World of Warcraft: Shadowlands — The Good & the Bad

Before we get into the review/first impressions here, let’s lay out a few caveats:
  1. I’d probably be described by most as a fairly casual WoW player, which probably puts some bias in here.
  2. Like with any MMO, it’s impossible to tell how the expansion will be after multiple content patches, and I’ve in no way been able to experience everything on offer so far.
  3. I can’t really talk to super-optimised builds or mechanics — there are plenty of other places that can give that kind of info better than I ever could.

Shadowlands is World of Warcraft’s newest expansion, and I’ve had my hands on it since launch day. Given the caveats above, what I’m going to do here is divide up my initial impressions of the expansion so far into the Good, the Average, and the Bad. 

In brief, is Shadowlands good so far? It’s okay in my view, and I know this might seem like heresy to most, but I think I enjoyed Battle for Azeroth a little more. The below are my first impressions as to why.

The Good

The Bastion Covenant stronghold.
The Covenant stronghold is a nice reward for finishing the story.

As with pretty much every expansion, Blizzard’s art team absolutely knocked it out of the park with this one. Even zones like Maldraxxus and the Maw which are mainly grey and subdued in their colour palette have interesting things to look at and a really unique theme. This theming, and the otherworldliness it creates, is a really important factor in making the Shadowlands feel like somewhere brand new. From the sparkling eternal fields of Bastion, the mystical fae forest of Ardenweald where the rot can be seen at its edges, to the Bram Stoker-esque gothic castles of Revendreth, everything about the atmosphere in this expansion is on point.

Dungeon design is pretty much excellent from what I’ve seen so far in this expansion. I’ve completed seven out of the eight dungeons available, with quite a few up to mythic difficulty. De Other Side, despite confusing mechanics on its final boss, is an excellent trip through old enemies and some new ones, whilst the Revendreth Sanguine Depths prison dungeon feels like a high speed prison break at its best. One of the first dungeons you encounter, Necrotic Wake, acts as the end of the Bastion storyline and is a great introduction to the kind of clever mechanics used throughout the dungeon content so far, challenging players to work as a team, on the third boss particularly, where mobs must be tricked into hooking the boss down into the main area. This focus on driving teamwork is something which I didn’t see in Battle for Azeroth, and it’s a welcome thing.

Shadowlands - Revendreth, with a red-lit statue of a ripped vampire guy (Sire Danathrius).
Revendreth – pleasing my teenage goth aesthetic.

The choice of a covenant (the four factions that ‘own’ the zones of the Shadowlands) had a big deal made by Blizzard in the promo materials for the expansion, and it feels like a good feature, not too gimmicky. Some of my guild members have described it as ‘the best of the order halls from Legion’ and I’m inclined to agree; building up reserves of anima through meaningful world quests to expand your stronghold, the faction storyline (I’ve only experienced Bastion’s so far, and it’s been pretty cool), and the benefits from soulbinding with champions of your covenant has been a nice progress driver for me. With chapters of this storyline being unlocked with each weekly reset, there isn’t loads of pressure to rush through it either. Covenant abilities are a nice reward which support your class with useful features, and the Spear of Bastion has saved me a few times as a Protection-specced warrior. My only complaint with these abilities is the fact that some are clearly BIS (best in slot), limiting your ability to make a meaningful choice as a player.

Last but not least of the Good about this expansion, Torghast is by far and away the stand-out feature for me, at least on my tank main. I’m mainly a solo player, given I can usually only commit to a couple of hours of play at a time, and Torghast is a great way to feel like you’re making some quick progress whether in a group or alone. As a protection warrior, it’s been straightforwards to solo most of the layers, but I know some DPS classes have had real trouble with it. The design of the different floors, the increasing difficulty, and the random powers you gain as you progress through the tower add a real sense of fun which can sometimes be lacking in WoW’s other, more grindy features. Put on the soundtrack to 2016’s Doom and you can quite happily rip and tear through the tower after a day at work.

The reward of Soul Ash, a new currency which you can use to craft legendaries with a prisoner of the Maw is a nice feature too, although the process of crafting these is in the Average section for me. My only gripe with Torghast is that rewards are limited solely to Soul Ash at this stage; if it could be used as a way to gear up a character, it’d be the best thing Blizzard have done in a long time.

The Average

Ardenweald is the prettiest of all the Shadowlands zones.

The levelling experience in this expansion, despite the beauty of the zones, almost put me off from day one. This was nowhere more apparent than in Maldraxxus, where I felt like I was purely grinding. However, by the end of the levelling experience when I reached Ardenweald and Revendreth, these zones stood out as real positives. Ardenweald and Revendreth both have excellent stories, with beautiful in-engine and drawn cutscenes explaining the background of the zone, their characters, and the impact of the soul drought which is wracking the Shadowlands. 

I came away from hitting max level on my warrior main feeling decidedly “Meh” about the whole thing – I really enjoyed Ardenweald and Revendreth, could take or leave Bastion, and despised my time in Maldraxxus. Ultimately the impression I got from levelling wasn’t the dopamine rush you get from the dings on a new alt, but the rote ‘Here we go again’ on the inevitable slog to the end-game, which is where Shadowlands really seems to begin. I’m normally a real altoholic, and ended up with three characters at max level in Battle for Azeroth. I can’t guarantee I’ll do the same thing again in Shadowlands which feels unfortunate.

Legendary item crafting in Torghast seemed pretty neat to me at first; the option to gear up via Torghast. There’s one big drawback to this system, however – waiting for legendary powers (called memories) you can slot into items (bought from crafters) to drop. As a Protection-specced warrior, the current best in slot power drops from one dungeon, and has a drop rate somewhere around 1–3% the last time I checked. This isn’t ideal – I like that dungeon, but I don’t particularly want to run it a hundred times to get my BIS power in the limited play time I have. If these powers could be bought with Soul Ash, or crafted by players, or picked up as a reward for completing storyline missions, this system would feel a lot more accessible. In an expansion where I’ve found gearing up particularly frustrating (more on that in the Bad section) this would be a much more positive feature for me.

The Bad

Shadowlands - Maldraxxus. It's grey.
Why is Maldraxxus so ****ing grey!?

The Maw as a zone makes me pretty cross, especially as a fairly casual player without too much time to spend on WoW. Its quests are okay – the usual ‘Kill X’ or ‘Gather Y’ as a daily or weekly. Getting to the site of those quests however, leads me to the most inexplicable and baffling decision Blizzard have made so far – you can’t use your mount in the Maw, and it’s not a small zone. It’s also a zone packed to the brim with hostile mobs roaming about, in a similar vein to Nazjatar. If your class doesn’t have some kind of mobility ability, enjoy walking everywhere, aggroing mobs you might not be able to get away from, on your way to try and do a daily for Ve’nari (the Maw’s main quest giver). Sure, we can steal mounts from some of the Jailer’s guards, but they only last sixty seconds and disappear if you try to do something. Taking mobility away from players and their ability to get stuff done as a result is a really good way to grind my gears.

The story of Shadowlands so far has left me pretty much underwhelmed. Not necessarily of the zones on their own – these felt pretty coherent and well thought through for the most part (except you, Maldraxxus). What I mean here is the presentation of the villains and what they’re trying to achieve. The writing behind Sylvanas didn’t feel fantastic in BFA, and I’m not sure it’s getting better in Shadowlands. So far I think we’ve only seen her in a couple of cutscenes, chatting with the Jailer about how the heroes aren’t letting things go to plan, followed by the usual villainous shrug of ambivalence.

The Plaguefall dungeon in Maldraxxus.
The Plaguefall dungeon in Maldraxxus is my least favourite so far.

This was a theme I felt we saw all the way through BFA – ambivalent villains perfectly happy to let the champions do their thing until their raid is eventually made available and they get defeated. The Jailer’s repeated insistence that ‘nothing escapes the Maw’, when heroes can pretty much do just that every day of the week with no consequence feels pretty meaningless at this point. 

What I’m about to criticise here isn’t necessarily the fault of Shadowlands, but more a fault of design decisions by Blizzard which, in my view at least, are fundamentally crap. I’ve found gearing up and getting content ready this expansion particularly difficult, thanks to a combination of low item level rewards from daily quests, the still infuriating dungeon loot drop system, and the locking of upgrading Covenant armour behind story chapters. 

Update: Since I first wrote this, the Great Vault (which gives weekly loot at a decent item level, matched to rated PVP, Mythic+ completion, or raid bosses killed) has been unlocked, and I’ve got a little more into PVP. Both of these give good ways to gear up at an okay pace, but it still feels perhaps a little slow to me. My view on gearing up is moving more towards ‘Average’ than bad, so time will tell. I still hate that Mythic+ only seems to give one or two items in the final chest plus a rubbish 35 anima, though.

You can buy and upgrade gear to mythic level for honour at these vendors.

The Mythic+ timed dungeon system is particularly egregious in this regard – most folks at the end, whether they beat the timer or not, will receive a mere 35 anima for their trouble. It really puts me off running the content that the chance of a reward is so heavily locked behind RNG. Normal, Heroic, and Mythic dungeons aren’t much better, with the boss typically dropping one or two items for the group, for a five-player group. Blizzard puts a massive focus on the end-game and progression through Mythic Keystones, but to get the item level required needs what feels like a massive commitment in time, often for little to no reward. 

If there was one thing I could fix in WoW, it would be to make each boss give a guaranteed gear drop to each player in the group; make dungeons reward everybody who takes part — it’s a team effort after all. The ability to upgrade covenant armour is a welcome one, but as this is locked behind covenant story progression, it will put most folks well behind the curve if they choose to rely on this due to the slow pace at which story is unlocked. In BFA, this could typically be solved through world quests, which would increase the item level given as your character improved, up to a Mythic+/Looking for Raid appropriate level; this doesn’t seem to be the case in Shadowlands, with these item level upgrades for world quests locked behind covenant story again.

There are a few last gripes I have too, but again these aren’t necessarily Shadowlands’  fault and more a general view I have on Blizzard’s game design approach — Blizzard gatekeeping flying mounts behind achievements and future patches (why? It’s easier to look at your pretty zones from the air!), strange flight path placement in some zones, the prevalence of hostile mobs when you just want to get from A to B, and world quests that vary wildly in what needs to be done to get similar rewards. These all grind my gears, but they’re not quite enough to put me off playing.

Shadowlands is currently available on PC.

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