It would have been easy for World of Warcraft: Shadowlands to buckle under the weight of the content it’s tackling. From top to bottom – whether it be an ambitious story direction that involves many iconic characters or the gritty mechanical reboot of the game’s leveling system – Shadowlands is about one thing: change. Blizzard’s MMORPG has been running for 16 years and counting, and over time it has evolved through different iterations of both the gameplay experience and the world it inhabits. Change necessitated, at least for some, the existence of World of Warcraft: Classic, and the alterations Shadowlands makes to the DNA of one of the most important online experiences ever created are big enough in scope they mark a similar departure from expectation.
Instead of crumbling under the pressure of its own conceit, however, Shadowlands thrives. It’s a reinvigorated World of Warcraft that players will be engaged with following the expansion, and it feels like an addition that’s still teeming with promise even after adventurers have become accustomed to its sweeping changes. While some of World of Warcraft: Shadowlands does struggle, most of these issues are broad problems that most games never have to worry about – how does a developer “properly” treat a character who is now older than some of the game’s player base? – and the rest of the expansion is enthralling. All in all, World of Warcraft: Shadowlands avoids the pitfalls of recent expansions and, amidst a turbulent shift in design philosophy, manages to re-establish the game as one well-worth sinking dozens of hours into.
For those who haven’t kept up with the story of World of Warcraft (a tall task for anyone), Shadowlands represents the culmination of Sylvanas Windrunner’s nefarious scheming. Having sundered the veil between the realms of the living and the dead, Azeroth faces perhaps its biggest challenge – more on that later – and, if nothing else, the chance to visit an entirely new landscape, complete with new races, political concerns, and world-building. Some, like the Kyrian, don’t feel particularly innovative given how similar they are to the Vrykul, but others, like the Stewards, are a great addition to World of Warcraft. Similarly, some areas thrive more than others, as Bastion suffers from a particular blandness in its story-telling that feels surprising given how much more engaging areas like Ardenweald and Revendreth.
Given how much attention was paid to the Shadowlands zones ahead of launch, it was something of a surprise to discover that the entire story of World of Warcraft: Shadowlands is essentially linear. Players are funneled through zones without being able to choose which one to start in, which means Bastion is the jumping-off point for everyone, regardless of their interest in boring blue angels. While the decision to put players on rails stands in stark contrast to how previous expansions have approached new content, it works exceptionally well here. The story builds and swells into more interesting beats that are only made possible thanks to the base knowledge established in zones Blizzard knows everyone will visit first. That means that areas later in the game’s arc, like Maldraxxus, don’t need to rehash basic explanations of how the Shadowlands and its central figures work.
Keeping players moving through each zone also makes leveling a smooth experience. Like the World of Warcraft level squish that preceded the expansion, Shadowlands is intent on giving players an easier to follow, more enjoyable progression through content, and it succeeds. Each zone introduces new enemies, new questlines, and an exciting environmental shift just like previous expansions, but they’re designed so much better to build on a player’s knowledge of the game. Enemies have slightly more challenging mechanics, for instance, in zones like Revendreth, while Bastion feels especially friendly in retrospect while players get their sea legs in the realm of the dead.
Quest variation is also key, and Shadowlands balances it perhaps better than any other expansion before it. While the inescapable “slay x wildlife” and fetch quests return – a problem endemic in MMORPGs in general, rather than one located centrally in WoW – they’re broken up by a wide variety of others, and complemented by world quests that serve as natural extensions of what players were already doing. Once again, the decision to make Shadowlands linear has helped make quests more palatable, building relationships not just to the heroes helping an owl-person rebuild their robot but also to the story at large.
Class design also feels like something that has reached a great balancing point in Shadowlands, though that will obviously be tested as players hit end-game and begin grinding through whatever awaits them in the future. In all of the dungeons run along the way to the culmination of the main Shadowlands launch narrative, no class felt dramatically over- or under-powered, resulting in a pleasant experience. It’s likely that won’t hold, as dedicated players are excellent at pushing on the edges of design until something breaks, but at the very least each class has a steady base regardless of where it slots into a certain meta point for competitive content.
More Shadowlands-centric elements, such as the Covenant system, also impress, helping player identity continue to vary beyond just class and talent choices. That being said, there are some pretty clear winners in terms of Covenants at launch, and most players seem content to stick to the few that are best for respective classes. Some work on diversifying Covenants selections or designing more interesting, fun identity developments could go a long way in making the system feel different from previous progression-based elements found over the last several expansions. Covenants do come as a post-leveling experience in Shadowlands the first time around, but it works well, giving subscribers even more incentive to continue playing once the XP bar stops being relevant. Later characters can also jump into Covenants earlier on, which is quite welcome.
Soulbinding gives players more customization even after leveling has finished, further deepening options for min-maxers and theorycrafters.Torghast also adds a new spin on World of Warcraft content, and what’s there is interesting, though it’s unclear what kind of longevity is present for the structure as a long-term implementation.
Torghast is a weird hybrid between a deckbuilding game and a traditional WoW dungeon run with some other influences sprinkled in for good measure, and at first blush it’s fascinating. Theorycrafting on the fly which buffs make the most sense for a character and watching them stack in a satisfying way when they’re implemented well is a different sort of rewarding, and any variation to end-game or gameplay pursuits in Shadowlands is welcome, helping to break up the usual smattering of reputation grinds and optimal itemization.
Unsurprisingly, World of Warcraft: Shadowlands is gorgeous and has a soundtrack backing it up that’s equally compelling. Between the Afterlives animated series and the lo-fi remixes of the game’s music, it was pretty much assumed the expansion would deliver on some excellent visuals and sounds, and Shadowlands doesn’t disappoint. The vivids of Bastion and Ardenweald balance the dreariness of Maldraxxus and the gloom of Revendreth wonderfully, and new characters ooze the same kind of personality and charm as the zones that spawn them.
If there are any flaws in World of Warcraft: Shadowlands, they’re mostly ones that existed prior to its launch and seem to be divisive no matter how they’re handled. Some people adore the direction World of Warcraft has headed with accessibility, and Shadowlands is more of the same. That comes at the expense of any real challenges during leveling – even quests that suggest 3 players to complete can be done with 2 quite easily, for instance – and an end-game that still feels like it’s missing an identity. That’s not an indictment of Shadowlands‘ post-leveling experience by any means, but something that needs to be monitored as Blizzard builds upon a solid end-game foundation and defines what will come with Shadowlands patches and content updates now that the expansion is live.
Truth be told, it always feels a little too much like predicting the future when discussing end-game during an MMORPG expansion’s launch. There are too many variables to consider, let alone the fact that player feedback tends to shape post-launch plans and change what already existed on top of that. Setting that aside, the core experience of World of Warcraft: Shadowlands is one that recaptures the allure of Wrath of the Lich King while preserving the accessibility of Battle for Azeroth. With so many gigantic changes to the way World of Warcraft is experienced, Shadowlands feels like the perfect jumping off point for returning fans, new players, and veterans alike. If nothing else, World of Warcraft: Shadowlands is immensely fun. Go play it and figure out the rest later.
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World of Warcraft: Shadowlands is available now. Screen Rant was provided with an Epic Edition code and an additional 30 days of game time for the purpose of this review.
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