Over the last 35 years, I've been told by an incalculable number of friends, family members, teachers and colleagues that I could probably stand to talk a bit less, so please forgive the hypocrisy of pleading with World of Warcraft: Shadowlands to just shut the hell up. I just want to play the game. Please let me play the game.
I sincerely love World of Warcraft's ridiculous plots, and I've been invested in the story of Azeroth at least since Warcraft 3, if not its predecessors, so I'm all for Blizzard's writers pouring their hearts into the latest expansion. I'm not in the 'less story' camp, I'd just like to be a part of it sometimes. Or to do literally anything aside from watching people natter away. At the moment, it feels like there's half of an RPG script in Shadowlands, with all of the protagonist's parts missing.
Shadowlands begins with a presentation. A long one. Before you can head to the afterlife, you need to watch Lich King Bolvar and the remaining leaders of the Horde and Alliance have a chat. Then there's a ceremony and some magic and finally you arrive in the Shadowlands, specifically the Maw. There's more waiting around watching people talk here, too, but it's more restrained. Turns out that was just a palate cleanser for a dense chunk of endless, overwrought, completely forgettable blathering.
After escaping the Maw, I just wanted to go back. The introduction to Shadowlands' hub takes the form of several meetings, a slow guided tour, some more conversations, a few more, and then finally you get to leave for Bastion. Guess what they absolutely love in Bastion? Talking! Exposition! Drama that doesn't really involve you! The only people I wanted to talk to, a species of buff owls that effectively serve the angelic denizens of Bastion as slaves, get entirely sidelined amid all the big, pontificating speeches.
One of the things that cemented Wrath of the Lich King as my favourite expansion was its ability to make you feel like you were the hero, preparing to march to Icecrown to defeat the Lich King. It had the cohesive journey and story priorities of a singleplayer RPG, but not at the cost of the MMO elements that had defined it for years. The problem now is that the balance is way off. It's not even evoking an RPG anymore, but rather a stifling theme park ride where someone you don't know endlessly yells at you all day.
Shadowlands rams its story right down your throat, shoving absolutely everything else out of the way. After hours and hours listening to this stuff, I don't feel like I've progressed at all. The storyline just kicks you from one place to the next, where you're talked at and bossed around, and then it's onto a new place with more of the same. I've got no agency, no new systems to interact with, nothing exciting being dangled in front of me. I know there's stuff I want to reach in the end game, but I've got to get through this deluge of nonsense first.
The cutscenes, I'll give you, can sometimes be exciting, and I appreciate the visual flair, but all the drama and tension they contain feels unearned when the vast majority of the story is transmitted by people standing around spouting clichés. Even when the story's starting to draw me in, it's let down by the beige dialogue. The moment I see those speech bubbles, I know it's time for a nap.
Better dialogue isn't the solution. Don't get me wrong, it would be welcome, but the problem is that all of Blizzard's storytelling methods feel completely opposed to how people play, or what people expect from an MMO. But Blizzard doesn't need to reinvent the wheel to find a solution. Developers figured it out a long time ago. Including Blizzard! You'll even find examples in Shadowlands itself. Quest text that you can skip, items with backstories, conversations that play out while you're actually adventuring or getting from A to B, environmental storytelling—there are so many better ways to spin a videogame yarn than speeches.
The realms of the Shadowlands, the factions, and their conflict over the afterlife make for a compelling setting, and I am absolutely here for Blizzard telling me more about it. But there are also a dozen other things I want to check out. I'm trying to be excited about the new expansion, I was ready for it to get its hooks in me again, but I'm really losing steam. I can't keep up the enthusiasm when I'm essentially on autopilot, just following the tracks along their slow, linear route. After the pre-launch patch overhauled WoW's progression, levelling up an alt became a joy, but I'm not looking forward to taking all my level 50s through Shadowlands. [Steven, who is working away on our Shadowlands review, let me know I don't actually have to worry about this because you can level alts just through world quests and the like. What a relief!]
I realise that the end game is the real meat, but for me the levelling experience is just as important. It shouldn't be a chore I complete begrudgingly to get to the good bits. The overreliance on its archaic narrative structure sucks, but really the whole journey to 60 just feels like a slog. All I'm doing is gaining levels. It's only at this point in the writing of this feature that I've even remembered I'm meant to be stopping Sylvanas, and honestly I'm not really sure what I'm working towards. I'm being funnelled down this corridor, but I still feel completely aimless. It's a hollow experience lacking in anything that feels remotely new.
This at least makes me appreciate Battle for Azeroth more. It absolutely led to the problems with Shadowlands, but for all its NPC drama, it still offered a lot of freedom and diversions, as well as new things to figure out straight away. It had that seductive new expansion smell, which made it easy to overlook its issues in the early days. Shadowlands doesn't even have that.
So I guess I've just got to hope that it's worth it in the end, which is a very bad reason to play a videogame. Especially if you have 40 great games already installed on your PC. But I've put in my time, damnit, so I've got to see it for myself. I'd probably be there already if I hadn't foolishly thrown my lot in with Draenor, a perpetually busy realm (WoW-speak for server) that's also been having a lot of connection problems lately. I've been lucky to even make it into the queue. Speaking of which, I guess it's back to work, and whatever scintillating exposition is revealed in today's presentations.