World of Warcraft Shadowlands Review

Is Shadowlands the start of a new golden age for World of Warcraft or Blizzard's most ambitious false start? Here's our review...

World of Warcraft Shadowlands Review
Photo: Blizzard

After the launch of World of Warcraft Classic, the perceived downfall of the Battle for Azeroth expansion, and a notable delay, World of Warcraft: Shadowlands is finally here.

The release of a new WoW expansion comes with a level of anticipation, dread, and curiosity that we don’t typically see in expansions to other live service games. Chalk that up to both the extensive nature of WoW‘s content offerings and the fact that every expansion writes the opening pages to a new chapter in a legendary MMO that has revolutionized the genre (and gaming) for over 16 years.

That being the case, reviewing a new WoW expansion is also a somewhat unusual process. Each new WoW expansion features a campaign to work your way through along with a variety of endgame content that typically isn’t even available when the expansion launches. That’s why we’ve broken our review of Shadowlands down into looks at the expansion’s leveling and endgame in order to tell you whether it is worth losing your free time to.

World of Warcraft Shadowlands Leveling Review

By the end of World of Warcraft‘s last expansion, Battle for Azeroth, the usual fatigue that accompanies the final days of a WoW expansion was amplified by the belief that Blizzard was no longer in control of its 16-year-old MMORPG giant. There were some players who felt that Activision’s influence on Blizzard had corrupted the company’s spirit. Others who had just gotten a taste of World of Warcraft Classic bemoaned the loss of the social elements that had once defined the game. There was a general feeling that Blizzard was doing all it could to keep WoW afloat while longtime fans were impatiently waiting for the MMO to embark upon its next great adventure.

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In many ways, Blizzard wants Shadowlands to be that great adventure. More importantly, the studio seems to want Shadowlands to be the expansion that helps reset WoW and wipes away some of the mistakes that the team has made in recent years. After hours of playing Shadowlands, it seems the expansion is on track to do just that, even as the ghosts of the past decisions threaten to drag the MMO back down into a void of complacency.

Shadowlands makes a good first impression. Shortly after starting the expansion’s primary questline, you’re thrown into The Maw, a kind of uber-Hell where the worst of the worst go when they die. The problem is that it seems every soul has been sent to The Maw recently, which has allowed the realm’s ruler, a Thanos-like creature known as The Jailer, to build an army of the damned. With help from the recently crowned Lich Queen, Sylvanas Windrunner, The Jailer plans to use this army to take over all the realms of the Shadowlands and Azeroth as well.

This setup is a simple, but effective way to not only introduce players to the lore of Shadowlands but to once again put all players under the thumb of a universal threat. You will miss out on many, many bits of lore by hopping into Shadowlands without knowing anything about the history of World of Warcraft mythology, but it’s easy enough to understand and enjoy the standalone plot that Shadowlands offers.

More importantly, the entire Shadowlands concept seems to have brought out the best of the game’s talented artists and designers. Each zone in Shadowlands essentially serves as a different version of the afterlife. This idea is beautifully demonstrated by Shadowlands’ starting zone, Bastion, which is a kind of an Elysian Fields version of the afterlife where angelic figures roam fields of wheat. It stands in stark contrast to the next zone, Maldraxxus, where necromancers train the souls of the damned as well as warriors who refused to stop fighting even in death.

It’s entirely possible to enjoy your time in World of Warcraft without diving into the story or lore, but it’s a testament to the design of Shadowlands‘ worlds that the lore is built into every corner of each new zone in such a way that you end up appreciating what the team has built even if you skip every line of dialogue en route to the endgame.

Yet, the biggest highlight in Shadowlands is the level squish. Blizzard’s decision to reduce the level cap from 120 to 60 not only helps the game feel much more approachable for new players (even if the leveling time is about the same) but also ensures that reaching a new level feels more significant. While vital talent points are only acquired every five levels from level 15 on, each new level typically rewards you with some kind of new skill or dungeon to explore.

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While I leveled my first Shadowlands character (a Shadow Priest) to 50 during the expansion’s pre-patch period, the journey from 50-60 was made that much better by the Shadowlands‘ combination of largely exceptional world design and the fact that there was something new to explore with each new “ding.” Shadowlands offers a nearly universal leveling experience for first-time level 50-60 players, and the expansion’s campaign does a fairly good job of making that progression relatively painless. I especially enjoyed the way the game now clearly marks campaign quests and side quests, making it that much easier for players to reach 60 as fast as possible.

Release Date: Nov. 23, 2020
Platform: PC
Developer: Blizzard
Publisher: Blizzard

That may sound like an odd bit of praise for those out of the loop or anyone who hasn’t played WoW since its early days, but the truth of the matter is that WoW just isn’t about the leveling experience anymore. Blizzard has done everything reasonably in its power to make the journey from 1-60 as efficient as possible. As someone who really got into WoW with the release of Classic, there’s a part of me that is always going to miss the idea that the journey to the level cap should be this epic adventure filled with leveling zones, dungeon runs, and a slow but steady mastery of your character’s abilities and equipment. I suspect there’s a happier middle-ground between modern WoW leveling and WoW Classic leveling, but if you accept that Shadowlands leveling is just meant to be a narrative-driven prelude to the endgame, then it’s a lot easier to appreciate the campaign the team has designed.

That being said, there are some aspects of Shadowland‘s leveling experience that simply do not work. Quests remain one of the game’s biggest issues. World of Warcraft quests have always been somewhat infamous for their simplicity (many of the WoW Classic quests really do boil down to “Collect X Item”), but Blizzard has tried to make the questing process more enjoyable in recent years by creating tighter questline narratives and ensuring you have to travel shorter distances between objectives.

All of that makes questing more efficient, but little of it makes questing more interesting. Most quests follow the same basic tropes and are easy enough to complete without any help from friends or other players. That last part is especially disappointing as the release of a new expansion should be the best time to embraces the benefits of an influx in players. Instead, I’m often left running around working through the same basic skill rotation to complete a similar series of quests by myself.

This is where dungeons should come in to help break up the monotony, but they’re kind of in a weird spot at the moment. I love the design of the Shadowlands dungeons I’ve queued into so far from both a thematic and gameplay standpoint, but they’re just not designed to be woven into the leveling experience quite in the same way that they were in the past. You don’t really “need” to run dungeons until you’re grinding for better gear in the late game. That approach removes a golden opportunity to capitalize on the “massively multiplayer” element of a massively multiplayer online role-playing game.

Thankfully, the role-playing portion of the experience fares pretty well. I’ve already praised Shadowlands‘ story and world-building, but so far, I’m also happy with how Blizzard has balanced the various characters and races. Yes, some classes will offer a statistical advantage over others, but that’s unavoidable. What’s impressive is that you get the feeling you can truly play Shadowlands as any class/race/specialization combination you choose and not have to worry about being ousted by other players until you get into high-end raiding. Time (and the growth of Shadowlands‘ PvP scene) will reveal just how balanced Shadowlands really is, but what’s important right now is that most classes feel like they have some semblance of identity and are not so unbalanced that you need to prioritize anything but your role-playing preferences.

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Battle for Azeroth‘s problem wasn’t necessarily its leveling experience (it actually featured a strong narrative and some great zones), but if we treat the journey to the level cap as a guided campaign, I generally feel that Shadowlands is a stronger expansion overall due to its level squish and better overall world building.

With the release of Shadowlands, Blizzard seems to have rescued WoW from some really rocky waters. Now, we just have to hope the team uses its considerable resources to do more than just stay adrift.

World of Warcraft Shadowlands Endgame Review

For quite some time now, the mainstream perception of WoW’s success has been tied to the idea of the game recapturing its “glory days.” While that idea absolutely applies to players’ personal definitions of the game’s golden era, it’s also based on the belief that WoW’s success will always be based on how close its subscriber count is to the game’s peak metrics. 

Truth be told, I’m not sure WoW will ever recapture its peak subscriber numbers. Gaming, the internet, and entertainment culture at large have just changed too much since then. In lieu of that pursuit, Shadowlands focuses on something that recent WoW expansions have sometimes ignored: making the fans who already play the MMO the most as happy as possible. 

The most obvious examples of the expansion’s success in that respect can be found in Shadowlands‘ endgame. WoW has been all about the endgame for quite some time now, but recent expansions (most notably, Battle for Azeroth) have botched the endgame somewhat by emphasizing fundamentally unenjoyable content grinds and resources designed to keep the carrot constantly out of reach rather than emphasize the thrill of the pursuit. 

For the most part, Shadowlands avoids those mistakes. This expansion’s endgame content is much more focused on offering narrative-driven pursuits that feel far more dynamic than BfA’s Island Expeditions and the other ways that it required you to grind for gear and resources.

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Any discussions of Shadowlands’ success in that respect has to start with the expansion’s covenant system. When you hit level 60 for the first time, you’ll be able to join one of four covenants. Not only did you get to know each covenant throughout the course of the expansion’s campaign (which adds some welcome weight to your decision) but each covenant offers you unique abilities based on your chosen class.

This is where Blizzard pulled off a minor miracle. It would have been easy for every covenant to offer a strictly best ability that all players immediately went for, but for the most part, most classes will have to choose between multiple viable abilities that are situationally valuable. Not only does this make character-building far more dynamic, but the viability of multiple covenants adds much-needed variety to the game’s sometimes muted role-playing atmosphere.

The benefits of covenants don’t stop after you’ve acquired your abilities, though. Each covenant offers an array of unique pursuits and expanded character building options that ensure the growth of your character doesn’t end when your talent points run out. It’s honestly reasonable to suggest that some players might choose their covenants based on the visual appeal of the gear they offer, which characters they want to hang out with the most, or the unique endgame mechanic each offers, and Shadowlands’ endgame happens to be dynamic enough to ensure those players won’t feel like they’ve been abandoned just because they sacrificed a few percentage points in specific categories.

Shadowlands’ Torghast dungeon is absolutely a big part of the reason why WoW’s endgame enjoyability is no longer as dependant on raids, dungeons, PvP, and other “hardcore” content that requires strict optimization at all times. We’ve talked about this dungeon extensively in the past, but it’s essentially WoW’s take on a roguelike. It offers a nearly infinite level of content that sees you climb the tower, acquire incredible new powers along the way, and fight your way through a series of randomized rooms and bosses. 

Torghast offers a compelling reason to keep logging into WoW even if you largely consider yourself a solo player. The dungeon taps into the chaotic joy of the best roguelikes without being so random that it leaves you feeling like your success is entirely dependent on luck. It asks players to have a pretty firm grasp on their class but doesn’t leave you feeling like your mistakes are going to ruin the experience of your fellow players. Even better, Torghast runs reward you with one of the key resources needed to craft legendary gear. That means that some of the best gear in the game is no longer limited to those who want to endlessly run some of the most stressful high-end dungeons and raids. 

We knew that Torghast was going to be a thrilling addition to the game, but one of the more pleasant surprises of the expansion so far has been the zone that Torghast is located in: The Maw.

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Essentially a version of hell where the worst of the worst go, The Maw offers a somewhat unique endgame zone filled with dangerous bosses, challenging enemies, and a GTA-like wanted system that limits how much time you can safely spend in the area each day. It’s not quite the endless content farm it aspires to be, but it’s great to have an area of the game that always feels dangerous no matter how strong your character is. 

If there’s one potential shortcoming in Shadowlands’ endgame for more solo-minded players (or anyone else for that matter) it’s the Anima system. While the expansion’s new resource isn’t nearly as annoyingly necessary as BfA’s Azerite, unlocking some of the more impactful endgame perks will require you to grind for it. At the moment, the Anima grind is largely an excuse to keep up with the various world quests and other opportunities to add to your covenant’s reservoir. 

The presence of resources such as this (and your reputation with various factions) is quickly entering “necessary evil” territory as Blizzard continues to rely on them as the best way to incentivize players to return and participate in the slow pursuit of progress. It’s an acceptable enough mechanic in that respect, but endlessly repeating the same basic world quests in the hunt for more Anima just isn’t the most satisfying way to spend your time. 

Of course, you could always grind for Anima, gear, and other resources via Shadowlands’ party-based content. Yes, there’s an intimidation factor that comes with running Shadowlands’ more challenging group content, but so far as the design of that group content goes, this expansion hits its marks. Shadowlands’ dungeons are clever, distinctive, and pleasantly challenging. 

Actually, the difficulty of the game’s recently released first raid (Castle Nathria) has even surprised some veteran players. The raid’s Mythic difficulty is appropriately daunting, but even completing it on Normal and Heroic difficulties requires quite a bit of coordination and personal responsibility. 

There’s a general feeling that the difficulty bump we’ve seen so far in Shadowlands will be welcomed by the players who participate in that style of content the most. There’s a complicated discussion to be had regarding whether or not it’s valuable for Blizzard to tune all of WoW’s content to appease hardcore players, but the emphasis on making inherently “deep” content more challenging seems to have paid off so far. 

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Shadowlands’ PvP system benefits from a similar philosophy. The return of PvP vendors means that competitive players will receive PvE viable rewards that include some truly incredible gear and items. While that may annoy those who aren’t interested in competitive content, this is another example of Blizzard seemingly conceding to the idea that it’s better to please the players who are already interested in this style of content rather than try to accommodate those who perhaps aren’t. 

While I haven’t had the chance to play much PvP content in Shadowlands, I’ve heard good things from those who have spent quite a bit of time with it in terms of the current balance. For that matter, Shadowlands’ endgame class/spec balance seems to be in a fairly healthy place even if there’s always work to be done. 

The bottom line is that Shadowlands offers more reasons to log-in each day and makes the daily WoW experience far more enjoyable than it has been in recent years. We’ve danced to this tune before, though, and we know that the real test will be how Shadowlands feels six months or a year for now. 

Such as it is, though, Shadowlands’ endgame content offers such a massive improvement over BfA that you’re actually hearing longtime WoW players sound excited about playing the game again. That’s an accomplishment in and of itself, even if it sometimes feels like Blizzard is still working on what the ideal modern WoW experience really looks like.

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4 out of 5