World of Warcraft Shadowlands review: Fresh locales and long-tail appeal trump narrative niceties
- 04 December, 2020 16:56
The eighth expansion pack for Blizzard’s popular MMORPG doesn’t have the sweeping tone of 2016’s Legion nor the subtle character of something like 2018’s Battle for Azeroth. Nevertheless, Shadowlands manages to build nicely on the latter’s shift towards making World of Warcraft a more modern online gaming experience.
In line with previous expansions, Shadowlands brings with it new lands to explore, quests to complete, dungeons to traverse and factions with which your character can curry favor. It doesn’t introduce any new races or classes but it does bring with it the most significant improvements to the leveling experience since 2010’s Cataclysm.
The level-crunch, a redesigned on-boarding experience, the ability to level alts through previous expansion storylines and the option to fast-forward straight into Shadowlands’ more diverse endgame progression (once you’ve completed the main story content with one character) set the stage nicely for an post-campaign experience with long-tail appeal.
Following her ousting from the Horde at the conclusion of Battle for Azeroth, Sylvanas Windrunner tears open the invisible walls separating the worlds of the living and the dead.
Shortly following this, the leaders of Azeroth’s two political superpowers are abducted by a new and mysterious adversary known as the Jailer and imprisoned within the purgatory-like Maw.
After your initial head-on assault of the Jailer’s realm predictably fails, you’re tasked with recruiting new allies and bringing order to the four different playable afterlives of the Shadowlands. Each of these realms has a very distinct vibe, from the idyllic hillsides of Bastion to the gloomy spires of Revendreth.
In earlier expansions, Blizzard would usually emphasize the broader aesthetics and themes that tied each new zone together into one cohesive whole. Here, that’s less the case.
Revendreth, Ardenweald, Bastion and Maldraxxus all feel like they could be the focus of their own respective expansions. They feel visually and tonally distinct in a way that goes beyond even the diverse environs of The Burning Crusade’s Outland.
It should be said that after the last few expansions having tied up with long-running plot threads like Sargeras, Queen Azshara and The Old Gods, it’s a refreshing change to feel like the Warcraft universe is getting bigger rather than smaller. Blizzard have previously suggested that there are “infinite afterlives” in the Shadowlands and that these are just the four story-relevant realms the expansion focuses on, so it’ll be very interesting to see if other realms are added into the mix later down the line.
Despite the high-concept pitch of a WoW expansion where you traverse these various afterlives, Shadowlands often feels less like Flatliners and more like Magic: The Gathering. It feels like Blizzard have taken the concept of infinite afterlives as a license to really go wild and bring to life new locations, characters and mechanics that might be difficult to squeeze into the otherwise already-dense setting of Azeroth.
To Blizzard’s credit, this approach yields a narrower but more distinctive experience. As an expansion, it doesn’t feel like Shadowlands is as packed with new locations as its most-immediate predecessor but what’s here does feel more memorable. It certainly helps that there’s a lot more voice-acting this time around. Or, at least, it feels like that’s the case.
Alongside aesthetics, Blizzard have also invested time and resources into giving Revendreth, Ardenweald, Bastion and Maldraxxus tangible mechanical differences. In the same way that the mechanics of each playable class in the game look to embody different fantasy archetypes, each of the expansion’s four major regions gives players new tools, abilities and systems to tinker with that reflect their respective style.
As you level through each zone in Shadowlands, you’ll unlock new abilities that are tied to it and stratified by your class. Leveling a rogue through Maldraxxus will teach you a few new tricks. Doing the same with a druid or warrior will net you different results. Depending on which faction you ultimately team up with as part of the expansion’s endgame determines which of these new abilities you get to keep, which helps make them feel like more than just a temporary riff on the same old formula.
Unfortunately, having now sunk about thirty hours into Shadowlands, the narrative remains one of my biggest bugbears. It’s often frustratingly fragmented and irritatingly inconclusive. The Jailer feels critically underdeveloped as an antagonist, Sylvanas herself is missing in action and few of the new characters introduced here leave all that much of an impression.
Putting aside the metaphysical quandaries that traversing the realm of the dead implies, the story that’s told over the course of Shadowlands doesn’t so much span the different afterlives of Azeroth as it does tour them. The stories of some zones are interlinked. Others are more standalone or connected to previous Warcraft plot threads. As you might expect, Blizzard even uses the narrative hook of this particular expansion to bring back a number of deceased fan favorites - only to do nothing particularly interesting with them.
What’s more, a lot of the major storylines in Shadowlands are either left outright unresolved by the base expansion quest chain or gated behind endgame grinds. As a result, it feels like the initial stretch of the Shadowlands era ends with a whimper rather than a bang. Even compared to past expansions or something like Destiny 2: Beyond Light (which also has to walk the line between providing a decent narrative arc and leaving the door open for future stories to be told), the narrative throughline of Shadowlands comes across as feeble and incomplete.
It’s equally disheartening to see Blizzard move away from the world-state driven storytelling they explored in the Battle for Azeroth era. Sure, the focus right now should naturally rest on the new zones but given how they’ve retooled the leveling experience, it’s a shame they haven’t tried to lean into the notion of Azeroth as a dynamic and changing world (a la Fortnite) more.
The End Is Nigh
The real kicker here is that, narrative aside, the way that the long-tail endgame for Shadowlands is structured is genuinely really compelling.
Rather than funnel all players towards the same destination, Blizzard lets you choose which of the game’s four Covenants you want to throw your lot in with. As mentioned above, your choice in Covenant nets you new class-specific abilities. It also scores you unique companions (who can be leveled up and customised through a skill tree-like Soulbinding system and sent on missions), the ability to customise the stronghold-like Sanctum for your Covenant, dungeon and zone-specific shortcuts, a bevy of faction-specific quests plus a unique endgame activity.
Shadowlands also includes eight new PVE dungeons, one new raid (which is slated to unlock in a few weeks time) and a nifty new addition to the formula in the form of Torghast.
A dungeon-like experience that scales in difficulty to match the number of players, Torghast promises a rogue-like experience that changes every time you attempt it. The pay-off for doing so however is that you’ll be able to craft your own legendary items using the new rune-crafting system. I wish that Torghast was a little more skewed towards embracing the over-the-top experience that you get from roguelike games like Hades and Dead Cells than it currently is but it’s a fascinating add nevertheless.
Finally, the new Threads of Fate system lets you skip right to this stuff once you’ve completed the main campaign content in Shadowlands with at least one character. Instead of leveling from 50 to 60 through the same cut-scene heavy story-driven quest content, you’re able to do so by completing Covenant content - which makes the idea of investing time into each of the expansion’s four different endgames a little more palatable.
The Bottom Line
Even if the main plot falls short of the bombastic storytelling found in Battle for Azeroth, Shadowlands manages to modernise playing WoW in ways that feel meaningful and better. The foundations here haven’t changed but the experience upon which they’re built feels informed by a desire to not just steal away your time but to try and make it feel like time well spent.
With age comes wisdom and while World of Warcraft is almost old enough to legally drink, the willingness of Blizzard to try new things and take the fiction to new places with Shadowlands lends credence to the idea that youth is a state of mind.
World of Warcraft: Shadowlands is available on PC and Mac now.