Since I’m on a roll with series posts this week (and I have a wrestling post coming later today to break that up!) I figured I’d start exploring my wishlist for Shadowlands in a 3 part series.
I want to break it up because what I want from the story and what I want from gameplay are two separate ideals, with no real crossover between them. Obviously, World of Warcraft is at its best when the game has a tightly-woven narrative that interlocks with gameplay in satisfying ways, but due to the nature of what I’m going to write, that doesn’t really fit.
Similar to my BfA review, this is 3 parts to discuss the following issues: Story, Gameplay, and Systems/Intangibles. For this first part, the story post, I’m going to drive at general themes rather than an overarching plot, and I’m going to avoid armchair writing an actual story. Outside of a couple plot elements that I think make a ton of sense, I’m going to avoid writing fanfiction here – as much as I can. (If you’d like to purchase my Illidan/Sargeras steamfest, though, hit me up!) (okay, I don’t actually have any sexy fun stories about Illidan and Sargeras…yet.) Gameplay will get pretty in-depth with reward loops, gameplay mechanics, grinds, and will hopefully not be almost 10,000 more words about this game, and then the systems/intangibles is for things I hope to see emerge out of the shell of the expansion – technical improvements to the game, future implementations of expressed ideas, and then discussing how I expect it might be received and what hurdles the game faces coming out of Battle for Azeroth.
Alright, so let’s start with story!
A Clear, Concise Central Plot: Sylvanas was, in retrospect, the clear plotline of BfA, following her descent into visible madness and watching as the other characters and factions of the game reacted to that. However, given how little Sylvanas has actually appeared in the game past 8.1, you could be fooled into thinking otherwise! What I want for Shadowlands most on the story front is for the game to have a laser-focus on whatever Blizzard decides the main plot is. I’m fine with the early gameplay part of the expansion pushing us through each zone to learn about each covenant and the challenges they face, but my hope is that with a chosen path through the zones for the first time since WoD, we can get a clear-cut narrative that stretches between zones and runs in parallel with zone stories. The thing that has harmed storytelling in-game the most, in my opinion, has been zone scaling bringing choice. In Legion and BfA, each zone felt like an island of separate threats and characters, with only a minimal approximation of the main story reaching in. In Shadowlands, my hope is that if Sylvanas and The Jailer are our main villains, they should be showing up more often and the work we do in each zone should be clearly established as working towards that core antagonist.
Interesting Answers to the Central Expansion Premise, and Closure: The idea that every spirit is going to The Maw instead of Oribos is interesting, but for this to be effective storytelling and not just a dumb boondoggle that pushes us into conflict, we need to understand when it started happening, why it is happening, and have the means to remedy it and close the loop. The same thing goes for Sylvanas, The Jailer, the characters in the zone plots, etc – everything clearly introduced for Shadowlands needs to see satisfying resolution or be clearly prepared for continuation in 10.0.
Clear Lore Implications and Reasons for Fun Setpieces: I’ve written at least once about how I think Shadowlands has the potential to set up some really fun WoW All Stars type moments – old dungeon and raid bosses tooling around in the Maw, Torghast, or their own dungeon/raid, and major lore characters (those confirmed already and others yet to be) reappearing in zone stories. I really do want these things – Uther being in Bastion sounds amazing, and I want to see it and understand it. To that point, it is absolutely critical for me that Blizzard makes an effort to really establish these things happening with reasons and logical plotlines. If the tormented spirit of Tirion Fordring is in the Maw, I want to know why he’s there, how he can’t escape but I can, and maybe be given the chance to free him to come with me, or release him from his torment (perhaps alongside Bastion hero Uther Lightbringer, who has a personal connection to Fordring). If an old dungeon boss like Slad’ran pops in Torghast, who we beat down easily in Gundrak, I need to understand better as to why the Jailer thinks he can do the job now, what led to here, etc. Maybe not for every boss, but if you do a throwback, I’d like to understand the circumstances that led to it in-lore.
Covenant Stories: In general, I just want to see these done well. Blizzard makes it sound like they have piles of ideas about how each of the four covenents function and exist in the Shadowlands and I’d like to see the Covenant stories explore this in detail. The Order Hall campaigns tended to feel like alliances of convenience, and except in the few cases where that was a baked-in part of the lore (Rogues) it just felt weird, especially for the non-established factions. Having major lore characters in each zone should be a good start, but I want to see a deep focus on these – choosing the Kyrian should mean I know the nooks and crannies of Bastion, have a deep understanding of the Kyrian society, and should even grant gameplay benefits to play off of this (flying access in the covenant zone prior to Pathfinder, perhaps?).
Clarity Around the Rules of the Shadowlands: How we get into the Shadowlands, survive it, leave it and return to it, etc, should all be made crystal clear without any funny business. If the answer is “the Heart of Azeroth’s empowerment,” okay, great, but I better not see Anduin bouncing in and out of it unless he gets his own empowerment to allow it. Draenor had a lot of foibles, but the lore of establishing how we got in and out after collapsing the Dark Portal on the AU Draenor side was built up early and was consistent for the expansion. I don’t even need it to be complicated – a broad explanation early on for how our faction NPCs end up in there, if they even do, will be enough.
Resolving Dangling Plot Threads From BfA and Before: What happened to Xal’atath? In what ways was Sylvanas working with the Jailer prior to War of the Thorns? Do the Old Gods or Titans have roles to play in Shadowlands? Torghast has been heavily hinted as having a central role in the Lich King’s background – this needs to be addressed. Similarly, if the Lich King’s Helm of Domination and Frostmourne were forged here and from Saronite, does that imply a pact of sorts between the Jailer and Yogg-Saron? What role do Light and Void play in the realm of death? Shadowlands itself has a lot of plot threads that I hope to see resolved too – we know the Kyrian are the faction that train and endow the Spirit Healers with power – how do they then end up in Azeroth and could one go rogue?
Setting Up 10.0 With Clear Plot Advancement: By the time 9.3 is out in two years or so, my hope is that we have a clear route out of Shadowlands, with established reasons for our departure, and a clear indication of what is next. A big bother for me with BfA right now is knowing that Shadowlands is coming but having nothing in-game that really points that way. Shadowlands could do far better in this regard by presenting our way out of the Shadowlands and also setting up the next story at the same time.
Overall? My wishes do tend to center on a sort of central theme to things – clarity. Battle for Azeroth lacked clarity and had a muddled, confusing story progression for it. Shadowlands can do far better in an easy way – focus on telling complete, full stories from the get-go.