Shadowlands is one of World of Warcraft's most ambitious expansions. There are times where I feel a little overwhelmed by all of its complex, interlocking progression systems. When I'm not chipping away at expanding my Covenant's Sanctum (basically my superhero HQ), I'm exploring its dark and dangerous new endgame zone or climbing the endless floors of Torghast, Shadowlands' excellent dungeon that's basically a self-contained roguelike. And then there's the familiar grind of world quests, dungeons, and chasing down hidden treasures like new mounts.
It's a lot to stay on top of and at times a little too familiar, but much of Shadowlands' endgame is varied and inventive enough to keep things fun. It might not win over jaded players who drifted away over the years, but Shadowlands is the best World of Warcraft has been in a long while.
The lost and damned
What is it? An expansion that takes players to WoW's afterlife.
Expect to pay: $40 + $15/month
Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Reviewed on: i7 8700, RTX 2070, 16GB RAM
Shadowlands bears the heavy responsibility of making up for the frustrations of Warcraft's previous chapter. In the same way that Legion had to win back fans after the disaster that was Warlords of Draenor, Shadowlands is tasked with making up for the tedious grind and convoluted story of Battle for Azeroth. I'm really beginning to tire of this jolting, up and down pattern of good and bad WoW expansions, especially when other MMOs like Final Fantasy 14 and The Elder Scrolls Online only get better and better with each new update.
Shadowlands does make huge improvements over Battle for Azeroth, though. There's no more infinite grind to breathlessly chase. There's no opaque armor system like Azerite Armor to suck the joy out of getting that coveted loot drop from a dungeon boss. And, best of all, a lot of randomness has been dialed back in favor of player choice. Instead of spending weeks praying for a specific, all-powerful Legendary item to drop only to get one that's useless to me, I can farm the materials for the one I want and build it myself. It's empowering to be the one calling the shots instead of feeling beholden to fickle gods of randomness.
This emphasis on player choice is most evident in Covenants, which are basically Hogwarts' different houses if those houses were each a distinct afterlife where souls are sent to live for all eternity. Instead of Slytherin you have Maldraxxus, a nightmarish hellscape of green where Necrolord armies battle in the Theater of Pain. That sure beats sitting in quiet contemplation like those blue-skinned chumps from Bastion, though.
Once players wrap up the story and reach level 60, they'll have to choose one of these four to join up with. Each one not only offers a different endgame story campaign, but two unique (and very powerful) abilities, armor sets, mounts, and even fun side activities like a soul garden to tend or a forge where you can assemble your own Frankenstein-esque Abominations. It's one of the biggest decisions I've made in WoW since choosing my race and class, and I love how much weight it carries.
Above: Numerous cutscenes help make the story more coherent.
Signing up with the Venthyr means I get Door of Shadows, which lets me teleport 35 yards, skipping past monsters or across otherwise impassable chasms. If I had signed up with the angels of Bastion, who definitely aren't as virtuous as they first appear, I'd get the ability to call on a cute little owl steward (slave) who can serve me stat-enhancing drinks, play a song, or do a dozen other tasks that benefit me in different ways.
It really took me a while before I came around to liking Shadowlands, however. The story starts with a bang but quickly settles into a leveling experience that's so on-rails and devoid of any real risk that it just ends up feeling burdensome. As I ventured across each of the four new zones, I rarely felt challenged or excited by the tasks before me. It's a lot of going to a place, clicking on things, killing other things, and then sitting still for a minute or two while characters talk at me before I'm whisked off to the next objective to repeat it all over.
The writing itself isn't the problem—I really liked many of the cutscenes—but events move too quickly and characters are given such little room to breathe that I never get the chance to truly know them. There's a lot of long speeches and info dumps, but little of anything that actually makes me feel emotionally invested in the story. I'll watch a dramatic cutscene that tees up a big boss fight only to melt the sucker in 20 seconds without getting so much of a cut. It all feels so monotonous.
The one exception is the zone of Ardenweald, an enchanting cosmic forest that's slowly withering away. There's a tangible sadness to that zone, but much of the emotional weight of its story is presented in an optional, six-minute animated cutscene that Blizzard released three months ago as marketing.
It makes me question why I even need to level my character at this point. Back in World of Warcraft's early days, the journey was the reason. Each level felt earned. But leveling in modern Warcraft is so brainless it sucks the tension out of the story, making every moment where I'm forced to stop and listen to another exposition dump a little painful. Shadowlands is so much more interesting when it takes the less is more approach, like when I discovered that a cool mount actually had a tragic backstory dating back to vanilla WoW.
Once I hit level 60 and wrapped up the story I was able to spend more of my time doing things that were actually fun. And Shadowlands has a lot of fun packed into its endgame. I really love the Covenant system and how much texture it adds to my daily routine of running dungeons, knocking out world quests, and exploring.
As a Venthyr, I'm chilling out in my underground vampire lair, using blood mirrors to travel around the ruinous castles of Revendreth. If I had gone with Maldraxxus, though, my Sanctum would be inside of a colossal statue of their god, populated with festering undead monstrosities. World of Warcraft's story might fizzle more than it pops, but its worldbuilding is still cool as hell.
A resource called Anima is gained from completing most endgame activities and can be spent on upgrading different parts of your Covenant headquarters, called a Sanctum. It's a much more engaging endgame system because I'm working toward unlocking new ways to play Warcraft rather than just incremental stat upgrades.
Just recently I was able to build the Ember Court where I can host special vampire parties for all my cool vampire friends. Each time I throw one of these balls, I have to make decisions about the guest list, entertainment, and catering, almost like a party in The Sims. Juggling the different dispositions and expectations of my party guests to ensure they're all having a good time is surprisingly fun. If I'm inviting some hoity-toity dukes who thrive on formality, I best have a lot of tea to serve.
Quaint tea parties are nothing compared to Torghast, Tower of the Damned. Easily the crowning achievement of Shadowlands, Torghast is a roguelike dungeon that changes each time you enter it. Like any good roguelike, the real joy comes from slowly acquiring ridiculous powers that warp my character into a killing machine. There's hundreds to find (though some are restricted by class and Covenant), but I've found powers that transform me into a giant, make me temporarily blind in exchange for vastly increasing my damage, and one that turns me into a tiny rat so I can sneak past enemies.
Torghast is such an amazing addition to WoW, but there are times where I can't escape the feeling that I've run this marathon before. I love that Blizzard swings big on its expansions where other MMOs are happy to stick to a template, but it also makes everything feel inconsequential. I can bust my ass grinding my Covenant, but a player who starts playing a month from now will catch up to me with minimal effort. When a major update comes out, the goal posts will be moved back and all that hard-earned gear will be worthless trash compared to whatever new stuff is available. It's hard to see the value in investing tons of time into the game when everything is so fleeting.
Fortunately, unlike Battle for Azeroth, a lot of Shadowlands' new features are inherently fun enough that I want to keep playing even if I'm concerned about the bigger picture. The four new zones are dense with surprises and treasures, Covenants are an exciting way to customize my character, and I'm enjoying the more subtle storytelling and worldbuilding now that the main campaign is over with.