Since Wrath of the Lich King, World of Warcraft has had a problem: every other expansion tends to be lackluster. Both Classic and Burning Crusade were excellent. Wrath of the Lich King is highly regarded. Cataclysm was the first truly mediocre expansion. Mists of Pandaria brought the game back to its former glory, but Warlords of Draenor might be the lowest point in the game’s history. Then came Legion, which was the best expansion in years. Its follow-up, Battle of Azeroth, was all right – but nothing special. If the pattern holds, Shadowlands should be excellent. And while it’s impossible to judge an expansion to an MMO at or close to launch, playing it the same feeling I got when I was playing Legion – specifically, that this expansion is going to be very, very good.
It starts, surprisingly enough, with the plot. Sylvanas Windrunner has destroyed the Helm of Domination – the spiky hat the Lich King wears that allows him to control Undead – which has broken the barrier between the mortal realm and Warcraft’s afterlife. Doing this actually shatters the sky, so it’s pretty obvious to anyone paying attention. Afterwards, several of the major characters – Jaina Proudmoore, Anduin Wrynn, Thrall, and Baine Bloodhoof – have been kidnapped by the Jailer, the dude who runs Warcraft’s Hell, known as The Maw. Your job is to go get them back.
"Previous expansions have largely let you choose where to start, but Shadowlands doesn’t, and the game feels stronger for it. It also lets you appreciate the individual strengths of each zone."
It expands from there, of course, but I won’t spoil it. The Jailer isn’t very interesting – he mostly stays in the background – but he’s really just an excuse to explore WoW’s afterlife and meet new (an old) friends, something Blizzard makes the most of. You’ll run into familiar faces, obscure references, and a few surprise appearances that manage to feel both obvious and welcome at the same time. It would be easy to go after the low-hanging fruit here, but Blizzard doesn’t, and the interactions players experience in the Shadowlands are a lot of fun.
The afterlife itself is divided into four zones aside from The Maw – Bastion (Warcraft heaven), Maldraxxus (Undead Thunderdrome), Ardenweald (Happy Elf Forest) and Revendreath (Hot Topic Transylvania). Each zone is unique, but what unifies all of them is how focused the storytelling of Shadowlands is. The game’s storylines are tight and well-told, and do a good job of establishing minor characters that you pal around with before bringing them into the larger plot. Blizzard’s strength, with a couple of exceptions, has always been their ability to make you care about their characters, and Shadowlands does a good job of that. There’s some campy dialogue here and there, but I can’t remember the last time WoW’s storytelling was this tight.
Part of this is because you have to do these zones in a certain order. Previous expansions have largely let you choose where to start, but Shadowlands doesn’t, and the game feels stronger for it. It also lets you appreciate the individual strengths of each zone. Bastion is probably the weakest of the four, but it does a good job of establishing the rules and easing players into how Shadowlands works. Madraxxus, on the other hand, drops you right into a gladiatorial pit. The whole zone is a fight, and its opening captures that perfectly. Ardenweald starts as players help forest faeries solve what are initially small problems and escalates into a war to save the forest from invasion. My favorite, however, is Revendreath, which is populated by a bunch of Dracula looking dudes. It’s easily one of the more varied zones in the expansion, with some genuinely hilarious questlines and a lot of variety in what you do.
"There’s some truly gorgeous scenery, from the flying holds of Bastion to the lush groves of Ardenweald or the tall, Gothic castles of Revendreath."
The zones are bolstered by some fantastic visual design. Blizzard has employed some of the industry’s best artists for some time, but they’ve outdone themselves with Shadowlands. There’s some truly gorgeous scenery here, from the flying holds of Bastion to the lush groves of Ardenweald or the tall, Gothic castles of Revendreath. WoW’s engine may be old, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at Shadowlands, especially if you’re running it on high settings. I ran the game with an RTX 2060 Super and a i5 6600K at 1080p and Ultra settings across the board, and experience very little slowdown. When it did happen, it was mostly because I was transitioning to a cutscene. Otherwise, the game runs at a locked 60 FPS.
While the linear nature of the expansion does wonders for the game’s storytelling, the gameplay experience is largely unchanged. The biggest change here is probably the level squish, which changes the max level from 120 to 60. It manages to make leveling up feel meaningful again, mostly because you’re not dealing with absurdly huge numbers anymore. You won’t get a ton of new abilities as you level up, but Blizzard did return several abilities to classes that had previously lost them, which is a nice touch. Otherwise, the leveling experience is the same. You’ll do quests, get experiences, kill things, collect items, and so on. One nice change is that there’s a clear mark alerting you to which quests advance the zone’s story and which don’t, allowing you to prioritize what you want to do. There’s also a recap available in the quest journal so you can easily catch up with where you are if you take a few days off from playing.
The ability to know which quests would advance the plot and which wouldn’t just by looking at them was great because the main quests are far more engaging than the side quests are. Though several of them retain more traditional mechanics like “kill X thing” or “collect Y items,” there’s also a lot of scripted variety and phased sequences, which made Shadowlands’ level experience a lot more fun. The side quests, on the other hand, are pretty rote, and I mostly skipped them. The main questline is more than enough to level you to 60, and since you’ll have to complete it before you can do any of the endgame content, there’s an impetus to get through it quickly.
"After the storyline is finished, you’ll be able to pledge loyalty to one of the available Covenants, which are essentially factions representing each zone. Each Covenant has its own story to complete, and you can switch (for a fee, generally paid in time)"
Once you do hit the level cap, a lot of things open up to you. The most obvious is the Covenant system. After the storyline is finished, you’ll be able to pledge loyalty to one of the available Covenants, which are essentially factions representing each zone. Each Covenant has its own story to complete, and you can switch (for a fee, generally paid in time). These storylines are enjoyable, but most importantly, they offer access to the abilities associated with each faction. This is another example of the “borrowed power” system – aka abilities that go away as soon as the next expansion comes out – that Blizzard has leaned into since Legion. Shadowlands’ Covenants are certainly better than the awful Azerite power system from Battle of Azeroth, but it’s still not as engaging as Legion’s artifacts were.
The other big issue is that certain abilities from certain Covenants are very clearly better than others, so there’s not much of an incentive to choose anything except the Covenant that offers the best ability for your class. Hopefully, Blizzard will continue to work on this so players have more variety available to them. Still, Covenants are a nice way to continue the expansion’s story beyond the initial questlines. The fact that later characters can jump into them earlier on is an added bonus.
Players will also gain access to The Maw, the Jailer’s home turf, and the Torghast Tower of the Damned. The former is a dangerous zone without much to keep you safe, and where you might even spend some time recovering resources after you die. Doing things in The Maw makes the Jailer angry, which leads to debilitating status effects that get worse the more time you spend there. While it’s just a system to limit how much you can do in the Maw on any given day, it’s still a cool way of going about doing it. More interesting is Torghast, which is essentially a rogue-like dungeon that changes every time. You can do it solo or with friends, and runs are different every time because both the things you’ll face – and the powerups you’ll gain – change each time. There’s a lot of variety here – you can complete puzzles, challenge mini-bosses, or rescue allies that will join you. It’s a neat system that adds replayability to the dungeon grind that comes with endgame content. Shadowlands doesn’t have bad dungeons, but even the best static dungeons wear thin after a couple dozen runs.
"I can’t say how Shadowlands will ultimately turn out, but I can say that what’s here is very, very good."
Otherwise, endgame in Shadowlands is what you’ve come to expect. There’s world quests, war tables, dungeons, and so on. None of it is new, but it’s not bad, either. What is new is how you can level your characters. You can now jump through any of the prior expansions on your way to sixty, which both reduces the amount of content secondary characters will have to complete to get to Shadowlands, but also gives you incentive to take a stroll through the game’s past. That, combined with Exile’s Reach, a new starting zone that takes new characters from 1-10. It’s a great way for new players to learn the ropes while showing off some inspired quest design, neat encounters, and even a mini-dungeon with some gear to cap things off. The original starting zones are till there if you want them, but I can’t overstate how nice it is to have an option to do something else, especially if you’ve been playing WoW as long as I have.
Ultimately, how you feel about Shadowlands as an expansion will probably depends on how you feel about World of Warcraft. If you’re someone who likes World of Warcraft’s focus on accessibility, you’ll love Shadowlands because this is likely the most accessible the game has been. Leveling is pretty easy and doesn’t take long, and the game does a good job of intruding new elements slowly. That, combined with its beautiful art, excellent soundtrack, and likable characters make Shadowlands an expansion that almost anyone can play and one that’s hard to dislike. I did have a couple of quests bug out on me during my time with the expansion, but it was nothing abandoning and restarting them couldn’t fix. Other than that, this is a very easy game to play and enjoy, whether you’re new to the game or returning after some time off.
Reviewing MMOs is hard. Predicting where an expansion will go after it launches, and how it will ultimately be remembered and received, is hard. I can’t say how Shadowlands will ultimately turn out, but I can say that what’s here is very, very good. I don’t think Shadowlands is quite as good as Legion was at launch, but it is a definite step up from Battle for Azeroth. There’s a lot of potential here, and Shadowlands could be something special if Blizzard manages to deliver on it. Until then, this is a very good expansion. World of Warcraft may be headed into the afterlife, but Shadowlands proves that it’s still alive and kicking.
This game was reviewed on PC.
Tight storytelling. Gorgeous art and great music. Covenants and Torghast are great endgame content. Leveling is fun. The new starting area is a nice change of pace. You can level in any expansion now.
Some buggy quests. Side quests aren't great. Some Covenant abilities aren't very good. The Jailer isn't very interesting. The expansion is only an evolution, not a revolution.