, but the system was half-baked at best and never truly iterated on. Nazjatar ended up being underwhelming, and the recycling of Cataclysm zones for the final run of content left Battle for Azeroth’s endgame feeling hollow. The activities weren’t fun, the progression was staid, the updates lacked punch, and Corruption was garbage. It was the worst endgame we’ve seen in World of Warcraft to date.

Shadowlands didn’t have to do much to be considered a success. One engaging activity and a less tedious grind would have been enough, but instead Blizzard went all out. Shadowlands has one of the strongest endgame foundations I’ve seen in the game to date, and there’s an almost dizzying variety of activities on offer. Here’s the best part: the majority of activities are optional.

That sounds more like a negative than positive quirk after coming out of Battle for Azeroth, where getting off the mandatory progression treadmill for even a moment felt like you were falling hopelessly behind. Players and communities in World of Warcraft like to stay ahead of the curve, so if you let them grind till the end of time they will. The problem with this is the more “meta” oriented portion of the community establishes the standards less hardcore players and guilds adopt, and in Battle for Azeroth that translated to “play this game like a job, and don’t you dare stop farming Azerite.”  Thankfully, Blizzard realized this infinite power-progression was causing more harm to the game than good, and with Shadowlands they’ve made a hard pivot to the other end of the spectrum.

Here’s the best part: the majority of activites are optional.

Yes, that means progression is once again time-gated. As an old Wrath of the Lich King vet and current Final Fantasy XIV nerd I’m accustomed to my progression being gated behind daily and weekly walls. It’s a formula that largely works, because it means I can knock out my progression at a more measured pace, and can pursue other objectives on the side without feeling guilty or like I was falling behind. Of course, time-gating only works if there’s actual content to play once you cap your progression for the week, and in this regard Shadowlands delivers.

Once you reach level 60 and clear the story on at least one character you’ll be tasked with choosing a Covenant. These are akin to the houses from Harry Potter, and each comes with a collection of unique abilities, cosmetics, and most importantly Soulbinds. Soulbinds are the “borrowed power” element of World of Warcraft: Shadowlands, much like Artifact Weapons and the Heart of Azeroth before it. Soulbinds are build-your-own talent trees, but they have baked in traits that are exclusive to each Covenant.

Those looking to min-max have already figured out the best Covenant for each class and spec, but from what we’ve seen the Covenants and Soulbinds are largely balanced well enough that those who don’t care about being in the .01% of hardcore players can freely pick whichever Covenant tickles their fancy. There remain a few outliers, sure (the Necrolords’ ability for Warriors is widely considered lackluster in comparison to the other three Covenant abilities), but nothing some balancing passes can’t fix.

Once you’ve signed on with a Covenant you’ll start assisting them in their current plight, and you’ll increase your Renown with them as you do so. This is where the progression time-gate exists, since you are only able to get two to three rank-ups per week. Soulbinds are the largest aspect of the new progression curve, and you’ll start off with only one of the three available. Additionally, there are eight rows within each Soulbind, but you’ll be capped at row 2. All of this is locked behind your Renown rank.

wow-shadowlands-soulbind

If World of Warcraft: Shadowlands were Battle for Azeroth or Legion you would farm up Anima and level up your Renown indefinitely, and hardcore players would have likely unlocked everything by now. That’s simply not the case here. Renown ranks are earned via two weekly quests, and while one is tied to Anima, you won’t ever dump the resource directly into your Renown. Instead you get one full rank-up upon turn-in of each quest. If you happen to unlock a new chapter in the post-leveling Campaign (also tied to Renown ranks) you can complete it for a third rank-up, but you can earn that at any time once you have access to the quests.

As for falling behind, Renown is braindead simple to catch-up on. You’ll still need to complete the two weeklies for the Renown ranks available that week, but you’ll earn missed ranks from dungeons, raids, PvP, and even World Quests. That means an alt can easily catch-up, and there’s little shame in skipping a week or two due to real life obligations or to, Arbiter forbid, play a different game. It’s amazingly refreshing to see a core progression loop this respectful of our time after Battle for Azeroth and Legion.

That’s it for “mandatory” progression. Farm up 1000 Anima each week (which is easy to do), and save five souls from the Maw. Tasks simple enough that fans who only have an hour or less a day to play can keep pace, and quick enough to complete that players with more time on their hands can actually engage with some of Shadowlands’ other activities. I’ve seen some of the more hardcore players complaining about this system, but browsing the subreddit and forums this last week I’ve found the majority of fans are happy with this change. I can’t say I’m surprised by this, because MMOs are at their best when you’re free to actually explore their worlds at your own pace, and Blizzard has filled the afterlife with all sorts of extra activities.

The two new marque activities are the Maw and Torghast, Tower of the Damned. The Jailer still has some of World of Warcraft’s key players imprisoned within his realm, so it’s on us to figure out a rescue plan. The Maw is a hostile, cruel place that looks like Icecrown’s edgy Goth phase, and you’ll need to take care during each and every excursion. You can’t mount-up in Azeroth’s Hell, and death will cause you to lose some of the currency you collected within the Maw. Additionally, the more you accomplish in the Maw the more attention you will draw from the Jailer, and once your Eye of the Jailer meter reaches rank 5 you’re done with your invasion for the day. Yes, it’s another time-gated system, but it works well enough to establish the Jailer and his army as massive threats to all of creation.

The Maw is a hostile, cruel place that looks like Icecrown’s edgy Goth phase.

It helps that the only real “progression” aspect tied to the Maw is an item that allows you to add a gem socket to select pieces of equipment. It’ll require a month or two of Maw excursions to unlock, but the net stat bonus will really only matter to the most bleeding edge of raiders and Mythic+ dungeoneers. Otherwise, the Maw is an exciting new activity fraught with peril that can be engaged with on your own terms, and I adore how the inherent danger of the place has led to some old-school impromptu partying up to survive. Unless you are playing with War Mode on, the Maw may be the most inherently social zone I’ve seen in World of Warcraft in over ten years.

Then there’s Torghast, a roguelike dungeon with shades of Final Fantasy XIV’s Deep Dungeon. It’s a simple pitch on paper: fight your way to a boss on the top floor while earning gamebreaking Anima powers that will dramatically alter your approach each and every run. There are six wings in total, each with 8 layers consisting of six floors apiece. Only two wings are active a week, and eventually we’ll have access to a seventh wing called the Twisting Corridors that will act as Torghast’s “infinite” mode. It’s an engaging, fun activity in its own right, even after you’ve earned your weekly serving of Soul Ash.

Ah yes, Soul Ash. It’s a new currency earned from killing final bosses in Torghast, and used to craft Legendary equipment at the Runecarver. I like how Legendaries have been handled in Shadowlands, and how they involve crafters from every major discipline. Anyone can run Torghast for their weekly Soul Ash, but if you want to create a Legendary you will have to consult with an equipment crafter for the base component, and an Inscriptionist for missives that’ll grant the Legendary its stats. Finally, you’ll need to farm up the actual Legendary Powers that will make your Legendary, well, a Legendary, and these are earned from dungeons, Torghast, and eventually the raids.

Legendaries alone create a compelling side grind outside of the core progression loop. You’ll pop into Torghast once or twice a week for your Soul Ash, farm content for your Legendary Power, and perhaps start a crafter of your own to avoid paying exorbitant prices for components on the auction house. Or, you can ignore it all entirely. Legendaries are powerful, but they don’t feel mandatory. You’ll notice your growth in power, and the community has already figured out which Legendary Powers are worth farming, but they’re just another spoke in the endgame wheel you’re free to engage with as you see fit.

wow-shadowlands-runecarver-crafting

I haven’t even touched on leveling your Covenant and improving your Sanctum with upgrades, which is its own loop that opens up easier transportation and additional activities in your Covenant’s zone. You’ll also unlock and upgrade Shadowlands’ mission table through these upgrades, but unlike other World of Warcraft expansions the system has appeared in Shadowlands’ doesn’t feel compulsory. It has some decent rewards (to include Soul Ash), but not in quantities that will make or break your grind.

There’s also an exclusive activity for each Covenant tucked away as the fourth upgrade option, which is a fun minigame you can complete once a week for solid rewards. There’s some questing involved with each minigame, but the one I’ve tried so far (the Ember Court) was enjoyable. I don’t feel like it’s something I have to do every week, yet I want to since it’s not only a pleasant distraction from the usual grind, but because of Shadowlands’ greater emphasis on optional side rewards.

There are mounts, pets, toys, and transmogs aplenty in World of Warcraft: Shadowlands, and activities tied to each. Even rare spawns and treasure chests out in the world now require some sort of puzzle to be solved, which makes farming them more entertaining than they’ve been in the past. World Quests are also longer, and tend to feature more engaging mechanics than they have previously, though they are also fewer in number. Not all of them are winners, and a handful need some additional tuning to make their rewards worth the effort, but I like the overall change in direction.

And that’s where my complaints with Shadowlands rests: balance. Covenants are close enough in performance for regular and casual players, but whenever Blizzard balances them people will want to change. You can swap at any time, but to return to an old Covenant you’ll first need to knock out two weekly quests over two weeks. Will this prove too limiting? Will the balance adjustments be severe enough to merit a change? Hard to say. Legendary Powers currently drop on bosses other than the last boss, which has led to people abandoning their party when the one they are farming doesn’t drop. Paired with the low drop rate this behavior makes sense, even if I don’t endorse it. Will Blizzard rebalance the drop rate and move Legendary Powers to the final boss? Time will tell.

I’d rather be in this position however – more concerned with a few dials Blizzard can easily adjust than worrying if the entire bedrock in which the expansion was built upon will give way. Shadowlands has been built on solid ground, and the activities that have launched with it are some of the best we’ve seen in the game. Blizzard can spend their time tweaking balance, because they won’t have to rebuild entire systems from scratch in the coming months. I’m more excited for future content now than I’ve ever been since Wrath. The future looks bright for Shadowlands, unlike Battle for Azeroth where the community knew early on they were in for a rough ride.

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The Verdict

I could spill more ink describing Shadowlands’ endgame loop and why I love it, I truly could. There’s just so much to do in the afterlife, even here at launch, and most of it is optional. We have yet to see Mythic+, the raid, or ranked PvP come online, but I already feel like there’s more than enough here to keep me occupied. I absolutely adore Shadowlands for embracing this change in direction, because I like to be rewarded for poking my nose into every corner of the world. MMOs are social games, and grinding out gear from dungeons, raids, and PvP with randoms or friends has been a key feature of every mainstay themepark MMO, but there’s so much more to the genre than that.

There’s a wide world to explore, secrets to discover, and loot to acquire that has no bearing on progression. World of Warcraft inadvertently sabotaged that half of the game by building infinite progression treadmills. With Shadowlands exploration and player freedom make a return. You could argue time-gates limit player freedom, but from what I’ve seen they’ve ensured players are able to engage with the content they care about without the hardcore portion of the community, forever enslaved to the meta, dictating the pace. Side activities can be pursued at one’s leisure, alts can be leveled and caught up with little issue, and you can take a break from the game without feeling like you’ve fallen behind.

Mix in the fantastic art, music, and world design, and Shadowlands is already one of the better World of Warcraft expansions to launch in the last ten years. For the first time since Wrath I look forward to logging into World of Warcraft every day, and I’ve yet to feel fatigued. Post-launch support will ultimately determine Shadowlands’ fate, but as it currently stands World of Warcraft: Shadowlands is a fantastic expansion that once again proves why Blizzard’s 16 year old juggernaut remains the king of the MMORPG genre. While we may be touring Azeroth’s afterlife ourselves, it’s clear World of Warcraft won’t be sauntered off into the great beyond any time soon.

- This article was updated on:December 3rd, 2020

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World of Warcraft: Shadowlands

  • Available On: PC, Mac
  • Published By: Blizzard Entertainment
  • Developed By: Blizzard Entertainment
  • Genre: Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game
  • US Release Date: November 23rd, 2020
  • Reviewed On: PC
  • Quote: "Post-launch support will ultimately determine Shadowlands' fate, but as it currently stands World of Warcraft: Shadowlands is a fantastic expansion that once again proves why Blizzard's 16 year old juggernaut remains the king of the MMORPG genre. While we may be touring Azeroth's afterlife ourselves, it's clear World of Warcraft won't be sauntered off into the great beyond any time soon."
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