Shadowlands was a…contentious expansion, would probably be the best way to describe it.
With yesterday’s prepatch, updating WoW to 10.0, the game is now Dragonflight, except not really. And ultimately, if you’re here reading this, you already know how a WoW prepatch works – you get some new shinies to play with, the game is fucking weird for a few weeks as it hovers with new systems designed for new content but has you playing the old content instead, where classes and specs feel strange and the bonuses from that content are typically disabled or labeled as “Legacy.”
So with this patch, Shadowlands is over, yet for another few weeks, Shadowlands is the only current content to play. This makes a good time to look back at the Shadowlands, to discuss how WoW went so wrong and yet also was still kind of okay, depending on what you focused on.
The Tainted Legacy of Shadowlands
A lot of people on my blog Twitter were using the setup of a tweet-thread about Shadowlands reviews to do a 1-2 punch: here’s my review (1/?), second tweet – it sucked. This was a funny premise I enjoyed a little bit, but I also think in blog format, it’s not what you’re here to read nor is it what I want to write.
Shadowlands did kind of suck, that is true to a point. Shadowlands fused the worst aspects of borrowed power together to create an abomination in the Covenant and Shadowlands Legendary systems, started an egregious practice of patch-specific borrowed power mechanics, and has continued a general WoW trend of focus on instanced content to the exclusion of meaningful and interesting world content. Shadowlands’ story, while possessing some interesting beats and payoffs, ultimately focused on a deflating and disappointing central arc that faked out better possibilities for Sylvanas (paying off a very narrow slice of her story in a decent way, in my opinion) while putting focus on the Jailer and his exposed nips, a story beat that stunk like a sweaty ass. At any point after a break, catching up to a raid-ready level required a lot of opaque grinding against the Covenant system for Renown and story progress, against Torghast for Legendary currencies, and against the markets for Legendary base items (or crafting if you really wanted to do it the hard way). Then there were Conduits, requiring both acquisition and leveling (unless you could somehow jump right into a Mythic raid for the best Conduit at the highest available dropped item level at the time!), and you can kind of see how things would be frustrating.
These things about Shadowlands were often awful and felt bad, and as I’ve reflected on the reasons for my initial Shadowlands burnout, I think the thing that became most clear is that it both is and is not the worst borrowed-power setup for a single reason – control.
In Legion, the Artifact was a fixed path to a shared destination, and there wasn’t really a way to drastically speed past anyone else without putting in literal mountains of work. If you were a streamer and could play the game all day, then chain-running Maw of Souls keys for Artifact Power until you were blue in the face (or the point they patched the AP from that dungeon) could get you a point or two ahead at any given juncture, but there was a real question of value there that was not worth it to most players. More importantly, though, were Legiondaries – and the very random nature of acquisition of those meant that grinding could return some value, but it was so vague and undefined as to not be worth it. Let it be what it will be was the general rule, and here’s the thing – that sucked really badly (especially when you’d finally get a Legiondary and it was like, a utility one), but it was also very freeing. The game took the ability to manage the Legendary system out of your hands entirely, so basically as long as you played normally and had your loot spec set correctly, you’d be as good as you could be. Sure, you could grind content to your heart’s content, but you were putting an unknown number of coins into an unknown piggy bank, waiting to see when it finally popped. The blindness of the system made it feel bad, but it also made it freeing to a point – if anything you do has about an equal chance of popping out a Legendary, then nothing special was needed.
Shadowlands gave players control by making Legendaries and most borrowed power component systems have clear, controllable goals you could choose to push harder on. Need a new legendary power from a balance change? It drops in this dungeon off this boss, so you can try and run that as much as you want. Need Torghast currency? You’ve still got upper layer rewards you can chase this week if you really want some, and then eventually, with no cap on weekly rewards, you could just go and go again until you were done. Need a specific conduit? It drops at a fixed item level based on the difficulty of this dungeon or raid, so go run it as much as you can. While catchup systems eventually started taking the edge off of such systems, they came much too late and at points where the value was diminished. They also came with some decidedly-meh compromises, like the exchange rate on Legendary materials taking a margin off the top. Better to have them then to not have them, but it just felt excessively treadmilly in a bad way.
Shadowlands has also generally struggled with things most modern WoW expansions do – there’s a lack of true choice in builds, a lack of stuff you can do that is rewarded in any way other than gear or player power (outside of customary mount/pet items), and a lack of focus on the types of content that non-instanced content enjoyers might like, making open world content that feels quite similar to dungeons or raids but with lower item level scales and less interesting fights, and a lack of focus on player feedback until it was much, much too late. Shadowlands also suffered more than prior expansions for these issues, because in the post-harassment suit era of Blizzard, multiple MMOs rose up, with new releases and stellar expansions for existing contenders. WoW-only fans might hate to hear it, but a big part of why Shadowlands feels worse by comparison is down to competition – FFXIV was rocking with Shadowbringers and launched into Endwalker season right as the sheen was worn off of Blizzard, and while new MMOs haven’t found as sure of a footing, games like New World and Lost Ark made their mark as well. Shadowlands suffered a multi-hit combo here, because at a time when some WoW fans were looking for viable alternatives, there were options coming into focus.
But, here’s the thing that is often missed in this kind of analysis…
Shadowlands Was Still A Decent, Modern Core WoW Experience
I will qualify this first because I know it will meet with resistance.
WoW in modern times is a game about dungeons, raids, and PvP, all instanced. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Well, it depends on how you feel about those. For a fair number of players, the answer is that it’s bad – and I can understand the reasons why players might object. The nature of a lot of things plaguing WoW – lack of non-power rewards, cookie-cutter builds and lack of choices, and the lack of world in Warcraft – all sort of stem from this focus.
But if you like those things, WoW has remained a great game there. Mythic Plus in Shadowlands felt like it hit a stride in many ways, with interesting dungeon designs, open maps, and multiple different routes taking shape throughout the seasons of Shadowlands. Raids were maybe not quite as good, as the Sanctum of Domination suffered in particular from issues with an overlong final boss fight featuring long bouts of non-combat gameplay, and the tuning of Sepulcher of the First Ones on launch was abysmally bad, leading to a world first race that burned out teams near the finish line and sparked tension within existing groups at all levels of play, an issue that took Blizzard months of hotfixes to properly address.
Raid designs stumbled a bit during Shadowlands, mostly through drawn-out, tedious long end bosses and mechanics that could be punishing for increased item levels or raid performance. Phase 1 on Sire Denathrius is an annoying exercise in stopping and starting DPS just right as you gear up, Phase 1 of Sylvanas can end poorly if your raid goes full-tilt and ends just slightly shy of a full push. There were a fair few such fights throughout Shadowlands, where a poorly-timed or aligned push could lead to disaster. The tuning of Sepulcher needs a mention again, as it was the most-nerfed raid in WoW’s history, due to mistakes the dev team made with targeted levels of performance. It is a hope that the team will do better in Dragonflight, but that remains to be seen.
Yet still, Shadowlands had some excellent bosses and raid designs within its content structure – Castle Nathria is a raid I enjoyed a lot!
PvP I can speak far less to, but it generally seems to have continued to remain about as popular as ever in Shadowlands. A mix of new arena maps and the continual tweaking and balancing of the game have made it maintain a steady playerbase, while early in Shadowlands, gearing through PvP was fairly excellent and it led to a higher-uptake in more casual gameplay modes as players from PvE would sometimes come in to earn some gear.
Sure, a similar set of issues continued to remain issues – class and spec balance often felt quite lopsided and created defined metagames, a lack of talent choices and viable builds means many players of a shared spec were often also the same talent build, and these issues also extend into borrowed power where most specs often only had a single viable Covenant choice, maybe one per mode, and then eventually the min-maxing stretched into a per-fight basis with optimized Covenants per fight once that pesky ripcord was finally pulled.
I’m of two minds about these issues – on the one hand, balance is perpetually near a problem in WoW, and since you can’t just switch classes on the same character, it leads some insatiable folks to roll new characters and push harder, burning out more and more. Talents, likewise, have not offered a lot of choice since the “Pick-3” era emerged, which is understandable to a point (you only have so many combos of abilities you can pick) but has also led to valid questions about why such a small possibility space cannot be better balanced. On the other hand, Shadowlands was actually fairly well balanced for most of the expansion, with a top-to-bottom spread that wasn’t as big of a split as the game has seen, talents that felt relatively more balanced, and while the meta could sometimes lead to exclusionary action by players (try being a non-DH tank in Season 1 M+ high keys with PUGs), things felt relatively okay and there were less instances of players feeling so compelled to switch class or spec at non-mythic levels of play.
Could things on the instanced-content front have been better? Absolutely. Were they all that bad if we strip away the borrowed power systems? Not really. I wouldn’t put Shadowlands on my top-tier of expansion content offerings, but it wouldn’t be my bottom tier either.
The Opportunities WoW Still Has
Ultimately, WoW has an opportunity now to reset, the same as any new expansion offers, and Dragonflight is already offering a decent start.
WoW has a lot of room to grow into itself and learn from past mistakes. Dragonflight’s removal of borrowed power is a big start, certainly, but an opportunity I have seen echoed repeatedly and agree with is that the game needs more than talent trees to be an RPG again. WoW used to offer these chances to interact with the world and do things that were just there to be fun, and it hasn’t quite figured out how to balance that against the development desire for raids and dungeons, a thing that then becomes self-fulfilling (all you make is good raid and dungeon content so those players stick around and ask for more, perpetuating the cycle). The game needs a bit more of a philosophical shift then it currently has to get to a better place for a larger portion of players. Coming at this from the fresh view of having spent the last year deeply immersed in FFXIV, I think that FFXIV is streets ahead at offering cosmetic, non-power rewards, and providing space and the ability for players to just simply exist in the world, and WoW once did that but has struggled to find the footing it once had on those issues.
On the story front, I think WoW continues to have good and even great small zone stories and side-quest beats, but has an unfocused mess of a main narrative. Shadowlands was pretty unanimously reviled on the story front and my hope is that Dragonflight offers a reset to pull things back onto a better track. I don’t exactly have optimism that it will do that, given some little window into expansion-wide storytelling options back in the earlier stages of datamining, but stranger things have happened!
I do think, with the benefit of a nearly complete beta cycle to review, that Dragonflight does learn from some of the key mistakes Shadowlands made. With an emphasis on content for content’s sake instead of tying it to busywork borrowed-power systems, there is a strong case being made that the developers of the game finally are awake at the wheel and working to get back on a stronger path. While I think the opportunities I just mentioned are still going to be difficulties the game will face as time marches on, at least there will be fewer fronts of conflict between players and developers – and that is a net win in my book.
In fact, it, coupled with some other events, has given me cause to consider rejoining the WoW-iverse, a decision upon which I will elaborate…soon (the draft is done and you’ll probably see that in the next day or so).