World of Warcraft Shadowlands Alpha: Hands-on with the Next Big Expansion

We went hands-on with the World of Warcraft: Shadowlands alpha. Read our thoughts on the new Bastion zone, the Covenant system, a new dungeon, and all the changes coming to the game!

World of Warcraft: Shadowlands Alpha
Photo: Blizzard Entertainment

The Alpha for World of Warcraft: Shadowlands is live and Den of Geek had an opportunity to check out the long-running MMO’s upcoming expansion. We visited the Bastion zone, the Necrotic Wake dungeon, and saw first-hand the upcoming class and gameplay changes, and we’ll have additional coverage in the coming weeks as Blizzard continues to release new Alpha and Beta content.

When Battle for Azeroth launched in August 2018, the game had some positive things going for it. Blizzard’s art and music teams had once again knocked it out of the park, and the story leading up to the release included one of the biggest events in World of Warcraft history, with Horde Warchief Slyvannas Windrunner burning the Alliance city of Darnassus to the ground. Players went into Battle for Azeroth excited to see what would happen next.

But there was also some discontent and what started as a concerned murmur eventually turned into a loud chorus of upset and dissatisfied players in the weeks after launch. Some in the World of Warcraft community thought Blizzard had rushed Battle for Azeroth’s alpha and beta testing periods and that many features, most notably the game’s new Azerite trait gearing system, had arrived half-baked.

Blizzard devs essentially admitted that Azerite gear and the Heart of Azeroth artifact neck had issues and tried revamping things multiple times, including a full rework in patch 8.2. Those revamps quieted at least some of the online chatter, but there was also a sense that for many players, the damage had been done. While Battle for Azeroth isn’t all bad, you only have to read the game’s official forums, the World of Warcraft subreddit, or the comments underneath World of Warcraft videos to see that Battle for Azeroth is not a beloved expansion.

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It’s against this backdrop that the Alpha for Shadowlands released last week. To Blizzard’s credit, game director Ion Hazzikostas confirmed in a blog post released before the Alpha went live that he and Blizzard were committing to a more robust testing period this time around.

“One of our main lessons learned from past expansions is the vital importance of carving out a large window in our alpha and beta for feedback and iteration on these endgame systems,” Hazzikostas wrote.

Blizzard has a long way to go if it wants to prove that Shadowlands will be more like the fan-favorite Legion expansion as opposed to Battle for Azeroth, but from what we’ve seen so far, it does feel like the game could be back on the right track.

One of the Most Beautiful Zones in WoW History

Let’s get this out of the way: Bastion is absolutely gorgeous and offers an aesthetic that really hasn’t been seen before in World of Warcraft’s 15-year run. Bastion is one of five outdoor zones (six, if you include Oribos, The Eternal City hub) that players will quest through in Shadowlands and the first zone made available for testing on the Alpha. The zone features the Kyrian Covenant, the closest World of Warcraft will probably ever get to the concept of angels, albeit blue ones that have already inspired more than a few memes about smurfs and the Blue Man Group. The Kyrians are charged with safeguarding souls as they travel to the Shadowlands. If Shadowlands is supposed to be a look at World of Warcraft’s afterlife, then Bastion is clearly World of Warcraft’s version of heaven.

Bastion is simply resplendent. Bright hues dominate the zone and everything from the sky to the straw-colored grass on the ground is heavily detailed. We said before that World of Warcraft’s art team has always been one of the game’s strong points and it’s pretty clear that Shadowlands will be no exception.

Because Shadowlands is supposed to be about Azeroth’s afterlife, the developers have a unique opportunity to reintroduce “dead” characters that we thought we might never see again. Bastion features the return of Uther the Lightbringer, the first Paladin of the Knights of the Silver Hand. 

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Uther was already dead when vanilla World of Warcraft launched in 2004, having been killed by The Lich King Arthas Menethil in Warcraft 3.  Uther did make an appearance in World of Warcraft in the Caverns of Time, which allowed fans to play through a classic Warcraft 3 plot point, but Bastion is our first chance to experience a new Uther story. 

World of Warcraft fan sites have already datamined a number of other returning cast members, including Kael’thas Sunstrider, Ysera, Kel’Thuzad, Lady Vashj, and Hakkar the Soulflayer. If all of this makes you wonder about Arthas, you’re not alone, but so far there’s no evidence of a return for the former Lich King and fan favorite.

We were able to play Bastion’s entire storyline to completion, although a number of cinematics, including a couple we imagine will include Uther, are not yet in the game, so we can’t really spoil anything for you, even if we wanted to. It’s pretty standard World of Warcraft fare though, and a strong start to the expansion’s story. The Bastion storyline leads directly into the Necrotic Wake dungeon, which is conveniently also available for testing.

Bugs and Poorly Tuned Fights, but the Core of a Good Dungeon Is There

When you play through a World of Warcraft alpha, you expect things to get weird sometimes. We mentioned the unfinished cinematics in Bastion, but the Necrotic Wake really drove home the point of just how much of an early state the game is in. We hit a wall early on when the alpha couldn’t find a file it needed to load, so we got stuck at a point between the first and second boss, constantly being disconnected from our session. After tweaking some graphics settings to fix the issue, we were able to complete all four bosses, although not without more than a few wipes thanks to the mostly over-tuned battles.

But looking past the Alpha’s expected headaches, it’s clear that Blizzard’s dungeon design is still top-notch. The game’s Mythic Plus dungeon scaling system has been a big hit with players for a couple of expansions now and has also led to a series of esports competitions, with the best players trying to complete the hardest dungeons as fast as possible.

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The Necrotic Wake offers multiple fights that should put up a good challenge at higher difficulty levels. Our favorite fight is the third boss of the dungeon, Surgeon Stitchflesh. Besides giving off a bit of a Professor Putricide vibe, the Stitchflesh boss fight also offers a familiar combat mechanic that will remind players of Scorpion from Mortal Kombat or Roadhog from Overwatch.

When the battle begins, Surgeon Stitchflesh stands on a platform and is not targetable by players. Players first have to fight an undead abomination down below, but every so often, the undead add will target a player with the “Meathook” ability. Unsurprisingly, Alpha players are already making “Get Over Here!” jokes. I can confirm that it’s already getting old.

The key to the fight is for the player to run over to the Surgeon’s platform when targeted. When the timing and positioning are right, the player can dodge the incoming hook and have the undead add yank Surgeon Stitchflesh off the platform instead, at which point the boss becomes vulnerable to attack. Repeat this a couple of times while killing off new adds and the Surgeon will go down.

My groups have repeatedly run into an issue where sometimes the hook doesn’t yank Surgeon Stitchflesh off the platform, even if it appears to be positioned correctly, but this is hopefully just another Alpha glitch that will be fixed soon. Still, I could definitely see this complex mechanic causing some high-end Mythic Plus groups to fall apart. Get hit by the hook and you die. Fail to position it properly and you won’t be able to hook and damage the boss before another add shows up, leading to a longer fight. But those are exactly the kinds of high stakes that Mythic dungeons are known for, so Shadowlands dungeons are off to a good start, even after only playing through one of them on Normal difficulty.

The Great Un-Pruning of 2020

One of the most common complaints from longtime World of Warcraft players is that the game has been dumbed down too much over the years. One example these players constantly bring up is the way Blizzard removed some abilities from the game because the studio felt there were just too many keybinds and abilities that didn’t serve an important purpose.

A side effect of what the developers have called “pruning” is that classes have started to feel too similar to each other. Spells or abilities that added unique flavor, like a Paladin’s auras, were reworked or tossed entirely and many of today’s players feel like the game’s classes no longer have unique identities.

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The massive positive response to the launch of World of Warcraft Classic last year seems to have caused Blizzard to reassess things. Every class in WoW is being given more buttons to push in Shadowlands and many of those buttons will be baseline, available to a class no matter which specialization they choose. For example, a fire-spec mage can now slow an incoming mob with Frostbolt and all Druids can now boost their group’s movement speed with Stampeding Roar or CC an enemy with Cyclone. The Paladin Aura bar is back and all Rogue specializations can use Poison again.

We’ve tested several different classes so far, and the general feeling is that, even if your basic rotation isn’t changing a ton from Battle for Azeroth, it just feels nice to know you have a little extra utility in your back pocket. The return of some of these abilities will restore that lost class “flavor” to the game while also providing a higher ceiling for particularly skilled players.

Covenants and Player Power

While I’ve been largely impressed with what I’ve seen in-game so far, there was also an out-of-game development this past week that is worth mentioning. One of Shadowlands core features will allow players to choose one of four different Covenants to represent in the end game. The Kyrians of Bastion are one such Covenant and players who choose to join a specific Covenant will eventually unlock special transmog sets and other cosmetic rewards for serving their organization well.

A sticking point among some in the community, though, has been Covenant Class and Signature Abilities. Each Covenant can offer players new buttons to push that are supposed to do something amazing, like letting a Paladin cast either Holy Shock, Avenger’s Shield, or Judgment on multiple targets at once. These are intentionally overpowered abilities that are supposed to feel really good when you use them. 

The problem arises when you consider how some abilities seem to be angled towards specific in-game content. One Covenant might offer an ability that seems good for tanking, while another can offer you something that feels designed for PvP.

Add to this the fact that Blizzard originally said players will be locked into one Covenant once they join, or at least switching back and forth between Covenants will come at a cost and is not ideal. This means that players who want to choose a Covenant because they like their transmog or overall story or vibe might not get the most ideal abilities for their specific spec or game activity. Conversely, players who want to PvP might feel forced to take the Covenant with the better PvP abilities, even if they don’t like that particular Covenant from a story or cosmetic standpoint.

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Players have asked Blizzard to change the system so that player power is not locked behind what is otherwise a cosmetic choice. Blizzard, to its credit, says it is open to discussing the topic but would still like to find a way to make the original vision work. Blizzard wants choosing a Covenant to feel meaningful and offering unique abilities certainly does that. But in a world where more and more players want to “min-max” or be absolutely optimal for their chosen content, the Covenant system as currently designed is causing some concern. It will be interesting to watch this play out as the Alpha continues.

World of Warcraft: Shadowlands is set to release later this year.