Shadowlands hits shelves late 2020. The alpha’s launch released a treasure trove of information. As usual, the new zones display unique themes and artwork, however, Shadowlands introduces Covenants to each one. There are improvements to the questing system, a leveling rehaul, the removal of titanforging, and a class skill and talent revamp. Many fundamental flaws from BfA are being remediated and attention is given to the outdated experience new players face before reaching relevant content. Blizzard has been listening to their fans.
New Zones and Covenants
There are five new zones: Bastion, Ardenweald, Maldraxxus, Revendreth, and The Maw. The first four house the Covenants: Kyrian, Night Fae, Necrolord, and Venthyr. Players will quest through all zones on their way to end-game content, working with each Covenant and learning about them. Upon reaching level 60 (new level-cap), they’ll choose a Covenant, granting access to new abilities, mounts, pets, transmogs, etc. After selecting the first Covenant, subsequent characters may join one at level 50.
Bastion is an Elysium-like zone with heavy Paladin influence whose denizens, the Kyrians, are tasked with shuttling souls between the land of the living and the dead. The angelic Kyrians value service, righteousness, and humility; noble souls sent to them must shed past burdens and seek virtue in order to ascend into the ranks of the Kyrian.
Ardenweald, a mysterious forest inhabited by the Night Fae, is said to be the Shadowlands’ mirror to the Emerald Dream. Whereas the Dream represents the cycle of spring and summer, Ardenweald symbolizes the cycle of autumn and winter. The Night Fae are responsible for tending to the souls of those dedicated to nature in life, rejuvenating them and preparing them for rebirth.
Maldraxxus, the war-torn military heart of the Shadowlands, is ruled by the Necrolord Covenant and home to beings like necromancers, abominations, and souls shaped by eternal war. Denizens of Maldraxxus aren’t inherently evil, but live according to survival of the fittest. Souls of relentless warriors are sent to bolster its ranks, or to fuel its war machines, if deemed too weak.
Revendreth is a gothic realm home to the vampiric Venthyr, where flawed souls unworthy of other Covenants are sent to atone and prepare for redemption. Through torment, the Venthyr purge the souls of their apathy, greed, pride, and other flaws, preparing them to be a Venthyr punisher or lightening them to move on to a different Covenant. The Venthyr save otherwise irredeemable souls from an eternal sentence in The Maw.
The Maw, a horrifying prison ruled by the Jailor, houses souls too dangerous to let loose upon the Shadowlands. It’s without a Covenant as anything that enters it is never seen again, and so it is here that players find out Sylvanas’s intentions and exactly who, or what, the Jailor is. Serving as Shadowlands’ end-game zone, players venture here after reaching level 60. Torghast, an endlessly replayable, changing dungeon that can be done solo or with a group, is also located within the Maw.
There’s already critique against Covenant abilities. Many would prefer to choose a Covenant based on looks and feel rather than peak performance. With the rich world art and themes specific to each Covenant, it’s easy to see why being forced into one for raid optimization is undesirable. Thankfully, while Blizzard plans to launch the game as is, they’re willing to listen to player feedback and are open to changing Covenant abilities in the future.
Questing and Leveling Overhaul
Shadowlands improves the questing interface by using a shield behind the classic “!” marker for main storyline missions. Side quests, dailies, and other markers have clarity improvements but are otherwise unchanged. This improves the flow of questing, especially for players with exp buffs who only want to do the zone’s main story. Star Wars The Old Republic uses a similar mechanic and it works. It will be a fine addition to WoW.
Instead of constantly opening and closing the map when travelling, players can place waypoints to direct themselves and ping locations to the rest of the party. This keeps players in the game-world rather than a map screen. Also keeping players engaged is the new in-game marker that appears on-screen when picking up a quest, denoting where to go. These tools go hand in hand with the beginner experience and leveling design changes being introduced.
Beginners in Shadowlands start on Exile’s Reach, an island with a new story that tutorializes the chosen class. Players stay on the island until level 10, learning mechanics such as interrupting, avoiding damage, healing, and taunting. The island has rares and treasure boxes along with a small dungeon at the end to test learned skills. Death Knights and Demon Hunters begin in their class’ starting zones. Experienced players may choose to forego Exile’s Reach and complete 1-10 in the original starting zones.
Upon completing the starting zone, new players receive a quest to start Battle for Azeroth content, where they’ll level from 10 to 50 before moving onto Shadowlands. Experienced players may choose any expansion, such as Cataclysm or Wrath, to level up to 50. Levels 50-60 are completed in Shadowlands with 60 being the level-cap. These changes were necessary for the game’s long-term health . The hurdles to entry were making WoW a tough sell to the uninitiated.120 levels are daunting, let alone 130.
These leveling and questing changes will attract new and returning players that would otherwise pass on Shadowlands. The new system allows the freedom to choose which content to complete, making the questing process intuitive. The current system forces players to begin in Cataclysm, only to go back in time to BC or Wrath, back to Cataclysm, and so on. This results in players only doing one or two zones from each expansion, fragmenting the experience while focusing mostly on old content.
Squishing the level-cap to 60 allows talents and skills to be awarded more frequently. Reaching 120 was worsened by the lack of significance in advancing. Most levels would bring nothing new to players as talents were far and few between. With a cap of 60, those talents and skills are spread more evenly, meaning players get a sense of achievement and a new skill almost every time they hear that “ding”. The future of leveling looks good in Shadowlands.
Limiting of RNG Gear
Warforging/titanforging/corruption are disliked looting systems in BfA, frustrating players with RNG. With these systems, it’s possible to receive 10 loot items without a single upgrade. Items from previous raids can be BiS if titanforged, meaning old content must be completed to get upgrades for current content. Rolling a good item that doesn’t proc an upgraded version turns what should be a satisfying reward into a waste of time.
Blizzard’s problem is the high frequency of loot drops, as players gearing too fast lose interest without a way to improve further. Adding RNG mechanics like titanforging creates a reason to play– the possibility of better versions of current loot, or obtaining a titanforged BiS. The system results in a lot of random luck and disappointment. In an interview with Ion, he says Shadowlands won’t continue with current systems, but less loot will drop as a result. This compromise is worth it to make loot rewarding again.
Blizzard has taken fan feedback and made classes less homogeneous by infusing flavor. Many abilities were cut during WoD and Legion, culminating in BfA’s stripped-down classes. Many pruned abilities like Shamans’ Searing Totem return in Shadowlands, while some existing abilities such as Paladins’ Hammer of Wrath will be available regardless of specialization. Frost Death Knights will once again be able to use two-handed weapons while Hunters receive an increase to stable size. Blizzard’s official list of class changes can be found on its website.
The goal is for players to identify with their class instead of the chosen specialization. The abilities becoming baseline serve to achieve that. For example, all Death Knight specs will acquire the Raise Dead ability, similar to when they first released in Wrath. It improves class fantasy because the Death Knight is known for raising the dead, regardless of being frost, blood, or unholy. It isn’t only Death Knights, all classes have some spec-specific abilities mainlined to a “Class” ability.
Into the Shadowlands
World of Warcraft: Shadowlands is shaping up to be a great expansion, catering to beginners and long-time fans alike. New zones with unique artwork, questing improvements, the ability to level in any expansion, less RNG on gear, and a return of class fantasy are only the beginning. The alpha began recently with more information sure to come before release. It wouldn’t be surprising to see new allied races introduced in future patches. There’s also been mention of tier sets returning.
It’s clear Blizzard is listening to fans and working hard to improve the user experience. They’re keeping an open ear to better produce the content WoW fans have come to love. Restructuring the horribly outdated leveling system and reintroducing class fantasy are only two examples. The Shadowlands changes are necessary for the game’s health. Hopefully, they’ll continue listening to fan input, unlike with BfA. It will be exciting to finally enter the Shadowlands later this year.