World of Warcraft’s Azeroth might be in trouble, but World of Warcraft Shadowlands certainly isn’t. This new chapter in the story has us going through the veil of Death, and ironically, it has breathed so much life into the franchise.
World of Warcraft’s story has spent a lot of time moving out of the shadow of its origins in the real-time strategy games. Many of the characters and threats from those games are still central to the story now, decades later. Until recently, that is. The champions of Azeroth have finally beaten the Burning Legion’s Sargeras, and the last of the Old Gods is no more. The two biggest threats to Azeroth are, for now, gone. While the forces of Fel and Void recover from the losses and plan a new assault, there is time for new stories in whole new places and breaking free from previously trodden pathways, Shadowlands offers something fresh and interesting, while also being entertaining.
In MMO parlance, Shadowlands is World of Warcraft’s Shadowbringers.
Blizzard’s storytellers have been laying the groundwork of what happens beyond Azeroth or beyond her known history to create new places to visit, help or defend ourselves from. Any lore fan has seen the Cosmology by now, and slowly the rules of reality have been revealed to us, sometimes observable only in patterns, or outside of the game. Now that lore comes to the centre of things, as we go into the realm that everyone has pondered before: the afterlife.
New places mean new threats and something powerful lurks at the centre of this tale. Unlike Battle for Azeroth, which took far too long to introduce the real threat of the expansion, Shadowlands puts the Jailer front and centre right from the beginning. This enigmatic new villain is a prisoner for now, but has been plotting and gathering power to eventually break free. He is terribly powerful, has an army full of threats and his endgame isn’t known, making his machinations difficult to predict, nevermind counter.
To make it worse, he has a bunch of the big NPCs in his grasp, meaning heroes need to try to solve things for themselves, looking for help in this new strange place. As a result, players go on a long chase, trying to work out what is going on and who is involved in the Jailer’s plots. This takes us to many fantastic locations, like a forest with trees that dwarf mountains, or a battle-scarred place where the land itself is a mixture of bone and skin. The various shadowlands are completely different from one another, each with its own problems, challenges and interesting characters. Yes, we might be trying to stop reality from crumbling, but that doesn’t mean we are going to stop helping people and making friends on the way. As strange and alien as these places might be, there is still something familiar in how we fight injustice and champion the weak. Beset by a terrible drought, so many need our help, whether it is forest-dwelling spirits or the wrongfully accused being punished by being exiled to a burning, desolate area.
A story bigger than one
Besides the class storylines of Legion or the faction split of Horde and Alliance, it is pretty easy for a single character to go on a journey and get the full story, or the lion’s share of it. Everyone did pretty much everything in the past, leaving little room for little tales of something different that they did or saw that others didn’t. Legion gave us a taste of that, but spreading things across every class made things get a bit thin. Now characters must choose one of the four groups that you meet while questing to work with, and this shift has changed so much about how I would approach questing for various groups. Sure I am still doing a lot of things exactly the same for an MMO, but I feel I care about who I am doing them for. I’m connecting with characters and my main already sees Bastion as home. Rather than running around the big, busy city of Oribos, I spend time trying to improve things for the Kyrians. If I wanted to see the other stories of Shadowlands, I would have to abandon my friends or play with another character. Knowing there is something different in store for my alts is quite exciting, as is sharing stories and moments with my guildmates that have picked the same covenant as me. Instead of trying to focus on four factions, I am really getting to know one.
Unlike Battle for Azeroth, which took far too long to introduce the real threat of the expansion, Shadowlands puts the Jailer front and centre right from the beginning.
For the very first time, Blizzard lets you skip the main story campaign on your alt, getting straight to working on your covenant bond and storyline. It feels strange to do this because this is the best storytelling that World of Warcraft has ever had. The story is gripping, full of great moments with a good sense of pacing. But if you want to get someone collecting herbs or mining as soon as possible, this is a nice answer for players. I’ve skipped the story on my herb picking alchemist, but I think I will play through the story again on the next alt because it was too good to only experience once.
Challenge at your own pace
While Battle for Azeroth started playing around with content beyond open world events or raids to challenge players, it is in Shadowlands that the true fruits are harvested. Torghast offers players a roguelike experience that can be played solo or with a group of up to five players. It has no entrance fee and no timer to beat, meaning the various issues that plagued Horrific Visions are gone, while some procedural generation adds variety to the grind.
Having content that you can do on your own when you want to, or again with friends with no cost involved is a much healthier experience and with less stress involved, it becomes a much more fun component. As an added bonus, you are working towards your character getting stronger even when playing alone, something that many MMOs don’t offer very far beyond hitting max level.
Lag and loathing
Things aren’t perfect in Shadowlands, but with everything looking and behaving so well, they stand out rather starkly. Ardenweald, in particular, suffers from latency issues during the busy hours of the day, making looting a bit of a chore. Similarly, some sidequests aren’t possible while certain world quests are active, which can be annoying when trying to empty out the quest log. There are a few things I hope get ironed out, like the Command Table interface not giving enough information and you losing power as you progress in it, or Spires of Ascension’s end-boss mechanic that requires two skill shots to land perfectly or the fight is a bust.
In MMO parlance, Shadowlands is World of Warcraft’s Shadowbringers. It is an improvement in graphics, storytelling, gameplay systems and music, resulting in a powerful, fun experience that I will remember for a long time to come. It isn’t often that you see every department make a marked improvement, but somehow Shadowlands hits that in its stride. Between stopping to take pictures of breathtaking vistas, or marvelling at how the music started its climax just as I reached a pivotal point in a quest, there have been so many times that I just wanted to drink in everything on offer.
Then, once the frisson subsided, I would sit and wonder at the implications of the stories being told. World of Warcraft has finally grown up and instead of playing a best of Warcraft playlist, it is moving into brave, exciting new territory, fleshing out what happens around Azeroth, while still making us care about the stories of individual characters.