What a difference a month makes. Just weeks before it was due to release on October 26, Blizzard announced that Shadowlands, World of Warcraft’s afterlife-themed eighth expansion, would be delayed. It finally launched on November 23 in North America, and while the leveling experience has been gorgeous and layered, albeit with the occasional bug, the endgame is at once engaging and frustrating.
Shadowlands plunges you into World of Warcraft’s afterlife, where you experience zones that centre on the journey undertaken after death. The former Horde leader Sylvanas Windrunner has taken other leaders hostage, and all beings who die are having their spirits channeled through The Maw, formerly the home of only the most evil, irredeemable souls. The various factions and realms of the Shadowlands are reeling from the impact of these changes, and much of the leveling content concerns their infighting and struggles to cope.
You enter the Shadowlands as something new: a mortal, who can escape from the formerly inescapable Maw and unite these factions together.
To prepare for this full review, I’ve leveled two characters to max, done every dungeon on every difficulty a minimum of four times, gathered the materials for my first legendaries, leveled up professions, completed the current floors of the (soon to be) endless dungeon Torghast, and unlocked much of the grim end-game zone of The Maw. I’ve leveled up two Covenant Sanctums, played with mission-table style Adventures, and experimented with the Path of Ascension (for Kyrian faction players) and the Queen’s Conservatory (for Night Fae.) Raiding is not yet available, so we’ll be covering that in a later review.
THE LEVELING EXPERIENCE
Barring a couple of bugs, the overall leveling experience in Shadowlands is almost universally delightful. My leveling experience was likely smoother than it will be for players entering the content later or with a less-prepared group, but the zones themselves – four main areas, aligning with each of the game’s four Covenant factions, plus The Maw – are gorgeous, beautifully drawn and populated, each with its own aesthetic and culture.
truly, Blizzard's art department has knocked my socks off in this expansion
Bastion, the blue-and-gold Elysian Fields-like area where players start questing in earnest, features a compelling storyline about fallen angels and offers a host of mounts, pets, toys, and amusingly themed quests for those who stray off the campaign path. Some of the players in my guild hit level 54-55 just questing here, and it’s easy to see why some folks would want to linger. The landscapes are lush and beautiful – truly, Blizzard’s art department has knocked my socks off in this expansion – and the sympathetic plight of the fallen made this feel like a more nuanced storyline than we often see in WoW.
Maldraxxus, the next zone, sports a completely different look: skulls, poison pools, ooze, abominations, and all things undead. If the undead have a true home anywhere in WoW – and yes, I’m including the undead starting area – it’s this place. No wonder the Necrolord Covenant is here.
It’s death knight central, the aggressive, messy part of the afterlife, and while its themes of honour and glory aren’t as compelling to me as the Bastion line, the quests themselves are interestingly laid out and the mechanics quite novel in some cases. Maldraxxus is the expansion’s only non-linear questing zone, with the option of pursuing multiple pieces of the storyline in different order, which adds a touch of variety.
Getting started? Check out our WoW Shadowlands leveling guide
The third zone is Ardenweald, home to the Night Fae Covenant, and its lush, moonlit forests are at once beautiful and perhaps the most predictable of the four areas. I certainly didn’t mind questing here, and it’s a very pretty area, but it does feel the most familiar from an aesthetic perspective.
It’s the most conveniently arranged of all the zones for questing XP, with a huge density of quests and monsters to kill, and the effect of packing so much activity into its space is to make it feel like the largest zone. The main quest features a well-known character from the lore, and there’s a lot of whimsy to be had in the side quests, so even if you’re not a quest text reader, you might want to make an exception here.
The final zone is Revendreth, home to the vampiric Venthyr Covenant, and I have to admit that while vampires are aesthetically not my thing, this was by far my favourite zone. The sepia landscapes are filled with soaring Gothic architecture, complete with gargoyles and their ilk as NPCs. Such varied and vertiginous topography is made all the more exciting to explore by Goblin Gliders and slow-fall mechanics, assuming you don’t just want to hitch a ride in Revendreth’s amusing horse-drawn carriages to get around.
The characters’ stories here are finely drawn, rivaling Bastion’s in their complexity, and their dialogue is absolutely delicious. The quests are immensely varied and often fun – even Revendreth’s two escort quests manage not to be annoying.
THE MAW – STILL ANNOYING, BUT LESS SO
Bookending the whole experience are trips to The Maw; your introduction to the Warcraft afterlife’s most Hellish realm takes place at level 50, and you return at level 60. Blizzard has spent some of the last month polishing this zone, and that effort is visible in the max-level version. The Maw is supposed to be rough and brutal, the place where the worst souls are tormented forever. It isn’t supposed to be fun. But during testing, Blizzard soon discovered that subjecting players to an unfun area for hours on end wasn’t terribly popular.
So changes have been made. At max level, there are now a host of rare monsters, micro-quest objectives, hijackable mounts (to replace the standard mounts that can’t be summoned here) and other refinements that make it slightly less obnoxious to play through. The Jailer – the big baddie of this expansion – always has his eye on you, and the more you do in The Maw, the closer he’s watching, which means various nasty things. You’ll start getting bombed from the sky, attacked by assassins, and chained to the ground – and surprisingly, a lot of that is actually fairly fun to play around.
I won't say The Maw is actually fun now, but it’s miles better than it was in beta
I’m not going to say the overall experience of The Maw is fun now, but it’s miles better than it was in beta, particularly in a group. A new rare monster even opened up this week to kill for a shot at a permanent Maw mount – if you have the necessary reputation to open that area of the zone, and get lucky with the drop.
I was most worried about the state of Shadowlands’ endgame systems when I started to play. They had been significantly flawed on the beta test servers, and it was largely the state of these maximum-level activities that prompted Blizzard to delay the game.
At level 60, you are thrown into several different paths for improving your character, all of which compete for your time. You must choose a Covenant from the factions that operate in the game’s four main zones. You must upgrade your Covenant Sanctum – your home base – using a combination of Anima (the spiritual currency of the Shadowlands) and souls you save from the Maw.
Your Covenant has a weekly event for cosmetic items and upgrades. An Adventure table – an upgraded version of the old Mission table that feels a bit like an autobattler – rewards some modest amount of Soul Ash, Anima, and the occasional piece of gear. Channeling Anima in your chosen zone opens up new challenges and treasures.
The endless dungeon of Torghast opens, providing the Soul Ash you’ll need to craft Legendary armor. There are new quests and reputation to be had in the Maw itself, which will eventually lead to Torghast upgrades and the opportunity to put sockets for gems on your gear. And of course there are all the usual dungeons to plunder.
COVENANTS ARE GREAT FUN, BUT DIFFERENCES CAUSE PROBLEMS
It’s a lot. And despite obvious attempts by Blizzard to introduce these systems gradually, it’s complicated and sometimes frustrating. Some balance problems persist between Covenants, making one special Covenant ability much more powerful than another for some classes. The Adventure table is wildly unbalanced, with some Covenants able to complete missions with underleveled followers and others unable to even with drastically overleveled ones. It’s a minor aspect of progression and wouldn’t be a big issue, if it didn’t affect the collection of rare resources like Soul Ash.
Shadowlands' dungeons are the strongest I’ve ever seen in an opening set in a WoW expansion
That said, the systems themselves are terrific, particularly the mechanics of the Covenant upgrades. They feed you more story, pit you against powerful foes, and offer fun cosmetic, pet, and mount rewards. The weekly events offer truly unique gameplay not found elsewhere in WoW. And many of the Covenant special abilities are a hoot to use, even if they’re still getting tweaked on live servers.
BALANCE ISSUES ARE STILL POPPING UP ELSEWHERE
The (not yet, but soon to be) endless dungeon Torghast is wild, wild fun with the right classes or a small group. The overpowered abilities you get as you climb the tower are frequently hilarious, the rewards at the end feel appropriate, and the shifting layout adds some unpredictability to each new trip fun. But some classes can easily solo Torghast’s wings while others that struggle horribly, due to differences between the powers offered and the boss mechanics.
This is true in regular dungeons as well. Some classes dominate not because their overall damage is better, but because the way the dungeons are laid out determines how many monsters are fought at once. That makes a big difference in how much damage players do, especially in this expansion, which has seen caps applied on how many monsters certain classes can hit at once.
That said, Shadowlands’ collection of eight five-person dungeons is the strongest I’ve ever seen in a WoW expansion’s opening set. They’re varied, sending you to jump between angelic platforms in the sky, into an arena to face your foes (and your groupmates, in one notable encounter), or into a maze created by a faerie. The mechanics are new and the encounters have a really fun pace and challenge. For the most part, they are truly excellent.
FROM DISASTER TO A SMOOTH LAUNCH IN FOUR WEEKS
The Shadowlands beta servers, even three weeks before launch, were a disaster. Permanent, character-stopping bugs in the leveling experience still remained, the endgame systems were a hodgepodge of unbalanced, unimplemented, overlapping weirdness, and even some core class abilities felt awful to use. It was absolutely no surprise that Blizzard delayed the launch. What was surprising was that it wasn’t delayed for longer, with the new release date set to just under a month later.
I fully expected to see some of those serious issues leak through to the live game, because developers didn’t have that long to pull off all the fixes needed. But I’ll be damned if they didn’t – almost entirely – pull it off.
WoW Shadowlands’ leveling experience is smooth and pleasant, if a little talky at times. The endgame systems work, and while there are some rough edges – balance and quality-of-life issues that are still getting squashed by continuous hotfixes as they’re discovered – the pacing and the implementation feel appropriate and smooth.
While most players can point to one thing or another they might change, the vast majority of both cutting edge raiders and casual players I know are very pleased with the new expansion – as am I.