Well, one week down, and many more to go (probably around 52 or so of them!) in the newest World of Warcraft expansion, Shadowlands.
What are my early impressions?
Well, let’s discuss.
Coming out of beta, one of the big things I was talking about a lot is that the endgame content structure is streamlined, more freeform, and better overall, and I think that has held true for me so far – in most ways. Blizzard has made good on a handful of promises from the announcement, the beta, and the delay, and the game stands as a testament to the value of the time put in. Like most modern Blizzard products and especially most modern WoW expansions, it does have some rough edges worth talking about.
So let’s dive in, starting with leveling!
The Leveling: It’s Pretty Good.
Leveling is something of a thorn in my side at the start of an expansion. It is the piece of content that I am most likely to blitz past in a frenzy, trying eagerly to move on towards endgame and the meat of the actual new content. This time, for personal reasons, I kind of didn’t race to the end. I took more time than I anticipated, especially given that I had spent hours on beta really trying each zone and had finished each zone successfully once, with most zones done twice and Bastion done probably around 3 times.
As I noted in my early impressions post last week, the game has a far more cinematic presentation, which isn’t always amazing (the in-game vignettes with your character model often feature stiff animation and some iffy lip-sync, causing things to get a little weird) but it has a lot of extra content relative to what was seen on beta, making it clear that Blizzard has gotten quite good at getting to a point of testability without having the entire plot out there. Now, the overall shape of the story is still more or less the same, and that leads to my chief concern with the leveling content as a story – it’s fun, whimsical, and offers a lot of setpieces, but tied together, it feels like an anime filler arc, where there are a few obvious plot leads we’re going to be chasing later and the rest is just kind of…there? It isn’t bad, necessarily, but in much the same way you could zone out through Legion and BfA questing and still get to a good spot with lore understanding, you can also do that here.
I do want to say a few positives on the story though. It manages at many spots to touch on less-explored themes of death, afterlife, and the mythology we tell ourselves without always feeling sour or somber. In a universe filled with dead characters, endless war and plagues, and needless cruelty, it is nice to have a bit of a break from that in an unexpected place. Without getting into spoilers (just in case), Bastion has a lot of the undertones I noted on beta – why do I want to be Kyrian when they’re justifiably the bad guys in the Kyrian vs Forsworn feud?, Maldraxxus is not to my taste (artistically, I see the HD-remaster Wrath of the Lich King idea in action in a few places, and Maldraxxus is where the worst parts of that visual kit go to die…er, live) but the story has an epic military feel that I kind of wish we got in BfA, Ardenweald has a strong payoff but takes an awful detour gameplay-wise to get to the conclusion, and Revendreth is quite obviously setting up the raid tier for next week and so there is a sort of jam-packed questing setup there.
Overall, gameplay-wise, there is little truly new here – if you’ve played WoW, you’ve ultimately done hundreds of quests fitting the general blueprint of most content here, but WoW in particular has never been about leveling content loaded with new gameplay mechanics and designs. In fact, what is notable here is what is missing from that first leveling trip – borrowed power. You get the covenant abilities of the zone in question to truly borrow, but they come in relatively late in each zone, so you never get long with them, and so where Legion and BfA were smashing you over the head with the grinds that would define their respective endgames, Shadowlands feels refreshing in that way. There’s a little hint here and there of what comes next, but it makes the leveling flow…pure, in a way, I guess I would say.
Otherwise, if you aren’t a fan of WoW leveling, it isn’t going to win you over, but the vistas are gorgeous, the music is fantastic, and if you aren’t looking for a fully-logical, mapped out story, the high-level story beats are fun and engaging enough. Certainly, if you main Alliance as I do, anything beats the overly dreary two years we’ve spent in Kul Tiras, and on that front alone, I remain pleased.
One last note on leveling gameplay – the experience curve is still a little off-kilter here. 50-60 go by quickly, but if you do a minimal amount of sidequesting, you’ll ding 60 very early into Revendreth, and since you must complete the story to gain access to a covenant choice and the endgame mechanics, all of which are tied up in that very choice, you’ll have to slug through the rest of the zone to get to do endgame content. The first time through, it isn’t awful, and the balance of experience gains isn’t anywhere near as bad as where much of later beta was, but be forewarned. On alts, even though it seems to be slower from other reports, it may be better to use Threads of Fate to level, as the freeform nature and experience tuning seem to put you at 60 much closer to when you are set to complete the tasks provided.
Crafting – It, Uh, Exists
Crafting as a general gameplay mode has always been fairly threadbare in WoW compared to other MMOs, and the trend in recent expansions has been to make that even more the case. In Shadowlands, this largely remains the case – leveling a tradeskill or two is a mostly unexciting crawl through a series of recipes requiring a higher number of materials than you might reasonably gather while playing other modes of content, meaning it requires a modicum of focus to level up linked trades. On my (now) main Holy Paladin, I have mining and blacksmithing, and neither is capped. Blacksmithing, so far, is in fact quite far from it, while mining has had a slow and steady grow-up.
Shadowlands does make suitable improvements to some of the more infuriating aspects of Blizzard’s recent design blunders – mostly through secondary reagents allowing better gear and fixed secondary stats, but also by improving the economic aspect of trading with other players. In BfA particularly, so much of the craftable gear was locked to the crafter as BoP items, meaning that most tradeskills were a personal affair. The legendary system’s strongest gameplay aspect, in my opinion, is tying it to player crafting. You’ll gain a benefit to your gold supplies again at last as a leatherworker or blacksmith, and while tailors have had bags, they now have better avenues via legendary base items. Likewise, suppliers for secondary reagents, especially scribes for their stat scrolls, have a role to play here. Given that the memory system for legendary crafting could easily be expanded in the future as well as expanding the number of equippable legendaries per player, I suspect this system will remain a lucrative cash flow machine for many over the course of the expansion. Right now on my home server, some players have foolishly listed these white items at relatively low costs even though they cannot be used until next week, so it may behoove you to check and snag some low priced base items prior to reset in order to then relist them as people can begin to craft.
That leads nicely to the Memory system for legendaries itself. It is pretty alright. The drop rate does not seem to be excessively stingy on these – I already have two – but prepare for players in random dungeons running for just a memory and dropping once their desired one doesn’t drop. While the sourcing of some drops is quite iffy and you may not be able to access all of them through standard play, a covenant quartermaster item does allow you to learn a new one that you don’t already have for your class, giving you the means to get rare PvE drop memories or even PvP ones. It seems fairly well thought-out and offers a lot of means for progression, but doesn’t seem keen to force your hand to modes you don’t want to play. It remains to be seen how non-class locked memories will work – things like Sephuz, for example, which is non-class locked and PvP – but time will tell.
My header might have been harsh on crafting, because I don’t much care for it, but I will say that professions do offer an improvement this time around and I am glad to see it.
Endgame World Content: Pretty Good, With Some Warts
The endgame of Shadowlands uses familiar pieces from WoD, Legion, and BfA to create something that feels quite a bit different in a lot of positive (and some negative) ways.
To start with, while World Quests remain, their foundational status through Legion and much of BfA is…disputed. There are far fewer world quests up at any given time, far less diversity of rewards, and far less incentive to grind them out until the map is clear. Instead, world quests offer a mix of content that can be done to satisfy Callings (typically alongside other modes of content like dungeons or exploration even) and are intended to be a much smaller part of your content offering.
So let’s start with callings. Designed to replace emissary quests, callings offer a similar modality of gameplay (go do this objective for a reward, we’ll stockpile up to 3 of these objectives for you and they cycle daily) but drastically tone back the required work, sort of. Where world quests are involved, it’s usually 3. If you don’t have some twist like an NPC helper, then the world quest callings generally also allow you to run a dungeon in the zone that the calling is for. Some allow even more twists – there are a few fill-the-bar ones, and these can take all kinds of input – completed world quests, looted treasures, murdered rares, and more. What is clear is that the team has made the endgame much more open-ended – you have your choice of content, be free and do the things that make you happy.
New world quests are typically similar to the ones of the past, but some are now multi-part mini quest chains. With no explainer text and some awkward positioning of subsequent objectives, some quests will simply confuse you. There’s a particular Kyrian one I did while my wife was waiting for us to go shopping, and me thinking, like the idiot I am, that it would just take a few minutes, I told her I was almost done. Well, this quest made me kill 12 mobs, and then activate 3 mirrors, but you can only get the mirrors by killing more mobs for a chance at drops of mirror shards, which then have to be combined. Okay, so I got them, finished the quest as explained poorly by the game UI, and then…part 2, go get some scrolls. Okay, fine – I found the objective marker (it didn’t fit into my minimap at max zoom out, which seems like a problem to me!) and then went and pulled mobs to kill. Except, oh, this phase doesn’t need kills, you need an NPC who gives you a lift to grab the scrolls off these bookshelves, but the NPC didn’t spawn right away when I got there, and so I had a train of pissed-off Forsworn NPCs running after this dumb ascended Kyrian who was late to work, and I had no control over my pathing, saved only by the fact that the quest required height to grab scrolls. I took my measly anima reward, logged out, and did errands with my wife, and that felt more enjoyable and rewarding than this one particular quest.
Speaking of rewards, you’ll have to grapple with the new focus on significance of loot rewards. Instead of the Legion and BfA model, where item level upgrades rained from the sky and there were typically around 6-12 gear-rewarding world quests up every 18 hours or so, now there are usually 3 at most, and typically two of them are Conduits for your Soulbind progression. This system does definitely make loot rewards feel a lot more, well, rewarding, but the tradeoff is that you can’t really effectively gear solely from world quests anymore. You must run dungeons, get crafted gear, or wait for the agonizingly long Renown grind to reach breakpoints to upgrade world quest item level – gone are scaling rewards based on equipped ilvl!
I’m of two minds on this one. As someone who has played for over a decade and who has spent most of their time under the old model of loot, this isn’t altogether new, and the Shadowlands model is still far more permissive of non-dungeon loot upgrades than most expansions prior to Legion. However, I didn’t realize how much I really valued the world quest upgrade path until it was taken, and I do feel a bit of frustration over it being neutered so drastically. It does, however, create social friction – you must engage with other players, however briefly and wordlessly, in order to gain upgrades on a timely schedule. I’ve done far more dungeons in the launch week than any of the last 3 expansions, and I have some mixed feelings about that…
Dungeons – Good, Repetitive Fun
Dungeons are great, as is usual, and with two dungeons per zone, you get a good mix of the zone aesthetics overall, although Bastion has a dungeon with a Maldraxxian vibe and I don’t like that much. The typical dungeon progression is here – Normal to Heroic to Mythic, but with the 13 item level tiers of the old days back instead of the neat 5 levels. In terms of design, the dungeons capture a lot of fun gameplay elements – there are variable trash pulls in dungeons like Halls of Atonement, more emphasis on NPC pathing and management, and a variety of mechanics that exist to stymie the “go-go-GO” Mythic Plus crowd’s pacing, at least in theory.
There are a few things about dungeons in Shadowlands that I don’t particularly like, however. Firstly, they are pretty much required for gear upgrading in these early days, and without the world quest path as we discussed above, there will be players who aren’t dungeon fans flooding them. My personal experience, playing as a healer, has been filled with frustrating sessions on both ends of the spectrum – a tank who moves so slowly and unsurely a mage started pulling, or a monk tank that blitzed through the Sanguine Depths wordlessly, pulling massive packs with poor mitigation and requiring far too much attention.
Secondly, while they feel better integrated into the game than they have in a while, I have fears about how things will scale as time goes on. Weekly quests push players into dungeons for reputation rewards, which hold increased value in a system with less of the emissary reputation and fewer world quests, so there will remain a longer-term incentive for people who don’t like dungeons to do dungeons. The design of time-stalling mechanics just sucks and doesn’t even meaningfully slow a group down – it just annoys. Sure, the first time through Spires of Ascension, you’ll feel the majesty of being ferried between platforms by noble ascended Kyrian. The 8th run, however, you’ll mutter under your breath at how fucking annoying the whole thing is, especially if you happen to wipe. That’s without getting into how Spires of Ascension has a 360 degree circle you can make in error because the moving between platforms can cause a lack of spatial awareness. Then, there’s Mists of Tirna Scithe. I love how this dungeon looks, but I’d just as soon shoot myself in the lower leg than actually play it. The trash segment between bosses 1-2 is a LITERAL FUCKING MAZE PUZZLE, and while the puzzle is simple enough, guess what? Any dumb fucker in your party can troll by running to the wrong door, pushing the whole party back to the start of the maze. I fully expect this to happen enough that Blizzard will have to fix it, because my perspective is that when I get Mists, despite wanting to love it, I’d much rather eat a deserter debuff and go play with a rank 4 Eye of the Jailer in the Maw instead. Speaking of…
The Maw: It’s Good, Actually?
Perennial favorite punching bag on this blog, the Maw. What does the release version have to say for itself?
Well…it is pretty good!
I know, I’m as shocked as you are.
Don’t get me wrong, I still think some of the design choices here are boneheaded. No mounts absolutely sucks, and okay, great – I can earn a mount in Torghast that works here, awesome (why is that not mount equipment, though? You haven’t used that system at all since adding it in BfA!), but it makes the zone tediously slow and annoying. Not unplayable, just sort of meh if you’re in a hurry. Gameplay-wise, however, the team has really polished up the gameplay experience of the Maw and made it something pretty great. It has two dailies, simple enough to get, either from Ven’ari right when you make your heroic crash landing, or marked easily on the map and pretty straightforward to find.
The Eye of the Jailer, at least for me on ElvUI, has a more clear indicator as to when you’re acquiring the ire of the namesake fiend for the debuff, and the gameplay flow generally adds very little to the debuff from standard play, instead using quest completion to push you higher. Killing rares, doing the daily quests, and freeing souls all incur a much higher amount of debuff than anything else, so if you really want to farm Stygia for a few hours, you could probably get away with it without doing quests, although the reward rates are much higher from quests and rares as-is. Having to buy a new Cypher of Relocation every 5 uses is annoying, as I predicted it would be, but costs so little as to never really be a concern. The upgrade items sold by Ven’ari are helpful and offer a mix of Torghast perma-buffs alongside Maw buffs. It seems like you’ll need some to explore the full zone – I ran to the Beastwarrens south of Ven’ari’s hideout and the game hit me with a debuff that made me run in fear while ticking for 10% of my health about 7 times over the duration of the debuff, leaving me in a pretty poor state for combat.
Overall, I think the design lands better near where I want it to be – still annoying, but mostly thematically appropriate and fulfilling, with a short, engineered gameplay loop designed to get you in and out pretty transparently.
Torghast: Duh, I Love It
If you’ve read my posts for a while now, my opinions on the Horrific Visions of 8.3 are well-known. I loved them, but hit a wall when power rewards ran out and I gave up on them shortly thereafter, as I found corruption resistance to be meaningless to me personally.
Torghast learns a lot from the lessons of the Horrific Visions, and is better in nearly every way. It offers limitless play per week, steady and capped player power progression, varied gameplay in each run through semi-random layouts and vastly different Anima Power loadouts, content that can be enjoyed solo or with up to 5 total players and scales…well, sort of okay, and ultimately feels meaty and substantial.
What I find most enjoyable in Shadowlands thus far is running a few layers of Torghast per night, just perfecting Anima Power selection, trying new combinations, pushing harder and faster in each run, and trying to really lock in my gameplay. I was worried that my beta impressions, played as Havoc Demon Hunter, would taint my view on Holy Paladin, because, well, the DH toolkit is tailor-made for this kind of content, but so far, it hasn’t. Runs require patience and steady progress over the constant push forward, but reward patient, smart gameplay many times over. Tuning for healing specs so far seems far better than even the post-hotfix Horrific Vision tuning was, and the variety of gameplay on offer is impressive and suitably awe-inspiring.
My hope is that future weeks offer more wings to do and that the gameplay remains tuned and relevant all expansion long. It is a pretty good roguelike mode, and while not as good as something like, say, Hades, for a mode of gameplay in WoW, it is pretty freaking great.
Covenants, Soulbinds, and Renown: Not Awful, But In Need of Work
The major systems of the Shadowlands are the single element most people deemed would either redeem or ruin the expansion.
So how’d they do?
Firstly, there is a blessing and a curse in the base leveling of the expansion on your main. You don’t interact with the Covenant at all short of abilities in the zone stories. There’s no rush to push a Renown rank prior to level cap or meet your first Soulbind – you just play the game and enjoy. And that is a nice change to the detours spent at the start of Legion and BfA getting the borrowed power into your hands and explaining it. However, it also becomes a burden at endgame, because your first time to 60, EVERYTHING gets dumped on you in the first hour or so with minimal guidance.
The first week may be a poor exemplar of this, but it summarizes neatly a problem that I find with modern Blizz. Okay, so the game should be this fun onion, full of layers (not a Funyun, which is a weird processed food snack), and as you peel aside the layers, it should naturally reveal itself. Covenants have a minimal core of daily systems (Callings and maybe missions if you’re engaging with those) and then a couple of core weekly systems (Renown quests, anima farming, soul farming, campaign unlocked via Renown). Okay, so you log in, and the game UI does make the immediate concerns clear – there’s a pop-up alert for a new calling and you have to go to your sanctum to accept it and start in on the work, and mission progress uses the same UI they’ve had since Garrisons. Great, don’t fix what ain’t broke and these things work great!
The problem comes in with the weekly elements. There’s no clear cap on Renown (but there is in fact a cap!) and so you might find yourself pushing into the Sanctum on every log in just looking for quests or content to do. However, there’s not much there – a couple of weekly quests for Renown, which also neatly tie up Anima investment and Soul acquisition for the week, and the quest log clearly points you back to the NPC for the next campaign chapter when that unlocks and tells you what requirements to fulfill if you’re stalled out.
All of this is fine, but tied together with other endgame systems, it is a bit of a mess. Blizzard loves “discoverability” and make it the keyword that describes the way they design content. What that means in theory is that the world is like a world, and it reveals the inner workings slowly and with effort to explore and find things. In practice, what it means is that about a third of your guildies have read the Wowhead guides on what they can do for the week, another third are blowing up guild chat asking questions about if there is more to do, and the remaining third are just silently confused. There’s a cap on Soul Ash from Torghast that reveals itself only through the Torghast layer selection UI, there’s a Renown cap that is only apparent once you realize that no more quests have been offered with renown rewards, and there is a cap on Soul acquisition per week to the 5 you get through the Renown weekly quest.
And this is a shame, because it mars what is actually a surprisingly well-done redesign of the systems everyone was worried about. Covenants have mastered making Anima valuable to a point but not player-power affecting, so only someone trying to be annoyingly smug would equate them to the systems of Artifact/Azerite power (enter: my guild leader in guild chat this very evening, noting “oh this again” at receiving an Anima reward as most of the guild pushed back on him). The sanctum offers a choice of progression that is down to personal preference – no need to read guides or math out the advancements on offer, just take a pick and go.
That brings us to Soulbinds, and…they’re maybe not bad? I think there is definitely the potential for these to be mathy and bad for min-maxers, but they offer a pretty clear set of choices for a casual player, and in practice, the Conduits simply having an item level takes the edge off of interacting with them. Everyone should get a good assortment from doing world quests and dungeons, and while item level value from raids means those are more valuable, the difference isn’t night and day. What I have yet to see is the upgrade mechanics – how that works may change my perception, but for now, I actually kind of like Soulbinds and Conduits. They aren’t nearly as aggressive of choices as Azerite traits were and the natural consequence of tying item level to them means you can often do alright by picking your highest item level Conduit for a given slot.
That leaves the Covenant Abilities, and these remain highly contentious and the one element so far that I’ve felt Blizzard has still failed to make balanced and appealing. When I switched to Holy Paladin for raiding, one of the fantasies of it in my head was getting the Night Fae plate set. It looks amazing and the white variant is a very nature-paladin type of look! Then I looked at the spells, and oh god, the Night Fae paladin spell is a steaming turd. A cycling blessing which requires navigating 4 different buffs, with only 1-2 that can impact the role of your choice? It is terrible! The Necrolord one is better, but it is a damage spell that only offers a very niche benefit to Holy, and while the Venthyr one is actually pretty decent, overall for all of the specs, Kyrian wins. This is actually something that remains from Wowhead’s prior analysis of their guidewriter recommendations – the Kyrian are, far and away, the best covenant for most players in most roles and modes of play, with over half of the recommends.
Now, of course, the difference these make are minor when factored in overall, so Blizzard’s contention would be that you can totally still pick one based on the flavor you prefer, but again, tying so many valuable rewards to a system so poorly balanced sucks ass, and it should be trashcanned in the future. I will say that Blizzard did better balancing them than they were on track to for the initially-planned launch date, but what made it live is still very bad. Most of my guild are Kyrian or Venthyr, with only a few Necrolords and Night Fae sprinkled in, and that feels awful. When you consider that the bulk of the 9.0 story, including the fates and continuations of several major lore characters, are locked behind these walls, it makes things even worse.
And that is funny, because I expected Soulbinds to be the worst part of the Covenant systems, but so far, it remains the abilities for each class, tied closely with the extreme amount of content gating this creates. It feels bad, so bad, and while yes, not every WoW player is a competitive min-maxing machine, no one wants to take a bad choice that feels subpar, and hey, using the Paladin example, the Night Fae choice is awful both from a player power perspective but also just in terms of gameplay feel and ease of understanding.
Overall For Now
Shadowlands offers the new content that WoW players have been starved for since January of this year, and offers a lot of it with a freeform model for tackling the endgame content of your choice alongside leveling an alt. It has more systems than prior expansions to achieve a reduced dependence on borrowed power systems, but it sometimes feels ill-explained and somewhat like pulling teeth to get the game to point you to the next reward activity or to maximize your gameplay time. Some standout gameplay modes and tweaks exist alongside some terrible design choices, and while I came away from my first week of play feeling mostly positive about the experience, I could see a lot of different players feeling a lot of different ways about it.
With work and some polish, I think the systems could be improved (or saved in the case of the Covenant abilities) but I think some serious thought and reflection needs to happen at Blizzard HQ about how these systems and their temporary, unbalancing nature often harms player interest and pushes people away from the game. That being said, I think they could do more to also integrate these systems into gameplay better so that they don’t stick out so much, and while Shadowlands backloads them to make leveling pristine and enjoyable, it does lead to a weird contradiction at endgame, where there is a mix of too much to learn and not enough to do, as the game doesn’t point you at enough content, doesn’t advise you when you’ve done enough, and makes sure that Wowhead, Icy Veins, and your favorite local independent bloggers will have roles to fill in the coming years.
But don’t let the largely negative tone of those last two paragraphs fool you – I think Shadowlands is a good expansion thus far and I think it goes a long way to address many of the concerns of the BfA gameplay model, while having some new foibles of its own. If you still feel like WoW is fun for you, this expansion brings more content and more fun, and my first week was an enjoyable romp, delayed only by the holidays and the placement and receipt of a myriad of online orders for PC components for my new system (this is the first post I’ve written on my new keyboard!).
Much remains to be seen, but the expansion has come out of the gates looking pretty good overall.
Just fix or scrap covenant abilities and make the flight master’s whistle work!