World of Warcraft: Shadowlands review-in-progress

The complex, interlocking progression systems in World of Warcraft: Shadowlands sometimes captivate me. Now that I’m level 60, I’m chipping away at leveling up my Covenant’s headquarters, renovating a ballroom so I can host posh vampire parties, or a machine that blasts an area with special energy, creating new monsters and quests to kill for loot. All the while, I’m beating the usual mix of dungeons and world quests, while occasionally exploring Shadowlands’ fantastic new roguelike dungeon, called Torghast, earning wild new abilities that make me obscenely powerful, but only within the confines of the dungeon itself. It’s one of the most ambitious endgames World of Warcraft has ever had, and it’s easy to get swept up in it.

And then there are moments where I step back and see Shadowlands as nothing but another World of Warcraft checklist, an endless treadmill of mostly brainless tasks. Run here, kill this, run there, loot that. Push this button 40 times over the next week to receive a treat that’ll eventually be replaced by a slightly different treat with slightly better ingredients. It all feels a little pointless—especially when World of Warcraft’s gradual shift toward emphasizing playing solo means I can’t even say the real Shadowlands were the friends I met along the way.

Highway to hell 

Shadowlands bears the heavy responsibility of making up for the frustrations of Warcraft’s previous chapter. In the same way that Legion had to win back fans after the disaster that was Warlords of Draenor, Shadowlands is tasked with making up for the tedious grind and convoluted story of Battle for Azeroth. I’m really beginning to tire of this up and down relationship, especially when other MMOs like Final Fantasy 14 and The Elder Scrolls Online only get better and better with each new update.

Shadowlands makes huge improvements over Battle for Azeroth.

In a lot of ways, though, Shadowlands makes huge improvements over Battle for Azeroth. There’s no more infinite grind to breathlessly chase. There’s no opaque armor system like Azerite Armor to suck the joy out of getting that coveted loot drop from a dungeon boss. And, best of all, a lot of randomness has been dialed back in favor of player choice. Instead of spending weeks praying for a specific, all-powerful Legendary item to drop only to get one that’s useless to me, I can farm the materials for the one I want and build it myself. It’s empowering to be the one calling the shots instead of feeling beholden to fickle gods of randomness.

Ardenweald is one of WoW’s best zones ever. (Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

This emphasis on player choice is most evident in Covenants, which are basically Hogwart’s different houses if those houses were each a distinct afterlife where souls are sent to live for all eternity. Instead of Slytherin you have Maldraxxus, a nightmarish hellscape of green where Necrolord armies battle in the Theater of Pain for—actually, I don’t even know why. But hell, it sure beats sitting in quiet contemplation like those blue-skinned chumps from Bastion.

The story campaign that takes you from level 50 to 60 introduces you to the four major factions of World of Warcraft’s afterlife and the problems that are threatening the balance of the Shadowlands. As far as WoW’s leveling experiences go, Shadowlands is one of the best.

Quests are still so brainless and easy, but I enjoyed the numerous cutscenes that do a lot to make the story feel coherent. The five new zones are each gorgeous in their own way, but none can really compare to the tragic majesty of Ardenweald, a withering cosmic forest where the branches of enormous trees spiral outward like the arms of a galaxy. World of Warcraft has dozens of enchanted forests and Ardenweald beats all of them.

All those cutscenes are nice but they’re also incapable of being anything more than moderately entertaining. Compared to Final Fantasy 14, which has spent the past seven years spinning an emotional and rousing story that has put me on the verge of crying once or twice, World of Warcraft’s narrative feels toothless. Events move too fast and characters are given such little room to breathe that I never get the chance to truly know them, let alone understand them. The leaders of Azeroth have all been abducted by the evil Sylvanas and taken to the Shadowlands, but I just don’t care who survives.

Below: It’s story might not stir much emotion, but the cutscenes are still badass.

It makes me question why I even need to level my character at this point. Back in World of Warcraft’s early days, the journey was the reason. Each level felt earned. But leveling in modern Warcraft is so brainless, and the story so unaffecting. At no point during the 15 hours it took me to reach max level did I feel challenged or surprised by the story quests, and if you’ve played WoW in the last six years you’ll be familiar with all the different quest types. I didn’t hate it, but I’d rather skip the pretense altogether and jump straight into the meat of its endgame progression, like choosing which Covenant to join upon reaching level 60. 

Decisions, decisions 

Choosing which Covenant to join is the biggest choice I’ve made in WoW since picking my race and class. Each one offers a distinctly different endgame experience, with their own separate story, side activities, and powerful abilities. Signing up with the Venthyr means I get Door of Shadows, which lets me teleport 35 yards, skipping past monsters or across otherwise impassable chasms. If I had signed up with the definitely-not-evil angels of Bastion, however, I’d get the ability to call on a cute little owl steward (slave) who can serve me stat-enhancing drinks, play a song, or do a dozen other tasks that benefit me in different ways.

Throughout the countless hours I sunk into Shadowlands’ alpha and beta tests, this choice and these abilities dominated the debate because players were scared that they wouldn’t be balanced enough to make them all equal. Someone who decides to sign up with the Night Fae of Ardenweald might feel left out because their ability to turn into a spirit fox is useless in a raid, unlike Maldraxxian recruits who can suck the bones out of nearby corpses to make a temporary shield.

Below: Venthyr’s Door of Shadows ability is super useful in the right circumstances.

I just can’t escape the feeling that I’ve run this marathon before.

It’s still a lingering concern, but these problems are only likely to affect the most hardcore of players hellbent on maximizing their character’s stats. For most casual players, like me, it’s more about choosing Covenants based on thematic flavor, how cool the unique armor sets look, or how useful those abilities might be to your given class.

Once you join a Covenant, though, you have to begin the long grind of unlocking all these different rewards and systems. A resource called Anima is gained from completing most endgame activities and can be spent on upgrading different parts of your Covenant headquarters, called a Sanctum. It’s a much more engaging endgame system than previous expansions because I’m working toward unlocking new ways to play Warcraft rather than just incremental stat upgrades, and I really like how much personality and flavor each Covenant has.

As a Venthyr, I’m chilling out in my underground vampire lair, using blood mirrors to travel around the ruinous castles of Revendreth. If I had gone with Maldraxxus, though, my Sanctum would be inside of a colossal statue of their god, populated with festering undead monstrosities pieced together like Frakenstein. World of Warcraft’s story might fizzle more than it pops, but its worldbuilding is still cool as hell.

I just can’t escape the feeling that I’ve run this marathon before. I love that Blizzard swings big on its expansions where other MMOs are happy to stick to a template, but it still feels like I’m running on a treadmill and going nowhere. I can bust my ass grinding my Covenant, but a player who starts playing a month from now will catch up to me with minimal effort. And when a major update comes out, the goal posts will be moved back and I’ll have to keep pushing forward.

Below: Torghast is a cool roguelike dungeon that can be explored solo or as a party.

I’m struggling to feel invested. The whole experience is so ephemeral and inconsequential.

When I’m running Shadowlands’ excellent new dungeons and eventually its raid, I don’t mind because the challenge of beating these tough encounters is rewarding in itself. It’s exciting to step into the Mists of Tirna Scithe with a party and have to navigate its ever-changing maze that reminds me of the Lost Woods in Zelda—especially when I get to the point where I’m doing it at Mythic+ difficulty, where ultra tough enemies and a timer stand between me and sweet victory.

But I’m feeling disenchanted by so much of what’s outside of those moments. Running around knocking out mindless world quests that I know I will repeat hundreds of times before the expansion is done. Or grinding through Covenant campaign quests that lead me from one easy fight to the next.

Shadowlands has made many changes to WoW that I’m sure will thrill its dedicated players—and a few that will undoubtedly enrage them. But for the first time since I started playing WoW, I’m struggling to feel invested. The whole experience is so ephemeral and inconsequential. More than ever, I’m asking myself if I’m continuing to play WoW because I’m actually having fun or if it’s just out of a warped sense of obligation—a need to leave no item on that list unchecked and the fear of what I might miss out on if I do. It’s an answer I don’t have yet, but hopefully will over the next week as I work to complete this review.

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