Last week, Blizzard published the system requirements listed on the box for Shadowlands.
For long-time PC gamers, the system requirements labeling on a game is equally an opportunity to boast of how amazing your rig is and also a challenge for a low-spec gamer to meet a playable framerate with a less-than-minimum rig.
For World of Warcraft, however, the audience comprises a broad mix of people, many of whom are not tech enthusiasts and simply play the game on the hardware they have, whatever it may be. So, when Blizzard published the hardware requirements, the Wowhead comments on the topic exploded with a lot of concern over an inability to play the game. It is worth establishing, firstly, that the published requirements won’t inherently stop you from playing the game altogether. If the game sees an under-specification system, it will typically warn you, but it won’t stop you from logging in and playing. Such was my experience on my 2011 Macbook Air, which, well…runs the game, in a very generous description of the experience.
However, the main concerns were over one point – the minimum requirement for storage being listed was 100 GB of space on an SSD, without any mention of a platter-based mechanical hard drive. For a lot of players, apparently, this was a point of contention – the comments were full of people complaining about this requirement in particular, over the cost of the upgrade and how expensive it would be relative to the cost of the game. To be fair, I don’t know what the global pricing situation on SSDs looks like, but here in the US, we bought a replacement 250 GB SSD for my fiance’s PC two months ago at a Best Buy for $40 – less than the cost of the box for Shadowlands and less that 3 months of subscription time. Had we bought the SSD through an online retailer, we could have gotten it for as little as $25. An SSD has a lot of very positive effects on Windows performance in general when used as a boot drive, and for the game, it reduces load times to a minimum, even when using a cheaper SATA-interface SSD. 100GB of capacity is pretty large, but with SSD’s starting at 250 GB on the low end now, that is still less than half and could manage a Windows installation and a few other apps or games. Blizzard has since updated the requirements to note a hard drive would work, but may be slow.
A few months back, I made some recommendations for system upgrades one could make or consider going into Shadowlands, based on speculation I had about requirements and the upgrades we had seen on beta, like real-time raytracing. With the official requirements listed, I feel safe paraphrasing that post here: if you’re currently happy with how your system runs WoW in BfA, there is no need to upgrade for Shadowlands. While the official requirements show increased specifications for both minimum and recommended, the game itself has not drastically changed in such a level to warrant the changes noted (particularly Blizzard’s listing of a Geforce GTX 1080 as a recommended requirement, which overshoots what WoW can really use by a fair bit!) but there are some upgrade recommendations I would make and reaffirm now based on the published requirements.
SSD: If You Can, Definitely Get One
SSDs are established technology that has been in the market for over a decade now and is quickly becoming the de facto storage standard for PCs and other devices. It is far faster than a standard mechanical hard drive and enhances much of your experience using a computer. WoW has been a game that has needed an SSD for proper playability since around Legion, as the multitude of loading screens, large draw distances and increased number of assets needed to load could make playing WoW in modern content very iffy without one. In BfA, that has increased, with loading screens between the two islands making up the core zones of the expansion, another loading screen for Nazjatar, and then loading screens between the continents used for the 8.3 content.
Shadowlands isn’t actually as bad in this regard – while the zones of the expansion are not connected physically in any way, the game appears to store them as a single continent and while it uses a visual effect between zones that seems like it could be hiding loading, the minimap and in-game map show a clear and standard pacing for flight between zones that, if it is hiding loading, is doing so very well! However, the Maw seems to be behind its own loading screen, and initial loading of the game and dungeon/instanced content loading is so much faster on an SSD, going from upwards of 60 seconds to under 10, so even if Shadowlands has optimized storage performance better than Legion or BfA, an SSD still proves its worth quickly. Given their decreased cost these days, I would highly recommend getting one as soon as possible, and if they still are too expensive in your market, the end of the year is said to bring a price crash due to flash memory overproduction, so if you want a larger drive, it could be worth waiting a bit!
RAM: 16 GB Is Ideal
For just WoW, Blizzard recommends 8 GB of system RAM, and to be honest, this is fine. WoW usually peaks around 4 GB of memory usage on my system, which is fine. However, if your system has just 8 GB of RAM, you might find that WoW at full bore is limited, or your system might start to feel a bit sluggish. 16 GB of RAM is the current sweetspot for a gaming PC that I would recommend, and DDR4 prices have fallen to the point that 16 GB can be had for under $100, and it also is set to crash near the end of the year due to COVID-related overproduction. For modern systems, 3200 MHz DDR4 is a sweet spot on price and performance. If you have a hard drive or slower SSD, more system memory is ideal for WoW, as the game will buffer assets from places you’ve been, which will make returning to them (say, going from Boralus to Uldum for a N’zoth invasion and then hearthing back to Boralus) much faster than a full reload of the data. If you use any other apps with WoW, like Discord or a second monitor window with YouTube or Netflix stuff running, 8 GB of system RAM will quickly tap out. 16 GB is much harder to load up, and it has the benefit of being the new standard with the next gen consoles, which will afford you some future-proofing if you play anything besides WoW!
Graphics: No Upgrades Needed, Unless You Want Raytracing
Shadowlands makes a single large upgrade that is also a small upgrade – real-time raytracing. However, the raytracing in beta is just raytraced shadows. These are nice, don’t get me wrong – you get realistic soft shadows based on scene lighting instead of an approximation with sharp-edged shadows – but they aren’t a huge or even always noticeable shift in visual fidelity. If you don’t currently have an Nvidia Geforce RTX graphics card, you’re not really going to be able to run the game with the raytraced shadows anyways, and even then, until the Ampere cards start launching, supply of RTX cards is pretty constrained right now as-is. Given all of that, if you are happy with how the game looks on your current PC setup, there is no need to upgrade. If you really want raytraced shadows in WoW, or a general upgrade to your GPU, my recommendation is to wait until the end of the year – between the announced Ampere cards from Nvidia offering drastically better performance (based on Nvidia’s marketing slides) and the rumored performance of AMD’s RDNA2 Radeon cards scheduled to launch prior to the next-gen consoles (which also use RDNA2), buying a card now is a surefire ticket to disappointment. The only exception I would carve out is for midrange or lower cards – AMD is rumored to be pushing a competition in higher price brackets than they normally play at, and the announced Ampere cards are $500+, so if you tend to buy cards around $300 or less, we’re not likely to see those until early 2021 from Nvidia. AMD might have lower-end RDNA2 cards on offer to start, but they’ve also traditionally slow-rolled their lineups, starting at the top and moving down the stack as time goes on.
If you absolutely want a new graphics card now and want to pay around $300, the RTX 2060 from Nvidia and the Radeon RX 5600XT from AMD are both really solid parts that offer excellent performance, and the RTX 2060 allows for raytracing which would work for Shadowlands, albeit with the first-generation RTX hardware being substantially slower at it. If you really want raytracing badly, wait for the new cards and get one of those – when it comes out, an RTX 3060 should offer much better performance at a similar price, and the RDNA2 cards should also support DXR raytracing which will work with WoW. Here’s Blizzard’s official post about ray-tracing in Shadowlands, with some visual examples to help you decide!
CPU: Have a Quad-Core (Probably)? You’re Fine
CPU’s have been advancing rapidly in the last few years with heated competition from AMD pushing on industry juggernaut Intel to the point of embarrassment. Both manufacturers make excellent gaming CPUs, but let me keep this simple – if you have 4 cores in your CPU, you’re fine. With the optimizations made to WoW’s engine throughout Battle for Azeroth, the game will load-up a multi-core CPU past the first core, which makes a wide range of systems benefit, especially older dual and quad-core systems which were previously suffering due to having a slower main core. If you have a quad-core already, you’re fine for WoW. I will recommend that if your quad-core is an AMD FX CPU or an Intel CPU from before 2011, it is worth upgrading to a modern system, as 6-core CPUs are the low-end of the modern market and much faster thanks to architectural improvements, but a new CPU will almost always mean a new motherboard, new RAM, and that upgrade then spirals into a lot of added cost. Therefore, this: if you have a quad-core, it’s probably fine and shouldn’t be a detriment to WoW, as much as I want to say buy new cooler stuff!
Outside of these recommendations, my original point from the earlier post remains – if you can play WoW today in BfA, you’re fine for Shadowlands and there’s not any real need to move to new hardware!