World of Warcraft: Shadowlands review — A modern feel for a venerated MMORPG
January 4, 2021
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Shadowlands, World of Warcraft’s newest expansion, takes the muddled mess that the previous Battle for Azeroth expansion became and sorts it into a beautiful, rewarding flow. It quietly modernizes systems that desperately needed attention, sneaks in graphics enhancements and a cohesive storyline, and even takes time to poke fun at itself. Its dungeons are fun and varied, its first raid is a flat-out triumph, and it manages all of this — unfortunately — without simplifying the game a whit.

Shadowlands runs on pretty much any desktop or laptop with a processor, from Mac’s newer mobile M1 chips to top-of-the-line PCs. What you see will vary wildly depending on the capabilities of your machine; one of WoW’s strengths is that it adapts well — particularly for more or less powerful graphics cards.

For the purposes of this review, I ran the new expansion on a bleeding-edge machine that included an NVIDIA RTX3080 graphics card. That’s decidedly overkill for Shadowlands, but it allowed me to easily run the game at 4K resolution with all graphics settings maxed. The gorgeous new ray-traced shadows on character models and in some of the game’s areas, in particular, made use of the extra processing power.

The expansion offers three price points. A Base Edition at $40 just includes the game, which requires a monthly fee of $13 to $15. The Heroic Edition at $60 adds one free boosted character to level 50 — Shadowlands leveling takes characters from 50 to the new max level of 60 — plus a mount and the quest for a new armor transmog set. The Epic Edition at $80 includes all that plus cosmetic weapon and hearthstone effects, 30 days of game time, and an in-game pet.

Fighting a board on Exile's Reach in Warcraft Shadowlands.

Above: Fighting a board on Exile’s Reach in Warcraft Shadowlands.

Image Credit: Blizzard Entertainment

Getting started in Shadowlands with the leveling experience

Warcraft’s newest expansion dramatically reworked the way players level their characters. Brand-new players start characters at level 1 in Exile’s Reach. This delightful new starter island walks you through game mechanics and your character’s abilities. It teaches you World of Warcraft basics over the course of about an hour and 10 levels. The island’s progression of difficulty and storyline are thoroughly modern, incorporating some trademark Warcraft humor. It ends with a dramatic dungeon fight that should prepare players for later dungeon encounters with other players.

Veteran players can choose between Exile’s Reach or the traditional leveling experience in character starter zones. Players can select which expansion they’d like to spend time in while leveling from 10 to 50. By default, the selection is Battle for Azeroth, with its modern-looking graphics and systems. But players who’d like to re-experience one expansion or another can choose to frolic in that era for the next 40 levels. To pick, just talk to Chromie in your faction’s capital city. The extra time in one expansion really allows you to stretch out your legs and see some of the storylines.

Blizzard squished the new level cap from Battle for Azeroth’s 120 down to 60. Players make quick progress, reaching 50 in about two-thirds the time. I’ve leveled quite a few characters from scratch since these systems became available. I personally like choosing old expansions and dungeon-running to get to 50, but questing is rewarding as well, particularly for newer players who haven’t seen the content.

Warcraft Shadowlands’ new singular storyline

Once you hit 50, you’re ready for the new Shadowlands storyline. (Previously-maxed level 120 characters from BfA start there.) Your character ventures to the lands beyond death, helping to save them from an attack. All souls from all worlds are funneling into the Maw, a horrible place where you’re going to personally spend far too much time in the end game.

Fortunately, for leveling, you’ll only be there for 30 to 45 minutes before you escape to Shadowlands’ other zones. You’ll spend roughly equal time in each of the four zones. You begin in Bastion, the angelic home of the Kyrian, Shadowlands’ Sorting Hat of ferrying new souls to the afterlife and determining where they should go.

Forces from Maldraxxus, the undead-warrior zone and home of the Shadowlands defense force Necrolord faction, attack Bastion. You’ll head to Maldraxxus next to find out what’s up and spend some time with its abominations, pools of ichor, skeletons, and spider-things. From there, you’re on to the night-elf-evocative Ardenweald, home of the Night Fae, where everything is blue and purple sparkles. And finally, you’ll visit my personal favorite of Revendreth, a gothic sepia-steeped vampire zone home to the Venthyr, where souls atone for their sins.

The Warcraft Shadowlands zone of Revendreth.

Above: The Shadowlands zone of Revendreth.

Image Credit: Blizzard Entertainment

Telling a single tale

Unlike the last few expansions, players experience a singular storyline, moving through each zone in turn. That required order made leveling a bit more of a crowded trial at the launch of the expansion, despite Blizzard’s fancy server sharding technology, but it settled soon after. Developers say it was necessary to give Shadowlands more of a unified feel for its story. They’re right.

This expansion hangs together based on its storyline. While it can be a bit talky at times, it’s frequently affecting and often beautiful. This is one expansion where you should read through quest text, pause to listen to dialog, and watch the excellent in-game cut scenes. Overall, the leveling experience feels novel, looks fantastic, and seems to fly by, keeping players engaged from start to finish.

Gamers who are leveling an alt can choose a Threads of Fate option instead, immediately choosing a covenant and gaining access to all dungeons and world quests. That option doesn’t feel quite as fast but offers a lot of variety for repeat experiences.

Maximum level and a multitude of choices

Unfortunately, that beautiful simplicity vanishes at maximum level. Characters have a singular choice when they finish Shadowlands’ storyline: They must select a Covenant, one of the four associated with the zones they ran earlier.

This choice will affect their aesthetics, since each faction has its own armor look and feel; their abilities, since each offers one utility ability and one class-specific power; their talents, since each Covenant includes unique Soulbind talent trees with embeddable Conduits to boost player power; a unique set of challenges and travel enhancements for their chosen zone; specific champions and troops for mission-table-style Adventures; and a weekly special event specific to that Covenant that offers cosmetics and other rewards.

If that sounds like a ton riding on a single decision, you’re right. At that point, you’ve seen the storyline and aesthetic of each Covenant and played around with the special abilities of each. That’s all you have to go on when making your selection, and it’s not enough.

If you’re a healing shaman and think angels are awesome, too bad; Necrolords offer the best dungeon and raid healing options, but you have no way for you to know that in game. If you’re a hunter and choose those same angelic Kyrians, you’ll lose approximately 10% of your overall damage as compared to your Night Fae friends, even though Kyrians have the second-best setup for hunters overall. Heaven (heh) help you if you chose Venthyr or Necrolords because you like vampires or skulls.

A Night Fae creature in the Tirna Scythe dungeon.

Above: A Night Fae creature in the Mists of Tirna Scythe dungeon.

Image Credit: Blizzard Entertainment

Easy to choose, tough to change your mind

Swapping covenants is easy, but you give up all progress you’ve made to start over with the new faction. Even with catch-up mechanics, that means weeks of work to regain your past stature. And if you ever decide to swap back, you’ll have two weeks of quest penance to pay, re-proving your worth to the first faction. It could be worse, but the whole system doesn’t feel like fun if you chose the “wrong” faction.

Even if you chose correctly, other imbalances between the covenants exist. Some factions easily romp through higher-level Adventures, while others fail to complete them despite over-leveled champions. This wouldn’t be a problem if Adventures didn’t offer precious Soul Ash, a required crafting component for Legendary armor pieces and a material that is in very short supply.

Blizzard spent a mountain of time during beta testing balancing and re-balancing the covenants for each class and specialization. All those efforts didn’t help enough. Developers should not have wrapped this much player power into a single choice of complex faction system.

A fantastic lineup of dungeons

On the flip side, Blizzard developers really scored in Shadowlands with the launch set of eight dungeons and a new raid. Each carries its own aesthetic and mechanics with very little overlap. Each dungeon is beautiful in its own way, like the floating platforms and evil-versus-pure angelic fighting of Spires of Ascension or the ichor pools, stealthy spiders, and slappy tentacles of Plaguefall.

I particularly liked Halls of Atonement with its unique boss mechanics. Blow up gargoyles you’ve turned to stone by hitting them with a boss ability! Avoid flying sculptures! Stay in the boss’ circle or be feared, but don’t get cut by the lasers he projects! And Halls’ gargoyle/vampire setting feels appropriate for its home in Revendreth.

In De Other Side, you’ll face off against the mischievous Manastorms gnome couple and Hakkar, an old raid boss favorite. Each boss in this dungeon feels like a totally separate encounter. Bwonsamdi, the troll loa of death, sends you through portals to different places to help get his mojo back. Each is well-executed, though one encounter with the broker Dealer Xy’exa still needs some serious tuning.

Castle Nathria is a royal raiding win

Revendreth’s vampiric theme plays out on a larger scale in Castle Nathria, Warcraft Shadowlands’ first raid instance. This large-scale group encounter for 10 to 30 people is a triumph; each of its 10 bosses are unique and wonderful, with no clunkers in the bunch. The gothic cathedral-style architecture, the color palette with its blood reds and nuanced greys, and the impressive musical score to go with each encounter all surround you with an immersive environment for the challenging encounters.

Nathria challenges players more than previous raids in a long while. In part that’s because Blizzard turned off the massive flow of loot that players earned from higher-end encounters in BfA. Comparatively, gear drops at a trickle now, and item levels are lower. With lower gear, each fight takes more work and better coordination, explaining why both Heroic and Mythic clears of the raid took longer even for world-first guilds than they had in recent memory. The Complexity Limit guild completed the world-first Sire Denathrius end-boss kill on Mythic difficulty immediately before Christmas.

But that just adds to the delicate balance and challenge of Castle Nathria; other than some fine tuning, which Blizzard implemented swiftly, it launched in a terrific state for players to battle.

Max level activities galore

Maximum level in Shadowlands offers a huge buffet of activities to players. In addition to the covenant options discussed earlier, players have covenant-specific campaign storylines that pick up where the main story left off.

The usual collection of World Quests and Adventures offer daily engagement. Callings send players to do World Quests or other adventures in one of the zones. Weekly player-versus-player and dungeon quests reward players taking part in those activities, and special daily quests in the Maw build player reputation with a broker located there who eventually sells them sockets for their gear.

Players can upgrade some gear items, including crafted armor and items bought with PvP currency. And they can craft legendary items with the powers and secondary stats they like best, using crafted bases, Soul Ash (primarily from Torghast), and crafted Missives to set the stats.

Torghast, Tower of the Damned

Above: Torghast, Tower of the Damned

Image Credit: Blizzard Entertainment

Who knew an endless prison could be fun

One of the most interesting new max-level activities is Torghast, Tower of the Damned, Shadowlands’ first (soon to be) endless dungeon. Currently players can climb the basic eight levels in each of two wings, which shift every week. Eventually, a new “endless” set of levels will launch, allowing players to strive for mounts and similar cosmetic rewards. Torghast is partially roguelike. Each level has six floors: four full levels of trash mobs in somewhat random configurations, one intermission level, and a final boss fight floor.

The anima powers players choose from as they ascend the tower are the best part of Torghast. These temporary abilities only last for the floors in a specific level, and give players massive powers. Gain extra talents on your character’s talent tree. Insta-kill mobs at low health, or turn them to temporarily fight for you. Transform yourself into a giant Maw Rat, or turn monsters into inanimate objects. The options feel almost endless and combined together create truly powerful builds that can one-shot enemies or hobble bosses.

The fact that these powers are somewhat random, as are the mini-bosses and trash layouts, does mean that balance problems feel occasionally unavoidable. Some of those combinations punish players of one class or another to the extent that Blizzard nerfed them. Torghast saw a reduction in power recently. But overall the dungeon is a hoot to play, particularly if you bring a friend, and rewards the Soul Ash needed to make Legendary armor.

Shadowlands is WoW’s best expansion since Legion, and one of its best overall

Shadowlands doesn’t quite knock Legion off its perch as Warcraft’s best expansion (fight me!). That expansion’s base improvements to core gameplay have yet to be matched. But Shadowlands comes close to taking the crown. It feels like a unified whole compared to Battle for Azeroth. BfA started badly, then flailed as developers attempted to fix it by layering on more and more complex systems.

Shadowlands is every bit as complex as BfA, unfortunately, which is where many of its core weaknesses (including balance) lie. But its leveling experience is a joy, as are its dungeons and raids. The Torghast endless dungeon in particular is a wonderful addition.

Shadowlands tempers its complexity better than BfA’s. I’m still not 100% sure what I should be doing every day and what stats I should be trying for on my armor without daily out-of-game simulations. That’s likely a problem, since I’m a Cutting Edge raid veteran who’s been playing since vanilla Warcraft’s last-push alpha testing. But the experiences themselves are engrossing.

The Kyrian covenant sanctum in Bastion.

Above: The Kyrian covenant sanctum in Bastion.

Image Credit: Blizzard Entertainment

Art and music highlight a last-minute turnaround

The art and music teams on Warcraft are some of the best in the business, and they really drive Warcraft Shadowlands. The high-resolution, beautifully rendered artwork for each of the zones, the covenant armor, and the dungeons are some of the best the game has ever had. The gorgeous new musical compositions that accompany those areas make the whole experience (sometimes literally) sing. The story thus far, which I won’t spoil, uses well-known characters in new ways and occasionally made me teary. (On the flip side, the Night Fae covenant introduction quest puts on a play of your previous adventures. Blizzard took the opportunity to make fun of itself and its previous storylines. What do you mean a sword is still stuck in their world?)

I was concerned about Shadowlands and Blizzard development in the COVID era. All those complex systems made a real mess on beta servers near the original game launch date in October. But other than some balance issues — and that core problem with covenant choices — the extra month of development time after the release date delay really gave Blizzard a chance to paint on some polish. The end result stands as one of the very best expansions the game’s ever had.

World of Warcraft: Shadowlands runs on PC and Mac platforms. The publisher sent GamesBeat a code for the purposes of this review.

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