Hands on with Shadowlands at BlizzCon
I got to play Shadowlands at BlizzCon 2019, and I have opinions. First, if you like World of Warcraft, you will likely enjoy Shadowlands. Because despite all the changes — the level squish to 60, the leveling changes, the way you’ll be able to choose to level your alts in a wholly different way — this is still World of Warcraft.
Welcome to the land of the dead
The demo opens in Bastion, home of the Kyrian, one of the four Covenants we’ll be able to team up with to try and fix the damage Sylvanas and her Jailer buddy have caused. The thing is, because it’s a demo and a short one, you don’t really get to see all that much of what the Kyrian are like beyond the standard opening quests — AKA, proving yourself by helping them do their work of protecting noble souls and shepherding them to their final reward. There’s a ritual you undergo to prove that you have what it takes, during which you summon forth the most epic battles you engaged in when you were alive, and that’s the kicker for the Basion experience — the Kyrian think you’re dead and assigned to Bastion, and they’re not really listening when you try and explain what’s actually going on.
The level squish is in full effect. I played a level 50 Warrior, and honestly, I barely noticed he was level 50. His gear was all ilevel 350, he had Titan’s Grip and full talents. He could die in combat if he got overenthusiastic, but it wasn’t that much worse than the live game — if you play WoW Classic you’d probably find it easier. To a degree, this is because I was in 350 gear. I even switched to Arms at one point, which was again, just like the modern game.
Bastion of the dead
Bastion is a lovely zone, full of color and light — it really seems like the coming expansion is going to give us diverse zones instead of just a monochromatic “land of mist and ghosts” feeling. However, the demo very deliberately didn’t spoil things like the Maw, how we get to the Shadowlands in the first place, or the story of the expansion in anything more than the broadest strokes. Things are bad in the land of the dead and we’re there to fix it. How this is going to shake out, exactly, is a secret the demo didn’t reveal nor would you expect it to — we’re a year and change into Battle for Azeroth and we still haven’t seen the final patch of this expansion, why would a BlizzCon demo give us the end of Shadowlands?
There’s a lot to this expansion that I simply didn’t get to test. The demo didn’t let me create an alt, so I wasn’t able to try out the new leveling scheme. The demo didn’t show more than a single zone. There was no appearance made by any of the big new figures like the Arbiter or the Jailer, so we have no idea how they appear in game as yet. What there was to see was one zone — a really beautiful zone that I could only get about ten minutes into before having to log off of the machine. In that ten minutes, Shadowlands proved itself to be a very distilled but very recognizably World of Warcraft experience. It felt like more of World of Warcraft, minus things like the Heart of Azeroth or Azerite Armor (if I was wearing Azerite gear I flat out didn’t notice). It’s hard to really judge the expansion based on such a short preview.
The unknown unknowns
This is not to say it won’t be great, as much as to say that we didn’t get to see anything that would tell us for sure. Unlike the Diablo 4 demo, I didn’t go into Shadowlands desperate for more World of Warcraft — I can log onto WoW right now, and the gameplay experience won’t be significantly different from what I’ll get in the expansion. Shadowlands is beautiful, I ran into no major bugs, I want the Owl People to be an Allied Race, and I very much want this game to come out soon, but the demo itself hid most of the content and as a result it ended up making me impatient instead of stoked.
And that’s kind of a shame because the panels painted a picture of a World of Warcraft expansion unlike anything we’ve seen before, with a completely different feeling to it — a land of mystery where the boundaries between life and death are part and parcel of the world, where mysteries we’ve been living with in the game come front and center and we experience them in an entirely new way. This feels like it could be a huge game changer for WoW, an expansion that literally and figuratively haunts you with its potential.
The beta can’t come soon enough for Shadowlands, because I very much want to see what’s being hidden behind the curtain here.
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