I don’t have access, yet, but I have kept very well abreast of all the moves on the Shadowlands alpha.
This post is going to be non-spoiler, because there are plenty of things to talk about without diving into story spoilers!
The most impressive thing to me, so far, is how damn near complete the whole thing seems. Sure, you can’t play all the content, as the alpha currently is limited to the Alliance version of the new 1-10 zone, Exile’s Reach, and Bastion as a zone, but yet, in the files is hiding just about everything!
Every zone appears to be mostly complete, with only the Maw not having the hand-drawn styled map. While it is possible that the hand-drawn map art style doesn’t inherently mean the zone is “done,” at the same time, nearly every alpha in the game’s history has used the “satellite” image of the map as the map screen for a zone until it is complete, so seeing this is a surprise. We have dozens of new creature and NPC models, hundreds of pieces of gear including what appears to be full dungeon and raid sets and a large number of weapons with multiple complete models of each type and tints for all of them. Covenant armor seems to be complete, covenant upgrades and Soulbinds have data that seems complete and designed. Class design was confirmed in an interview with Ion as being mostly done, with alpha presenting these designs early to ensure more thorough testing.
In a way, the game seems to have taken the feedback of the BfA alpha quite seriously. BfA testing was marred by incomplete and late implementation of features and reassurances that we’d actually love the final versions of the features on offer, a stance which history has not borne out! The game has complete assets and testing feels like it would be worthwhile in the current state, unlike BfA where things often changed, or notably WoD, where the alpha/beta phase was marked with massive shifts in design on nearly every level.
Character level and item level squishes are both fully implemented, and a variety of other changes for quality of life are in – new quest tracking systems, a quest marker system that mirrors that of FFXIV, with the main quests being shown with special borders to call more attention to them, and built-in quest tracking that allows pinning locations and has 3D navigation assistance not unlike addons like Tom Tom.
I could list dozens more things, from finished dungeon journal entries to achievements, game strings, and the like, but it is nice to see such a relatively complete product even in alpha.
Here are my top things from the alpha currently, not counting story elements:
The Zones: Bastion was shown at Blizzcon, so I have played it in an earlier state, but wow – it is absolutely gorgeous. I like the art style of WoW and BfA had a lot of good art, but the plainer color palette of Kul Tiras and the zonal dedication to a simple palette per zone in Zandalar meant there wasn’t as much to look at. Shadowlands has a ton of variety, from desolate white and toxic green in Maldraxxus, to rusty red and brown tones of Revendreth, to the sparkling white and blue of Bastion and the natural hues of Ardenweald, topped off with the darkness of the Maw. All of these look distinct, beautiful (in their own…ways), and convey interesting tones visually, which hopefully tie in to the gameplay and story on offer.
Gameplay Changes: I am going to absolutely avoid commenting on core gameplay for classes, because I would vastly prefer to play before saying anything, but there is a lot to dig into between the alpha data and interviews. From the leveling flow of the 1-50 gameplay to the changes made to quest tracking for the sake of ease, the game seems to be shifting in a better direction. One thing I particularly enjoy however, is a comment made by Ion in his interview with Sloot – that Corruption is gone, as is war and titanforging! With these changes, the game is going to drop less loot overall, which is something that I’ve wanted for a while – right now, each loot drop is less meaningful, especially minus good Corruption or previously if not with a good war/titanforge. It is at the point where getting something feels like a completely ordinary and expected event, and it makes not getting your BiS items or extra rolls feel frustrating. Given sufficient choices, receiving less loot pushes loot to be more like the game’s roots – less common, more exciting, and it should mean that for a guild like mine, there is value to be had in farming normal raids before pushing Heroic, where currently, once we finish Normal, it is usually on to Heroic immediately.
Profession Changes: So far, these seem pretty okay. Jewelcrafters can make gems that can be used as optional reagents for crafted armor to guarantee a secondary stat of your choosing on the finished piece – a good compromise for crafting and one that also raises the value of Jewelcrafting after the socket changes of Warlords of Draenor have tanked the value in gold of the profession. Consumables outside of food, flasks, and potions are in, with weapon stones and weights of various sorts and wizard oils. As someone who raided in vanilla, I actually like this. As someone who has played an Enchanter as my main for the full duration of my time in-game except late WoD, I hate that those Wizard Oils, once the purview of Enchanters, are now Alchemist’s concoctions?! Alchemy already has money built in Blizzard, give me back my oils (enchanting is fine too, to be fair, although not quite as lucrative). Speaking of enchanting, most gear slots are once again enchantable, moving from the gimped model of rings/weapons we’ve had in BfA, which started as rings/weapons/neck in Legion. Crafting has the aforementioned secondary reagents to help shape crafts, and many professions have gained back some degree of utility outside of mere armor or equippable items – Armor Kits are back for leatherworkers in a buff fashion rather than as a pseudo-enchant, meaning there is a consumable you can sell, Blacksmiths make the aforementioned sharpening stones and weights for melee weapons, engineers get belt enhancements once again, and there isn’t much more yet. However, what is there is solid, fundamentally good, and shows some degree of understanding on Blizzard’s part of player feedback – merging classic elements like additional consumables and larger selections of enchantable equipment slots, and couples it with modern sensibilities – interesting gameplay effects, ways to curb the randomness of the modern game’s crafting, and a variety of choices. In fact, depending on how secondary reagents work out, I may find myself loving them more – static gear recipes with one set of secondary stats giving way to a customizable, choice-driven craft is a phenomenal change that actually improves on even the state of the game that players preferred to what is there today!
Interface Improvements: The quest markers are great quality of life changes that should replace the slate of addons many of us use to help push through leveling that fourth alt or identifying the quests that are crucial to story or reputation progress. On top of that, there are some interesting indicators that Blizzard may be going in a wholly unexpected direction – Shadowlands alpha has engine strings that allow a console controller to be mapped for WoW gameplay. Now, my experiment with gamepad gameplay in FFXIV was less than favorable – it works and it is done fairly well, but the types of rapid bar switches and targeting methodology you need to make it intuitive is something that a player has to etch onto their subconscious after hours of gameplay and thinking about the game that way. Still, I appreciate Blizzard adding the option, and arguably, in the current state of things, I probably could map a DPS to a controller pretty damn easily and get used to playing it in that way.
The Artwork in General: I already called out zones, so yeah, but the artwork in general this expansion is up to an incredible standard. Something that I think works really well with the WoW team is when the environment they are presenting you with is brand new and has little or no existing lore to encumber the visuals. Kul Tiras is gorgeous in spots and has a very realistic feel, but it is also drab and somewhat uninspiring next to the bright colors of Zandalar, which work much better with WoW’s general art style. The gear in Shadowlands, the zones, the flavor of everything works exceptionally well. The effort to create visual kits for each zone that carry into the armor and weapons is effort well spent, as I find the items (even the stuff labelled as simple quest rewards!) to be visually stunning and very much exciting. Covenant armor sets are fantastic, and while the cloaks are a little weird when viewed via datamining, my hope is that they map to in-game characters well and offer choices, since there are new styles in there – backpacks like we’ve had recently, but more…scary, but also bony protrusions, wings, unique shapes and items strapped to our backs, and hovering discs and emblems. All of it looks amazing so far and while I have a few meh items on my list (I am not a fan of the leather Kyrian set AT ALL), even those I can tell had a lot of work put in and are simply not visually my style.
Squishes Everywhere: I was one of what seems to have been a limited audience expecting that level squish would not have an item squish alongside it. I am wrong, as the datamining shows. I am of two minds on this – for one, I generally dislike the constant changes in power levels because it makes discussing the game weird (the WoD raid caches you can get from missions are still item level 685 and 700, and Legion Xenedar armor for followers is still 950!) but at the same time, maintaining the old systems in the new world would be bizarre. Provided that squish doesn’t wreck old raid soloing (this time), and that it doesn’t make that window of playing 9.0 in BfA content excessively weird, I guess I’m beaten into submission by this system. Seeing them have it ready so quickly is good, because it means there is room to test, but I miss the crazy unreadable numbers of Legion sometimes, and I sure wish I could eventually get 12 million health as a tank again!
Clear Design Focus: This one is theoretical and murky, but let’s dive in. My biggest point in my Wishlist series and when discussing Shadowlands since Blizzcon has always been this – if Blizzard delivers on that player choice they keep emphasizing, it will be great. There has been a lot of (very valid!) reason to doubt them holding to that vision, as we’ve heard for so long now that Blizzard wants us to have meaningful choices and yet deliver us into situations where choices are lacking in any real consequence and end up pushing us to a space of apathy. Shadowlands alpha, while not worth interpreting as the final product yet, shows a lot of actual elbow grease has gone into making good on that. The discussion about loot with Sloot and Ion shows a clear understanding of the ways in which loot modification schemes made gearing a hard process to get excited about, and the team went a step further than I ever imagined they would – taking out -forging and corruption and giving us clean, pure loot with the ability to once again build proper BiS lists, chase them, and reach a pinnacle at which point you are done until the next tier. Crafting with selectable secondary stats in the way they seem to have moved ahead allows them to maintain base level randomness (when leveling your trade, who cares what the stats are anyways?) and yet once you start crafting for real, you can offer the market choice stats, make yourself or a friend a perfectly stat loaded piece, and do so while also helping Jewelcrafters find value in their trade. Torghast shows potential for this, as does the Covenant and Soulbind system. I remain wary that these last mentions are where Blizzard is going to modern-Blizzard on us – if they want the covenant to be a “meaningful choice” but to also confer power, then the balancing on the traits is going to need to walk a razor’s edge to accomplish that without being min-maxed into everyone being vampires. I hope to everything holy that Blizzard spends a substantial chunk of alpha and beta testing these choices up and down, class by class, spec by spec, in every scenario the game will present. Likewise, while soulbinds might end up being okay (more on that in a separate post) my greatest fear prior to datamining was that they would end up being a gated bad choice – if your best active ability is Kyrian, but their soulbind talent choices suck, then you have to undo two decisions to course-correct, and balancing that seems an impossible feat. It seems the answer to that may have been that Blizzard made the talents consumable items (how this works is what I must know to soothe my apprehension) and the soulbinds are effectively empty boards with a certain number of square, round, and triangular holes (sorry, my notes say “Throughput, Utility, and Survival” so it is not a Fisher-Price toy) which can be filled with generic items that offer class-specific traits, while the fixed traits each soulbind offers unique to them all interact with the covenant abilities instead. Still has the potential to be a railroaded choice by mathematics, but I have some smidge of hope that this may walk a tightrope successfully!
Character Customization Completeness: So many new things are being found in even the first public alpha build, which is amazing. New skin tones across a broad array of races, tattoo options for multiple base races (no more needing allied race/special class for large body tats!), a myriad of new hair and eye colors, and tons of additional little perks and bonuses to make character customizing more interesting. Love them all!
Allied Race Reputation Requirement Removal: Blizzard hasn’t said much on this, but in the data of alpha, unlocking an Allied Race now only requires the quest achievement for that race – no more exalted anything! For me, with only Vulpera left to unlock, this isn’t a huge deal, but at the same time, it means I can spend more time in FFXIV now and then roll up later and play the new experience for leveling in WoW!
Overall, I think the Shadowlands alpha, in even this early state, has a lot of good things to say about the potential future for World of Warcraft, and as more things come into focus, my hope is that I retain this degree of optimism!