It’s no secret that over the last five years, World of Warcraft has earned a rocky reputation. Warlords of Draenor brought the series to an all-time low, crushing all faith fans had in the developers. Legion did little to restore that faith, and Battle for Azeroth did even worse in that department.
Following the extreme success of World of Warcraft Classic, Shadowlands is a return to form and a way for the developers to regain fans’ trust. Four new covenants, an epic journey through the afterlife, and a brand-new levelling system are just a few reasons World of Warcraft: Shadowlands is the most promising expansion the franchise has seen in years.
A Journey Through Time
World of Warcraft has had a storied history as far as levelling is concerned, and Shadowlands aims to fix that. As part of the fall pre-patch, Blizzard has completely restructured the levelling experience. Adding content to a game 15 years in the making is a task in itself, but making sure that content is also accessible to new players is an entirely different, more challenging undertaking.
Exile’s Reach is a completely optional starting zone that streamlines the new player experience. Whether you’re starting as Horde or Alliance, you’ll be shipped off to Exile’s Reach and begin by killing murlocs and reviving fallen soldiers. While these quests seem mundane, there is nothing more “World of Warcraft” than killing murlocs. The tutorials here are extremely well thought out and some of the most impressive handholding in an MMO I’ve ever experienced. The levelling zone took me through all the MMO staples—healing, looting, group content, role-playing (RP) events, and even a dungeon to cap it all off. The quests seemed natural, as more and more were added without the game becoming too overwhelming. As a veteran of the MMO genre, I often find that games lack proper new player experiences. Many games in MMO assume that all their players have MMO experience, and that leads to an awkward and steep learning curve that’s bound to turn away newcomers. Blizzard looks toward the genre’s shortcomings and repairs them the best it can. The zone took me from Levels 1 to 10, and even though I am not a new player, I will be using Exile’s Reach to level all my alts in the future.
Once players leave Exile’s Reach, they choose which expansion to level in next. This is where I found myself diving into the newly introduced Chromie levelling experience. New players, however, will be forced through the Battle for Azeroth story before being given this option. I quickly moved through the busy streets of a familiar Orgrimmar and found Chromie seated just outside of the Orgrimmar Embassy. Upon speaking with Chromie, I was given the option to choose which expansion I’d like to level in. Opting for Warlords of Draenor, I was immediately thrust back in time and set loose on Warlords of Draenor as if it had just been released. It is as simple as that; choose an expansion, and the game will adjust its level for you. This is a feature that appears insignificant, but I guarantee this will change the industry’s approach to levelling in the future.
Taking The Fight To Hell
Immediately thrust into the Maw, the campaign spends no time holding back its bleak and dreary tone. Shadowlands is an expansion all about life and death, throwing us into their version of hell to start it off, which only seems fitting. The Maw is full of sombre, yet heavily orchestrated music that establishes its tone almost perfectly—this is no Battle for Azeroth.
That isn’t to say that the entire expansion feels bleak and lifeless. Shadowlands shines at giving each of its five new zones a unique, fascinating, thematically different touch. Maldraxxus is full of armies. Reminiscent of Warhammer and heavy music, Bastion is full of whimsy and humanoid owls, Ardenwald is a druid’s paradise full of fae and other fantastical creatures, and Revendreth is our gothic horror-inspired hellscape. Each of these zones has a unique and engaging storyline that will leave you wanting to go back. More importantly, these zone stories introduce you to each of the four covenants, allowing you to prepare for making your major choice at the max level.
Personally, I play World of Warcraft entirely for its endgame, but Shadowlands is a far different experience. In the past, I’d generally find myself only half paying attention while levelling—usually watching Netflix or doing something else on the side. However, with Shadowlands, I was fully engaged through the 10- to-12-hour story, hooked on what each covenant would throw my way next. Once I reached Level 60, I felt content and not exhausted from my journey. I was ready to lock in and start the endgame.
Now We Can Play The Game
Finally, after 20+ hours of levelling, I am ready to finally play the game (no, seriously). The real meat of the expansion comes once you’ve reached max level, and—Maw save me—there is content. The endgame content here is the most diverse I’ve experienced at launch in some time, and honestly, most of it is extremely fun. Long gone are island expeditions and Azerite farming—instead, all hail our new overlords, Torghast and Anima farming!
Hitting 60 is going to be an overwhelming experience and in stark contrast to the handheld campaign I’ve experienced up until now. The endgame is full of currency—an absolute pile of it. Between reputation, grinding, stygia, anima, soul ash, and renown, I had no idea where to start. It all seemed important, but I had no clue where my focus should be directed. I quickly gathered my bearings and set out on my first endgame adventure, Torghast.
Torghast, Tower Of The Damned
Torghast, a completely new one-to-five-player rogue-like dungeon crawl, is some of the best content Blizzard’s put out in years. This dungeon can be tackled solo or with friends, is semi-randomized, and provides players with buffs that can take their character’s power to another level. Torghast is a genius way of letting player characters get overpowered without hindering other aspects of the game. A notable journey through Torghast had my protection paladin breaking close to 100,000 health; I felt like a dungeon boss, and it was incredible. Torghast is the main farming zone for soul ash—a currency required to craft legendary gear. As of writing this review, we are restricted to six layers of Torghast, but this infinitely scaling dungeon has a ton of potential.
One major issue I have with Torghast is that once I received my soul ash for the week, I had no incentive to go back. I mean, I could have gone back just for fun, but with an endgame this diverse and stuffed with content, I couldn’t waste time doing something for no reward. Torghast has the unique opportunity to provide players with transmog items, mounts, and other fun rewards for repeat playthroughs.
Torghast is within the Maw, one of the final grinding areas. The Maw gives off a sense of dread that is not found in the other zones. For every quest you complete, the Jailer draws closer, sending his hordes of undead to hunt you down. This is a fascinating mechanic and brings a new flair to the daily quest zone. However, the risk of venturing out to complete your dailies seems outweighed by the rewards you get for completing them. Rewards such as sockets and memories (legendary add-ons) would have been better had they been included as part of the Covenant Renown system. Instead, what we’re stuck with is yet another currency and the reputation that we’re required to grind to stay competitive.
Five-man dungeons have been a long-standing staple of World of Warcraft’s endgame. Shadowlands brings eight unique dungeons, each of which has its own flair and challenges. Each of the covenant zones has two unique dungeons for players to gear up for and progress through.
The one misfire of this system, to me, is a dungeon called Spires of Ascension. This dungeon, to me, leans too heavily on aspects that are best suited for story missions; it is heavy on story and RP moments. Each of the areas is divided by enormous gaps that require Ascended to carry you from platform to platform. The first time I experienced this, I loved every moment of it; but after the fifth, sixth, and seventh time, it became a chore.
As a competitive person, I’ve always been drawn to raids as my choice of endgame. However, being reliant on 24 other people and dedicating five to eight hours a day simply isn’t realistic anymore. This is where Mythic Plus comes in, a mode created during Legion that has since been expanded upon. Mythic Plus is a timed version of five-man dungeons with new affixes that rotate on a weekly basis. These dungeons are unlocked with a mythic key, and completing a dungeon in time upgrades that key, allowing you to go from a +2 to a +3, +4, and so on.
Mythic Plus is an excellent way to stay competitive while playing casually and not adhering to a raid schedule. The rewards cap out at a +15 key, but you can theoretically climb as high as your gear and skill will allow. All the dungeons except Spires of Ascension lend themselves perfectly to the Mythic Plus system. I foresee Spires of Ascension being one that’s skipped by most players.
Castle Nathria sets players on a journey to take down Sire Denathrius, the creator and leader of Revendreth. After Sire Denathrius floods the Maw with anima from Revendreth, players forge a rebellion and take the fight to Castle Nathria.
Visually, Castle Nathria is jaw-dropping; the gothic aesthetic pleases every horror-loving drop of blood in my body. Within its walls, players encounter horrifying giant bats, hunters capable of controlling, beast-like monstrosities, and even an eerily beautiful vampiric ball. The castle walls filled me with a sense of wonder that I had thought was long dead after my last experience with the Battle of Azeroth.
Castle Nathria’s elegant design is both challenging and fun. I keep comparing it to the Black Temple, not due to its dreadful and depressing vibe, but its encounter design. It feels like a step back to form and a way for Blizzard to tell us they’ve heard the complaints and are going back to their roots.
Currency and reputation are still significant issues in the World of Warcraft endgame. Currencies like stygia, infused rubies, soul ash, grateful offerings, sinstone fragments, anima, renown, and even honor all need to be acquired for players to progress. Most of the systems required to get these currencies are fun and engaging; however, the Maw could use a drastic rework.
Moving forward doesn’t always mean forgetting what got you there. Shadowlands is a fantastic example of taking what works and giving it a modern twist. I can’t wait to dive back into Shadowlands and continue grinding towards my next legendary!