I asked for one thing and one thing only for Christmas in 2019. I wanted the family to buy a copy of World of Warcraft: Shadowlands and give it to me as a gift, because there wasn’t much else I wanted and I knew I’d be buying and playing the game anyway.
Raid nights in World of Warcraft have become the modern equivalent of the 1960-1970’s bowling nights that my parents set their calendars by. Raiding is my excuse to go out and talk to friends organized around a common goal. WoW is one of my religions, in other words.
…and I treat it like most people treat their religion. There is a lot of stuff in there that I don’t do, but I show up for the big gatherings so that I can pretend I’m part of the thing that is greater than I am by myself. Myself as a middling average MMO player. Try killing a raid boss by yourself and tell me how easy it is if you don’t think raiding doesn’t make you part of something greater than yourself. On second thought, don’t tell me. I won’t believe you anyway.
For fifteen years leading up to this point in the lore that World of Warcraft is based on, I’ve been telling fellow players “Sylvanas wants to be the next Lich King.” I’ve been waiting for the day when she would approach the Frozen Throne of the Lich King to take the helm of domination from the creature that had once been Bolvar Fordragon. As it turns out, I was wrong. This is revealed in the trailer for Shadowlands:
It was after watching this trailer that I decided I would just go ahead and get someone to pre-purchase a copy of the game for me. The family even sprang for the collector’s edition and got me a unique mount, transmog, pets and hearthstone. Then the wait began. A longer wait than there ever had been between two expansions in the history of the game. They even truncated the final story arch for Battle for Azeroth because they really needed the programmers to focus on ironing out the bugs in Shadowlands.
It was a grand scheme that they were setting themselves to achieve, and I cheered them all the way to the finish line. When the pre-patch rolled out I started leveling alternate characters for the first time since Warlords of Draenor, and started my first new toons from level one since Pandaria. That is how daunting the level grind from 1 to 90, 100, 110 and 120 was. It was hard enough in Wrath just getting to 80, and the level grind on foot in Classic World of Warcraft is interminable. But then, Classic WoW was about the role-playing and not about the endgame. Not for the average players.
In Shadowlands the leveling to 50 is effortless. It is so effortless that you can easily find it meaningless. At least it is doable in a few days time now, and you can create as many characters as you need without having to invest a month on each one leveling to max. This is important because every expansion of the game since the Classic game was introduced in 2004 has been centered around endgame play and the multiplayer (maximum of 30 players) raids that are part of the endgame. The players are so focused on the endgame that most of them only play the other content in the game to the extent that they are required to play it in order to be allowed to get into raids. They set clocks, and then race to max level, never stopping to enjoy the sights along the way.
Not me. I am a true Austinite. I am a slacker. As a slacker, I’m going to progress at exactly the speed required to get to where I want to be by the time I’m supposed to get there. So I waited for the game to release. Patiently, and then impatiently, and then finally really, really hoping that it would come out soon.
“You have our commitment that we will be releasing Shadowlands this fall,” executive producer John Hight announced today, “even if we end up shipping it from our homes.”eurogamer.net
As luck would have it, I was on the tail-end end of a 30 hour manic bender when the game went live on Tuesday October 27, 2020. Because of that I was completely out of sorts through the first intro sequence in the game. It was longer than most of the other expansion’s introductions, and smacked of being lead by Khadgar through the perils of Draenor under the control of Garrosh’s Iron Horde. This was not boding well for me, because Warlords of Draenor is hands down my least favorite of the World of Warcraft expansions, and was the largest contributor towards my taking a hiatus from the game for a year of Legion.
I decided to get some sleep and start fresh the next day, but I have to say that even with fresh eyes, I wasn’t very impressed with the styling of the game. You start off in the Maw, most players least favorite region to play in (more on that in a bit) it is the Shadowlands version of hell, and it is familiarly hellish in that most of the architecture appears to be drawn straight from early models of Diablo I, II & III (I hear Diablo IV is on the drawing board now, too) The Jailer’s attempts a being ominous are mildly convincing if not clearly contrived.
You of course escape hell er, the Maw, and then find you have been transported to the part of the afterlife that isn’t Hell. Again, there is a vague familiarity about the creatures that is reassuring if not slightly tedious. I’m not sure what to expect from a game I’ve been playing for over a decade that keeps insisting on changing while at the same time staying essentially the same.
The first character that you take through the content is required to engage with the content directly by playing through the various regions of the afterlife. Mercifully you are allowed to skip this tour with all characters after the first one. I didn’t get interested in the story until reaching Ardenweald, the fourth of five new areas that you must play through, where I intended to spend as much time as possible in the game. Since I play druids as my main characters, being in the nature zone of Ardenweald seems perfectly fitting for the headcanon that I’ve set up and still desperately try to maintain for my characters. Going to the final zone and meeting the villain that will be the final boss in the first Shadowlands raid was almost an anticlimax after spending time romping around Ardenweald in my druid’s stag travel form, picking flowers (herbalist) and making potions (alchemist).
The developers are of course keeping us on the ground yet again in this expansion. I’ve resigned myself to flightlessness in new expansions, although I bridle at being lectured about flying by blue angels that can’t seem to figure out what wings are for themselves. There are fractured ground structures that have to be navigated in order to do anything in game, and no road leads directly anywhere, if you can find a road at all, another designer ploy that is tiresomely consistent across every game I play these days. If only we could fly. If only.
I don’t think they understand the level of frustration that their mazes induce in people who can get lost going from the front door of their house to the bathroom. But then the developers clearly aren’t designing the game for nearly sixty year-old Meniere’s sufferers with dysgraphia either. For us there is TomTom. Learn it, love it, live and die by it.
I don’t know who these blue angels are. Bastion? What is Bastion? Ah, the ferryman on the river Styx have moved up to angel status. Okay, I’ll accept that, even if I can’t figure out why I would submit to having my memories pulled out of my ears and then be set to the task of ferrying souls for an eternity. It’s a purpose, I guess. If I find a class that will need to stay there in order to make them most effective for endgame play, I will take the time to figure out the why of that area’s story.
Maldraxxus is a little harder to deal with. Too much slime, not enough honor to be the Valhalla it is trying to pretend it is. More of Hel’s undead (especially looking like Hel’s army in Thor: Ragnarok) than of Odin’s Valhalla, and we’ve seen what that looks like in Legion. This touches on a major objection that I’ve heard more than once about this expansion. We already know about the afterlife in the universe that Warcraft is set in, don’t we? The Loa? The Light? It’s almost like they tacked on the bits that were established afterlife lore in the previous versions of the game as an afterthought in this expansion, making the Loa into natural demigods that are beneath the notice of the Winter Queen (not this Winter Queen) and the elementals don’t even figure into the afterlife at all. Which is odd, since they are spirits. The Light shows up in Bastion somewhere, so I’ve heard.
Maldraxxus and its central battle arena is just more of that glory of endless battle bullshit that teenagers think is fun. What is the point of this? On the other hand, the House of the Chosen offers the first bit of hope that I might find some tidbit of storyline to hang onto in Maldraxxus, but then only if that means I get to vacuum up all the slime and get to straighten all the walls so they are perfectly vertical again. Giving a druid a runesword? Yeah, that makes sense. Glad I didn’t have to keep the cursed thing. If I ever get around to playing Deathknights again, they’ll enjoy the hell out of Maldraxxus.
Revendreth, the fifth and final area of Shadowlands that you visit, and its ruler Sire Denathrius, both look like they come out of old English fiction. A sort of blend of Elric of Melnibone and the background lore of every vampire novel ever written, with a little bit of the Prisoner thrown in as flavoring. I really don’t know what to say about this region. It is the only part of the afterlife that vaguely makes sense in relation to the rest of World of Warcraft lore, and that only because it seems to tie into story arcs that have been developing in the background since the beginning:
…But then the Dreadlords never seemed to fit into the rest of the lore that was set out for Warcraft or World of Warcraft. Where they came from and what they were was never quite clear. Apparently it will be made clear in this expansion, if game lore is your thing. Look for the Lost Journal in Revendreth to find the book Enemy Infiltration – Preface and read it for yourself.
The important part of this entire story (for me anyway) can be summed up in a few short sentences. The raid fights are new and interesting and include fight mechanics that have not been part of fights in previous expansions of World of Warcraft. Both silly and difficult, they offer a diversion to players who are looking for multiplayer challenges to make their lives more meaningful. At least that part of the game lived up to expectations. I would be pretty bored if it didn’t.
As I get back into raiding again after being forced out of my weekly routines by having to do without electricity and water for almost a week here in Austin, the news arrives that Blizzard is once again changing the game that they never can seem to just leave well enough alone:
In an interview with Polygon prior to BlizzConline’s opening ceremony, Feasel and Frank Kowalkowski, World of Warcraft’s technical director, spoke about how The Maw will expand and evolve in World of Warcraft: Shadowlands’ upcoming 9.1 patch, Chains of Domination. The Maw is about to become a warzone, ironically making it a much safer place for the Champions of Azeroth.polygon.com (spoilers)
Making hell less hellish kinda defeats the point of hell. Expecting people to want to spend time in hell? That is where Blizzard went off the rails. Killing demons in Diablo by the dozens with a single strike is what makes that version of hell entertaining for some people. Why you go back after defeating the Devil the first time? That is the question that needs answering here.
Still, turning the Maw into a warzone? Okay, that might prove to be interesting enough to make me give it a second pass now. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. In the meantime I’ll be over in Ardenweald trying to earn the reputation for my Winter Queen’s court. Oh, and also grinding reputation with the Avowed so that I can help make shadestones for those expensive raid cauldrons that we have to set out twice a night.