World of Warcraft's endgame zones just keep getting weirder and weirder. In Legion, for example, Suramar was a resplendent elven metropolis that players had to sneak around, hiding in barrels and avoiding guard patrols like Ezio in Assassin's Creed. In Battle for Azeroth, one of the endgame areas was a giant trash pile populated by cyborg gnomes. And in Shadowlands, players will venture into The Maw, a nightmarish hell where wayward souls are sent for eternal torture by a bare-footed monster known as The Jailer, and it's up to us to save them. Make too much of a ruckus, however, and a GTA-style wanted level goes up—only instead of cops coming for you, it's a hitsquad of demon assassins.
Aside from devil-is-in-the-details concerns over the big choices level 60 players need to make, Shadowlands is looking very exciting. This week I got the chance to play another big piece of the endgame puzzle that Blizzard is slowly putting out on Shadowlands' test servers: The Maw. It's the fifth zone in Shadowlands, where players will spend a good chunk of time when they aren't in raids or Torghast, the enormous roguelike dungeon that towers over it. Like Mechagon from Battle for Azeroth, The Maw is a big open sandbox with precious few markers telling you where to go. I'd say it's an exciting place to explore if literally everything there wasn't constantly trying to kill me.
To be fair, most things in WoW are trying to kill me. But The Maw really wants me dead. There's only one way into and out of it, and only one, tiny little safe area. Though players will briefly run through it during Shadowlands' story campaign, it's meant only for max-level characters. And even then, a lot of stuff kicked my ass.
I'm speaking from experience. My Vengeance Demon Hunter normally prides himself on his ability to self-heal during fights, letting me single-handedly eviscerate tougher enemies intended for small groups or even solo entire bosses. But in The Maw, I'm having to think twice before pouncing on an enemy. I love it.
Into the deep
Part of the fun of World of Warcraft Classic is remembering just how challenging even the simplest quest could be, and The Maw gives me those same vibes. Instead of running into packs of monsters, rounding them up into a big group and unleashing demon fire on them, I'm having to carefully skulk about, picking off small groups one at a time. It's great to not be at the top of the food chain anymore.
Even without big nasties like armored Mawsworn lackeys, colossal Charred Behemoths, and demon-dog Soul Eaters prowling about, The Maw is just a creepy place to be. Its very landscape is permeated by a sense of anguish. Broken ruins and gnarled, twisted rock formations jut out of the earth like broken fingers, and the whole thing is bisected by a river of souls that, when I wade into it, evokes that filmic effect of Frodo wearing the One Ring. Suddenly I can see faint wisps of people howling ominously as they're washed away toward Torghast itself. It's cool.
The Lord of the Rings inspirations don't stop there. While The Maw is an area of open exploration where I can take on dynamically spawning quests, kill bosses, or hunt for treasure, I'm constantly under threat by the Eye of the Jailer, which observes my actions and sends progressively more challenging obstacles my way to thwart my progress.
It works a lot like Grand Theft Auto's wanted levels except the Eye of the Jailer steadily increases from the moment I step foot in The Maw. Killing enemies and completing quests will speed up that progress, eventually triggering the first of five tiers of punishments. At level one, certain enemies that were once neutral are now aggressive. Once I piss off the Eye enough that it triggers level two, Torghast begins bombarding me with extremely painful blasts of magic that also chain me down unless I dodge the blast or destroy the anchors pinning me down. At level three and four, demon assassins begin tracking me and periodically ambushing me—sometimes turning an already tough fight into a near-death encounter. And at level five, my health starts draining progressively faster over a period of seconds before I die. At that point, it's time to get the hell out until the next day when the Eye resets.
Some players might hate that The Maw effectively has a daily timer on it, but the threat levels increase so slowly that I'm not sweating the clock. It does create a welcome sense of mounting pressure as I continue to explore, though, eventually necessitating a hasty retreat.
In other parts of Warcraft, dying is no big deal. But in The Maw, it means losing the signature resource you find while there. Called Stygia, this is awarded for killing enemies or completing different objectives and is exchanged with The Maw's only nice person, a weird construct named Ve'Nari. Nice, in this case, is relative. She's pretty cold and uncaring, but at least she sells different items that open up new areas or give me helpful boosts.
If I die before I can get a chance to offload my acquired Stygia, though, half of it drops with my corpse and stays there waiting for me to collect. It's not as punishing as Dark Souls, but I like that there's this added threat encouraging me to play safe. I can see it making things especially intense if I overstay my welcome, hoard too much Stygia, and then have to retreat to the exit portal before the Eye reaches its final threat level and kills me. Players aren't allowed to use mounts while in The Maw, either, so you always have to be aware of how far you're venturing from safety.
Because The Maw is only just being added to the Shadowlands beta next week, I'm interested to see how it evolves and changes before launch. My first few hours with it were fun, but it also felt a little too empty at times and, over the months and years of Shadowlands' life, that sharp first impression would definitely dull. Hopefully Blizzard is planning on adding more quests and things to do there.
As far as endgame zones go, though, The Maw is enticing. I can't wait to play more. Like a lot of players, I resent how easy World of Warcraft's outdoor areas have become as the real challenge has been quietly shoehorned into group dungeons and raids. The Maw feels like a direct response to that criticism. It's atmospheric and creepy, and while it doesn't go full Classic by making every trip into a small cave feel like a harrowing journey, it's fun to feel like a little shrimp in a big, demonic hell pond.