WoW Factor: Getting hyped for World of Warcraft’s Shadowlands

Get back.

That title up there isn’t sarcasm, folks. I want to actually get hyped up about the next World of Warcraft expansion and talk about all of the good things that have already been confirmed factors of the expansion. There’s a lot of stuff that was on display that once you move past a dumb answer about the end of Battle for Azeroth is just worth being excited about. So let’s get hyped! No, I’m not high.

One of the things that I mentioned a bunch on Twitter following the Shadowlands announcement is that while there’s definitely a lot of energy being taken from another expansion that everyone already knows about – enough that I could fill up an entire column by drawing the parallels, although I don’t actually want to do that – that’s not actually a bad thing. In some ways Blizzard has always functioned best when they have something to bounce off against, and there’s definitely more energy going into Shadowlands than seems to be common. So let’s talk about the many things that I am actually interested in, based on the announcements.

Again and again and again and...

Leaning in on alts and leveling

One of the things that strikes me as interesting – or at least unusual – is how frequently the developers of World of Warcraft have brought up the idea that the biggest weakness in leveling is that you don’t get to really see any of the expansion stories. I mean, it’s a true statement, but the actual problems have to do with a number of meaningless levels in a game overstuffed with them. Fortunately, it doesn’t really matter that the stated solution is for a problem that isn’t one because the result solves both issues at the same time.

The level squish, as I mentioned before, is one of those things that solves a problem but isn’t a complete solution to the game’s overall issues with leveling. However, this particular approach does at least set things up in a decent place. Rather than treating the game’s leveling as just something to squish down, it has actually been restructured across the board so that you can just go through content without having to worry about slowing down. It even lets you just follow the overall darn good story in several expansions (Mists of Pandaria and Legion stand out here) without hopping around. Or you can hop around if you’d rather; it all scales with you.

It also helps that there is a sharp disconnect between “I am leveling a character and have not played before” and “this is an alt.” One of the things that has been a real feather in WoW’s cap over the past few years is making it easier to at least access stuff on alts, and this only doubles down further. I like that element. And it gets even better with the Shadowlands themselves, where the whole flow of the zones is different; that’s just plain worthy.

More to the point, it solves the scaling problem that the game had with both Legion and BfA in that you no longer find yourself with zones that can be done in any order forcing them to exist in more or less isolation. Having a specific order for the first time creates a solid narrative; being able to relax that on subsequent runs is just as good. Full marks on all of this.

Plus, restoring abilities? Like totems and auras, two of the things I’ve missed the most? Oh, that makes me so happy. Come here, my darlings. You’re home again.

We all float down here.

The density of death

I’m a little surprised that the announcements didn’t play up spiritbonding as a mechanic a bit more, because it’s actually pretty neat for this particular expansion’s take on “talent tree but for this expansion only.” You pick an NPC, you specialize in exactly how that NPC helps your build out, and there’s a fair amount of choice involved in that. Combine that with the both spec-agnostic and spec-specific results of Covenants, and you have an expansion that offers a fair amount of tuning for just how you want to play.

Really, spiritbonding feels like the ultimate destination that the developers have been trying to get to for a long while, wherein you have a list of optional ways to customize yourself that is also easily moved to one side as the game moves on. There’s obvious going to be a lot that’s reliant upon execution, of course; it’s very possible that the end result of spiritbonding is a bit tedious, but I feel like this is at least a good place to start going.

The fact that you’re getting a grand total of two abilities from your Covenant (and one of them is just a generic movement trick) feels a bit less engaging, but it also contributes to the idea of selecting how you want your character to play. Diminishing spec identity for class identity helps here. You’re always going to be a Paladin, but you get lots of different little tilts that ultimately make your Night Fae Retribution Paladin bonded to Leafhead play very differently from your Bastion Retribution Paladin bonded to Justiceface.

(Note: I am just assuming that these are NPC names and I will be assigning someone these names when the expansion launches.)

Ultimately, this is the sort of stuff that I’m in favor of, especially as it’s something that the game has moved away from in recent years. As much as I liked Artifacts, they were rather unifying and flattening for the specs. Giving you more choices to make that add little bits of spice here and there until you have much more distinct entities means a lot to me, and while I can totally believe that you’ll wind up with “one spiritbond for solo stuff, one for PvP, and one for raiding/group content,” all of the systems here sound like good ones.

It they

Custom carry

More customization. Yes.

Let us play more trolls that aren’t actually different from existing trolls instead of just another allied race. Actual ethnic differences for humans. A character creator that isn’t anemic even for the time it came out. All of this delights me, and it’s all exactly the stuff I want, top to bottom, full stop. I want all of this.

This also ties into that last point, while we’re at it. Being able to add subtle differences means, well, you aren’t as uniform. Little differences of spice can have a big impact, and I look forward to playing with all of the new options as they roll out.

Sure, you can argue that this stuff should have been added to the game ages ago and you would be right to do so, but the point is that it’s being added now. I don’t want to get too hung up on “why only now” when I’m happy it’s here.

Spooky girl.

The not-actually-twinned tower

And then we get to Torghast and this is just… my jam. It’s basically building a scaling roguelike into the game to let you build custom legendary items. This is excellent. It’s still too early to know exactly how all of these things are going to play out and how the systems will be restricted, but the fact that it’s scaling across any group sizes and roles makes it feel like 8.3’s N’zoth content (which is similarly scaled) is a dry run for refining the kinks of this particular system.

I already like this. I’m a big fan of endless dungeons, I’m a big fan of stuff that scales to different group and role arrangements, and I’m a big fan of building your own items. This is tailor-made to hit all of those boxes, and I can see this basically being my endgame… depending on execution.

Since, you know, a lot of stuff comes down to execution.

But right now, we can’t judge on execution, and the announcements we’ve gotten are things that I’m all on board with. (Yes, I’m separating this from the garbage answer about the faction division; that’s an end-of-BfA thing, this is all expansion features.) There’s a lot to like here, a philosophical set of changes that could be really good for the game moving forward.

Of course, it does still raise concerns… but frankly, there’s enough to get hyped for that I didn’t feel the need to shoehorn those in here. I can do that another day.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with a decade of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.
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