While I don’t play World of Warcraft every day, or even every month, I’ve had my account since almost launch (so around 15 years). It’s been over two months since World of Warcraft Shadowlands has released and after spending a lot of time with it, I feel I’m ready to put down my thoughts. Quite simply, World of Warcraft Shadowlands is an odd throwback to the expansions of yore.
Review: World of Warcraft Shadowlands
Platform: PC [Reviewed]
Players: online multiplayer
Release Date: November 23, 2020
Price: $59.99 (USD)
Shadowlands opens up with the fabric between life and death being torn asunder by the current big bad of the game, Sylvanas. Basically, she rips apart the crown of the Lich King, and it opens a big portal in the sky to the WoW versions of Heaven and Hell. Key leaders from both factions are kidnapped to The Maw (hell), and so are you. However, you are quickly busted out and taken to Oribos (heaven), where you are tasked with rescuing the leaders, stopping Sylvanas, and figuring out why the afterlife is broken.
As I mentioned earlier, Shadowlands is a true throwback to the older expansions. While World of Warcraft Legion and especially, World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth got more and more open, with regards to the narrative structure and where you have to go, Shadowlands dials it all the way back down. It is an entirely linear structure going through all four of the new areas before you are told to pick one of the new places as your Covenant (think Class Hall but more like an actual guild). Once you pick a Covenant, the “real” game actually begins.
Exploring Something New
World of Warcraft: Shadowlands features four new areas…
Bastion: Sadly, it’s not the same place as the Supergiant Games Bastion, which is a bit of a drag. Bastion is home to the Kyrians (not the Star Trek race) who are basically the angels of the afterlife. This area is the brightest and generally easy to get around in. The big story here is that souls are reborn into Kyrians who must complete the rite of passage to graduate, which also makes them forget their past life and kind of brainwashes them. The enemies here are The Forsworn, who are Kyrians who didn’t graduate but still have the cool new blue bodies. I think they are led by Uther (if you remember him from Warcraft 3), which is kind of neat, but barely factors in at all.
Maldraxxus: Maldraxxus is the undead area of the afterlife. Basically, the leader of this area has been assassinated and it’s up to you to find out who killed him and to restore the magical sword that might restore balance here. There’s kind of a lot of undead politics in this area, which can get boring after a while. You do pal around with Thrall’s mom for a while though, which is kind of cool. This area is fairly dark, as you might imagine, with ruins littering almost everywhere you travel to.
Ardenweald: Ardenweald is a Night Elf forest smashed together with tree fairies. The fairies (and others) take care of souls that are in a line to be reborn. However, there is a severe shortage of Anima, which is the lifeblood of everything in Shadowlands. Thus, grounding the process into a full stop. The big goal here is to find out the shortage and then to eventually protect a soul and nurture it back to a body, where, surprise surprise, it’s another key player in WoW’s history. The actual area here is slightly more of a colorful or dreamy version of a typical Night Elf area.
Revendreth: Finally there is Revendreth. Unlike Ardenweald, which seeks to protect souls, Revendreth is all about punishing them, based on their sins they committed during their life. This is also kind of the vampire or Nightmare Before Christmas Halloweentown area, which reminds me a lot of the Drustvar map from BFA, only more built up. The big story here is also about Anima and the conspiracy around it. There’s also a pesky rebellion you have to put down. Unlike with the other areas, I don’t think there is a strict “Old WoW character is a pivotal part of the story” figure, but I could be wrong.
Picking a Covenant
After you go through the main campaigns of each new area you are told to pick a Covenant and a story campaign kicks off there. Each Covenant has two different abilities that are unique to it. I picked the Night Fae (Ardenweald) one, which meant I have the ability to decrease cooldowns when I channel it (that also does light damage) while also having a shapeshifting talent that gives me a burst of speed for a bit. The Maldraxxus one, on the other hand, lets me turn into a Skeleton Mage boosting my power every so often and a different one that lets me form some Flesh Armor. Basically, every Covenant has a direct (or indirect) damage ability and a utility ability.
There are also two new main areas, Oribos and The Maw. Oribos is basically the main hub city of the game, and reminds me a bit of Dalaran, with the different wings being built around a central pillar. The Maw is basically the fifth big area and it’s a tad different than all the others.
Escaping The Maw
The Maw is kind of reminiscent of like Suramar area from Legion, kind of the current end-point area once you reach the level cap and do the other areas. The thing here is there is a Jailer mechanic system. The Jailer is always watching you, and when you kill enemies/complete quests, the notoriety level rises. When you reach different levels, there are more hindrances to you playing, like random chains may slow or damage you, you can be randomly damaged, or assassin enemies can hunt you down. This mechanic resets daily, but it’s basically a system where you can’t just spend hours here every day, because it’s (in function) a timer to limit how much progress you can do, day-to-day.
Within The Maw is a special currency called Stygia that you can use to buy special items at the one vendor in the area. You get Stygia from killing enemies and doing quests as well. However, it’s not like a regular currency. In The Maw, they basically mixed Dark Souls with WoW. Because you’re basically already in the afterlife, you don’t have to corpse run to reclaim your body when you die. Instead, when you die, you’re resurrected at a graveyard and told basically “Your corpse still has Stygia on it.” Meaning, you can run back to reclaim your lost Stygia (souls) and not lose the currency. It’s not a full-on Dark Souls-like I don’t think there is an explicit timer to reclaim it, but if you happen to die on the way out there, your new corpse becomes your new bloodstain and the old one is lost.
Also within The Maw is the other big new expansion thing, Torghast: The Tower of the Damned. Torghast is basically a rogue-lite mixed with the Suramar Withered Training in Legion. The main goal is to get through different levels of the Tower, where you fight a boss in the end and collect a currency called Soul Ash. The ash lets you craft new legendary items, which is just another treadmill for you to run.
Looking at More New Things
Every expansion has new things and gets rid of old ones, but World of Warcraft Shadowlands goes to the extreme. We can all agree that the Expeditions stuff from BFA sucked, so they are gone. So is the Heart of Azeroth mechanic (yet another thing to fill a bank slot). Archeology is even more forgotten in this expansion, being more neglected than in the past ones. Warfronts, which were kind of a fun thing in BFA, are also toast. In addition to this, there is a massive level squish in the game. Level 60 is the new norm, once again, rolling back from the level 120 character I had in BFA.
Ultimately, this expansion, almost more than the others, is just a lot of waiting around. There are a lot of timers and gates that literally gate-keep your progress until the next day. Take the Covenant story campaign for instance. I can’t comment on the other ones, but for the Night Fae one, you need a certain amount of Renown in order to progress. It would literally say “You are on chapter 7 of the story campaign, but to unlock chapter 8 you need a Renown level of 18.” This just sucks. You only really earn renown from doing a daily quest or certain other special quests. The Renown system goes up to level 40 too. So, basically, it becomes a huge treadmill of not only the actual story campaigns but whatever bonuses you might want from the Covenant.
Anima also fits into this. Anima is the resources from past expansions thing. You use Anima to not only send troops out on missions but also to upgrade your Covenant base, and to buy items/weapons from the Renown Quartermaster. That’s a lot of things to use it on and you get paltry amounts of it at best. I think the most I’ve ever seen drop is a 250 chunk from an epic daily quest mission. Meanwhile, there are items from the Quartermaster, particularly the mount, which cost 5,000 Anima, and 75 of a different currency.
As for the base upgrades, there is literally a final upgrade which cost 15,000 Anima and 70 of even another type of different currency. I mean, on average, I might get like 200 Anima a day, without any of the rare daily missions. Most daily quests give you about 70 Anima, give or take. It’s just an incredibly daunting treadmill, even more so than things like the Heart of Azeroth, Legendary Weapons, or the Class Hall stuff from previous expansions. I realize this will be shortened later on, but at the start, it is a real slog to deal with.
Alternate Level Scheming
I should mention the alternative leveling scheme for alternates. Basically, they added the Diablo 3 Adventure Mode into WoW. Once you have one character who has played through the main story, you can have another, new character hit Oribos and they are given the choice of either playing out the main story, like normal, or just doing daily quests, Covenant quests, and dungeons in order to get from 50 to 60. If you go with this method, you pick a Covenant at the start of the game and don’t have to go through the protracted story campaign once again. Plus, you get access to grinding/rewards a lot quicker than normal.
I think the largest problem with the expansion is that there really isn’t anything new to the game. Torghast is novel for a few runs, but it just becomes another weekly grind. I beat my Covenant campaign and while I got a few nifty things out of it, nothing big really happened. It was basically “Well, I’m on level 24 Renown and I can either keep grinding it out till I hit 40 or switch to another one?” Dungeons are fine and the first raid is alright (from what I’ve seen) but a lot of the gameplay feels like it’s been done before.
I’ll leave you with two suggestions that should have been implemented long ago but have not. A paint system and a better loot system. The paint thing is obvious, it’s been 16 years, you mean to tell me they can’t introduce a coloring system for parts yet? Hell the original Guild Wars had a dye armor system in place and it only came a year later. Transmogrification is NOT the same thing.
Second, I want a better loot system. I’ve been running the same old raids or content (primarily ICC, some of the Pandaria World Bosses, new Kara, etc.) off and on for five years. When I zone into ICC, I should be able to pull up a dungeon menu and go “Skip all rewards/loot except for Invincible’s Reins.” I don’t care about getting Frostweave Cloth or gear for my character that is at least four expansions old at this point. If not a guaranteed drop, it should either raise your odds the longer you do it, which creates a cumulative effect, or at least drop the weekly raid lockouts for content that is over 12 years old at this point.
At least World of Warcraft Shadowlands isn’t bad like BFA was, but it also doesn’t add a ton new to the game either. It’s still WoW and even some of the fun diversions that used to be in the game are straight up gone. Frankly, if you’re a die-hard player, you already have this expansion and have plowed through most of it. If you’re more casual though, I’d wait six months or so until there are multiple raids to do and they’ve started adding in material boosters, like they always do, just so the grind isn’t as bad.