In a lot of ways, the problem with talking about World of Warcraft is the same problem when you try to talk about The Simpsons. At this point, its longevity and cultural spot exists as such a defining facet of its existence that the only real thing you can compare it to is itself, and you’re also dealing with a piece of popular culture that has altogether supplanted what it was originally a response to. You’re talking about something big and important that has been in a downward slope, and while some of that is a function of time, it’s also a direct and measurable result of decisions being made that could be made differently.
What does all that have to do with Shadowlands? Well, all that preamble should make the point that while it’s plausible nothing is ever going to live up to the heights that now exist in retrospect (to the point wherein the most obvious way some fans seek to recapture those feelings is to just literally go back to the old material), it’s important to note that not everything has to do that. And Shadowlands is an interesting study in precisely that concept.
See, the thing about Shadowlands is that for all that it’s a product of the same bad decisions that made Battle for Azeroth such a miserable slog, Shadowlands itself is… actually good? It’s fun now? It’s not just acceptable in quality? I was surprised, too.
And it starts down that road by making a very different decision than any other WoW expansion by giving you a single storyline and questing throughline that you cannot deviate from, start to finish.
You might be quick to point out that there are lots of expansions that didn’t let you start in any zone, and you’d be right. But in no prior expansion was it absolutely impossible to miss a single throughline. You could go through all of Wrath of the Lich King without ever doing the Vrykul quests over in the Howling Fjord. It was possible to be ready to fight Lady Vashj without having done all the quests about the Naga presence in The Burning Crusade. But you have no choice but to go through the main story here, start to finish, at least once.
The story starts by flinging you into the Maw for some initial setup and questing, and just when it looks like the whole thing is going to pull the same trick as Warlords of Draenor in which the main threat is almost immediately dealt with at no real cost… well, there’s a cost here, and the spoiler-free version is that you basically accomplish none of your goals when you wind up in the Maw. Everything that happens subsequently is you trying desperately to figure out how to accomplish your initial goals, and the concurrent problems make that seem less possible with each new zone visited.
Rather than the main story obviating zone experiences, though, the result is that each zone gets more space to flesh itself out as you work through the story giving you a tour of each zone. And the actual zones are… well, they’re weird in the sense that they shouldn’t make a whole lot of sense, but they also do make sense as mental detritus given form.
So, for example, why is Maldraxxus stuffed to the brim with necromancy when everyone there is already dead? Because the philosophy of improvement and alteration and constant war fits with everything being some variety of corpse. Why is Revendreth filled with a vampiric power structure? Because it’s all about repurposing cruel souls to more positive ends via cruelty. You get the idea.
The biggest fault of all this, of course, is that it feels more like a content island than any other portion of WoW’s history has (including the last two expansions that literally took place on islands). There’s a lot of talk about how all of this is going to doom Azeroth, but there’s not much meat to why it’s so vitally important. Then again, that may very well be a function of where we are in the expansion than a lack of interest; put a pin in that one and check back in about a year.
And even there, the whole overarching story is just plain fun. The anima drought that the realms are experiencing is given a proper amount of weight and discussion, but it’s not the focus in every zone and tends to be more interesting for what it informs rather than just turning into an endless series of quests about how the realms need anima. And while the morality is always pretty simple, it does manage to raise some interesting questions.
For example, Bastion is all about letting go of your past life, to the point of burning away your memories and the person you used to be. It’s kind of horrific… but then you remember that these are not living people but spirits who have come to reside on this realm, throwing an interesting wrinkle into things. The Night Fae raise some interesting questions about choosing who lives and who dies in dire times, with the drought making it into a non-hypothetical question. Sure, your villains are all straight baddies, but it at least does something with the theme of the afterlife.
All of this is also helped by another trick: While the expansion is still using borrowed power mechanics, they’re basically not present for the vast majority of the leveling experience. Yes, you do get to try out each of the covenant abilities, but they’re only usable in that zone, they tend to come around the middle of the story in the zone, and you aren’t fussing about with anything else. Most of the leveling experience is just… leveling.
That should feel bad, in theory, maybe. But it means that even if you know that borrowed power is coming, it’s never something to rely upon. Far more emphasis is on the abilities you have as a baseline.
Equally nice is the fact that after you’ve gone through the whole experience once, the game lets you choose to bring alts through a sidequest-only version of the zone complete with world quests and new options, choosing whatever order you want. It’s much more freeform and based on the idea that you don’t need to be told all of the setup again; it combines the best of both world, a bespoke leveling experience and storyline with the more open-form leveling that recent expansions have used.
Of course, this also means that things change a bit more once you get to the level cap. So I should talk about that… but as with prior expansions, this one is getting split into multiple pieces. To close this part out, though, the leveling experience in Shadowlands is just plain good. It’s fun, it moves at a brisk pace, and while you cover a lot of ground in each zone you still have a lot more to explore by the time you’re done with the main story.
And by that point, there’s still a whole other zone you’ve only briefly ventured into, just enough to get you accustomed to what you’ll be doing when the Maw and Torghast open for you in their totality.