I’ve noted many times at this point that World of Warcraft does not seem to have done a great job with Shadowlands, at least from what we’ve seen so far. A little prison of the team’s own making over here, a little bad philosophy behind redesigns over there, and not even a little salami as a treat. And we all shared a hearty giggle at the people working hard in the fanboy mines insisting that all is fine because it’s not like this design team has been sinking a ship since the day they came on board, right?
Here’s the thing, though. The people toiling away in the fanboy mines may be suitable targets for exasperated sighs, but this does not mean the people working for the Cherry Picking Logging Co. are exempt from notice. There’s lots of valid caution and critique to be leveled at what we’ve seen of Shadowlands so far, but assuming that it’s going to be the worst expansion ever isn’t a good look either just because that’s just moving in the opposite direction.
See, obviously this won’t be the worst expansion ever because we’re already currently in the middle of that one.
I joke, but only somewhat; it’s still important and worth noting that even if all of the worst possibilities about Covenants, Soulbinds, and so forth come true, Shadowlands is still not going to be the hot garbage mess that is Battle for Azeroth. I can’t speak to this from experience due to not being in this particular beta, but everything on public display thus far points to the expansion not sharing BfA‘s particular problems.
But that’s not actually a defense of the expansion; that’s just another kick in the ribs for BfA. It deserves all of that, but it doesn’t actually lionize anything about Shadowlands. And there is good stuff to look forward to here, despite all of the many pitfalls that are also on display.
For one thing, Shadowlands may once again be based around borrowed power layered on top of systems, but for the first time since Mists of Pandaria it does look like you’re not going to be walking into the level cap and grinding. You don’t have to work up your Garrison or farm artifact power. You just keep playing, and while your power does seem that it’ll get bumped up over time, it’s just… less focused around grinding and hoping and still leveling. That alone is welcome.
It also does seem to be genuinely addressing – or attempting to do so – the issues that the game’s endgame systems had since Legion. It wasn’t that Legion got World Quests perfectly right or anything; it was that BfA got them very wrong by doing the same thing again with half the effort. Things like the vault that rewards you gear choices not only gives you more chances at gear; it also does so while giving players an incentive to do more content than they might otherwise be inclined to do. After all, if you already did a wing of the latest raid, maybe you don’t really need more… but hey, another option for gear could be nice. Why not? Queue up another Raid Finder wing.
The fact that early reports seem to indicate you’ll be doing most of your world quests in the zone of your chosen covenant also helps things. Like… yes, this illustrates other problems, but it is kind of neat to think that you could have three Paladins who chose three different Covenants and wound up with wildly different experiences in actual play at the level cap. Even beyond different abilities!
Combine that with the fact that the Maw seems to be an effort at making an endgame zone with repeating experience from the start rather than patched in later and the addition of the new style of content in Torghast, and… yeah, there is stuff here that is at least different and at best potentially fun. And when you haven’t experienced it either way, why default to assume that it’s going to be terrible just based on descriptions?
Of course, we all know why. Because Blizzard lets people down with a determined intensity usually reserved for impressing people, and so by this point a lot of former players are just ready to assume this is going to be a mess ahead of time.
To be entirely clear here, what I mean when talking about unalloyed negativity is not people pointing out that there are reasons to be concerned or critical. This is, as discussed, people who are already declaring that everyone will hate Covenants, rather than just pointing out that there are balance and design issues that are not great going on with Covenants. It’s the a priori assumption that Blizzard can’t make a good expansion, not just that the team might not have.
It also serves as something of a counterweight to people insisting that the expansions alternate between good and bad. That pattern, like everything else, is descriptive. Calling it a pattern implies that the development team just knew that BfA or Warlords of Draenor or Cataclysm would be awful, but what else could you do?
The truth of the matter is that all three of those expansions – each of which is worse than the one preceding it – represented the team genuinely trying to do a good job making an expansion for players to enjoy and just wildly screwing it up. Period end. No one clocked out early or tried to make something bad; that was just what wound up happening for a variety of reasons. And there’s no natural law preventing Shadowlands from falling into the same trap and being merely decent.
Then again, there was nothing preventing Mists of Pandaria from being just sort of all right. I think that expansion gets more praise than it deserves on a whole, sandwiched between two real nadirs for the game, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t genuinely enjoyed. Heck, that doesn’t mean there weren’t good changes on display and visible in practice in that expansion.
Do I think that Shadowlands is going to be a great expansion? Eh… no, not really. I think it has a lot of problems that don’t seem to be solved, and it suffers from the fact that the people making decisions before are still making them now. There are, in other words, going to be a lot of unforced errors from the word go.
Do I think it’s going to be terrible? Eh… no, not really. While it’s clear that the people making design decisions right now really need to be not doing that based on many, many years of evidence, that’s not inherently and unavoidably dire. While I feel quite confident that the issues that are already visible won’t help the experience of playing the game, I do think that we’re at least starting from a better place than we were before. And some of what’s on display looks pretty darn fun.
In the end, I think it’ll be worse than the latest expansion really should be, but much better than the current expansion. Not truly dire, but could use improvement. And hey, in a month I might get proven wrong.