World of Warcraft (WoW) enters its 17th year in 2021, hot on the heels of the launch of Shadowlands, the MMO's next big expansion. In Shadowlands, players become the Maw Walker, capable of shifting between the realm of the afterlife and the lands of the living. The Shadowlands is a mysterious other-worldly dimension, where souls appear after death and are judged an afterlife deemed suitable for their deeds (or misdeeds). However, something has gone terribly wrong.
Throughout the previous expansion, Battle for Azeroth, former Horde warchief Sylvanas Windrunner betrayed her faction. Sylvanas set the Horde on a genocidal warpath, taking thousands of lives in what is now known as the "Fourth War." Realizing Sylvanas no longer seemed to be acting in good faith (to say the least), other Horde leaders set about bringing about yet another coup to reform the Horde leadership into a council-like system.
In the process, Sylvanas revealed the true extent of her otherworldly powers, derived from the Shadowlands itself, killing long-time Horde hero Saurfang in the process.
The ancient cycle between life and death has been broken, and Sylvanas is at its core.
Sylvanas fled to the Icecrown Citadel, of Warcraft 3 fame, and shattered the Lich King's Helm of Domination, breaching the veil between the living and the dead. Agents from the Shadowlands appeared and kidnapped many of the Horde and Alliance faction leaders, spiriting them away to be tortured within the afterlife. But why?
In Shadowlands, players embark on a quest to discover why innocent souls are being fed into the Shadowlands' hell equivalent — The Maw — and why its ruler, The Jailer, has refashioned the hellscape and its denizens into his own personal army of the damned. The infinitely ancient cycle between life and death has been broken, and Sylvanas is at its core. Over the course of the expansion, players stand to discover the fates of various vanquished Azerothian heroes and villains, including Warcraft 3 figures like Kael'thas Sunstrider and Uther Lightbringer, and unravel a plot that started all the way back in the Legion expansion.
Here are my Shadowlands impressions, after getting to grips with all the new systems, diving into the new raid, all to answer that burning question: is World of Warcraft still worth playing in 2020, into 2021? Emphatically, I say yes.
Into the Shadowlands
World of Warcraft: Shadowlands
Bottom line: Blizzard clearly learned from the mistakes from Battle for Azeroth's endgame launch state, injecting piles of content that actually contribute to player power in meaningful ways. On the one hand, the time gating on the story elements is irritating, but it's not like most players will find themselves short of things to do. Shadowlands has some of the most stunning art in the game's lengthy history, and the cinematic treatment represents a step up for the studio. Despite balance issues, Shadowlands may end up among the likes of Legion and The Burning Crusade as one of the game's best expansions to date — if Blizzard listens to its players, rather than its shareholders.
- Stunning art and music
- Rich endgame slate of content
- Dungeons and raids feel fresh with engaging mechanics
- Torghast is an interesting concept that could grow into something quite engaging
- Covenant choices force some specs to choose between power and aesthetics
- Faction imbalance is becoming a major problem for many servers
- New player experience misses the mark
WoW: Shadowlands review: What I loved
|Category||World of Warcraft: Shadowlands|
|Title||World of Warcraft: Shadowlands|
|Platforms||PC & Mac (via Battle.net)|
World of Warcraft: Shadowlands culminates a plot arc that has been brewing for years. It really got going in Legion, but the seeds were planted all the way back in Cataclysm, or perhaps even further, as long-running heroine Sylvanas Windrunner wrestled with the nature of her undeath.
Throughout the various World of Warcraft expansions, Sylvanas was making mysterious deals and pacts with some of the game's powerful death-oriented figures and demigods. With Shadowlands, we're starting to understand why. Sylvanas is working with the entity known as The Jailer, a hulking humanoid, ruler of The Maw, the closest thing to an Azerothian hell.
Without spoiling for those who haven't played, Shadowlands represents a big test for Blizzard in a sense. The Jailer is one of the first new "mega threats" Blizzard has introduced, without relying on previous lore or characters to prop him up. To that end, Blizzard weaved various plot threads across previous expansions while also linking The Jailer to some of the game's outstanding mysteries. The implications for Warcraft 3's Scourge, the Lich King itself, and even the ties to the Burning Legion (the Warcraft universes' big evil) are tantalizing as a lore fan, and Blizzard's in-game cinematics have taken a step up to help deliver those plot points.
Shadowlands ditches the last few expansion's optional progression for something definitively linear, taking players through each zone in turn. While I'm not sure I'd like every expansion to be as linear as this one, it was interesting to watch how the progression from the heavenly Bastion to the shadowy Revendreth unfurled narratively. Using this method, Shadowlands was able to tell a more cohesive story. I'm not sure I've experienced a more memorable plot progression in World of Warcraft as a result. Great in-game cinematics, piles of voice acting, and big plot points give even minor characters a moment to shine while giving weight and power to some of the new villains.
Narratively, Shadowlands gives Blizzard the ability to bring back some classic characters, long-dead. Blizzard already showed Garrosh Hellscream in a trailer, being drained of his energy by Revendreth Venthyr, who are vampiric beings that sap the "sins" from evil characters to forge anima energy. Not a very pleasant afterlife, to say the least.
The leveling experience both begins and ends in a showcase of The Maw, where The Jailer and his infernal minions reside. The Maw is a uniquely difficult zone to be in, with a Grand Theft Auto-like scaling threat system, genuinely tough non-elite creatures, and the inability to use mounts. I haven't felt this challenged by a World of Warcraft outdoor zone since classic, and it's a breath of fresh air, although I'm sure the air in The Maw is anything but fresh.
The Shadowlands is an area hinted at in Warcraft lore but ultimately never really revealed. This gave Blizzard's art team a huge amount of license to envisage what the unique realms of the afterlife might be like. Bastion is a sparkling vision of an Olympian landscape, with golden rolling hills, floating stone spires, inhabited by winged Kyrians. Maldraxxus, by stark contrast, is a festering mold-scape of rot, bones, and decay, where violent souls battle it out in an endless, glorious war.
Revendreth is a truly vast zone with stunning Dracula-inspired gothic ruins, with Castle Nathria as its centerpiece. Ardenweald is an arboreal mystical forest, with some of the most stunning alien vistas I've ever seen in a game. Gigantic trees twisting up into the sky, offering us a vision of what Ori and the Blind Forest might look like if it were 3D.
These zones come with major character moments, great cinematics, and interesting quests. The leveling experience felt shorter overall than usual, though, with many of the quests appearing re-cycled as endgame repeatable quests after hitting the cap. That said, each zone came with chains of side quests that separated off from the main "campaign quests," which is how Blizzard has started designating progression-oriented quests against some of those smaller quests.
By splitting them apart like this, Blizzard shines a spotlight on how weak the non-campaign quests can often be. I think future expansions could work a little harder to make those side missions a little more interesting, either with deeper lore beats or characters to make the exploration worth doing. Overall though, Shadowlands' main campaign chain might be the most memorable in Warcraft history. Without spoiling, the main quest through Ardenweald was especially moving.
Once you've finished with your campaign missions, you begin embarking upon Shadowlands' endgame, which is surprisingly large. Blizzard took many of the things they learned from Battle for Azeroth's launch failings, from the very dull Island Expeditions and Warfronts to the Azerite powers, and poured them into Shadowlands' much-improved systems.
The crowning feature in Shadowlands' endgame is Torghast, the tower of the damned.
After hitting the newly-squished level 60 cap, players must choose a covenant. The covenants are the major powers from each zone that stand against The Jailer's machinations. Each comes with a unique set of powers and abilities, alongside piles of cosmetics and a unique covenant-exclusive storyline. The covenants are an amalgamation of Legion's class order halls and Warlord of Draenor's garrisons. With facilities, you must build up and maintain with daily and weekly activities, to gain increasing power for use in raids and other activities. There are also weekly and daily activities to complete inside The Maw, for the mysterious entity known as Ve'nari, which grants more rewards to grind out.
Perhaps the crowning feature in Shadowlands' endgame is Torghast, the tower of the damned. Torghast is a unique, infinite tower that exists outside of time and space and serves as a dark mirror to Icecrown Citadel back on Azeroth. The tower has a rogue-lite-style progression system, with randomized floors, enemies, and powers, some of which can turn your character into a totally overpowered juggernaut while you're in there.
Blizzard has been staggering the release of new Torghast difficulty tiers, or "floors." The higher you get, the more difficult it is. Layer 6 is currently available as of writing, and it is truly no joke. To offset the difficulty, you can collect Anima Powers from various mobs, mysterious brokers, and other challenges while inside. These powers, like the monsters and layouts, are also randomized. As a demonology warlock, Torghast contains abilities that empower my demonic summoned pets. You'll need every shred of power possible to defeat the sixth floor's boss battle, which can be quite tough depending on your class.
Weekly Torghast runs reward you with a currency used to purchase customized legendary items, enhancing your character's power. If you plan to do dungeons and raids, doing Torghast runs is a must to stay competitive, and they can be completed either solo or in a group with up to four friends. Torghast is made up of five different "biomes" that cycle weekly, giving access to two of them. There's no reason why Blizzard couldn't add more tiles and more biomes to keep the dungeon runs feeling fresh as the expansion plays out. I suspect that the system will remain popular enough to become a staple feature of future expansions going forward. As a warlock, being able to summon multiple demonic tyrants thanks to Torghast's anima powers is simply hilarious, given that typically you can only summon one due to how powerful they are. The main downside of Torghast is that it only rewards currency to upgrade one piece of gear in your set. If it rewarded cosmetics and other cool stuff, it might enjoy better longevity. As of right now, I'm already starting to get a bit bored of running it.
Update Dec 17, 2020: Blizzard has updated Torghast to be less of a chore by lowering enemy health, and increasing player damage. Clearly, they're still examining player reactions to the tower and its layout. It'll no doubt get further tweaks throughout the expansion."
Beyond Torghast and Covenant grinding, of course, there remain dungeons and raids, which are impressive in their creativity. Every time you think you've seen every possible boss mechanic, Blizzard is able to surprise us, despite the engine's age and limitations. De Other Side is the realm of Mueh'zala, one of the troll Loas of death. It's here we find competing Loa of death Bwonsamdi, trapped. It's on players to free Bwonsamdi and defeat the gigantic Mueh'zala by unleashing Bwonsamdi's powers. Another dungeon, the Mists of Tirna Scithe, is unique for its puzzle-solving qualities, asking players to play games of "odd one out" to defeat the trickster fairy hiding in the smog.
The story campaign culminates in Revendreth, which is capped off with the Castle Nathria raid dungeon. This large dungeon is designed for 10 to 30 players and forms the expansion's true endgame content, containing all of the best gear and most dangerous boss battles.
I'm still working through the raid with my (awesome) guild, but the mechanics have been fun and engaging so far. We're hunting down one of The Jailer's henchmen. You'll face off against Castle Nathria's hulking gargoyles, shadowy anima-addicted vampiric Venthyr generals, and other crazed minions of The Jailor and his band of traitors.
The situation between Shadowlands and Battle for Azeroth feels like night and day. Many of Battle for Azeroth's endgame "features" were dull at best and awful at worst, with Blizzard spending much of the expansion trying to fix them. However, Shadowlands is a much different beast, with endgame systems that are thus far fun to engage with and offer a lot of promise for future content updates as we move through to the next big expansion, probably in 2022.
WoW: Shadowlands review: What I don't love
There's a lot to love about World of Warcraft Shadowlands, but there are some outstanding issues about WoW as a whole that are in some ways made worse by some of the systems Blizzard introduced this time around.
As publishers and their investors look at engagement figures as their key performance indicator, the way WoW has changed often borders on the arbitrary, designed to increase engagement at the cost of enjoyment. For example, Blizzard has reduced the amount of loot players get from bosses in raids, meaning it will most likely take longer to get all the items you want and ultimately progress.
World of Warcraft has been criticized for prioritizing engagement over community building over the years. Matchmaking systems reduce the need to see other players as humans. Instead, people just want to get in, do the runs as fast and as effectively as possible, and leave, bringing elitism and rudeness along for the ride. Back in the day, being a jerk would earn you a negative reputation on a server and came with consequences for getting invited back to groups. In today's match-making WoW, there are no consequences whatsoever, to the detriment of the game's sense of community. Entire server groups are merged together. Players you see running around might not even be on your server. You might see them once and never see them again.
This happened years ago, though, and that ship has largely sailed, but increasingly, some of the systems Blizzard introduces feeds the anti-community spiral. Covenant choices include aesthetics, but they also come with unique campaigns that involve major characters in World of Warcraft lore, as well as exclusive powers that can change how your class plays. Switching covenant isn't easy, either, taking a couple of weeks or more to catch up, depending on how much you play.
When picking a covenant, being forced to select between power and aesthetics can feel a little bad.
Although balance is in a far better place now than it was years ago, there's still a large difference between specs, and more importantly, a difference in how players perceive each spec. For example, most simulations seem to suggest the Night Fae covenant is best for my class, but I'm not a fan of the aesthetic or the story threads of that covenant. The covenant I wanted to choose was Venthyr, but sims suggest that it is, in fact, the worst choice for my class by a large margin.
In the end, I compromised and chose Maldraxxus, a second-best pick, ending up with a campaign and aesthetics I didn't care for and an ability that isn't the best, at least according to sims. Being forced to choose a covenant between power and aesthetics can feel a little bad as a result. It's not simply a case of choosing the covenant you think seems the coolest or the most fun. And hey, it might be my fault for feeling that way, but when so much of the game revolves around addons like raider.io and raidbots and combat logs that measure player potential, there's a certain pressure involved. Demonology isn't regarded as a top-flight DPS spec either, which doesn't help matters.
Another contentious issue about Shadowlands is the time gating aspect of it. Blizzard has staggered the release of Shadowlands features since its launch on November 23. Even then, there's only so much you can do in a single week, being forced to wait to see how certain storylines play out for no real reason. The content is in the game right now, and Blizzard is staggering access to that content arbitrarily for no reason other than padding the engagement figures in their reports to investors.
I wouldn't mind the time gating so much, especially as someone who is quite busy and might struggle to keep up with the power curve if everyone could access everything straight away, but it creates weird issues. For example, I had a world quest pop up that involved plot threads and spoilers for things I hadn't experienced yet, due to the fact the story isn't fully accessible yet.
Finally, another irritant is that Blizzard still doesn't even try to balance some of the under-used talents and skills. Blizzard did a "de-pruning" to add "flavor" back to certain classes. For example, they gave all warlocks the classic spell corruption, but for demonology and destruction-specialized warlocks, casting corruption is literally a waste of a button press.
There are various talents across the board that are useless in all situations, too, whether it be PvP, PvE, solo content, or otherwise. Blizzard just doesn't seem to invest as much as it should in balancing some of these abilities or reworking their mechanics to make them more viable. I'm not sure why Blizzard decided to inject more abilities into the game when so many remain under-tuned.
Some of my gripes with WoW are higher-level philosophical design issues that aren't really the fault of the expansion itself, though. Reviewing World of Warcraft expansions is strange because they're unlike typical games in the sense that in the coming months, Blizzard will add piles of new features, dungeons, and endgame content for free as part of the game's subscription. As of right now, Shadowlands is in a great place, though, and far better off than the start of some of its predecessors.
Even if they still didn't fix Nether Portal.
WoW: Shadowlands review: Is it worth playing?
Is World of Warcraft worth playing in 2020? Over 16 years later, across over 10,000 hours of playtime, I'm eager to say yes, providing you can find a good guild and band of friends to play with.
Blizzard might have a long way to go when fostering a sense of community within the grand social experiment that is World of Warcraft. However, if you're willing to make the effort to find your own community within the sprawling worlds within Warcraft, there's simply no other game I've played that has resulted in so many lasting friendships. That's the promise of an MMORPG, and despite problems, none do it better than WoW.
Shadowlands is a remarkably polished early expansion experience. Previous efforts were marred with exploding servers, massive queues, and the like, but Blizzard has done well to ensure Shadowlands' launch was a relatively stable one. Not only that, Shadowlands is one of the first expansions I've played at launch that really delivered a full spread of rich endgame content right out of the gate, that moved beyond simply raiding and rep grinding.
Stunning art, a step-up for story delivery, and a rich endgame makes me confident that World of Warcraft: Shadowlands will be remembered as one of the legendary MMO's better expansions — if Blizzard can continue to prioritize feedback from players, rather than its shareholders.
Fight death itself
World of Warcraft: Shadowlands
Defeat The Jailer.
World of Warcraft never ceases to amaze. Blizzard continues to get tons of mileage out of the legendary MMO, with a step up for live story-telling, stunning art direction, and one of the richest launch endgame experiences we've seen to date.
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