One of the things that I generally like to avoid doing is comparing World of Warcraft to other MMOs on the market. Even as we’ve moved on from the era when, by volume, the market was “WoW vs. everybody else” into a stage when it’s the big five, the fact of the matter is that the game is big enough and well-known enough to be context for itself. For that matter, it’s rarely necessary. The game has been around long enough and gone through wild enough design swings that half of the time today’s bad decision can be illustrated by pointing to yesterday’s good decision, so to speak.
Having said all of that… you can’t discuss Shadowlands accurately without noting that the game is trying to really take pages from other games. And I think there’s a certain sort of oddity to that; like Jack Kirby working on Jimmy Olson, it has the sense of a studio wanting to get the energy from another product but not having quite enough spine to fully embrace what was done elsewhere. In this case… largely Final Fantasy XIV.
It’s not just FFXIV here, of course; out of the aforementioned big five, the only one without a single defining story sequence was WoW up until this expansion. But there are a lot of things that feel very much borrowed from that specific game. Threads of Fate as a system feels similar to leveling your non-main jobs via side quests and roulettes. The Maw is akin to Eureka, right down to the mount restrictions. Choosing a Covenant is like choosing a Grand Company. The roguelike nature of Torghast is akin to the Deep Dungeons.
But… each time it pulls back from that. Sure, Torghast has its point of comparisons, but your gear matters way more than it does in any Deep Dungeon (and you get no special upgrades for that content). The Covenants define more of your gameplay than the aforementioned Grand Companies. Heck, the “main scenario” leaves you with a cliffhanger in all four zones, but only one of them can be wrapped up on a given character.
On the one hand, this is a good thing because it means that the game doesn’t feel like WoW in name only. On the other hand… it means that there are embedded elements that seem to still be in place even when there’s a better model to draw from.
Take the whole “less loot” change that’s supposed to theoretically be a good thing because no more Titanforging! Except that lots of people have been clamoring to just be able to buy gear again, exhausted by the way that the game drips out random rewards. Less loot and no bonus rolls means that at the end of the day, you’re just getting less stuff, and the lack of a currency option to just buy upgrades feels all the more glaring in context.
But you do have the vault! Which… may or may not give you an upgrade, and if it doesn’t, you’re basically out of luck because it’ll drop a non-power currency on you. This is somewhat less than overwhelming.
Lest this seem like I’m somehow talking smack because the game is clearly getting inspiration from elsewhere, I want to make it clear that this isn’t the case. I’m glad at the thought of the designers taking the inspiration and energy from more recent titles that have embraced success in a post-WoW environment by doing things that WoW wasn’t doing. It’s more that the game’s design doesn’t seem willing to truly go after the inspiration it’s leaving on the table. It’s willing to go part of the way, but it doesn’t seem to absorb the lessons of why this had such an impact.
And the net result is that the game feels better… but like it’s still not willing to fully embrace a correction of flaws, which just highlights the fact that it’s gotten halfway to embracing a new philosophy and then pulled back. I love that the game has taken inspiration from its competitors, but it’s frustrating to see it treating this with a sense of begrudging obstinancy.
But then, is this really a surprise? All the talk of unpruning was talking a good game, but when half of the unpruned abilities for Hunter are useless for Survival, what did it really matter? It’s not addressing the core issues in place or the design issues lingering. Yes, my Paladin technically has auras again. But doubling down on Holy Power means that the actual play experience is more like a halfway point between Rogue and Arms Warrior, not the seal-and-judge gameplay of the class back when it was arguably at its best.
Despite all of this, if you’ve come this far feeling like my overall evaluation has been generally positive, that’s because it has been. I have really been having fun with this expansion. None of these criticisms change the fact that it’s been pleasant, especially compared to the equivalent period in Battle for Azeroth.
It’s more that we are in a post-BFA environment. And it’s hard to believe this is the new state of affairs, or even that the game is going to keep embracing these changes that are ultimately welcome.
So where does that leave us? With a pretty good expansion, ultimately, but one that occupies a similar spot to Mists of Pandaria. It’s definitely better than its immediate predecessor, and it’s the sort of thing that has a divisive premise but is actually a pretty good game in its own right. Indeed, it re-orients the game’s design paradigm in a way that could definitely benefit the players moving forward.
But it’s not going to knock your socks off right away. Indeed, I think a lot of people made their minds up about this expansion well before release. I’m glad that it has impressed me more than I expected from my status as an onlooker who was not in the beta. I’m looking forward to the next year of gameplay and think there’s a lot to like within.
At the same time, it’s hard not to feel like the game is trying to borrow elements from other titles without really understanding what makes those other titles work so well. You’ve got the notes of FFXIV (among others) without totally getting the music. It’s something I think of any time I wind up in a dungeon and get reminded of just how annoying it is to have the place full of trash that you’re supposed to skip, making their presence wholly superfluous and unnecessary.
I like Shadowlands. I’d like it more if I believed Blizzard really understood why it felt compelled to change elements of the game. And it’s not a bad expansion, but it does have this sense of inadequacy shot through every fiber of its being. It knows that something needs to change, but it’s unwilling to actually make any sort of permanent change, because next year the team might want to do something completely different.
So I guess I can actually use the joke I had come up with before playing it. It’s fine. This is fine. It’s fine.