The expansions to World of Warcraft after Wrath of the Lich King resemble a roller coaster ride; one moment we hurtle down screaming in joy and excitement, another time we painstakingly wait for the car to finally climb to the top. Battle for Azeroth, the most recent DLC, was certainly not among the exciting ones. I'm not hiding, I was eagerly waiting for BfA, but ultimately, it was hugely disappointing. So, what are we looking at in case of Shadowlands?
Hopefully, something really good! But before you open the champagne, let me warn you that the Battle for Azeroth was also warranting high hopes before the release. The beta had its share of bugs and issues, but it was expected that Blizzard would recover in time and be able to mend all that. It failed, which ultimately made the DLC look like Early Access rather than a full-fledged extension to perhaps the most popular MMORPG ever.
In case of Shadowlands, things look a little different. In fact, while testing the game in alpha (it's now in beta), I got the impression that the developers really listened to the community's feedback. I was quite surprised by the changes made week to week, most of which were based on our feedback. This does not change the fact that some danger of failure still exists, but you will find out later. First, it's time for a few praises!
Sylvanas, Lich King and land of the dead
Shadowlands will play a huge role in World of Warcraft. Sylvanas makes a fuss again by showing the Lich King open the gates to the world of the dead, inviting us in. As the heroes of Azeroth, along with several more important characters, we enter the eponymous Shadowlands to stop the former warchief of the Horde.
Initially, we go to The Maw, a location managed by Jailer, who is the main antagonist of this supplement. Sylvanas allied with him, but why? That's a question best answered while playing the game. I will only mention that time in Shadowlands flows differently than in Azeroth, and The Maw itself is the final stage of our adventure in this expansion.
Before that, we'll grind in Bastion, Ardenweald, Ravendreth and Maldraxxus. There are four locations, plus a fifth one, which is the Central City of Oriobos, working like Dalaran or Shattrath in previous expansions.
Reduction of level cap to 60
Now that I've mentioned exping, we have to commend Blizzard for making the right decision, namely reducing the level cap and speeding up the acquisition of levels. The maximum level in Shadowlands will be 60, rather than 100, or 120. In the new DLC, we will grind within the 50-60 level range, with lower levels scored in any other extension – any, because the scaling of levels will be fully functional.
As if that wasn't enough, Blizzard is also adding new starting locations for each faction. They will act as tutorials that will introduce the player to the meanders of World of Warcraft. Once completed, we will be able to proceed to exploring Battle for Azeroth, Legion, or any other extension of choice. Progression from level 1 to 50 is also expected to be accelerated and take 10 to 20 hours, which will significantly reduce the required investment of time.
This is a welcome change, because today, a newbie needs lots of time to catch up. This will make the whole process faster, and at the same time more interesting, because promotion to next levels will always yield new skills, talent points, or prizes. So we will actually feel that our hero is developing.
Four parties, all different
The real fun, however, will begin once we reach the Shadowlands. There, we will be able to choose one of the four Covenants, i.e. factions that control the corresponding region of the lands of the dead. By siding with Bastion, Ardenweald, Ravendreth or Maldraxxus, we will be given access to a unique story campaign and special cosmetic items, but also to special abilities: one derived from the faction itself, the other from our character class. But here, the issues mentioned above start to mount.
The Covenants are a pretty interesting solution, thanks to which players actually participate in the history of the given place, establishing relationships with NPCs and earning rewards for their exploits. In terms of plot, it's a real icing on the cake, but it's the skills provided by the factions that are controversial. And that's because of balance: it's very possible that the choice of faction will be determined by the provided abilities, rather than actual evaluation of morality and motivations.
Soulbinds – the strongest and weakest link
After reaching level 60, the matter becomes even more complicated, because then, the Covenants also receive the Soulbind system. It is a character development system, culminating in artifacts from Legion and Azerite Gear and essence from Battle for Azeroth. As part of the selected faction, you will be able to bind with one of the three NPCs to gain access to their bonuses. This provides access to a special skill tree that allows to choose augmentations and apply conduits, i.e. gems related to our character class.
Sounds complicated? The whole thing becomes simpler when we treat the Covenants more like extra character classes for our hero. By choosing one party, you get access to skills and three specializations (NPCs within Soulbind). Each specialization has its own talent tree with unique effects, and these can be modified by gems, inserted as in the equipment. Blizzard promised that within one Covenant we would be able to easily change Soulbinds and modify talents.
The whole system seems fantastic on paper, because the choices are justified by plot, and they're meaningful in terms of game mechanics, in addition increasing the capabilities of developing and personalizing the hero. In practice, however, it may turn out that the system will be limited to a few optimal builds and most elements will be squandered. Plus, it's a bit disturbing to learn that these gems, the conduits, will be destroyed every time we replace them.
Let's hope Blizzard comes up with the right solution and abandons the current one, which is farming-based – there will be no shortage of that in Shadowlands anyway. It was promised that this time we would not have to collect any azerite or artifact power to strengthen the weapon or the necklace. In the new addition, we will instead get a Renown system, on which our affiliation to the chosen party depends.