So what I thought was the safest prediction in the world turned out to be…not so much!
We do not have a release date for the expansion! While I’m inclined to be worried about what that means, I think it may be for the best, and I’ll dive into that further down in the post.
For now though, let’s discuss what Blizzard did unveil!
The Collector’s Edition: A mix of the best received elements of the BfA box and prior CEs, the Shadowlands CE comes with an art book and mouse pad once again, while continuing to ship the digital soundtrack code instead of a CD and including physical trinkets. This time, the trinkets are a set of 4 Covenant emblem pins. Coming in at an increased price compared to Battle for Azeroth of $119.99, the box at least looks cool with holofoil exploding skybox on the front and holofoil Covenant emblems on the side. Preorders have already started at the Blizzard Gear Store, with other retailers to follow in the week. I’d expect a usual cohort of Amazon/Best Buy/Gamestop with perhaps a few others sprinkled in depending on your country.
Beta Begins!…Next Week: The solidly dated announcement we did get, next week Shadowlands graduates from alpha to beta. Helpfully, Ion detailed that this graduation means more players and more invites, but also that it entails a feature-complete look at the expansion. What this means for us who prognosticate on the game is that the state of the beta will represent our first “real” look at the expansion in a complete, mostly ready mode. Balancing, tuning, and tweaking are what beta is for, along with testing how the game is impacted by larger numbers of concurrent players and ensuring that whatever tech is used to manage the experience works properly as player count scales up.
With Beta Comes Endgame Testing: While the four main level-up zones of Shadowlands tested in Alpha, beta allows Blizzard to introduce endgame content. With Beta, we’ve been promised a look at pretty much all things endgame – The Maw, the remaining 5-player dungeon, Covenant selection and leveling, Soulbinds, Sanctums, and focused testing on Mythic Plus and the Castle Nathria raid later in the month. Basically, all the stuff the current WoW playerbase is focused on for gameplay is coming with beta, which is great since that is where most questions remain!
Covenant Systems: Mercifully, my biggest apprehension about Shadowlands from a systems standpoint seems to have been resolved in design. At Blizzcon 2019, the WoW team talked multiple times about “Anima Power” with it sounding awfully similar to the AP grind of Legion and BfA, right down to the initialism! Well, Anima now as a system seems fully tied into the mission board grind and Covenants, with it being used to allow empowerment in the open world, used to increase your Renown with your faction which has a weekly objective and immediately-available catch-up mechanics (the preview of Renown showing a mission NPC as a reward), and the open-world empowerments seem to be helpful but mostly about world quests and outdoor content as opposed to dungeon or raid power-ups, which should make them highly valuable to more casual players and ironically less so for raiders.
While there is a lot to be seen with this system, particularly the Renown rewards, the early preview is incredibly promising. One of the things that definitely ground me down in the last two expansions, but particularly in BfA, was the constant need to be gathering AP for direct raid viability. At the point in BfA where I said “fuck it, I’m done farming,” my raid viability was reduced compared to my guildmates. Not by a lot and not by enough to make it worth pushing hard to farm again, but it was still discouraging and was a factor in my disenchantment with WoW during BfA. The Anima systems as announced seem far friendlier and, for a player like me, far less essential, which is great news!
As for other Covenant systems, all we know is that Soulbinds have a little bit of Artifact styling to them, with a tree of traits per soulbind and Conduit slots which are defined as Throughput and Utility, with the Conduits functioning similarly to Relics from Legion. What is unknown as of yet is the acquisition methodology for Conduits – I’d imagine we could see them drop like Relics in Legion did, but at the same time, I’d much rather see them be deterministic. Give me a fixed way to guarantee them and make it a goal worth working towards.
The covenants all offer unique rewards through gameplay, in addition to things we already knew about like transmog armor and mounts. Each covenant has a unique feature, like the Venthyr’s “night court” which allows you to impress Venthyr nobles and potentially be rewarded with loot, or the Necrolords and their Build-an-Abomination workshop (that’s not what it’s actually called, but it should be). These sound fun, but one reward gear immediately raised my hackles – in the absence of balancing info or more actual details, it is hard to be too worried, but at the same time, gear rewards being tied to a single covenant is a huge red flag for me on how flexible the Covenant choice is really going to be, especially if an Abomination is only usable in the open world but I can wear my freebie gear into a dungeon or raid.
Lastly, the new mission table was shown off. Normally, this would be a big “whoop-de-fucking-do” for me because the mission table is such a nothing gameplay mechanic and it has never really been exciting, short of the gold rush of Warlords of Draenor. The new system, however, has some genuine work put into it, it would seem. Rather than forming a party based on counters to specific abilities, you build a party with the roles we’re used to seeing in normal gameplay, and they engage in turn-based combat. Rather than an RNG chance to win, you can follow it, with what looks like a combat log alongside the interface for the mode, and it seems much more interesting than prior iterations, especially the lacking BfA version. They remain an offline activity which means the updated mobile app has functionality for them, and while it remains to be seen what the reward structure looks like for these, they seem much more like actual gameplay and less like a timewasting distraction with little value. Ultimately, I still don’t particularly care about missions, but as long as the development time spent here doesn’t obviously present as being taken away from something I do care about, well, that’s fine then!
The Maw: Little was shown of the Maw outside of a sizzle reel of footage of the zone, but the description remains similar to that of Blizzcon 2019. The zone is built and intended as an endgame content hub, being where Torghast is located, but it also has its own unique gameplay. Unlike most zones in the game, the vibe of the Maw is intended to be unfriendly. The zone is meant to make you feel unwelcome, as you won’t have flight paths all over the place and your only real help is a broker in an outpost of the far edges of the zone. The gameplay described sounds interesting, but I am curious as to how inhospitable the zone is actually going to be. No flight paths and freeform goal seeking with more large and overarching objectives sounds really cool and should help capture the vibe, but the Blizzcon preview also had mention of a possible timer of some sort, amping the difficulty in real time the longer you stayed in the zone. In my opinion, a timer would be a mistake – one they remedied in Torghast fairly early in alpha only to then make the same mistake with the Maw. We don’t know how it looks until Beta launches, so I am holding out hope – I think the contours of what could be are promising, but there is potential for it to be a flat disappointment.
So with this done, we have some answers – there is a physical CE and we know what it contains and how much it costs ($135 with shipping and sales tax for me…), we know a little bit more about the Maw, we know more about Covenants, but a part of me is disappointed that the stream didn’t get more specific, leaving a lot on the table as “see it in Beta next week.” Now, of course, if I get a Beta invite right away, any disappointment I feel right now will vanish very quickly, but until I know for sure, it is worth noting that I really wanted more specifics out of this livestream and what we got remained fairly high-level and focused on the overall shape of gameplay in Shadowlands.
So with that said, all that remains is a week-long wait for the Beta and then we’ll likely have lots, lots more to talk about!