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The state of World of Warcraft in 2021

The Lich King
(Image credit: Blizzard)

It's a good time to be a World of Warcraft player. The latest expansion, Shadowlands, launched in November 2020 and opened up an entirely uncharted corner of Warcraft cosmology. Taking players to Warcraft's afterlife, Shadowlands introduced a swath of exciting new features like a roguelike dungeon that changes each time you venture into it and four extremely cool factions you can join that each offer unique rewards, abilities, and special activities. Shadowlands is a massive update, but MMOs are always evolving and changing. Over the next few years, Blizzard will likely add entirely new zones, extra story quests, and might even overhaul entire systems according to feedback. If you're not an active player, it can be hard to figure out whether or not right now is a good time to return.

As you might already suspect, my answer to that question is that it definitely is a good time to get back into WoW. I'll explain why in the next section, but there's also a lot to be excited about in the future. Later this spring, a major update will add even more stuff to do in Shadowlands, and that's still just the beginning. As game director Ion Hazzikostas explains below, Blizzard has some big plans for the story of this expansion and is already working on addressing some big points of player feedback.

So, how is World of Warcraft right now? 

Your guide to Azeroth

World of Warcraft Shadowlands review

(Image credit: Blizzard)

Best WoW addons: What to download for 2020
WoW beginner's guide: Start your Azeroth journey
WoW class guide: The best for you
WoW leveling guideGet from 1-50 fast
Best WoW CovenantWhich to choose
WoW Shadowlands guide7 top tips
WoW Torghast guide: How to beat it
WoW legendary crafting: How to do it

Shadowlands feels like a high point for World of Warcraft, which is saying something considering this game is almost 18 years old. The previous expansion, Battle for Azeroth, frustrated a lot of players with its endless endgame grind, repetitive activities like Island Expeditions, and muddled story. It feels like Blizzard listened to a lot of that feedback, and the result is that Shadowlands is the best World of Warcraft has been in years.

Though I really wasn't a fan of the leveling experience when I reviewed Shadowlands, those 10 levels I had to acquire are a tiny fraction of the total time I've spent in WoW. I really like how robust and meaty the endgame feels. There's so much to do it can feel overwhelming, but Shadowlands does a good job at establishing a clear hierarchy so I can prioritize and focus on things that actually matter to me rather than getting bogged down in a lot of endless chores. New features like The Great Vault do a fantastic job of rewarding players regardless of how they choose to spend their time, and I'm really enjoying the new dungeons and raids. Each feels distinct and a few have boss fights that feel unlike anything else I've seen in WoW. And Torghast, its massive roguelike dungeon, feels like a mad science experiment where you quickly acquire a slew of broken powers that turns your character into a killing machine. It just sucks that it's really easy to make a mistake and waste an entire hour with nothing to show for it.

If there's been one big issue with Shadowlands, it's Torghast. Despite being a lot of fun, its difficulty varies wildly depending on your class. More than once I've made it to the final boss of a floor and died, which means I have to start over from the beginning (like a true roguelike) and don't get any rewards. In the context of an MMO, though, wasting an hour like that is infuriating. Blizzard has been hotfixing it regularly, and I'm willing to cut it some slack since Torghast is such an ambitious experiment, but it still needs work.

Torghast aside, Shadowlands' enjoyable endgame gives me a lot of confidence that this expansion will continue to be great. If you've never played WoW, there's never been a better time to try it. And if you drifted away from Warcraft at some point and are wondering if you should come back, Shadowlands is easily the expansion that makes the best argument for doing so.

(Image credit: Blizzard)

What's been happening recently? 

  • Shadowlands launched on November 26, adding five new zones, 10 new dungeons, and a ton of stuff to do.
  • The Castle Nathria raid opened on December 8, alongside a new competitive PVP season and Mythic+ dungeons.
  • Shadowlands' endgame wasn't all available at once but rolls out slowly over time. Just recently, for example, some players unlocked a whole new area to explore in Torghast.

Are the players happy? 

There's always something to complain about in World of Warcraft, but there's an undeniably sense of optimism and excitement that's been missing since before Battle for Azeroth launched. That expansion suffered because many of its endgame systems just weren't that fun and Blizzard spent much of the years that followed tweaking and reworking them. Shadowlands, however, doesn't have the same cracks in its foundation. At the same time, Blizzard has done a great job making each of WoW's different pursuits, like raiding, PVP, and dungeons, feel rewarding and fun. Players seem to be having a great time with it so far.

(Image credit: Blizzard)

When is the next big update happening? 

It's still a little early to be talking about the 9.1 update, but it'll probably release this spring. Looking at previous expansions, the first major update typically comes between three to four months after the initial launch. It's unclear if Blizzard has changed that timeline (which could be possible considering how Shadowlands' endgame has rolled out gradually over time).

Blizzard also hasn't said much about what we can expect in 9.1, but I wouldn't set expectations too high. Looking at previous expansions, the x.1 update typically adds more story, a raid or dungeon, and some bigger tweaks to endgame systems. Historically, it's been the x.2 or x.3 patch that's added entire new zones to explore or big new features to get excited about.

If you're unfamiliar with how WoW expansions typically work, most last for just over two years and have between three and four major updates with smaller updates sprinkled in between. 

(Image credit: Blizzard)

What Blizzard has to say 

"We think we can do more to make the experience of running dungeons and raids feel more satisfying when you don't get a specific item you were hoping for."

Ion Hazzikostas

PC Gamer: What should players be most excited about or looking forward to in WoW for 2021?

Ion Hazzikostas, game director: One of the most ambitious and exciting aspects of Shadowlands is its setting, as the team expanded the Warcraft universe to define the contours of an all-new plane of existence. As we look ahead to 2021, we're thrilled to be able to build further on those foundations to tell epic stories that interconnect the different powers of the Shadowlands, heroes and villains of Azeroth, and the inner workings of Death itself. This year will see players delve deeper into the mysteries of the Shadowlands, including settings even more fantastical than what we've seen so far. I can't say too much more without getting into heavy spoiler territory, but an incredible journey lies ahead as players work to thwart the plans of the mysterious Jailer.

Now that Shadowlands is out, are there any big pieces of feedback that you're working to address?

We're humbled by players' response to Shadowlands, but we know that launching an expansion isn't an end for us, but rather a new beginning. The team is listening closely to the community as we look to shape future updates. One big topic of discussion has been the way loot works in the Shadowlands endgame: We significantly reduced the rate at which players earn item rewards, but at the same time also stripped away randomness and tried to give everyone more clear goals to pursue and control over their progress towards them. When it comes to PvP itemization specifically, we're really happy with how that's playing out, but we think we can do more to make the experience of running dungeons and raids feel more satisfying when you don't get a specific item you were hoping for. Otherwise, balance remains an ongoing focus, both through "hotfix" adjustments to the live game and through more involved changes to player abilities, and especially new Shadowlands systems like legendary items and covenants, which will come in patches.

When is WoW 2 coming, though? 

Look, I get it. WoW 2 would be amazing. But, according to Blizzard, Shadowlands launch was an enormous hit. It sold 3.7 million copies on its first day. Why make the sequel when so many people are still happy as clams grinding away in the original? 

Steven enjoys nothing more than a long grind, which is precisely why his specialty is on investigative feature reporting on China's PC games scene, weird stories that upset his parents, and MMOs. He's Canadian but can't ice skate. Embarrassing.