World of Warcraft: Shadowlands doesn’t only straddle the line between life and death – it straddles the line between what was and what could be for Blizzard’s 16-year-old MMO. While it bombards us with familiar characters like Thrall, Jaina Proudmoore, and a few surprise returns in its opening fanfare, it also proceeds to gleefully kick open the doors to new corners of the Warcraft universe and introduce the intimidating Jailer. As the first main bad guy in WoW’s history who didn’t originate in the RTS games in some way, his arrival seems like the start of a whole new chapter of the story. At the same time, Shadowlands tries to turn the page on what max-level activities look like, and it has some success in reinvigorating WoW for yet another year.
World of Warcraft has long felt like two different games to me, especially in more recent expansions: There’s the usually exciting, fast-paced, story-dense levelling experience and then the repetitive and ultimately tiresome endgame. Shadowlands does that first part very well, as expected: it plays to WoW’s strengths with a plot that kept me hooked for about 20 hours and new zones that are bizarre, distinct, and just wonderful. Revendreth, where the wicked dead go to repent of their sins at the hands of the vampiric Venthyr, is a delightfully gothic sprawl of creepy castles and tangled woods. The ethereal, nocturnal forest of Ardenweald, where creatures of nature are watched over by the dutiful Night Fae until they can be reincarnated into new mortal forms, is downright captivating in its starry luminance.
Ardenweald also gives us one of the best zone stories WoW has ever put together. Most of the characters are refreshingly new faces, and I found them intensely charming and memorable. Stalwart allies Niya and Korayn both endeared themselves to me almost immediately in their desire to try and do what’s best even in a messy, heartbreaking situation. But the surprise guests from the existing lore are unexpected and very well presented, with a big build-up to a satisfying reveal. And the plight of your new fae allies takes some very affecting turns that go above and beyond WoW’s typically pretty limited emotional range.
Go To Hell
Our introduction to this new world is a bit light on whimsy, though, since we’re dumped pretty much immediately into The Maw. This is basically Warcraft’s version of Hell, where the most wicked souls go to suffer eternally. Everything from the foreboding music to the sickly orange color palette feel as oppressive as Icecrown while completely departing from its icy, blue and black look. The wicked enemies and buildings are still in line with the Lich King’s sense of style, though, reminding us that we’re seeing the realm from which his power originated.
When the story ends, though, is where Shadowlands sets itself a step above previous expansions. Blizzard has long tried to sell us on the idea that the real game starts when you hit max level, and frankly, I’ve never bought into that: I generally lose interest and take a hiatus after I’ve level capped a few characters and run through all the dungeons a few times. But Shadowlands is the first expansion that has made me want to believe the company line in a while. Endgame activities have never been this diverse and interesting.
It all starts with picking a Covenant – one of the four main factions of the Shadowlands – a choice independent of whether you’re part of the Horde or Alliance. Alongside Revendreth and Ardenweald, Maldraxxus is the abode of dead warriors, where zombies and abominations with festering wounds and pointy armor (even for WoW) do battle eternally and revel in plagues and fleshcraft. The Kyrian of Bastion seek to purify themselves to earn their angelic wings and become the couriers who bring souls to the Shadowlands from the mortal plane. Each has a strong personality and cool set of new abilities, with one being for all covenant members and another specific to your class. On top of that, you’ll get access to the covenant’s Sanctum, which can be upgraded over time with things like special shortcuts around the zone only members can use, or the ability to summon secret world bosses that drop rare loot.
The Dark Tower
The star of the Shadowlands endgame is definitely Torghast though, a semi-randomized roguelike mega-dungeon that can be tackled solo or with a group. You accumulate randomized powers from anima caches, like you might blessings in Hades. These are mostly specific to your class and can make you hilariously overpowered in some creative ways. My favorite caused the damage of my next Steady Shot to increase by a lot every time I broke open a pot, which meant if I could avoid wasting the buff until the final boss, it was very possible to slice off half of its health bar with my weakest attack. Of course, you can only use these in Torghast, and they reset after every run. Each wing has different modifiers, and two out of the six are open every week, so you won’t be facing the same challenges over and over. Torghast rewards you with Soul Ash, which is used to craft new personalized legendary items that, even at their lowest tier, are more powerful than mythic dungeon gear, so it feels worth your time.
Every IGN World of Warcraft Review
There’s a bit of a missed opportunity here though, too, because Torghast actually isn’t infinitely repeatable. Or at least, the rewards aren’t. Once you’ve cleared all the available floors in each wing for a given week, you can’t get any more benefit from doing them again. This is a letdown, especially because of how much I enjoy Torghast and think it represents the exact direction WoW should be aiming in to keep its endgame vibrant and interesting. Just like I can pop into a fresh run of Hades any time I feel like it and come out with new stories and permanent upgrades to my character, I really, really wished Torghast would offer me the same opportunity.
You’ll also be returning to The Maw, which serves as this expansion’s challenging max-level zone, and it’s set up much differently than past ones. For one thing, there are no mounts allowed – not even ground mounts! Everything you do in The Maw, from killing tough world bosses to completing rinse-and-repeat daily quests, grants you Stygia, a currency that can be used to buy permanent upgrades to Torghast like an increased chance of rolling rare anima powers. The way Shadowlands limits the amount of Stygia you can reap in a day is a stacking debuff called Eye of the Jailer, in which the expansion’s archvillain will focus more of his malevolent attention on you the more you make a mess of his realm. At first, he’ll target you with periodic area attacks from his watch towers, then he’ll send assassins after you, and eventually slap you with a terrifying curse that will make you unable to recover health and sooner or later drop dead.
Playing in The Maw feels way different from other WoW zones. It actually seems risky and thrilling to even make my way from Point A to Point B. Borrowing a dash of Dark Souls, dying causes you to drop a portion of your current Stygia, which you’ll have to return to your corpse to recover. If you die twice in a row, it’s gone forever. This is a big adjustment since death in WoW is generally no more than a minor inconvenience. Stygia is such a limited, prized resource that takes so long to acquire, seeing a bunch of it evaporate is far more painful than just losing the time it takes to run back to your body or the relatively paltry gold cost of repairing damaged gear. But I really enjoy the tension this adds.The actual World of Warcraft hasn’t felt this dangerous since trying to navigate high-level areas like the Burning Steppes in vanilla, back in 2004.
But between Stygia, Reputation, Anima, Redeemed Souls, Grateful Offerings, Soul Ash, Phantasma, Renown, Sinstone Fragments… there are a lot of different currencies that tie into endgame progression in different ways. Let me be frank: It’s way too many. Keeping track of which ones are spent on which things, and how each one can be acquired, and how much of each you can earn per day or week makes me wish Blizzard had found a way to maybe combine just a couple of them.
Also, everything is heavily time-gated, and it’s difficult to see any reason to do this other than trying to keep you subscribed longer. At first, you can progress a decent amount week to week. But some of the later sanctum upgrades cost enough weekly or daily limited currencies that it’s going to take months to unlock them, at minimum, and so far the rewards are really underwhelming. In Ardenweald, I’ve been given the job of nurturing specific souls to prepare them for reincarnation, a process that takes three real-time days each. The reward for doing this the first time, to my shock and dismay, was a stack of 12 cloth – something I could have farmed in about a half hour at most. The wait wouldn’t be so bad if the rewards actually seemed worth it.
Through Dungeons Deep
Each of the eight new dungeons is pretty strong, both thematically and in terms of fun boss mechanics. In the Necrotic Wake, one fight requires you to trick a mad professor’s abominable creations into hitting him with their meat hooks, dragging him down from his safe perch to do battle. In De Otha Side, you team up with Battle for Azeroth’s memorable breakout star, the loa of death Bwonsamdi, to collect on some old debts and help him fend off a rival to his throne in what’s both one of the most hectic and satisfying five-person fights WoW has given us in a while. The higher-end mythic difficulty versions of these bosses, in particular, are a blast with an experienced group. And while I haven’t been able to mess around with Mythic+ yet as it was locked for the first two weeks, the fact that the weekly cache will now let you choose between three different rewards instead of being totally random seems like it will majorly help with the problem of feeling like you did a lot of work only to get a gear piece that’s useless to you.
The first raid, Castle Nathria, has only been out for about a day as I’m writing this, but I’ve already had a really fun, chill time chipping away at the first few bosses, including a blind bat who forces the party to play an elaborate game of hide and seek. The architecture and music are fantastic throughout, though it does seem to be a little bit too bright for a vampiric overlord’s seat of power. And while I definitely don’t want to spoil it, one of Nathria’s most clever encounters sees the return of a dearly departed fan favorite character we haven’t heard from in a long, long time. And I’m really hoping it’s not the last we see of them this expansion.
Crafting has also gotten a welcome new lease on afterlife in Shadowlands, as it’s directly tied to the system of player-made legendary armor. Each piece starts with a template that can only be made by a crafter of the appropriate specialization – blacksmiths for plate, tailors for cloth, and so on. You then get to pick which stats to apply to it using missives made by scribes, which both gives those players a new way to make money and feels so much better than trying to re-roll random stats until you finally get something you like.
The one part of this system I’m not thrilled about is the fact that you have to craft 15 copies of the lower-tier legendary base items before you can unlock the higher-tier ones, which just ends up flooding the auction house with those lesser pieces and making it very difficult to turn a profit on them. We’ll see what happens to the prices as things stabilize, but I’m worried supply is always going to outpace demand and, with a high fixed material cost to even get started, legendary crafting will end up as more of a gold sink than an economic boon.