With around six hours under my shiny new +84 Agility belt, I can already see that World of Warcraft: Shadowlands doesn’t only straddle the line between life and death – it straddles the line between what was and what could be for Blizzard’s 16-year-old MMO. While it bombards us with familiar characters like Thrall, Jaina Proudmoore, and Darion Mograine in its opening fanfare, it also proceeds to gleefully kick open the doors to new corners of the Warcraft universe and introduce the intimidating Jailer. As the first main bad guy in WoW’s history who didn’t originate in the RTS games in some way, his arrival seems like the start of a whole new chapter that isn’t so beholden to rehashing past glories.
This isn’t the first time WoW has ventured outside of Azeroth; we’ve already seen the destroyed orc homeworld of Outland and even the terrifying depths of the Burning Legion base of operations on Argus. But the various afterlives of the Shadowlands are on a completely different plane of existence, and prove that Blizzard’s zone designers can still surprise us. The soaring, angular spires of the city of Oribos and the muted, dreamlike fields of Bastion effectively sell the idea that we’re really not in Elwynn anymore with their otherworldly architecture and diverse denizens. The skies are filled with enigmatic gates and impossible light shows of twisting energy. The colors are far less saturated than we’re used to seeing on terrestrial Azeroth, and the creatures who live here are bizarre, distinct, and wonderful.Our introduction to this new world is a bit light on whimsy, though, since we’re dumped pretty much immediately into the Maw – basically Warcraft’s version of Hell, where the most wicked souls go to suffer eternally. Everything from the foreboding music to the sickly orange color palette feel as oppressive as Icecrown while completely departing from its icy, blue and black look. The wicked enemies and buildings are still in line with the Lich King’s sense of style, though, reminding us that we’re seeing the realm from which his power originated.
Our first trek through this nightmare is fast-paced, action-packed, and introduces us to the menacing Jailer in properly striking fashion. It has all the drama, momentum, and excitement you’d expect in the opening of a blockbuster fantasy movie. I do think it was a bit of a missed opportunity, though, to simply send us here through magic portals. If the Champion of Azeroth had actually died to get to the Shadowlands, that would have been a shocking but hugely effective step on our hero’s journey.
Every IGN World of Warcraft Review
While The Maw might be appropriately horrific, the launch itself was almost shockingly pleasant. I didn’t have to wait through long server cues, and there has been little to no lag and no serious quest bugs on my end so far. WoW has had some really rough expansion launches in the past, but this seems to be by far one of the best ones from a technical standpoint. And it only took eight tries to pull it off!
Same Old Song and Dance
The pace slows down considerably once you get out of The Maw, with plenty of standard quests to kill random wildlife for their spleens not unlike those we’ve been doing for the last 16 years. You gather materials to repair soulforged constructs. You find hidden tablets that reveal more of the story. You ferry McGuffins from one important NPC to the next. The first dungeon has an interesting boss fight where you need to get a necromancer down from a platform by tricking his own abomination into hitting him with a meat hook, so I can see some promise in terms of encounter design. That’s always where WoW has given itself room to innovate, more so than the open world quest content.
The larger story being woven around these familiar tasks is certainly intriguing, though – suffice it to say the angelic defenders of Bastion seem like they might not be the good guys their heavenly presentation would suggest. There’s already a lot of moral ambiguity floating around, along with a cameo from a very, very old friend that delighted me as a basically life-long Warcraft fan.At this point, we don’t yet know why the Shadowlands are broken, and all mortal souls are being sent to The Maw instead of being judged and forwarded on to somewhere less horrifying as intended. Cryptic references abound to some kind of ancient beings called the First Ones and other corners of the cosmos we’ve never glimpsed before. These core mysteries have me very motivated to continue the story, even when some of the smaller pieces along the way are not quite as enticing.
Mechanically, Professions don’t seem to have changed much since the last expansion. Archaeology, which I’ve really enjoyed since it debuted in Cataclysm, seems to still sit forgotten and abandoned. This is especially a shame given how much cool, ancient stuff there is in the Shadowlands I’d love to learn more about. As a leatherworker, I can make my own armor with semi-randomized stats that’s competitive with or better than quest rewards, as well as disposable armor kits which grant a two-hour buff to my health pool. Pretty standard stuff. Hopefully at max level there’ll be a little bit more to do with these skills.
There’s still a long road ahead: I’m still only level 53, out of a new cap of 60, and haven’t seen the other three main zones, the other seven new dungeons, rewards for joining a Covenant, or how the max level experience plays out. I’m particularly excited to finally unlock Torghast, a replayable roguelike tower of the damned that represents Blizzard’s most exciting new idea for this expansion. I’ll be back to share more impressions early next week (we’re taking a brief pause for the Thanksgiving break), with a full review to follow when I’ve gotten a better look at all the fun death has to offer.
Leana Hafer is a contributor to IGN. Talk RPGs, strategy games, and/or history with her on Twitter at @AsaTJ.