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WoWNov 24, 2020 4:00 pm CT

The astonishing cinematics of Shadowlands’ Maw opening experience left us hungry for more

We’ve talked before about how Battle for Azeroth used cinematics to expand on its storytelling, but I have to say, watching how Blizzard has merged its various kinds of cinematics in Shadowlands is nothing short of breathtaking. The mixture of rendered cinematics that use in-game assets with the special in-game cinematics that include your character gives the entire proceeding an air of wonder, and the evolution of Blizzard’s narrative game is fully on display here.

We’ve been seeing Blizzard’s storytelling evolve over the past several expansions, with amazing cinematics in Warlords, in Legion, and in Battle for Azeroth. But rarely have so many varying kinds of cinematic all come together within so short a gameplay period of time as in Shadowlands. From the opening moment of the expansion seeing the various faction leaders get kidnapped, to the various cinematics seen during the entry into and escape from the Maw, to the final ones seen in Oribos, there’s a breadth and depth to the storytelling on display we haven’t seen before, and it’s only the introduction to the expansion. In that two hours you’ll see your character take part in the core events that kick off the new storyline and it’s amazing to me how well they’ve tied it all together.

You’re not even level 51 yet by the time this all happens.

There will be mild spoilers for the end of the Shadowlands Maw introduction in this post. 

Storytelling in MMOs is extremely visual and Shadowlands understand this

In the past we’ve often been asked to simply accept that a particular character did something, but not in Shadowlands — we see that Tyrande escaped the Mawsworn sent after her because we see the others get captured and see Tyrande atop Icecrown with the assembled Horde and Alliance leadership. We get to witness Bolvar’s arrival in Oribos in a rendered cutscene that includes our character, standing at the ready to welcome him. We witness the Arbiter’s exact moment of disruption and the sudden collapse of all souls into the Maw even though we weren’t actually there to see it, because the cinematic exists and is vouchsafed to our characters.

This kind of visual storytelling — in some cases even including our characters in the cinematics — can be traced back to the original Wrathgate cinematic, but it’s been getting so much stronger over the past few years that perhaps my shock at just how thoroughly it’s on display in Shadowlands opening moments is the fault of my being unimaginative or unobservant. We’ve seen amazing cinematics and cut scenes from this team in the past — why wouldn’t it be on display here? But I think it’s worthwhile to talk about just how good it really is, and how it manages to place our characters right in the heart of the action without either making it all about us or making us seem like unimportant hangers-on.

Cinematics show us what’s at stake better than questing alone

To see this process encapsulated, we need to discuss the end of the Maw introductory sequence. You and the four Azerothian leaders you’ve been reunited with — Jaina, Baine, Thrall, and Anduin — have managed to fight and sneak your way to an ancient and seemingly unpowered waygate in the Maw, one supposedly left by mysterious ‘First Ones’ which seems to react to your presence. As the forces of the Maw attack, wave after wave of hideous soulforged creations threatening to overwhelm you all, your character steps into the portal and begins to charge it up.

What the cinematic really does is outline for us, in fairly stark terms, not only what is at stake and how powerful the opposition is, but what the various characters are able and/or willing to do. In a few lines of dialogue exchanged between Anduin and the Jailer, the biggest seeds in terms of what the Jailer actually wants out of all this chaos are dropped like explosives. It’s one line of dialogue — it’s so quick you might miss it — and yet when you catch it you’ll say to yourself oh, that’s what his endgame is and it left me in chills watching it unfold. Everything we do in this expansion is going to be about that one moment at the end of the Maw.

It’s really rather overwhelming, and the fact that there are more cut scenes involving our character and more cinematics using in game models once we hit Oribos after that moment felt almost gratuitous.

Was it maybe a little too much?

If I had any complaint it was that by the time I got to Oribos I was feeling a little fatigued from it all — there was an overall effect of a shock and awe campaign, with storytelling moments coming thick and fast and barely having enough gameplay to get from shocking moment to next shocking moment. But that definitely felt like it was the point — the entire experience was crafted entirely to overwhelm you with what was happening, with how shockingly vast the Jailer’s power is and how pitiful our resistance to it ends up seeming. It’s difficult sometimes for players who can look back on the defeat of the Burning Legion and the ruin of forces of destruction like the Old Gods and Deathwing to feel like this new threat can possibly stand up, but by the end of the Maw and those cinematics we definitely feel that Zovaal the Jailer is a worthy threat. The best we could possibly do against him was to escape, and we left the people we came to rescue and the Knights of the Ebon Blade we came to rescue them with trapped in the process.

It feels pretty clear to me that Blizzard took inspiration from what other games have been able to achieve and took their already very strong visual storytelling and went far beyond what we’ve seen in previous expansions, which were themselves far from poor showings. This is an astonishing thing to witness, a campaign start that makes me wonder how they can possibly follow it up. This was truly exceptional storytelling at work.

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