Reviews

Out of the shadows and into the light — World of Warcraft: Shadowlands Review

World of Warcraft is a game that has been around so long that if you’re a PC gamer, you or someone you know has played it at one point. For me, World of Warcraft will always hold a place in my heart as I began playing within its first few months of release. I leveled back in the days of the initial release, which nostalgic fans can now experience with Classic WoW. I also had the opportunity to be in one of the top raiding guilds during both Vanilla and its first expansion Burning Crusade.

Through the years I’ve taken breaks but have always come back as there is something about World of Warcraft that I haven’t found in any other game. As a husband and father, I do not have near the time that I used to dedicate to raid, but World of Warcraft has never been better for people with all kinds of schedules.

World of Warcraft: Shadowlands is a game that had very high expectations. While people were initially excited for Battle for Azeroth, they were quickly met with systems that didn’t work well together and balancing that was never quite right. On top of that, everything was rushed and the fun that people had in Legion was gone. With Shadowlands, many of these problems were fixed, and the promises left many with high hopes.

We were originally met with a delayed release date, but this release promised to allow balance changes and for the many systems and features to be polished and ready for everyone. Time would tell whether these expectations would be met, though.

Leveling

Unlike any of the recent expansions, Shadowlands changed how you level. Instead of being able to just choose the zone that you wanted to level in and the quests scaling to match your level, the developers returned to a linear campaign with quests in each zone only for certain level ranges. This linear campaign allows players to learn the overarching story of the Shadowlands and understand all the major characters and how the zones are interacting with each other.

In the events leading up to the release, some key leaders from the Alliance and the Horde are kidnapped and we try to find them. To start our adventure, we join Bolvar Fordragon at the top of Ice Crown Citadel. Sylvanas shattered the Helm of Domination and the gateway between Azeroth and the Shadowlands and we use pieces of the helm to gain access to our first zone, The Maw. The Maw is the place where the worst of the worst, the unredeemable souls are supposed to go, but all souls are going here. The Maw is supposed to be inescapable, but we do what we can to find our friends. While not the fire and brimstone that we might picture hell to be, this place definitely doesn’t look like a place we’d want to spend our time as torture and pain look to run rampant.

This initial intro, The Maw takes us through a scenario as we work to find our missing companions and learn about what they have been doing and who is in charge. We rescue Jaina, Thrall, Baine, and Anduin and run into the big bad for this expansion, “The Jailer”. While we don’t know what he is up to fully, we can tell he means trouble and as we all try to escape he captures everyone as we narrowly make it out and land in Oribos, the new main city hub for Shadowlands.

We quickly learn about what has happened and why the Shadowlands need our help and also learn about how special we are to have escaped. The Arbitor, a being in charge of judging which realm each person should go to in the Shadowlands, had something happen to her and now she is dormand and everyone goes to the Maw. We are Maw-walkers and are unlike anyone ever before us, but because of this they believe we can help.

Our first free leveling zone we join is Bastion. This zone is full of light blue and white everywhere you look as mechanical golems and angel like creatures fill the zone. Those of Bastion work to become ascended where they receive their wings and help carry souls from the mortal world to the Shadowlands to be judged. While in the Maw we come across what looks to be these creatures but dark, and as we explore Bastion, we learn more about them. The people of Bastion hold on to their purpose and beliefs, but when people begin to doubt they become corrupt and change from a brilliant white to a dark bluish/purple, a member of the Forsworn.

This zone is full of trees with fruit, beautiful waterfalls and a very mechanical and angelic architecture. If the Maw is a similarity to hell, then Bastion would be a zone similar to what some might think heaven looks like. As we quest through the zone, we learn more about the story and are then attacked by a group of skeletons and abominations. We quickly learn that this group is from Maldraxxus, the next zone we will head to.

As we head to Maldraxxus, we learn that a lot has happened in this zone. What was once a strong zone led by “The Primus”, is now splintered as he is missing and the different houses which make up the zone are splintered as they fight for power and traitors seek to destroy each other. This zone is filled with death and experiments. Everywhere you look you will find either a hideous creature made of bones or other body parts, or pools of slime and plague.

As we head through this zone, we learn more about why we are attacked and seek to find out what happened to The Primus. We are led on this journey by Draka, the former mother of Thrall who died saving her son. When we finally are able to gain access to the Seat of the Primus, we don’t find him but instead are met with a recorded warning from him. He warns us about the Jailer and tells us that to bind the Jailer everyone will need to work together and that the Winter Queen is important. This sends us to our third zone, Ardenweald.

Ardenweald is filled with a vibrant dark blue and purple and emerald green. This is the zone of nature, and it is filled with trees and seeds. Even some creatures we meet and help look like giant trees. In this zone we learn that anima, lifeblood of the Shadowlands, is in short supply as it has been in all zones, and they are having to let more and more of their zone die as they try to keep the souls they can alive. While we’d like to be able to talk to the Winter Queen initially, we must go through many steps to help the zone before she gives us time and begins helping us.

We learn that Ardenweald has been using anima to help keep the jailer chained, but without more anima, these chains may fail and he might finally be released. To go and ask for help and to finish our campaign we are sent to the final zone, Revendreth. Revendreth is led by Sire Denathrius and is everything that you’d think of if I said the words gothic vampire. The architecture and the clothes all shout these influences. As we come, we again are persuaded to help with a situation first and then he will help us.

One quick thing to note is that even if someone were to hit 60 in this zone, if they haven’t completed the campaign fully they have to still go through it to get the full picture. While Denathrius wants us to help we learn that everything may not be as it appears and Denathrius may actually be the bad guy instead of the good guy. We then quickly find evidence to confirm our suspicions and Denathrius reveals that he has been stealing anima from all the zones and breaks them open to release them into the Maw, empowering The Jailer and ending our leveling campaign.

Max Level

Once reaching max level and finishing the leveling story campaign, you are met with a choice. As we leveled throughout the different zones, each of the different covenants shared special powers with you that you were able to try out during the leveling process. Now it’s time to make a covenant choice. While Blizzard intended for every option to be viable and for people to choose purely based on the aesthetic they like, most people will look up a 3rd party website which defines what is best for them so they can be the most effective. My main character has always been a paladin and while Venthyr or the people from Revendreth had the highest damage potential, I instead chose to go with Bastion, which was listed second in damage potential. In this way I did what Blizzard hoped and chose this group because it matched the look I wanted while also looking at the damage implications. While for the most part the differences are minor, there are some cases where not choosing a certain covenant could be as much as a 5% damage loss which could really affect your ability to meet a Mythic+ timer or meet a dps check in a raid encounter.

Thankfully, choosing your covenant isn’t permanent and you can change instantly, but you’ll have to level up your renown, the big overall bar to fill, from scratch. There are many catch up mechanisms in place though to make this change much more manageable. Changing back to one you’ve already been with before though does take some extra steps. Each covenant comes with its own unique armor transmogs, mounts, and pets which add the the already stunning appearance of each choice.

After you’ve finally decided on your covenant, you’ll then be introduced to soul binds and conduits. A soul bind will, as its name suggests, bind you to the soul of someone from your covenant which will grant you special benefits and improvements on the spells that you have or even new powers. In this new tree system there are empty slots that you’ll fill in as you work towards the bottom to complete the tree. These are broken into 3 categories: potency, endurance, and finesse. Potency will enhance abilities to give you more damage and power. Endurance will increase your defensive abilities, and finesse will add extra time or benefits to your utility spells.

These conduits can be found all over the world as they drop from dungeons, raids, and world quests. To help keep these drops relevant, there are different levels of conduits and while you might have the power, there will be an opportunity to make it even stronger by picking up a higher item level version of this conduit. Speaking of world quests, these have changed for Shadowlands as well. Instead of being a quest that can be completed in 2 minutes, the number of world quests has gone down, but they have also made them an optional part of max level content. Instead of needing to grind the Heart of Azeroth level, world quests can just help you grab that conduit you’ve been looking for, get some extra gold, an item, some anima, or some rep. There will be a daily calling which will have you either doing a few world quests in a specific zone, hunting for rares, or even doing a dungeon associated with a zone. Completing these callings will provide some vendor grays which can give you usually over 800 gold, and can give you some conduits or even gear randomly. These are never mandatory though.

What to do

At max level there are now many options, but as mentioned before, the game is at a place where the things you have to do are really limited and even those aren’t mandatory. Each week you can gain on average 2 renown levels which will unlock different parts of your specific covenant campaign and access to other covenant upgrades, a travel network in the zone and even a weekly event that’s themed around your covenant. To gain these 2 renown levels you will be given 2 quests. One will send you to the Maw to help recover some lost souls, and the other wants you to help find 1000 anima and deposit into your covenant’s anima storage. If you happen to miss a week or change covenants and need to catch up, you can gain these levels by just playing the game. Sometimes completing a calling will grant you one of these levels, or even just completing a dungeon. Blizzard has gone out of their way to make this catch up something that you won’t even really have to think about.

The covenant campaign for Kyrian which are the people of Bastion was quite fun. With the introduction of the forsworn which have turned their backs on the Kyrian way, a battle for power is introduced. A fan favorite character, Uther, has been twisted and believes that their way is right. They desire to kill the leader of Bastion, the Archon, and rule for themselves. Through the campaign we work to restore pieces of our sanctum which were destroyed, and build an army to fight back and defend Bastion. I’m looking forward to learning more about how the choices of some key figures will affect the story to come.

There will always be the standard list of dungeons and raids that people can progress through once hitting max level as well. If you have a guild group, you can gear up for the raid, or if you are a more casual player or in a smaller guild, you can do mythic+ dungeons. If you just want to destroy other players, you can always also join in on PVP. All of these work towards the weekly vault, a new system similar to the weekly chest from BFA. However with this new system if you’ve done enough of each type of content you’ll be able to choose what you get instead of getting the same piece of loot 3 weeks in a row that is worthless to you. This really helps with gearing, even if it does take waiting a week each time.

The Maw/Torghast

What was our first entry into Shadowlands is also one of the areas we will head to in the end game as well. In the Maw we meet a broker named Venari, who is actually voiced by the same person that voices Ana in Overwatch. She helps keep us alive while there and also gives quests to collect stygia. This stygia is used to purchase upgrades from her that will help us stay alive longer in the Maw, move around quicker, and get even more powerful in Torghast (more to come on Torghast in a minute). In the Maw you can’t mount without a special mount that you can get by completing some difficult tasks. You are still able to use your movement abilities and the Night Fae soulshape ability really shines in this zone as it will increase your mobility greatly. This means that any help you can get to stay alive is greatly needed. There are many elite mobs in this zone, and dying means you drop some precious stygia that you’ve been working to collect. As you complete more tasks and kill more mobs, the eye of the jailer begins to focus on you and as the ranks increase on this more bad stuff happens to you. Finally, when you reach rank 5 you’ll be forced to leave or die.

The real reason that most people will head into the Maw is access to Torghast. Torghast is a new rogue-lite dungeon that changes every time you queue up for it. When you enter, you’ll be granted a few special powers to choose from. Your goal is to complete 6 different floors and to defeat the final boss on floor 6. To do this you’ll kill various mobs and elites which will have a chance to drop orbs which will grant more powers, or you can break open jars which may contain them. If they don’t have a power though you’ll collect phantasma and the mobs will drop it too. This can be traded in at a broker on floor 3 and 6 to help make you stronger and prepare for that last fight. As you go higher in the floors, the mobs get more difficult and you’ll need to utilize all your powers to survive.

Torghast has a level system which is used to scale the difficulty. You’ll start in level one and once you complete it you’ll have access to level two and so forth until you reach level 8 which is quite difficult. On top of the already changing layout of the floors each time you zone in, Torghast also has 6 different wings and each week players will have access to 2 of them. One might be filled with lava and fire, while another is full of traps and pits to fall in. This makes each adventure into Torghast unique.

Torghast is more than just a place to have fun and play with powers though, as completing the different levels gives soul ash. This soul ash is used by a mysterious creature we meet called the runecarver to help craft legendary gear. The higher item level you want to craft means the more soul ash you’ll need. Each power has multiple slots it can go and using items crafted from professions you can put the exact power that you want on the slot you’ve been looking to upgrade. Many of these powers are blasts from the past as old set bonuses from gear or previous legendary effects. There are some new unique ones though as well. Thankfully, each of these powers has their location listed in-game under the dungeon journal so you’ll know exactly where to go to find it. These powers are located in memories and when we find the memory, we bring them to the runecarver and he is able to craft our legendary.

Thoughts

The look of World of Warcraft hasn’t changed too much recently as while the art and look is beautiful, it’s still in the same universe and the art direction matches this. That is pro for some and a con for others, I personally like the art style and so it doesn’t bother me at all. As I explored Shadowlands, each zone was very distinct and unique. A quick look around would quickly identify what zone you were in, and this was nice. My favorite zones were Bastion and Ardenweald, as these colors and aesthetics are my favorite. Maldraxxus was my least favorite. I do not like all the skulls and bones and on top of that while leveling I had the worst leveling experience in Maldraxxus.

Leveling itself was quite smooth and while the added quirk of having to complete the campaign before being able to move on to end-game was a little annoying, it’s clear to see why they did it. Each of the zones had quests that matched what I’d expect from the zone. As I mentioned, I enjoyed this except Maldraxxus. When you load into this zone, the first quest has you enter this area with these skeletal mages. Whether you’re fighting them or someone else, they begin casting a spell which shoots damage at everyone around them. This would be fine if they were spread out, but they are all very close and quickly you can be taking damage from 5 different mobs that you aren’t even fighting. This odd grouping of mobs and layout shows up multiple times in this zone and was one thing that really put a negative taste in my mouth about the zone.

Shadowlands introduces a new take on alt leveling by giving us “Threads of Fate”, which allows people to level in whatever zone they want, choose their covenant immediately, and no longer needing to do the story quests. While this sounds like the perfect way to quickly level up alts now that you know the story, it is unfortunately slower to level this way than just following the campaign.

Once you’re max level traveling between zones is a bit of a headache as well. Unlike previous expansions, when you could run from zone to zone, each change is made by flying back through Oribos. This means that you’ll have to wait 5 minutes just to head to the next zone if there is a quest you need to get to, unless you’re an engineer then you can get a wormhole generator and teleport instantly. This seems kind of silly that you almost need to be an engineer to be efficient in Shadowlands.

Gearing in Shadowlands can be a little frustrating at times. Battle for Azeroth had the issue of too much loot that was all inconsequential, and Shadowlands sought to make the items more meaningful when you get them. The issue is when you need that one slot such as a trinket or weapon; you are stuck grinding a dungeon over and over and with the reduced drop rate of items you may never get that item to drop. Many players that I have talked to agree that Blizzard has been very stingy with loot this expansion. The weekly vault does help, but waiting a week and hoping to get the item you want is still not the most fun when you’re trying to do something now.

If you only have a little bit of time there isn’t much that you must do, and for those with a lot of time there are plenty of daily quests you can do and can grind to get more gear or push yourself farther in Torghast. As always there are tons of secrets to explore or mounts to get. Many of these have awesome new models and some can even be attained while leveling which makes it even better. The dungeons are quite fun and some are very unique with new mechanics I had never seen before. Torghast is some of the most fun I’ve had playing in years as you feel super overpowered by the time you reach the end of the last floor. To push this fun even further, a wing called twisted corridor opens once you’ve completed some quests, it allows you to explore 18 floors. This makes you feel amazing by the end, and the limits that you might have had on normal Torghast runs are gone. On my most recent run with one buff I had almost 98% chance to critically hit, which felt awesome.

World of Warcraft: Shadowlands feels like the perfect entry point for a new player, as well as a great time to come back if you’ve been gone for years. For being a more casual player, it felt great to come back and not feel overly punished for doing things when I had time. While obviously the best gear will still be for those who spend hours doing mythic raiding or pushing to the highest level keys in mythic+, there is still a large place for the casual players and something that Blizzard has put time and care towards.

For those who have been playing for years, Blizzard has worked to correct their mistakes and continually seek to balance everything. Instead of constantly throwing nerfs at everything, they instead are buffing classes and powers to help push everyone to be as equal as possible. Blizzard desires for you to be viable regardless of what class you want to play and while it will never be perfect, they are closer than they have been in years. With the direction Blizzard is moving, I can’t wait to see what the next patches will bring.

90

Excellent

World of Warcraft: Shadowlands

Review Guidelines

World of Warcraft: Shadowlands is a return to greatness for the franchise. The content is both accessible and fun for all types of players, and the story actually makes you feel like everything you’re doing is helping to save the Shadowlands. Torghast is one of the best features ever added and makes each experience unique and fun. While there are some issues which can slow down the time it takes to get everything you want, the journey there is still enjoyable.

A father of three with a degree in Mathematics, Jason has spent the last 4 years building his passion for tabletop games. With a collection of well over 300 games he spends a night each week with his family introducing them to new concepts and equipping them with problem-solving skills. Jason enjoys a large variety of games but some of his favorite include Architects of the West Kingdom, Blood Rage, and Terraforming Mars.
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