Compared to the lifespan of most games, World of Warcraft is ancient – but it’s hardly a relic. Blizzard’s MMORPG continues to keep content flowing for players old and new. Shadowlands is the eighth expansion, and this journey through the afterlife brings new features in addition to systems that will be very familiar to veterans of the game. At its core, Shadowlands succeeds with a powerful world-building imagination, player identity and bold gameplay elements.
The Shadowlands premise is simple and straightforward. You invade the many realms of the afterlife to thwart the plans of a mysterious archenemy named Jailer. He’s exceptionally boring at the moment as a villain and takes a back seat to the true all-stars of the afterlife: the four different factions that the player explores and with whom he eventually aligns himself when they reach the level cap. The decision to join any of the areas brings a lot of taste and personality with it.
I aligned myself with the velvety, soul-sucking, vampiric aristocracy of Revendreth. Its gothic horror traps, magic mirrors, and giant bats gave me a different perspective on the world than players who sided with other factions. I was even allowed to host VIP parties to try and appeal to nobles for big profits. However, my nature-loving friend was on the side of the beautiful ethereal forests of Ardenweald, where they played in the woods and tended gardens. Whatever your decision, it feels more like joining these soul societies rather than just jumping on an endgame treadmill. There is taste behind the functionality, and that is very important even if you are still traveling from zone to zone completing world quests. Each dungeon has elements that can also be interacted with from the point of view of the faction. It was a nice surprise to discover that I was able to tame the gargoyles in a Venthyr dungeon to defeat enemies.
Each zone in the afterlife is beautifully built and sells the imagination well. While I was bored of the sacred fields of the Bastion and its angelic warriors, it is a necessary realm to foil the darkness of Revendreth. All of the zones are impressive to look at from above and look incredible considering how old the core of World of Warcraft is. Each zone is very different from the other in terms of aesthetics, personality and feeling. Blizzard uses the opportunity to unlock heroes and villains of yesteryear. Since this is the afterlife, it’s a great chance to see the spotlight on the greatest hits from all of WoW history. Much attention has been devoted to bringing out main characters, obscure single-quest references from a decade ago, and popular newcomers like Battle for Azeroth’s Bwonsamdi.
Shadowlands serves many staples by today’s norm. While world quests, dungeons, war tables, and other endgame progression features still have a sparkling faction flavor, they don’t change anything fundamentally. A lot of the quests on the way to the level cap feel like stale and tired filler, like collecting acorns or killing fifteen cultists, with some interesting beats on a larger scale. New systems in an incredibly dangerous zone, the Maw (supposed to be Hell) and a rogue running experience known as Torghast make Shadowlands special.
The Maw is an incredibly dangerous realm that offers a risk / reward ratio when you hang out in the prison inmate’s back yard battling deadly monsters with no real safety net in place. You may even have to walk back to where you die to recreate lost resources. The Maw adds to the pressures and challenges of an open zone environment, which is absolutely refreshing in a game where it’s all too easy to end up in autopilot world quest mode while watching Netflix. Participating in Maw activities increases the wrath of the prison inmate who, like the Eye of Sauron in Mordor, focuses on you as you slay its fiends. While functionally it’s just another way of determining how much you can do at The Maw each day, again it’s the colorful packaging that makes all the difference here.
The culmination of Shadowlands content is Torghast. Take the variance and unpredictability of roguelike runs and do it with your WoW character, alone or with friends, in a damn dungeon tower that is different every time. After a decade of dungeon runs that never change, Torghast is a welcome addition. Even the largest curated dungeons lose their luster after completing them a dozen times. So the prospect of something new with every dive is tempting. Each run is another opportunity to try different builds and strategies as your powerups and situations keep changing. One run can turn you into an overpowering god who stacks multiple scaling sources of damage to crush everything in sight or accumulate enough regeneration to deal with anything. Solve puzzles to open caches, rescue some companions to bring back to your hiding place, come across an imitation or kill a rare mini-boss that gives special powers. The Torghast climb is great fun and pretty repeatable – I found myself even after capping my rewards for the week just to explore, experiment, and enjoy.
It’s worth noting that the new leveling experience introduced with Shadowlands is excellent and allows you to get a character up to the new content in a fraction of the time it would have taken before, so you have time to yours learn class easily before you hit the shadowlands. This way, players can quickly level up through all of WoW’s old expansions and entice adventurers to enjoy the old content and keep it relevant in a new era. I leveled several characters for fun just to explore the old expansions, and it felt great to have a few more options in my stables to explore Shadowlands with.
Shadowlands plays it safe with numerous settings of established systems and structures, but lets players enjoy these functions through the alliance factions and subject areas with a wealth of personalities. Shadowlands also takes risks with a deadly zone that encourages teamwork and careful play, as well as a fantastic roguel-like running tower that is full of surprises. Shadowlands is a satisfactory addition to the Annals of the World of Warcraft expansions, and with a robust and revamped level experience, it’s a great time to get back to the MMORPG that made the genre mainstream