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World of Warcraft: Shadowlands feels like Battle for Azeroth - so far

So far, WoW's latest expansion plays like a Battle for Azeroth zone with a fresh coat of paint

The problem with the BlizzCon 2019 demo of World of Warcraft: Shadowlands is that it shows nothing of what players really want to see.

We’ve learned very little of the events leading to our coming ascent into the afterlife, or of what the heck is up with Sylvanas, the controversial leader of the Horde who for some reason enables it. We’ve seen nothing of the brutal lands around the Maw, or of Torghast (the Tower of the Damned). Further details are also still pending on the promised new character customisation options, including more racially diverse human faces, or of the new and returning abilities that’ll come with the level squish and reworking of talent trees.

Instead, I got to try a small snippet of gameplay in Bastion, one of the expansion’s new zones, which offers some teasing hints for the future. There isn’t currently a WoW Shadowlands release date, but as someone who’s typically pretty good about predicting the launch dates of new expansions – I broke the original release date of World of Warcraft when it launched, in fact – I’m going to make my guess public now: August 25, about two years after the launch date of the most recent expansion, World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth. While there is still a ton of development to be done, things should be moving right along.

Unfortunately, the demo doesn’t show much of that hard work. I make myself a hunter in Bastion, one of four new linear zones in the expansion, and am instantly surrounded by pleasant, angelic scenery. Paladins will feel right at home here. The locals tell me to take my time, it’s fine to rest, this being the afterlife and all. In a way it reminds me of Mists of Pandaria, in which pandas were forever telling me to “slow dowwwn,” and that makes me giggle. The scenery is a minor upgrade on Battle for Azeroth, with high grass showing some fun lighting effects and dramatic magical sparks rising off of the braziers around town.

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NPCs are shiny blue humanoid Kyrians (please let them not be an allied race, we have too many humans and blue people already) and golden owl-people called Stewards, who seem to spend much of their time hammering things or carrying other things in their wings with amusing ineptitude. The quests in the zone are very familiar – kill things, collect things – and while the scenery is lovely, I’m truly not seeing much that’s new here except the monster models, some of which share the dramatic blue-glowing Anima effect with the pre-order mount.

The demo starts you at level 50, with the new level cap at 60. The gear I’m getting is level 350, but my health and damage seem a little small even for that low item level, so it’s possible that there’s also an item level or stats squish in the new expansion. Killing things is easy, but I deliberately die to see the new death animation, which is fairly impressive: a massive swirl of white light and magical haze before you turn into a new spirit form, a sort of ghostly white squiggle with arms and no legs, that you also see wandering the zone. The skies are light clouds, not the oppressive dark swirls after you die on Live. Unfortunately, I still have to run back to my corpse, but it’s a much more-cheerful run, through less greyscale.

Each of the new zones – Bastion, Ardenweald, Revendreth, and Maldraxxus – has a dramatically different look and feel: where Bastion is angelic, Maldraxxus is full of bones and spikes. Your first character must play through them in a set order, but once you’ve done so, you can then pick and choose on your alts. Each zone is governed by a Covenant, and while leveling, you’ll experience abilities that the local Covenant can grant, both in general and for your specific character class. At max level, you choose a Covenant and permanently earn those abilities.

In Bastion, the only such ability I can access is a trap that hurts enemies and causes my shots to ignore line of sight, allowing me to hide and still deal damage. Paladins will get to hit everything in the immediate area with their avengers’ shield, and so on. The general abilities are interesting as well; while none are unlockable in the demo, one propels you forward and reduces your aggro radius at the same time, allowing you to scoot past enemies without fighting them. They work like Garrison abilities in Warlords of Draenor, popping up on screen as an extra action button that you can put on your hotbar.

This demo is just a tiny piece of what we’ve been promised in Shadowlands. It feels smooth, but so far I don’t feel like I’ve played anything much more than just another Battle for Azeroth zone.

That’s a bit concerning, with what I’m guessing is around nine months to go; I’d like to see a short demo of Torghast, which promises a roguelike infinite battle experience, for example. But while the BlizzCon demo hasn’t shown us the real meat of Shadowlands, it hasn’t done anything to shake my excitement, either – the storyline and concepts in the new expansion are cause for continued optimism.