I didn’t expect to care much about Chromie Time or the revamped leveling experience in Shadowlands.
But, here we are, a week deep into a pre-patch that, as of yet, has no new content, and well, Chromie Time gave me something to do.
Leveling my Allied Race alts I gave up on mid-expansion has become the raison d’etre for my continued WoW subscription, so I took my fresh, now level 10 Kul Tiran druid into Mists of Pandaria and ground out around 16 levels so far.
My early feedback? It’s actually really quite good.
The leveling experience has had multiple problems for years now. The sprawling scope of the experience meant that any new players getting into the game had a tough, long journey in front of them. The piecemeal nature of design meant that design ping pongs between being 2010, then 2007, then 2008, then 2010 again, then 2012 and on in two year increments, where in this design, you simply pick the experience you want. If you love Burning Crusade, you can level every alt through it. For new players, it gives them a middle ground of getting up to the current lore and doing so through the most modern questing experience.
The pacing is actually surprisingly good so far, as levels come quickly but the timing of each feels like you’ll be able to see a majority of the expansion content you’ve locked yourself to for the 10-50 bracket.
Leveling in World of Warcraft has been a bit of a difficult proposition over the last few years. Legion’s last patch brought scaling to the content, allowing you to cut a path of your choosing through Cataclysm-revamped classic zones before going into either Burning Crusade or Wrath of the Lich King, followed by either Cataclysm’s new zones or Mists of Pandaria, then into the game’s modern history in full. Accompanying this was a series of revamps to combat balancing to make gameplay more meaningful – which, while that also meant elongating the leveling experience slightly, did actually make it slightly more fun as you got to play around with abilities more regularly. However, this was ultimately a wash to veteran players, as the leveling experience is something they could trivialize at their own desire, and for new players, it still meant an insurmountable 120 levels to climb before being able to join a friend at the endgame.
Blizzard’s solution here in Shadowlands is likely to divide just as much, but it focuses on a few key points that I think make it work fairly well.
Ability Acquisition: Pruning and changes to talents over the last decade have made leveling a barren wasteland of new things to play with. Since the changes made have nearly always focused on the endgame over all else, there were a lot of level ranges where you’d only get 1 ability or even nothing at all for a high number of levels. The challenge of that is for new players, primarily – if the game gives you nothing new for long stretches of your long leveling process, it feels really bad! Blizzard’s changes here came in two forms – the level squish, which compresses the leveling range such that even if ability rewards remained largely unchanged and simply mapped to the new ranges, you’d feel a much better flow. Secondly, though, through unpruning, many classes now gain more abilities than they did in BfA’s flow, and coupled with that compressed level scale, you’ll gain more power more regularly.
Inability to Complete a Single, Coherent Story: Leveling in BfA forsook story cohesion for the sake of fun gameplay, by letting players run roughshod over all of the content they chose with no real regard for the lore of the zones in question. For veteran players, again, this is probably fine, but for newbies, it just completely wrecks any cohesion of plot and means that players can miss key details that come back into play at later points. The solution here is twofold – for newbies, they have to do the new Exile’s Reach starting experience, which lasts from 1-10ish, and then Battle for Azeroth from 10-50, with Shadowlands taking 50-60 upon launch. For whatever commentary one can make about BfA, it does make logical sense – the story beats that are harped upon in the BfA experience are the most recent and relevant to us in Shadowlands, so it sets a new player on a path where they can get familiar with the characters and lore events that will define the immediate future of the game. For veteran players, you can choose an expansion story to follow instead by talking to Chromie in Stormwind or Orgrimmar, who will helpfully phase things to the timeline of your choosing.
Lack of Helpful Tutorial Content: WoW’s in-game help systems are anemic and very old, using pop-ups that were in the game near launch for basic things like controls and UI elements. Players can often struggle when they’re starting with anything more in-depth than this – using the Dungeon Finder, how to play in dungeons, grouping with other players, managing equipment and self-assessing gear rewards for potential upgrades. Exile’s Reach aims to fix this by using quests as tutorials, showing players a more modern intro experience that includes a microdungeon that can be done in a group. While there is still ground to be made up here, the changes in approach for 1-10 make the content more engaging and actually helpful to building a player up towards being someone who will enjoy endgame and be able to participate fully in it.
Guides for Newbies: Guides as people, not written or video tutorials! A guide program which allows veteran players to interact with newbies more directly and coach them into the game’s various gameplay elements is a good thing. However, as it offers no real rewards or incentives to the veteran player, it pales in comparison to FFXIV’s Mentor system, which uses a special Mentor queue to fill groups queueing for any sort of content and then provides the mentor with extra bonuses for using that queue in the moment and milestone rewards like titles, pets, and mounts. The Guide system in WoW could maybe someday reach that, and I certainly hope that such ideas are on Blizzard’s radar, because right now, it offers someone like me the most annoying part of the Mentor system in FFXIV (Novice Network chat) while offering me none of the actual perks.
Overall, all of these coalesce into a much-improved leveling experience, which I actually think is commendable. Why? Well, simple – it better fits modern WoW. WoW clinging to the vestiges of its legacy content wasn’t a bad thing, per se, but it definitely created a tonal clash that was difficult to reconcile. For the arguments that are very valid to have about the impact of some of these changes on the veteran player population, overall, I think the impact to newbies outweighs the negatives. WoW has desperately needed a new coat of paint for that starting experience for a decade, and the barriers that a rough start put up for new players joining the game coupled with WoW’s decent from pop culture icon made getting new players into the game a burdensome chore.
Given all of that, though, there are still two glaring issues I would identify with the current state of leveling as it stands.
Experience Curve: WoW’s systems are still engineered around the original launch experience in many ways, and being able to random queue dungeons and having large amounts of rest experience both can take away from the story experience as you meet the level 50 ding sooner, which, for veteran players on Chromie Time, brings the questing to a screeching halt and pulls you into current time, which, when Shadowlands is out, is designed to push you towards that content. It is the one place where it is apparent that Blizzard hasn’t really done a suitable rebalancing of the content, as even when you just run the questing course, you’ll rapidly outpace content. My Kul Tiran Druid is level 26 having only done Jade Forest in Pandaria, so if that pacing continues, I’m unlikely to do all the zones prior to reaching level 50. I would even expect to only get as far as Kun-Lai Summit before being thrust forward and into the harsh light of current BfA endgame, at my current pacing, and that is only doing quests! There’s an opportunity for Blizzard to rebalance the experience to make the experience a complete one, allowing for full content exploration prior to hitting the cap, but I’d rather the situation we have at present than what I hit on Shadowlands beta in 50-60 – not reaching the level cap via story quests and being unable to complete leveling!
Story Cohesion, Overall: Yes, I know I said story cohesion was an improvement made here, and I do think that is the case. However, for a new player, the BfA story is both a great starting point but also a terrible one, in that while it sets the stage for Shadowlands, it itself relies on the lore and story building from Legion, which relies on lore and story from Warlords of Draenor but also from Burning Crusade and Warcraft III, and WoD relies on lore from MoP, and…you get the picture. Blizzard’s choice to make the game a rolling narrative rather than a series of individual plots in an overarching narrative has meant that the game has offered players a larger story over the last 8 or so years, but the revamping of the experience comes at the cost of depriving new players of that context. Sylvanas being evil is something that hits existing players because they have literal decades of context and, if Horde, tons of questing content pushing her transformation in this direction over years of content. Is missing this context an unrecoverable sin? Maybe not. But it does create a dissonance in the content, where a new player coming in now might not really know why Sylvanas’ turn is treated like it is, since BfA was a hot and cold tale of her leading the Horde with the near-full commitment of the other leaders before she fully heel turns in the events of 8.2.5 – events which a new player might end up missing if they hit 50 prior to doing those quests!
But I don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater – the overall Shadowlands leveling experience as it exists today in pre-patch is quite good and a marked improvement for the modern game. Most importantly in my opinion, it sets the modern game on its own course fully, marking a split from the divided and poorly meshed leveling experience of 8.3 and giving us a newbie-friendly experience that better suits the current game, in my opinion.