In Part 1 of this 2-part series, we broke down WoW Classic’s announcement of The Burning Crusade Classic and what concerns exist for that and the shape it will take based on what we know now.
In this post, we’re going deep on something a bit nearer to my heart personally – the current game and the first content patch of Shadowlands, 9.1, Chains of Domination.
As I discussed pretty much all week in the leadup to Blizzconline, I had expectations of a very different patch. One that would push us in a different sort of direction, with something more akin to Battle for Azeroth’s patch 8.1 – simpler, less dense with lore, allowing us to conclude the major arcs of the launch experience before diving headlong into new lore and new characters. Instead, Chains of Domination is perhaps a bit more ambitious. Maybe a lot more ambitious, actually.
Yet, in a way, I see it in a similar sort of vein to what I had predicted – dealing with the overall launch story, starting to pull things in a different direction at the same time, introducing some new stuff but keeping the scope relatively constrained.
Firstly, the unveiling trailer for the patch, which I enjoyed overall, minus some nitpicking I’ll do later.
The core story beats are exactly what the press kit described, but the cinematic here presents some interesting points. Firstly, the Anduin reveal was quite obviously telegraphed by Uther (who has white wings now!) whose Maw wound from Arthas reacted to the energy of the little lion. Secondly, this use of Anduin specifically and the Jailer’s reference to him as a “vessel” creates some interesting storytelling possibilities. His expression upon his murder (presumably) of Kyrestia is one of regret, before the runes on his armor react and force a more stoic Anduin. He is being controlled fully, aware of the horrific actions he is being made to do, but unable to stop them. At least, that is my read on it.
Secondly, this sets up an interesting counterattack for the Jailer and makes his story into something more compelling. At present, he seems like less of a threat because he is chained to the Maw, where we can only make small strikes and incursions, but once we leave, he isn’t really a threat anymore. Now, the potential exists that the Jailer can strike at the Covenants with his agents, or at least specifically with Anduin, for as long as he will be unrecognized by the native faces of the Shadowlands. It also allows for a redemption path for Anduin, as he appears to be doing all of this against his will. I fully believe that by the end of Shadowlands, we’ll be making a serious effort to cleanse Anduin, which will likely be simple enough once we can end the Jailer.
However, I have some concerns here. Firstly, while the Jailer is clearly evil and acting on a plan that makes his subordinates uncomfortable (more on that in a moment) I don’t feel a lot of sympathy for the Kyrian being the first targets. Their machinations and the way their whole engine works sucks, is at best an unsympathetic machine that hoovers up good souls and spits out formless angels to do a task and at worst pushes out everything that allowed someone to ascend to Bastion through violent reformation via Vespers and military conditioning at the Temples. Kyrestia has built a factory line for gormless, empty shells that robs these people of what made them good and ignores the very large systemic problems the Shadowlands currently faces with souls flowing to the Maw (quest text directly makes this canon, that the Kyrian know that the flow of souls is wrong, and yet do nothing). I’m supposed to, especially as a Kyrian player, hate that Anduin did a stabby stabby on Kyrestia, but I may have cheered when it happened. Also, does this mean that we can’t finish Spires of Ascension anymore? (kidding!)
That leaves me with Sylvanas. For a patch where she is the ultimate raid boss, the brief glimpse of her via new footage in the patch trailer is…troubling. I stand by my past statements – Sylvanas being redeemed is not just an undesirable outcome, but one that would feel shoehorned and out of place. Even if her aims are, in the end, completely pure and selfless, she took a lot of unwilling lives and caused an immeasurable amount of suffering to get there. At a certain point, the bones and blood that line her path make redemption untenable, and it would be incredibly awful and out of place for her to even glimpse redemption. In the lore, she should die knowing she fucked up, unable to atone, unable to make peace, left gasping for air as her miserable existence flashes before her eyes and the darkness takes her. I won’t say there is no way to tell that story in an interesting way, but it would be very cliche and it is such a difficult needle to thread that I can’t even speculate how you would possibly stick the landing. Even if there is a faction line in that story, it just again raises the specter of how uniformly awful the Horde actually are as a top-to-bottom faction, given that Daelin Proudmoore barely sniffed a fraction of what Sylvanas has done and yet his character arc is “this bastard is a constant problem and even his native kin discarded their idealized memories of him once exposed to that.” But in the trailer, Sylvanas shows remorse and sad eyes when the lifeless Anduin puppet holds his Kingsmourne up for the Jailer to take the Kyrian powers, so she’s totally good now!
No. Stop it.
Let’s talk about less speculative stuff though – the content.
The core design of the patch centers on story content involving the unification of the Covenants against the Jailer, and us ultimately traveling back into the Maw, to where the Jailer has chained up and brought Korthia into the zone. As a patch centered on the Maw, there will undoubtedly be some player apprehension. Blizzard is attempting to mitigate some of this – mounting will now be universally allowed in the Maw, it appears, although the exact nature of this is not yet disclosed. If the intention is that Korthia is a subzone of the Maw rather than a fully new zone, I expect that you’ll be able to mount right away. If not, I could see them tying ground mounting in the Maw to Pathfinder, which would be an irritant for sure, but there is a smaller playerbase irritated by the fact that their Twisting Corridors Layer 8 achievement is now just a neat mount instead of a full-on reward showcasing their player skill as they roam by the walking plebians.
As a zone, Korthia is said to be the City of Secrets (by the leaked press kit), and the panel discussed it as the home of the attendants of Oribos. This may mean that we learn some Arbiter lore here, have more discussion of the Purpose, and dive really deep on the lore that is being touched upon lightly in Oribos – at least, that is my hope. It being so close to the Maw is interesting and I hope we learn more about why that is as well.
Reward-wise, there are two cool mounts they showed, including a Warcraft-first hand mount, which sadly does not grab players and haul them like the Magitek Claw in FFXIV, and a Maw horse (Alliance players rejoice, you don’t have enough of those!). There are also what appear to be pet/toy rewards, of a Maw hand and an unbelievably adorable little Maw minion.
For other content, Torghast is being expanded, surely everyone is happy with that (I unironically am!). There will be new floors, new enemy types, new traps, and new anima powers – all TBA.
For dungeon players, we get the Mythic-only, non-keystone (for now) megadungeon of Tazavesh. This is an 8-boss, broker-themed dungeon that showcases some unique bosses and themes. The dungeon starts as a large broker city with portals going all over, and we’ll learn more about the various Cartels within the Broker hierarchy, which includes fights with unique Broker models, a pirate-dragon, and more. The dungeon finally concludes with a heist section involving a chase against a broker stealing an artifact of some power (the press kit specified from Azeroth, but the panel discussion did not touch on that point or even state the dungeon name). I suspect this will be like Return to Karazhan and Operation: Mechagon before it, where in a later patch, the dungeon will be neatly split in half for Heroic play and for Mythic Keystones for each half, keeping it relevant throughout the remainder of Shadowlands. Given the success of the hard mode achievement in Operation: Mechagon and the Nightbane mount in Return to Kara, I expect there will be a similar mode of content in Tazavesh, although I couldn’t even speculate what form it would take. The dungeon is whimsical and focused on new lore that is an interesting backbone of the current content, so I am all for it!
The new raid, the Sanctum of Domination, was touched on briefly. At present, what we know is this: it is a 10 boss epic located in Torghast, and we know 5 of the bosses involved. Those bosses are the Tarragrue, the Eye of the Jailer, the “Fate of the Damned” which is said to be the Jailer’s personal collection of damned souls that he torments, Kel’Thuzad (no mention of Mr. Bigglesworth), and Sylvanas herself. (Gnomecore has speculated that Nathanos will come back to play here, and I agree with that, but remain unsure of if he gets his own fight or is a part of the Sylvanas fight).
Raid-wise, I’m of two minds on this one. I still think that Sylvanas’ story isn’t playing out as I would hope, in that her new characterization has not been explored particularly well and that it also feels jarring and incorrect because of, well, everything that came before to this point. On the other hand, I think that the Jailer’s plot carries more weight and I think it will be better served if we see him without his tools going forward, as it will make what comes next more interesting, in my opinion. There’s also the chance that we don’t kill Sylvanas, and I don’t just mean that Tyrande will come in and kill-steal her for us, but rather, that she is somehow allowed to live. I’ve stated my preference quite a lot there, so I’ll leave it be for now! The rest of the named bosses seem interesting, a decent mix of existing lore characters, established NPC threats, and intriguing concepts that could go in a lot of different directions.
Lastly from the content standpoint, there is flying and new Covenant rewards. Not much was said here on requirements or the systems involved (we’ll talk more about why that is and how I feel about it in a moment) but there was a disclosure of the Pathfinder reward mount, and, as I suspected, it is unique per Covenant. The mounts look pretty cool, in my opinion, and fit the aesthetic of each Covenant. I will continue to carve out the exception of the Necrolords – the zone is ugly, the armor is ugly, and their mutant fly mount is wholly unappealing to me. The Kyrian get a mecha-lynx that looks pretty neat, the Night Fae get a fox-dragon, and the Venthyr, of course, get a gargoyle with sick glowy effects. Each faction also gets a new cosmetic armor set that is armor-type agnostic, meaning everyone can wear it! The Kyrian get togas (yes!), the Necrolords get a necromancer-esque number (that I actually really like, the first bit of Necrolord art that is personally appealing), the Night Fae get…basically a similar-enough set to their current Mail armor, and the Venthyr get a pretty neat but somewhat plain party suit or dress. Both the mounts and the outfits appear to have a variety of tints, which seem likely to be tied to Renown or other various reward breakpoints, much like our current armor and rewards. There will also be soulbind changes, although to what extent or how, no information was provided.
What that brings me to is a slight rant.
One of the things I was starving for in this panel, and remain hungry for now, is systems information. Anything at all about how these new things would actually work – and none of that was delivered. Ion Hazzikostas started the panel off, describing the work changes necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic and how Shadowlands as a product is a collaborative effort between the players and developers, with the direct quote, “the product of a conversation between us, the development team, and all of you.” Now, I have mixed feelings on that. Obviously, the beta period was longer for this expansion, as Ion points out – it would have been even on the original launch date, but especially with the pushback. There was a lot of player feedback, and I will say that the team did meet some of it with targeted changes. The next section, he said, “we’re gonna talk a little bit less about systems. We have tons to share there, but the way we need to work on our systems, as we’ve learned, is of course by first seeing how they’re playing out in your hands.”
The next part, however, sort of blew me away.
“…when we look at our systems, unlike in some past expansions at this point, we’re not seeing anything that needs to be completely overhauled or replaced.”
I will say this first. Shadowlands from a system standpoint is better overall, I think and believe, than either BfA or even Legion. They’ve gotten much closer to deterministic rewards for PvP and through the Great Vault, made Legendaries far less of a frustration point (Torghast is the sticking point for most I’ve seen, rather than the overall system itself, with the awkward crafting experience mechanic a close second), front-loaded rewards such that the time spent in game can be smartly dealt with and reduced to fit your schedule, and the borrowed power systems of Shadowlands are less obnoxious and demanding compared to Azerite or Artifacts. I do think that you could, reasonably, make it to a point where balancing brings things in-line enough that players are overall pretty happy, and depending on your class, spec, and mode of play, you might already feel pretty happy. On my Demon Hunter, for example, I wanted to be Kyrian, it is a strong Covenant choice for me in the modes of content I enjoy and play most, and the Soulbinds feel fine and offer some interesting choices in routing but also in their unique powers. If I wanted to switch, Venthyr and Night Fae are both viable for my raid main role of Havoc DPS, but I would sacrifice potential tanking power to get there. Lastly, there are Necrolords, which offer me the aesthetic I dislike, armor I don’t like, and a weak Covenant power. If I wanted to be a Necrolord Demon Hunter, I would probably be pretty irritated right now – but I also raid and read into theorycrafting and data analysis about my raid main, so that performance matters much more on my DH than it would if I, say, wanted to roll my Paladin as Necrolord, where the power isn’t great, but if I’m not pushing for AotC on the character, it matters less.
However, I think this statement is going to be the “morally grey” of Shadowlands, in my opinion. Players arguing in good faith who are disappointed with the systems will, undoubtedly, be let down by this and if tuning doesn’t follow swiftly, that will leave them with the choice of sucking it up or quitting, neither of which are great! Players arguing in bad faith, on the other hand, will regurgitate this endlessly. If you’re already in a comment section making up how Blizzard is going to force you to farm Exalted with all Shadowlands reps for flying or other doomsaying nonsense, this is just going to be another bullet in the magazine for you, a thing that can be stripped of context and shot at anyone whose opinion of the game doesn’t match your own.
Here’s what I don’t like about this portion of the Shadowlands panel – it sort of decontextualizes the process of beta and glosses over how it went in favor of painting it as overly rosy and friendly when it was, at many times, somewhat adversarial. There was a lot of pushback on Covenants, and there still kind of is. The Maw as a concept was absolutely loathed when it launched, at least in most places I looked (it was my berserk button for a few weeks, certainly!), and there were a lot of signs early on that Blizzard was going to be pretty stuck on some of these systems. It took a lot of feedback to get them to budge on Covenant choice and changing, balancing of underwhelming powers took a lot of feedback during beta, and even then, some powers that were just totally lacking in juice shipped anyways, and a lot of players have been stuck making choices they don’t like to get power they want. My guild has a DK who loves the Kyrian aesthetic and really wanted to be one, and was one, but they just lose too much DPS to being Kyrian over Necrolord, so he had to switch (personal choice there, as we don’t enforce performance to that kind of degree). Likewise, we have a priest healer who went Necrolord to play Holy, but class and covenant balance pushed him towards Discipline and also forced a Covenant change to Venthyr. I’m actually leveling my allied race priest after already getting a priest to 60 so I can play with Kyrian on my original raid main priest and then roll Discipline with Venthyr on my Lightforged Draenei priest.
For all the changes they did make (and I will give them credit for tweaking the Maw and getting closer than early beta on ability balance), there are many changes still to make, and the core concept of the expansion, Covenant choice, is still largely an illusory choice for serious players, who often have to choose a specific covenant to maximize their performance. A flavorful choice when you are allergic to 3 of the 4 plates in front of you is not much of a choice at all. I also recognize that this is not the experience of a more casual player, or even an unserious alt player. For me, I made my raid main choices based on performance – it’s why both my Paladin and my DH are Kyrian. For my alts, it was down to flavor – my first priest is Kyrian because I wanted the cloth armor, my Hunter is Night Fae because it performs the best (but still looks cool!), and my monk is going Night Fae because I like it – despite the lower performance she’ll suffer for it.
This also glosses over the recent balancing woes of the game, where the Season 1 content was launched and major class and spec tuning was off the table until very recently. Even then, the tuning has not been particularly well-targeted or fixed the problems – instead, simple aura buffs of 3-5% globally have been applied for underperforming specs to give them a little hope, while 9.0.5 is supposed to, in theory, bring more substantial changes including the first major rebalance and reworks of underperforming Covenant abilities.
So personally, I’m not necessarily bothered by the casual summarization of what felt like months of doing battle with the developers at times. I did my beta best – submitted lots of feedback, wrote posts here discussing it, talked with my guild, wove all of that back into my beta reports and my posts here, and I have had a pretty good expansion experience so far. However, I know that many other players have not, and there is a perception that Blizzard has been too slow to act, too weak and anemic in offering change, and have often not been as amenable to change as the statements made during the panel imply. To be fair, I feel that way too – I’ve seen Blizzard drag their feet and have remarked at how quiet they’ve largely been since Shadowlands launched, and I wouldn’t blame anyone for feeling like they might be tuned out or disengaged from player feedback.
But this statement creates what I fear is a challenge for us in the coming months. The idea seems to be that 9.1 will hit PTR, and we’re all supposed to be testing it for them without any sort of guidelines as to expected results or what content they want to sharpen up on, short of PTR forum posts that many players on the PTR won’t even see, or will see via Wowhead. On a test server, it can often be very hard to provide meaningful feedback without clear explanation of what is happening or why – in the 8.3 PTR, I talked a lot about the one day I spent cramming in as many Horrific Visions as I could, but then the system was totally different because, of course, for testing, they allowed you to max out powers and run roughshod without any real context as to how upgrades would arrive or what the expectation was for progressing your runs inside the instances. Naturally, I came away feeling like they were fun in a way, but sort of shallow, and then I left it alone and was very surprised with how different they were on live servers compared to that day 1 PTR experience. My fear is that we’ll have, at best, a repeat of Shadowlands beta, where players beg and plead for gameplay improvements and maybe get 35% of what they want, or worst case, a repeat of BfA beta, where we’re told we don’t yet understand the full system while no further context is provided, players wail about how bad things feel, the patch launches feeling bad, and that feedback has a giant live player multiplier while Blizzard is slow to adapt.
And that is what I missed in this panel – I wanted details on the full requirements for flight, Renown expansion, loot drop rates, raid reward systems, how Korthia rewards will be obtained, will Legendaries upgrade, how Soulbinds will expand and change, if there will be balancing or tuning of classes done here or if it all is in 9.0.5, and how all of this ties together from a daily gameplay perspective. Instead, we got a panel that was fairly lore-instructive but very light on gameplay details.
So if you’re a lore fiend, this probably feels great and you’re probably very, very stoked right now – and I’m sort of there with you. If you’re here primarily for gameplay and want to know how the game is going to feel and what content you’ll do, well, it was far too light on that for my tastes. For as much as I do weave in lore discussion, I’m a WoW player primarily for gameplay, and because of that perspective, I was left feeling a bit disappointed after the panel concluded. I had hoped with the initial Blizzconline schedule that we’d have an hour of full-on Shadowlands talk, but instead, I got 35 minutes of people talking about TBC Classic, and 25 minutes of very light, surface-level gameplay unveils that just leave me wanting more.
For players who don’t currently like the loot system or are struggling to engage with the game on their terms, I imagine it feels worse, because there just isn’t any lifeline in what they discussed today for those types of players, and that feels like a mistake to me.