World of Warcraft: Shadowlands feels more self-aware than ever, and isn't as demanding on your time

World of Warcraft: Shadowlands
(Image credit: Blizzard)
GOTY 2020

goty 2020

(Image credit: Future)

In addition to our team-selected Game of the Year Awards 2020, individual members of the PC Gamer team each select one of their own favourite games of the year. We'll post new personal picks, alongside the main awards, throughout the rest of the month.

World of Warcraft has been rolling for 16 years now, and I've been playing it for a good chunk of that time. Returning after a year-long break at the end of Battle for Azeroth, just in time to get my house in order for Shadowlands may have coloured my experience somewhat, but so far I'm really enjoying what Blizzard has done with its eighth expansion. 

My initial impressions of Shadowlands were a little underwhelming, as the initial levelling from 50 to 60 feels a little light in terms of questlines and story. The main arc isn't particularly interesting and it doesn't do anything that we haven't already seen before. 

It's essentially a vehicle to introduce you to the four Covenants and zones that make up the Shadowlands, as well as introducing the baddie of the expansion, the Jailer, who is as generic a personification of evil as you could hope for. Sylvanas is also around being mischievous as well, although she feels a little sidelined at the same time.

The main storyline may not be very engaging, but the Covenants are, and I found picking which one to continue with a genuinely tough choice. I had no interest in Bastion as a zone, as it felt like a copy of WoW rather than the actual game. I loved Maldraxxus but ultimately felt I'd seen most of what it had to offer by the time I finished the introductory story. Ardenweald had the best intro, and it's a beautiful zone, but I found it an unwieldy place. The aloof vampires of Revendreth piqued my interest the most though, and it ultimately won out with its rebel uprising and the consequences you take part in.

I'm enjoying being a vampire cow, and there is plenty to do, although I can't help wondering what the other covenants are up to. The temptation to switch out to another one to see what's happening may get the better of me at some point, but I don't feel like that is something I absolutely have to do to get the full story. 

Ardenweald is a beautiful zone and has the best intro story. (Image credit: Blizzard)

I don't feel like I'm being forced to do all the things in order to progress.

The big difference with WoW this time around is I don't feel like I'm being forced to do all the things in order to progress. There are many different avenues I can take, sure, and if I want to ignore my family and really push my character hard, then I can, but I don't feel I need to. Maybe it's me that's changed, but I don't feel like I'm being punished for not pushing as hard as possible from day one. 

I've run all the dungeons, dabbled with the first wing of the LFR—my raiding days are very much behind me—and even managed to get some PvP in. (Let's not talk about the state of PvP balance, because that leads to suffering and anger, but removing rogues from the game would be fine right now.) There are plenty of world quests to choose from as well, and absolutely no pressure to try and do them all. 

And then there's The Maw. Which is hell, and not just thematically. You can't call your mount in the Jailer's home turf, and it's a big ol' place, so getting around is a bit of a trudge. The thing is, the Maw is covered with elites and rares, and it's all too easy to aggro more than you can deal with. I've died far more in the Maw than I have in any other area of the expansion… except maybe to being stabbed to death by rogues. Screw those guys.

Somtimes you've just got to take part in a toad conga. (Image credit: Blizzard)

Luckily, I don't feel I need to spend time in the Maw. Sure there are weekly quests to do, but they're fairly easy to complete, and even they don't feel essential. The main storyline does dabble with the Maw but mostly focuses on the roguelike dungeon, Torghast, which I'm more than happy to spend time in (especially playing coop with my brother). Its randomly generated floors are fun to navigate and post nerf it's not too punishing either. 

In fact, lucking out and hitting ridiculous builds which have me dishing out almost quadruple damage are probably the highlight of Shadowlands so far. There's not a massive reward for doing so either, beyond working towards more legendary items. It's a dungeon I run because I enjoy doing so, not simply for the chance of maybe getting a drop at the end of it.

Shadowlands isn't perfect, but there's a flawed beauty to it. And it's a game that is easy to come back to and enjoy, and a month after release, that's exactly what I am doing. Enjoying it.

Alan Dexter

Alan has been writing about PC tech since before 3D graphics cards existed, and still vividly recalls having to fight with MS-DOS just to get games to load. He fondly remembers the killer combo of a Matrox Millenium and 3dfx Voodoo, and seeing Lara Croft in 3D for the first time. He's very glad hardware has advanced as much as it has though, and is particularly happy when putting the latest M.2 NVMe SSDs, AMD processors, and laptops through their paces. He has a long-lasting Magic: The Gathering obsession but limits this to MTG Arena these days.