Battle for Azeroth was a tense time for Blizzard and their long-standing premiere title World of Warcraft. The previous WoW expansion was a culmination of many aspects of questionable skinner-box design decisions over years and multiple expansions that bottomed out the player base. I had only ever played World of Warcraft as a 10 year-old during the Burning Crusade, but even I could tell when I came back to the game in Battle for Azeroth that the game had fundamentally changed in a negative way. The game had become over-systematized, ironically recreating the same issues that the systems were meant to unmake in the first place. Instead of having a progressive reward structure, item upgrades could be completely random and extremely powerful, making getting your best-in-slot (BiS) gear almost impossible to actually obtain normally. Perpetual grind systems required you to play as hard and waste as much time as possible to stay competitive, and often, the items you grinded for had random elements such as azerite powers and corruptions that limited their usefulness. This is without even touching the absolutely abysmal and almost insulting narrative about the War Campaign and the Old Gods throughout.
This is all to say that Battle of Azeroth, which released two years ago, was a tense time. But this is a run down of Shadowlands, which came after Azeroth. Did Blizzard recover from their mistakes playing, or fall even deeper into the trappings of poor DLC? Read on for my experience in-game.
Improvements For Leveling
Largely influenced by the surprise demand and success of Classic WoW, Blizzard has come to an understanding that what they thought players wanted was not congruent with their game design, and surprisingly enough, they listened in combating those issues, especially on fundamental levels that change the very basics of the game. First, the revamp of the leveling experience and the squish of level from 120 back to 60 has been one of the best decisions Blizzard has made for the health of the game in a long, long while. WoW has had a consistent problem of luring in new players based on the absolute breadth of gameplay and expansions people had to play through just to get to the “real content” of the current expansion and its end-game. Streamlining it with elements such as a starter zone and tutorial for new players, squished levels, and a consistent leveling scheme- all these changes aren’t just good for the game, they propel it into the future.
Shadowlands itself is a great leveling experience and provides a much more coherent and believable narrative than Battle for Azeroth. Players get to experience the quest to stop The Jailor from executing his master plan to change how death fundamentally works in the Warcraft universe, a plot he has undertaken for so many millennia that his plots and schemes have served as the backdrop for most of the Warcraft Universe’s grand conflicts. Each zone provides insight into the culture of these different stewards of the dead who provide special afterlives in service to continuing the cycle of life and death- a cycle which The Jailor has broken in order to steal souls to power his plan of overthrowing everything. Finally, after reaching max level, players get to choose their covenant and move into the end-game.
Improvements in End-Game
One of WoW’s strange quirks is that, for most players, the “end-game” is the game, and so reaching it for many is the beginning of where most hours and gameplay is spent. Shadowlands has greatly improved on the end-game experience starting with the borrowed power of the expansion, Covenants. After pursuing the different administrative realms of the Shadowlands and escaping The Maw, the player gets to choose one of four covenants: the Kyrian, the Necrolords, the Nightfae and the Venthyr. Instead of having borrowed power centered on random powers attributed to pieces of gear, each covenant grants you two special abilities (one unique to your class, the other unique to the covenant) and a handful of improvements through your conduit upgrades in your soulbind tree (basically a secondary talent tree). With titanforging gone and gear no longer having ten different layer of random elements on it, gearing is a much more streamlined experience, and every upgrade on a piece of gear feels like you’re climbing onto the next rung of the ladder even if the stats aren’t optimized for your class / specialization.
Besides the borrowed power, expansion-specific content is also really well-designed. Instead of getting a Mythic+ chest each week, each primary mode of content (Mythic+, Raiding, PvP) gives you more selections at the Great Vault with the difficulty of content dictating how powerful those gear selections are. This new system allows players to play whatever they want, but also incentivizes them to try new content they aren’t necessarily as comfortable with so they can get additional rewards. While the Maw doesn’t allow you to stay long to enjoy its depressing majesty (also no mounts make Paladin sad D: ), it’s a visually impressive zone and gives the feeling of the Jailor awakening to your presence as you cause more and more mischief in his realm. Torghast, the Tower of the Damned is a great rogue-like addition to the game that simply makes things interesting by changing them up with an interesting form of new content. Dungeons are tighter with fewer mechanics to waste time worrying about and more lethal aspects to savor time worrying about and PvP has finally done away with the awful scaling that used to exist. Gone are the 10-minute duels waiting for dampening to make healing nearly useless- players versus player combat is brutally quick and lethal, and a good player can kill you in near seconds if you step too far out of position. Raiding has become a bit more difficult, but has generally stayed the same high quality that it has been at for awhile (unsurprising considering it’s the selling point of the game.)
Is It Worth?
During Battle for Azeroth I actually recommended people to stay away from WoW because of how inaccessible it was to new and returning players, but Shadowlands I think has not only changed the game for old players but has also greatly incentivised new people to discover the game for the first time in a long time. If you’re an old player frustrated with the design of the game, or a new one who never felt like they could really approach it before, this is one of the best times to get into World of Warcraft. Shadowlands is a beautiful expansion with amazing visuals and audio, and most importantly, lots of long-term changes that have changed the gameplay for the better for a while to come.