Unveiled at BlizzCon ’19 in Novemeber 2019, World of Warcraft: Shadowlands is the follow-up to the Battle for Azeroth expansion. Players will find themselves thrust into the land of the dead, Shadowlands, to try put an end to Sylvanas Windrunner’s devious schemes, coming up against her new ally, The Jailer, in the process.
We had the chance to put a ton of hours into the game, so settle in and read our thoughts on this new expansion while you, and millions of other players, ready yourselves to dive into Shadowlands!
- Genre: Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG)
- Release date: 23rd November 2020
- Platform: PC and Mac
- Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
- Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
- Price: $39.99 for the Shadowlands Base Expansion in digital format.
- Played on: PC
An Immortal Threat
After betraying the Varok Saurfang-led horde at the gates of Orgrimmar and defeating their leader, Sylvanas Windrunner laid siege to the very birthplace of The Scourge in Azeroth: The Icecrown Citadel. Her ultimate goal was to defeat the Lich King, Bolvar Fordragon, and destroy the crown of domination.
By destroying this Scourge relic, the former leader of the Forsaken shattered the barrier between the world of the living and the dead, releasing eternal forces never designed to mix with living souls. This in turn allowed herself to partner up with her new ally, the Jailer, an Eternal from the Shadowlands driven out by his compatriots, in one fell swoop.
Driven by deep fears for the future of Azeroth, the greatest champions from both Alliance and Horde alike, as well as the Knights of the Ebon Blade, elected to dive right into the heart of this typically inaccessible realm of the dead in order to put an end to the Banshee Queen and her exiled ally’s diabolical schemes.
United by a common desire to put a stop to their sworn enemy, the living races of Azeroth now prepare themselves to discover what the former pride of Quel’Thalas has in store for them...
In All Their Glory
One of the more subtle yet hotly anticipated changes to the game relates to the visible graphical improvements implemented as part of PrePatch 9.0. While anyone with a graphics card that supports ray-tracing has been waiting for this change since it was revealed as a new feature for Shadowlands, it has been poorly received by the community, given that it’s marginal improvements to shadows could be described as disappointing to say the least. That said, ray tracing does have one clear effect: it will tank your FPS without fail.
However, that’s not what has caught the attention of players, as we understand it. Blizzard had the great idea of redirecting players to another of their new additions, a feature they scarcely knew they needed until now: new customisation options for every race in the game. It’s not a substantial addition by any means, and the old maxim ‘style over substance’ certainly rings true on this one. But that being said, even the hardiest of series veterans will still be able to get something from laying the final touches on their favourite characters when this feature is eventually released.
After all, who hasn’t dreamed of adorning their Dwarvern Warrior with the crest of the berserker, or even playing as a Sandfury Troll? One of the more controversial changes in this wave of improved character customisation is the ability to make Night Elves look their horde cousins, the Blood Elves, and vice versa – all without changing your faction!
A Guaranteed Successor
One of the biggest criticisms of World of Warcraft has always been the way that it fails to introduce new players to the MMORPG genre. With Shadowlands, this is now a thing of the past, as any account without a Level 50 character will be made to start out their adventures in Azeroth in a completely new zone designed with new players in mind: Exile’s Reach.
Completely separated from the rest of Azeroth, this new island acts as a new way for first-time players to get to grips with the game. Instead of your character starting out as a complete unknown – someone who has never participated in any high-profile events in the game’s history – your characters is introduced as an Alliance or Horde soldier who has been marooned on a forgotten island off the coast of Tornheim.
Each character will be gradually introduced to their class’ abilities through a range of practical, hands-on situations, which will let you try out basic abilities which you slowly unlock as you level up. For example, the Drill Sergeant will inform you that the Mage’s Frost Nova allows them to immobilise their enemies, which provides them with a great way of putting distance between them and their enemies, allowing them to deal damage to them from a safe distance!
This new mini-zone culminates in a dungeon, the Darkmaul Citadel, where players can discover a fan favourite feature of the game: the loot!
Long-time players need not to worry about being left behind when it comes to the low-level experience, as the levelling system has been completely redesigned to offer a fluid, enjoyable, and rapid levelling experience thanks to Chromie Time.
In a new first, players with characters below Level 50 on their account have the option of choosing between Exile’s Reach or one of the classic starting zones (Teldrassil for Night Elves, Echo Isles for Trolls, and so and so forth).
Once you reach level 10, players have two choices, regardless of their starting zone:
- New players will have the singular option of heading to Kul Tiras or Zandalar to discover the story of Battle for Azeroth, the most recent expansion that introduced the events of Shadowlands.
- Long-tenured players will be able to choose between going to Kul Tiras or Zandalar, or instead levelling their character by working their way through one of the expansions that preceded Battle for Azeroth, thanks to the new Chromie Time system. To do this, players simply need to head to the embassy in Stormwind or Orgrimmar and speak to Chromie, who will let you play the expansion of your choice.
Once you’ve reached Level 50, all players will be directed to the heart of the story and be led to Shadowlands, both new players and veterans alike.
A Mage First, An Arcane Mage Second
With the Shadowlands Pre-Patch, Level 120 players have been de-levelled to Level 50 in a move known as the Level Squish, meaning that the level cap for this new expansion will top out at Level 60. This doesn’t translate to any real loss in power however; players will be just as powerful as ever, even though that may not directly translate to the numbers.
So why is that exactly? Well, that’s because Blizzard have implemented the Level Squish alongside a corresponding Stats Squish. With this, a Level 120 player, who would usually be capable of dealing tens of millions of damage, will now only deal several thousand at Level 50. To balance these changes out and prevent a sense of regret setting in amongst players, creatures have also had their HP and damage reduced in the same vein.
This reduction in level and power is also accompanied by classing being able to access new abilities regardless of spec. Old abilities, such as the Warrior’s Shattering Throw, the Hunter’s Kill Shot, or even the Warlock’s Ritual of Doom are back! And while they may not always be the most useful of spells, they may well prove occasionally useful to players who know their way around them.
Shadowlands marks a move towards a class identity and a move away from distinct specialisations. If you choose to play an Arcane Mage, you’ll be playing a Mage first and foremost. You’ll have your Mage spells – ones that can be used by any specialisation – and then you’ll learn to master Arcane magic, all while keeping those general spells you learned before specialising firmly in your arsenal.
Allies Come in All Shapes and Forms
Shadowlands is the name of the new “continent” that players will be able to discover with the arrival of this new expansion. Unlike the last two expansions, where the player was free to chose their way through the expansion’s content, Shadowlands takes a more structured approach, meaning that players will discover each of Shadowlands’ four major zones in the following order:
Throughout this new adventure, players will discover new enemies, as well as new allies in the form of four Covenants, each of which lays claims to one of the four zones:
- The Kyrian Covenant of Bastion
- The Necrolords of Maldraxxus
- The Night Fae of Ardenweald
The Venthyr of Revendreth
Due to a more hands-on approach to progression in this expansion, players will discover the new powers on offer from their new allies. That’s right: each Covenant offers a range of rewards that can be split into one of two categories: abilities that can be used by all members of the same Covenant regardless of class, and abilities that are only reserved for a specific class.
All Necrolords are able to use the following ability, regardless of the player’s class:
4s cast, 2min cooldown
Form a shield of flesh and bone over 4 sec that absorbs damage equal to 20% of your maximum health for 2 min.
Channeling near a corpse claims their essence to grow the shield, up to 50% of your maximum health. This is most effective against powerful enemies.
If you are playing a Priest and you opt for the Necrolords of Revendreth, you’ll also be granted access to the following class ability that can only be used by fellow Necrolord Priests:
Instant Cast, 1min cooldown, 40m range
Necrolord Priests ability
An explosion of dark energy infects enemies within 15 yds with Unholy Transfusion, and heals allies for up to (150% of Spell power) based on number of targets
Deals up to (280% of Spell power) Shadow damage based on number of targets over 15 sec. Allies who damage this target are healed for [(4% of Spell power) * 1].
This is a very interesting and innovative change to the game, as it affords World of Warcraft a return to its RPG roots, forcing the player to make decisions once again. This is a particularly estranged concept in the current gaming landscape, where players have long since gotten used to being all-powerful beings that can do whatever they want. However, this new system plays out excellently thanks to what appears at first glance to be a strong sense of balance between Covenants. Players must therefore make a choice, all without feeling as if they might be penalised for not making the most optimal selection. Modern gamers might not be used to these sorts of decisions, but Blizzard have certainly worked hard on this one to bring this longstanding concept into the new age.
In addition to these exclusive abilities, the Covenants also come with a panel of three new skill trees that can be customised by using Soulbind Conduits – items that feel like relics from the Legion expansion. Players now have another tool at their disposal which allows them to customise the way that they play the game: through three talent trees that not only depend on your Covenant, but your current class, since some conduits are only available to certain classes, or even certain specialisations!
Here are two examples of Soulbind Conduits available to Shadow Priests, each of which can be improved up to 15 times to offer valuable bonuses.
Necrolord Shadow Priest Ability
Your Shadowy Apparitions deal 5% more damage
Necrolord Priest Ability
Unholy Transfusion lasts 2 sec longer and deals 6% more damage and healing
However, leaving your chosen Covenant for another is no easy task, as you’ll have to wait several days before you can make the switch to another of these factions. This might seem like a serious problem on the surface, but in reality, it’s one that will barely affect the large majority of players (barely 2%), given that the difference between the Covenants barely plays out on the damage tables.
Touching back on zones for a moment, there’s now a new Capital City located at the culmination of Shadowlands’ major zones. It carries the sombre name of Oribos, no doubt a reference to the Ouroboros, the self-consuming serpent of Greek mythology.
And finally, there’s The Maw, a max-level zone the likes of which we’ve never seen before.
In The Maw, players have no fixed objective and are treated like unwanted parasites by the realm’s ruler, the Jailer. It’s the only zone in World of Warcraft where players are unable to use their mounts and are therefore forced to traverse the landscape by foot. For a brief period of time, it’s also the only area in the Shadowlands you can explore before you’re quickly expelled by the Jailer, whose control over the area only grows stronger as more and more souls enter The Maw.
When you’re inside this unique zone, forget all about Expeditions and Dailies. You can do whatever you want in The Maw during the time afforded to you, and what could a better use than doing some high-level content? Putting the zone on a timer might be a scary proposition, but it makes The Maw one of the most interesting new additions that Shadowlands introduces to the game.
In addition to this new system designed to replace the immensely controversial Azerite Shards from Battle for Azeroth, Shadowlands also features new features you would expect to see from a new World of Warcraft expansion. Like in other expansions, Blizzard has introduced eight new instances that can be accessed from Level 50 onwards on Normal mode, and at Max-Level for Heroic, Mythic, and Mythic+:
- The Necrotic Wake
- Mists of Tirna Scithe
- Halls of Atonement
- Theater of Pain
- The Other Side
- Spires of Ascension
- Sanguine Depths
- The Bloody Depths
Spread evenly between the four zones, each of these instances offers combat with varying degrees of originality and features environments that are a lifetime away from the dungeons of the previous expansion. What’s even better is that Blizzard have moved away the narrow, confined spaces that characterised Battle for Azeroth’s instances, resulting in the majority of the dungeons in Shadowlands playing out exclusively in the open air. This was a great decision from the developers, as the choice to focus on exterior-heavy instances will put an end to the trend of dungeons suffering a similar fate to Tol Dagor, which was, without doubt, the most remarkable, but buggy, instance in the history of World of Warcraft, due to its multiple floors and rooms that were separated by mere pixels.
A new seasonal affix, Prideful, also makes its appearance in Mythic+, featuring a manifestation of the collective pride of Revendreth’s citizens. This wholly original affix allows groups who learn how to use it to really benefit from it – a significant departure from the previous affixes from Season 4 of Battle for Azeroth, which only existed to irritate players.
Three new non-seasonal affixes have also been added to the game, those being: Inspiring, Spiteful, and Storming, while the two affixes already present since the start of Mythic+ have been completely removed due to how little players appreciated them. The unfortunate victims of this change were Skittish and Teeming.
What is more, a ninth instance makes its appearance in Shadowlands, one that shatters the expectations of what you might see in a World of Warcraft dungeon. Known as Torghast, Tower of the Damned, this new instance is characterised by constantly shifting interior corridors, a mechanic that takes heavy inspiration from the Rougelike genre.
When you're in the Tower of the Damned, your simple goal is to advance the next level of the tower. The more floors you climb, the harder the instance will become, but the rewards will become even more valuable. The loot moves from basic. but necessary materials you'll need when it comes time to craft your legendary items, to extremely valuable cosmetic rewards, to a mount that can even be ridden in The Maw!
"But what about Legendary Items?", I hear you say. No, you’re not dreaming; Legendary Items like the ones we saw during the Legion expansion make their grand return to the game, but this time with a slight change that should change the way that players see if them, that being the way you can get your hands on them. While they were originally only obtained by pure chance through doing activities that most players could accomplish, they can be crafted in Shadowlands. That’s right: players can craft Legendary Items thanks to powerful item given to players by a new ally found right at the heart of Torghast, Tower of the Damned: The Runecarver.
To achieve this, Azeroth’s heroes must take the materials for a Base Item to a master Tailor, Smith, or Leatherworker, reinforce it with runes created by a Calligrapher, before finally adding a Memory of the Runecrafter and the Soul Ash you’ve collected from your time in the Maw and Torghast. With this, the player retains complete control over their progression and takes a giant leap in terms of power at the same – two birds with one stone.
Finally, and to the surprise of no one, the new expansion introduces a new raid as the centrepiece of high-level PvE content in Shadowlands. Known as Castle Nathria, it comes in the form of a massive gothic castle located in Revendreth, the land of the Venthyrs. Players will have the chance to discover what diabolical schemes Sire Denathrius and its inhabitants have in store for them.
With a delectable environment paired with raid mechanics that are as varied as they are unique, this raid in itself proves that Blizzard still has a lot more to offer when it comes to PvE. If your raid party manages to defeat the ten bosses laying in wait within the dark castle, they can expect some seriously powerful gear in return, as the drops from Castle Nathtria are without doubt some of the most powerful items ever introduced during a first raid tier!
The ‘World’ Looks Good, But What about the ‘Warcraft’?
After a lengthy spell in the cold, PvP makes a fantastic return in Shadowlands. While players have long since been content to gear up and specialise in PvE, this new expansion introduces a new way of seeing things – almost. Players will be able to buy equipment dedicated to their preferred game mode using currency accrued from playing the game in that way.
Even better, armour pieces bought from these PvP vendors can be upgraded up to 7 times, once again using money exclusively from PvP! To round things off, there’s also an exclusive bonus that can only activated when the player is in combat against another player which can only be accessed by equipping two trinkets – both of which can only be obtained through PvP!
The damage and healing benefit of Versatility is increased by 40% in Arenas, Battlegrounds, and War Mode.
This new bonus prevents heavily imbalanced PvE trinkets from having an impact on PvP combat, all while rewarding players for being good at fighting other players! This is a great decision from the developers and one that will be warmly received by PvP players following a long period of crying out for such a change.
Alongside these new features, Shadowlands also introduces a new arena into the game. Located in Bastion, this floating aerial combat zone joins the list of the 11 arenas already in the game in a move that once again aims to breathe new life into PvP. The surrounding environment is stunning, so much so that the point deficit you’ll build up admiring it almost seems worth your while.
However, when it comes to new PvP content, that’s it. There’s nothing on the horizon, and recent interactions with developers leads us to believe that there isn’t anything in the pipeline either. This is a shame, given that the most recent battleground to be added to the game dates back from The Mists of Pandaria. Since then, players have had to placate themselves with a few balance changes here and there, each with varying levels of success, but that’s about it.
A battleground located in Maldraxxus — the military heart of Shadowlands if the developers are to be believed — would have made too much sense. If only…
So, even though Shadowlands introduces a bunch of fantastic new PvP features, it really does pale in comparison to what PvE players have in store. You can understand why a good number of PvP players are so frustrated, given that they pay the same price as PvE players at the end of each month, all for a mere 5% of the content over the last few years. While Shadowlands strives to readdress the balance, it barely scratches the surface of this issue
In its current iteration, World of Warcraft: Shadowlands appears to really succeed on several points. The developers have taken a lot of big risks with the Covenant system, which had the potential to send WoW’s balance into a nosedive. And yet, it’s a near-flawless addition to the game. Besides the Covenants, which may well have created some serious imbalances if Blizzard weren’t as on the ball as they currently are, the lack of investment in PvP is once again, for the umpteenth time, a real black mark on this expansion. There’s improvement this time round, but Shadowlands proves to be just more of the same on that front. Nevertheless, we hope that PvP players will be just as heard as their PvE compatriots further down the line, if not even more so. Blizzard’s transparency and their clear intent to listen to the people playing their game appears to have made a world of difference, and they should be commended for doing so. Compared to how things might have been, Shadowlands is one of the most promising expansions in the history of the game, which is no small feat by any means!
Behind the Score:
- 50 points for graphics, general gameplay, and for casual gameplay. Shadowlands received a score of 48 out of 50 as on a whole, Shadowlands feels enthralling, even if some of the abilities that are now general class spells are a bit underwhelming.
- 25 points for PvE. This expansion received a score of 22 out of 25 for this category as, once again, Shadowlands is a very fluid experience overall. However, it isn’t perfect, and a lack of new rewards for high level players in certain modes serves as a mark against this new expansion.
- 25 points for PvP. Shadowlands received a score of 10 out of 25 for PvP simply because, even though the developers have definitely put more care into this side of the game this time round, PvP players have been overlooked once again when it comes to the new and enjoyable content they might expect from their monthly subscription. Shadowlands is a step in the right direction, but the developers continue to overlook this side of the game.