Here we are, back at it again at World of Warcraft. It’s been 2 years since I last burled up the game, making good on my prediction that I wouldn’t renew my subscription for another month. To be honest I think I’d well and truly done my dash with it by then, the last vestiges of the story not worth the time commitment to eek out. That and the fact I think that the raids no longer held any real attraction for me. I mean sure, there’s always the allure of challenge, but the LFR versions of the raids are really watered down and the time commitment for the real ones isn’t worth the hassle. Still though I usually feel there’s enough meat in the levelling experience to keep me entertained and so I found myself spinning up World of Warcraft once again to give the latest expansion, Shadowlands, a go.
After being deposed as Warchief of the Horde and the defeat of N’Zoth in Battle for Azeroth, Sylvanas Windrunner travels north to Icecrown Citadel in the Scourge-infested wastes of Northrend, and confronts the reigning Lich King, Bolvar Fordragon. Taking the Lich King’s Helm of Domination from him, she tears it in two, shattering the veil between realities and opening a portal to the Shadowlands, the afterlife of Azeroth. The Shadowlands have become warped in function during recent times. The Maw, a place in the afterlife reserved for the most sinful souls, is now absorbing all souls depriving the other worlds of the resource that powers them: Anima. As the effects of the Helm’s destruction are felt across Azeroth, Sylvanas has her forces abduct Alliance leaders Anduin Wrynn, Jaina Proudmoore and Tyrande Whisperwind, and Horde leaders Thrall and Baine Bloodhoof. This sets off a chain of events whereby you travel to the Shadowlands to rescue your leaders and discover the true horror of what is happening to Azeroth’s world of the dead.
It’s quite startling to go from the newer areas of WoW and back into the old ones as they’re where you can really tell that this is now a 15 year old game. I don’t know why they do it but every expansion has you heading back to your faction’s capital city to begin your travels to the new world, something which only ever serves a purpose of showing just how dated those areas look. Still it’s clear that the limitation on what Blizzard can do with this game is now squarely on the aging engine they’re locked into but they still do quite a lot with not much. So whilst they’re not going to win any awards or be the new benchmark for testing out your new rig I was pretty surprised at how good looking Shadowlands was.
In terms of the core game not much has changed there, it’s still very much the same WoW we’ve come to know and love over the previous couple expansions. This time around though the levelling experience is 100% linear, something that’s a bit of a departure from previous times. Sure, you can roam around a bit and do side quests if you wish, but the thing is the end game content is locked behind the main campaign. So if your real end goal is to get there as quickly as possible side quests are the last thing you want to do. Gone is the Azurite armour system now replaced by a faction system whereby you’ll pledge allegiance to one of the 4 covenants of the afterlife which will grant you new abilities and another reputation to grind. You’ll also get PTSD from being thrown back down to level 60, with all your gear and abilities having their numbers squished as well. Like most of the expansions none of this is terribly out of place, it’s more of the same with a different coat of paint on it.
The levelling experience was OK for the most part, although this is probably the first time I’ll say that the narrative got in the way of actually playing the game. The first couple hours are spent predominately in in-game cutscenes, meaning that it takes a while for you to simply get to a point where you can actually start playing. From there it’s still a bit longer before you open up Oribos (the new hub city) and then there’s yet another lengthy in-game sequence before you’re really, truly playing Shadowlands content. All of this is due to the new 100% linear style of questing that they’ve put in, something which is OK from one perspective but does take out that small element of freedom we used to have. I actually didn’t mind out-levelling certain areas and then heading off to the next one, it usually kept things pretty fresh as I bounced from area to area.
I was pretty miffed that I couldn’t go straight into end-game content once I hit level 60 though as that’s usually something that’ll keep me coming back for another week or so. I did try putting in a few more hours once I hit 60 to finish out the main quest line so I could begin running dungeons with one of my mates but honestly at that point I think I was already done. The linear nature of the quest lines coupled with their extremely repetitive nature wore me down pretty quickly every time I sat down for a session. Last time around I at least had a keen interest in the overarching story with Jaina but this time, without any real main protagonist to speak of (apart from “The Jailer” who’s barely given 5 minutes of screen time before you never see him again) made it all feel a little hollow.
I’m not quite sure what I was expecting though really, given that we’re exploring a part of the Azeroth lore that’s really never been explored before. To be sure there’s ample opportunity here for all sorts of characters to make a return (after all this is presumably where everyone who’s ever died in the Warcraft universe is currently residing). There were some moments of that too, which were interesting, and it does expand the world’s pantheon in an interesting way but that’s all just different puzzle pieces scattered on the table; they don’t feel like a cohesive whole yet. Battle for Azeroth by comparison was much narrower in scope and felt a lot richer story wise. I dunno, maybe it’s just the lack of time I have right now to dive deep into these things like I used to.
World of Warcraft: Shadowlands is more of the same which for many is likely exactly what they’re after. The changes made are evolutionary rather than revolutionary, tweaking things here or there whilst not really changing the core of the game in any appreciable way. Everything that’s presented is something that’s already been done before in the franchise, just repackaged in a new way to make it fresh. Is this a bad thing? Not in my opinion no, but that does mean that if you weren’t exactly into WoW 5+ years ago then you’ll likely not be into it now. This is also probably the first time ever I haven’t made it to end game and, whilst 21 year old me would be ashamed of that I honestly can’t say I feel bad about it. It’d take a lot for me to go back now as I think I’ve done my dash and there’s many more AAA titles awaiting me.
World of Warcraft: Shadowlands is available right now on PC for $59.95. Total playtime was approximately 14 hours, reaching level 60 but not finishing the main questline.