First Impressions of World of Warcraft: Shadowlands, part one: Story and leveling

This has not gone according to plan

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.

Skull go BLORF

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.

All things go, all things go.

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.

Massively Overpowered skips scored reviews; they’re outdated in a genre whose games evolve daily. Instead, our veteran reporters immerse themselves in MMOs to present their experiences as hands-on articles, impressions pieces, and previews of games yet to come. First impressions matter, but MMOs change, so why shouldn’t our opinions?

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as long as story content is not too much (post Douglas Adams) Monty Python, WoWs narrative details although with many deep aspects (eg. Onyxia) never were attractive or at least immersive for me. my desinterest isnt a simple case of textbox fatigue, but a more personal one:
WoW often felt educative, as its intention is to teach some Shakespeare lessons, i already graduated aoens ago. and therefore WoWs narratives r tryhard (to me).
my preference is a more personal and nuanced approach on player agency, which WoW never really delivered, but myself: my personal story is not a result of disjointed level paths prior to 9.0, but overall boredom. altough my first playtru long before heirlooms was a grand tour of 3 weeks admiring the architectonic beauty of forgotten temples (Diremaul, Blackrock etc) and distanced vistas, the surprisingly diverse simplicity of the mechanics (aka systems) and the dark flavor. but as its standard for mainstream franchises Catch-All approach to over-determine, to exxagerate, to soften any deep seriousness into Wolkenkuckucksheim, like a Disney cover on Schwermetall.
my solution, as i loved the gameplay (of which the environment is an element), was to live my own story, to keep me immersed.

SL leveling was designed as a spin-off, as i needed a different perspective on my self-reflection, so i projected my RL identity on my ingame persona. although not a revolutionary take, as majority does experience the narrative content this way, this approach was quite a satisfying channel, a Lost Highway to myself. (not) quite like the mouse in Kafkas Anti-Fabel, i changed direction (before the (Schrödingers) cat could eat me).

technically SL lvl experience is the most elabored, refined and consistent in WoWs history, an evolution in almost any defining aspects. overall the pace felt the most smooth ever achieved, the clear split of campaign and side quests, the reduced volume, the route and esp. the transition from last-tier into a new xpac wasnt as rigid as BFAs idiocy, where every level-up felt like a downgrade (negative power curve) etc.
all these aspects benefit the great art (and world) design and applaude the brillant gameplay. while some design decisions r critically inconvient, those still focus a major wisdom of any concept: less often is more. and while i hate being GROUNDED, esp. the Maw, the RPGness beneath the surface is brillant, another parallel progression system.

synergy i think is the maybe the most fitting analytical conclusion for SL design priority. a design approach Blizzney has been struggling with since WOTLK, to connect the various progression (/endgame) options harmonically:
the Maw as a central system is a synergetic core(/crossing), which connects the various game (and esp.) endgame systems. its primary function is narrative, but also mechanical and connects those (systems). many of the Maw rewards upgrade other progression systems like gear and Torghast, while the overall flavor is a new direction for World Content: in comparison to Argus, the Maw feels dangerous, map and mob design, mob placement and esp. via the integration of a more strict/souls-like sanction for failure (loss of Stygia upon death).
also the Maw is not exclusive the gameplay aspect of WoWs hell, but the narrative too. and while its great to expierence Azeroths heroes on the verge of their limits, its narrative execution is too soft to be the existential experience Blizzney tries so hard to deliver in its Shakespearan concepts.
but maybe Jaina developed some hardcore emotional resilience and Anduin finally became the lion, his father was.

but even in this narrative failure is a new dimension of hard earned synergy to find, as most of its tropes r as reduced, as simple, as SL (in every aspect) overall.

my ranking of 9.0 is still undecided, as there r many factors to consider, of which i exclusively focussed one in this post, the topic of the article.
many, as dungeon and dungeon mob design, progression/power curve, many iam looking to forward to (analytically) explore.

Steven Williams

I genuinely feel like I missed the boat with WoW. It’s long sailed without me.

I made a character and slogged through BFA. The story with Jaina was pretty nice, even though I’m missing a LOT of context. But the zone stories were BORING. Even worse, I got completely lost trying to figure out how to get Loremaster. I had to install a plugin to help me out, but even then it took way too long to figure things out. What a… shitty system.

Then I spent 5 hours trying to figure out how to unlock Void elf. Blizzard support didn’t give good information, reddit didn’t give good information, nor did Wowhead’s default articles. I had to find another article on Wowhead (that site is a pain to navigate) so I could figure out what to do.

I finally unlocked the Argus Campaign, had some fun doing it even though I knew none of the characters, then I couldn’t queue into the final dungeon because my dungeon finder was stuck in BFA zones. I went back to Stormwind after reading the support article and that didn’t fix it. I tried talking to the time midget and she just gave me some generic dialogue. I also couldn’t queue for the raid. So that sucked, but I got Void Elf I guess.

Then I started Shadowlands. I don’t have adequate context for anything. Nothing to grasp on. I watched some recap videos on youtube, but there’s a difference between watching a recap and actually experiencing the prior events. Once I got to Bastion and realized I’d be in for more of the same generic zone questing gameplay loop I was subjected to in BFA, I closed the game and canceled my sub. I’m just not getting anything out of this.


Given that you are a reader here, I’m kind of curious what MMOs you do play and have found entertaining given your comments here.


Some stories were good (Bastian and Revendreath both were good IMHO), some were mediocre (Ardenweald, I’m looking at you)… but I didn’t find any bad ones, to be honest. What I am finding is that the different zones also bring with it varying mechanics to deal with. Some work better with one class than another. An example: Ardenweald is a PAIN for mages, because of how many enemies do the ‘jump behind you’ trick.


This I find interesting because I found Ardenweald a joy overall while Revendreth was “okay” for me.

Rick Mills

I loved the Ardenweald story – the continuation of another story that actually made me choke up – it was very well done.
I’m thoroughly enjoying myself – looking forward to advancing the covenant.

Ben Stone

I found the levelling a real slog this time, more than I ever felt since Cataclysm. Hopefully its better with the threads of fate for alts. I really, really, really hate Bastion and I was there for what seemed like forever.

Also you barely get your new Covenant toys and then you leave that zone in a few more quests. That’s a pretty dumb decision, they should hand them out at the start and let you have a decent amount of time with them before the next zone.


The point of the Covenant abilities, during leveling, is that you are introduced to them but not given the idea that they are required. I reached 60 on Saturday this weekend, and I found the leveling happened automatically. I probably did a total of 5 side quests throughout the entire leveling process. The main story quests were enough to get me most of the way.

Once you reach 60, you choose your covenant and then those abilities become permanent. I find it a fantastic decision. Otherwise, I would’ve been given abilities per zone, while leveling, with zero context. And really, I barely used the abilities in each zone. I simply forgot they were there.

I’m also a bit perplexed how you’re struggling to level when this, IMO, the easiest level process I’ve ever experienced in WoW (given that I’ve played since Vanilla). Unless you’re just completely uninterested in the main story and have no interest advancing it.


The overall story is so boring and derivative. It is clear to me now that the current development team lacks vision and the talent to deliver an interesting video game these days.

The zones are boring as well both in aesthetics and story.


I think they just don’t care much about story, especially considering how many people just rush through leveling and zones so they can raid at max level. And not much you can do with aesthetics considering the cartooney art style, aside from changing overall color palette. And the zones in Shadowlands do it good enough for most people to make them stand out from each other while people rush through them.

Bruno Brito

That’s a problem Blizzard themselves created.


I found the stories pretty decent, but the actual gameplay was the same old standard quests we’ve been doing the past 16 years. And quite slow at times too, with awkward long NPC walks or defeating waves of enemies that took ages to spawn.

Maybe it’s JUST me, but at this point I just… Miss the days when all you had to do to raid was do dungeons until you got good enough gear. No world quests to level up some story-related legendary that was forced on you, that you had to keep doing week after week or else your ilevel would fall behind. I don’t mind an attunement quest or a not too severe rep grind to access a raid, because those are ONE TIME requirements. I absolutely hate questing, and the whole “Do world quests to level up your shitty legendary” meant I had to keep doing game content that I LOATHED not just for one, but TWO expansions. In a row.


Don’t play FFXIV then, lol. There’s even less agency in that endgame (read:none)

Malcolm Swoboda

So far the gist I keep getting is that Shadowlands is both a return to form and a movement towards an idea of a new future, but the return is only okay and the movement is barely the start. Not enough to hype everyone up, and maybe collective burnout and later bad decisions just craters the population in time, but possibly instead keeps things stable and maybe build back better next year.

Or was I taking about 2020?

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The Shadowlands experience put me off at first, but I quickly warmed up to it. The story is generally enjoyable and the new mechanics are gradually introduced in a smart manner. At least for what’s covered while leveling.

I feel invested in the new characters and world so Blizzard has accomplished that much for me.


I would not classify leveling as “fun”. It felt like doing same very boring job of going through same boring type of quests where I had to “kill dozens of NPCs where first few will not have item which I need to loot from them” or “click on glowy things” or “stand in a place and defeat 3 waves of enemies” or “kill random things in an area until I reach necessary percentage”. It was same thing I did in previous expansion. And the story was another WoW fanfic (which may be interesting for hardcore fans of this game but something which I never cared for) so I just started to skip reading and skip all cutscenes after trying to read first few story quests, same as I did before. And it is the same with some streamers whom I watched – they were playing it like they were doing a necessary but boring job, you could clearly hear it in their voice even though they did not admit it.

Of course, other people may enjoy leveling experience for various reasons (perhaps they like doing same thing they did in previous expansion or perhaps they like the story), and there is nothing wrong with that.


I don’t disagree with you but that’s just the state of EVERY mmo. The quest has not evolved in…..well, ever. Some are slightly more interesting versions of the things we’ve been doing since the 90’s (Wildstar was great about this) but they all boil down to fetching things.

I would be interested in an MMO that takes and makes all of the “Main quests” with the big stuff (like FFXIV’s MSQ) and makes that totally feasible to reach level cap. Then if you really want to you can go back and do all the side drivel for the extra lore.