Once you get to max level in World of Warcraft, the game changes. This should not be a surprise, as it has been the case in every prior expansion and it’s kind of a given that it’s the case for this one as well. And that is still kind of a messy way to structure the game, so yes, that issue is still there.
What is a nice part of Shadowlands is that the developers do seem to genuinely have tried to pace things out a bit more. You go back into the Maw a couple of times during the main story to get you acquainted with the ideas behind it. You have a quick sojourn into Torghast as well. You get to try on the Covenant powers ahead of time. In many ways, these are meant to be glimpses into how the game is going to function once you’ve wrapped up with leveling.
Despite this, the bulk of the game systems like Soulbinds wind up being deflected until the level cap. And… as I mentioned in the first part of this review, oddly, this actually works out a little bit better.
Don’t get me wrong here; this is still a borrowed power system and as a result I still find myself more than a little irritated by its inclusion. But the fact that it’s tossed in after leveling makes it a bit less obnoxious for some reason. Since you don’t get accustomed to it beforehand, you’re sort of trained to accept that it’s just temporary.
But, you know, don’t mark that as “good.” This is Borrowed Power But I Don’t Hate It That Much Actually. If we gave scored reviews, this would knock points off.
Beyond that, however… well, a lot of it will seem largely familiar, but it has all gotten updated in various ways. Sometimes very subtle ones, starting with the fact that your Callings (replacing Emissaries) require you to travel to your covenant headquarters and take them manually.
On the one hand? That’s more work to get to the same basic content. But it actually does work out all right, especially since at least thus far it gives a bit more freedom to not just throw world quests at you so you always have something to do. “Fewer quests but more interesting ones” is the name of the game, and as a result the lack of auto-added emissaries encourages you to think a little more about what you’re doing and why. It also keeps your focus on your covenant.
Mission tables return with Adventures, and they are also a little more involved. Unfortunately, I’m not sure the “more involved” part really matters all that much. It’s nice to have this be more developed, but since you have what amounts to a fixed pool of units and the actual blow-by-blow is a bit tedious, it’s… well, a bit tedious. Still, it seems to continue on the expansion’s overall ethos that less is more.
I also do like how the main progress-ish metric, Renown, has a pretty firm weekly cap. Like, it’s executed in a very kludgey and arbitrary way, but it’s actually a good thing that there’s no Artifact Power grind or anything of the sort. Renown has specific sources, and when you’re done for the week, you’re done. No amount of additional content will fix it.
On the flip side, that does mean that you hit a point of diminishing returns wherein you’ve already gotten all the stuff you need and so you have less reason to log in. But that’s… kind of an all right thing anyhow.
All of this is secondary to the obvious end points, of course. You want to know about the Maw and Torghast. And the Maw itself is played up a lot on your way forward, with your one friendly NPC making it clear that the Maw is an unwelcome place where you can and will die. Your progress in it has a pretty firm daily gate.
This is actually fine because I don’t find myself actually needing to go into the Maw on a daily basis – or at least, not into the parts that threaten me with the gaze of the Jailer. This may be about how early in the expansion it is, but the various restrictions mostly make for a fun experience wherein you’re dealing with ever-ramping threats.
I say “mostly” because, well… the lack of mounts is dumb. I don’t find it useful or more dangerous, it just feels obnoxious. Especially now with so many players around, there aren’t usually so many enemies that I would otherwise just be skating past in the first place. The tower bombardment and roaming assassins would be more than enough incentive to lay low even without the lack of mounting, and it’s just annoying.
Torghast, meanwhile… is something else.
The worst part about Torghast is simply that it doesn’t communicate very well how it works with regard to upcoming enemies and how long a given layer goes. But the actual experience of going through it is a lot of fun, letting the game’s mechanics sit up and do a dance that doesn’t pretend at balance. Some of the powers there are just plain fun. Sure, there are some duds (I don’t find Edgewalker very interesting), but I love the one that drops an additional random totem including deprecated totem. Or the one that makes every totem a healing wave. Heck, I like the one that gives you a big stat boost but stops you from jumping.
The result is that runs feel fun, even if they’re not terribly difficult. The counterbalance, of course, is that all you’re getting out of them is just materials for your legendary items; once you’ve gotten the legendary you need it becomes less relevant aside from cosmetics…. and not many of those, either.
But… again, that seems like a conscious design choice. The point here is that you aren’t playing a game wherein you have to get your daily Torghast run in; you have X amount of available Soul Ash in a week, and you want to get that through Torghast. Maybe hunt some cosmetics if you’re having fun, but the general attitude feels much more flexible than it has in prior expansions.
And I kind of like it. I like feeling like these things have weekly limits and past that point you can take a break, that I’m not as locked into having a firm rotation of daily Emissary quests to cycle through and a map awash in objectives.
The down side here is that the dungeons are kind of lackluster. They’re not awful, but Blizzard has once again made it clear that these things are designed to be a bit like blank slates. And that’s particularly notable because this expansions feels like it’s pointing at something.
No, I don’t mean speculating about the future; I mean that there’s a sense I can’t avoid as I play through the expansion. Looking at the changes and the systems, there’s one comparison that I keep feeling the need to make…
And I’ll do that in the next part to wrap this up. Look, these impressions are always three parts. It’s tradition.