It's been a little over three weeks since the eighth expansion for World of Warcraft launched. Since then, I have leveled up my main, started in on the various max level activities, and worked on an alt a bit. I've also had some time to step into the new raid and experience some of it, and the first Mythic+ and PVP season has started as well. The only thing which isn't fully open yet is LFR as we are just getting the first wing of that starting this week. Nonetheless, the expansion is in full swing now, and it's finally fair to put a full review on this thing.
New Leveling Experience
Since we had an extended pre-patch cycle this time around, it can be easy to forget the level squish and completely new leveling experience are part of Shadowlands. For anyone unaware, they cut the number of levels in half, from 120 to 60, and streamlined the leveling process. Now, new players go through a new starter island from level 1 – 10, BfA for levels 10 – 50, and Shadowlands for 50 – 60. Established players can start in the original zones if they desire and can also level through any expansion's story they want. For more in-depth info regarding the new leveling system, please check out our guides for new WoW players and returning players.
On the upside of the squish down to level 60 as the max level, it now takes a lot less time to reach the max level. The real beneficiaries of this new system are new players. Although leveling 1 – 120 didn't take a whole lot of time (at least when compared to leveling speed when WoW launched initially), just hearing that there are 120 levels could be daunting to new players. Additionally, the new way of leveling also allows new players to experience a more cohesive story their first time. When they get around to leveling alts, they can experience whatever parts of WoW's history they want.
The is one caveat with the "more cohesive story" part of leveling, though. Expansions are more than just the story at launch; it's also about everything which happens throughout the various patches. For example, if you never make it to the story content where we take the fight to Arthas, the Wrath of the Lich King story feels incredibly incomplete. Unfortunately, the way leveling currently works, players are hitting 50 long before they hit the final storyline of any expansion they are leveling through. This damages the goal of giving players, especially new players, a cohesive story. It may be a self-correcting problem as the level cap gets raised with each new expansion, but for now, it doesn't feel so great for anyone looking for a clear storyline to take them through the leveling experience.
There's also a strange problem for anyone who was already playing World of Warcraft or new players leveling alts after their first reached max level. Shadowlands introduced new iconography to help players tell the difference between main story quests and side quests. This is especially helpful for players who want to focus on the storyline but don't want to get drawn into many side quests. Skipping side quests is essential for players who want to see as much of an expansion's storyline as possible while leveling. Only focusing on main story quests helps with that goal.
Unfortunately, Blizzard hasn't gone back and applied this change to old expansions. To some degree, this is understandable because many of the old expansions weren't put together with the whole "Main Story Quest” "Side Quest" distinction in the same way. It was mostly expected that players would do everything in a quest hub, and the "real" side quests would be discovered wandering around. However, if your goal is to experience the story, not knowing which quests can be ignored is frustrating. It also contributes to losing the thread of what is going on in some expansions. There are often so many different story strands in the various questlines, and it can be a bit overwhelming.
Each of the leveling zones in Shadowlands is a unique and beautiful gem. I know someone out there is going to say, "Maldraxxus isn't beautiful," but I am here to tell you it has its own exceptional beauty regardless of if you particularly like it or not. I can look at landscape pictures of each zone and immediately tell which one it is from. This is amazing when you consider the common theme among them is the afterlife. Each zone's design reinforces that which makes each covenant unique and what drives them in the afterlife.
Bastion is the first zone we go to after the maw intro scenario, and honestly, it felt like everything screeched to a halt and just took forever to get through. To explain better, we get launched into the Maw, chasing after friends who had been captured by Sylvanas, and the urgency is intense. Then we end-up in Oribos and learn a bit about the Shadowlands and how things are supposed to work. The urgency is still there, though, because everyone recognizes there's something really wrong going on.
Then we head to Bastion, and the story feels like it hits a wall. The big, huge story of why we are here has to be put on the back burner for a bit because no one believes us about having super important news we need to communicate. So instead, we have to act like we are any other aspirant who arrives in Bastion. I get that we are something no one has seen in the Shadowlands before, but it did feel like the forward momentum came to a bit of a halt soon as I arrived in Bastion. Although all the other zones follow the formula of "arrive, help them deal with some problem, return to Oribos," the others just seemed to flow well, and progression through them felt quick in contrast. Except for Revendreth, but we'll get to that in a bit.
For the last couple of expansions, we've enjoyed the freedom of playing each leveling zone in whichever order we wanted. While this was fun for many players because they had flexibility in what they were doing and helped spread players out a bit more, it did make telling once complete and whole story a bit more complicated as everything needed to make sense regardless of what order players chose. With Shadowlands, Blizzard wanted to tell a more cohesive story, so we had no choice in which order we would progress through things. For the most part, this worked well and did tell a cohesive story.
However, one of the downsides of this linear storytelling is they also added a requirement that players have to finish the story in each zone before they could start on max level activities. Within the context of the story, this makes perfect sense. Every zone leads directly to the next, and the end of Revendreth is critical to understanding the state of everything. Mainly why Castle Nathria is the first raid. Plus, it would be weird to choose what covenant you want to join if you haven't gotten to spend any time with one of them.
Mechanically, though, this can feel bad. Depending on how many side quests and dungeons were done while leveling, players can reach the max level before entering Revendreth. Usually, reaching max level early isn't a big deal because you can just get started on the end game activities and complete the story at your leisure. However, everything players are expected to do at the max level is locked behind the covenant system. As I mentioned before, you can't choose a covenant until the storyline is finished, which left me really anxious to finish Revendreth. This was a real shame because I love that zone, and I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn't felt like it was holding me back from getting raid-ready.
Threads of Fate
To help add variety to leveling, alts have the option to activate Threads of Fate rather than leveling through each zone story again. Threads of Fate marks your character as having completed the storyline, and they can choose a covenant right away and start earning renown and working through the covenant storyline. Then players can level through any mix of world quests, callings, dungeons, etc. Pretty much everything aside from the main storyline quests can be used for leveling.
While Threads of Fate is an alternate path to level 50 – 60, and it does let players work on their covenant right away, it is not a faster way to level. Players also don't have to choose to activate Threads of Fate right away, either. You can go through the zone storylines as much as you want and activate it later. For example, if I wanted to quickly level and alt, I could choose to play through the story, do side quests, and do dungeons when I get the quests for them. As a result, I'd undoubtedly be close to 60 before finishing the storyline, at which point I could activate Threads of Fate and skip over having to finish everything else. However, you cannot choose to go back to regular leveling after starting Threads of Fate. This is probably due to the fact it marks all main story quests as complete for the character.
I like Threads of Fate's general concept, but I wish there were a bit more options for what you do while leveling. For example, it would have been cool to be able to use it and get started on my chosen covenant, and also to be able to select certain zones to replay their storyline. Also, part of the slowness of leveling this way is that there is a cap on how far players can get with their renown currently. This limits how far we can get in the covenant storylines, which limits how many quests there are to do. Every week we move further into the expansion, these restrictions lessen, and perhaps over time, Threads of Fate might catch-up to regular leveling in speed.
Max Level Grind
One of the best aspects of max level life in Shadowlands is there's a lot to be done, but none of it needs to be done daily. There are weekly quests to get anima for your covenant and recover souls from the Maw; doing these will earn renown with your covenant, which in return will also open new steps in their storylines. Renown levels were capped at three the first week and have increased each week since, making it easier for alts and people starting later to catch-up. I also, oddly for me, really liked having the restrictions, to begin with. Upon hitting level 60, there's immediately a ton to do. As much as I want to see all of the covenant story NOW, I liked being limited because it made it easier to know where to focus my limited amount of time.
There's also callings to do, which essentially take the place of emissaries in Shadowlands. These will send you to the various zones to either kill powerful creatures or do world quests. These also have three-day timers just like the emissaries did, and although they are helpful in a few ways, they aren't critical to do. Also, the "defend x zone" callings are particularly lovely because completing the dungeons in that zone will add to your completion there as well. This is particularly nice while gearing up because it allows you to do two things at once.
The Maw has been interesting for me because I am finding ever since I opened up Torghast, I care a lot less about doing things in the Maw itself. I know there are cool things I can get from increasing my rep with Venari, but everything else I can do always seems far more critical. I've done the Jailer events a few times, and supposedly you can get good loot from it, but I haven't seen any of it. There are also dailies that can be done in the Maw, but with my limited playtime, there's pretty much always something else I want to do instead.
Torghast is essential to do as well because it's the primary source of soul ash, and there doesn't seem like much of a way to catch up on it. Since it's needed for crafting legendaries, soul ash is reasonably important. On the upside, once you've completed a layer, you don't have to do that layer again (unless you are at layer eight, which is the current max). It's an excellent system in which once you work your way through the layers to the maximum; you only need to do the max level layer each week to get all the rewards as if you had done every layer.
How doable those layers are, depends a lot on what your gear level is and what class/spec you play. Some seem to do a bit better with others rather than solo as well. I do wish there were some feedback to Torghast to indicate when you might be outstepping your gear other than just getting your face smashed in a lot and having a generally bad time. Not a hard limit, because some people can outperform their equipment, but maybe a warning of some sort? It just makes for a terrible experience to fail for an hour and not know if it’s because you need more gear or there was something else going on.
All things considered, max level feels like a lot less of a grind than it usually does. There are lots of options for things I can do, but I have the flexibility to fit them into my schedule without falling hopelessly behind. There also seems to be less focus and need to grind reputations, which I really appreciate.
Raiding and Dungeons
I was surprised by all of the dungeons which launched with Shadowlands. Every single one of them is interesting, sometimes frustrating, but always fun. I enjoyed doing them while leveling, and even running them on heroic and mythic was still a real treat. Sure there are a few bosses who can be a pain if you are with people who don't know what they are doing, but the variety of encounters and general dungeon design has been great.
We're only just into the second week of Mythic+, so at this point, it's hard for me to say how these dungeons will fair with that. There are some which are slightly better than others in Mythic+, and depending on the active affix, that varies a bit. That's pretty much always going to be the case, though. Early call, storming is going to be the least favorite affix for this expansion. It'll be interesting to see how Mythic+ develops with various balance passes throughout the season and the expansion as a whole.
For both Legion and BfA, I was not too fond of the first raid in the expansion. I liked the Emerald Nightmare concept, and some of the fights were really cool, but overall it just lacked something that made me look forward to it. Emerald Nightmare also wholly paled in comparison to the raids in the rest of Legion. I enjoyed Uldir even less. Nothing connected with me, and I didn't enjoy any of the fights at all.
Given my feelings about Emerald Nightmare and Uldir, I was a bit apprehensive heading into Castle Nathria, but my misgivings were misplaced. I love everything about this raid. Even the fights which are frustrating are still fun. There are some unique mechanics, and some old favorites are shaken around and mixed up into something new in a way I'm really enjoying. As I'm writing this, three guilds are currently in 7/10 in the Mythic world first race, and that feels pretty good too. I’m going to guess that pretty close to a week after Mythic launch, we’ll have a winner, which is relatively standard.
Obviously, Shadowlands isn't perfect. There are some balancing and tweaking which need to be done and will continue throughout the expansion. However, this is an expansion where I can honestly say the core systems feel solid. It doesn't feel like anything key is missing, and like Blizzard needs to slap a giant band-aid on it to carry it through. There is still concern about the balance between the covenants, which will be an ongoing project. But the core systems are stable. Blizzard has struck an outstanding balance between giving us plenty to do and respecting the fact not everyone can play 24/7. I'm currently at a point where when I have free time, I want to log in and do things instead of feeling like I have to for x, y, or z reason. It's a great feeling.