Shadowlands Will Make or Break World of Warcraft
After an expansion rife with disappointments, people are careful to place too much hope in the MMO’s latest expansion
There seems to be a wave-like effect when it comes to recent World of Warcraft (WoW) expansions. Warlords of Draenor is generally considered bad, while Legion was given praise. Battle for Azeroth was largely disliked — so, by this rule, the new expansion Shadowlands should be great...right?
World of Warcraft has always attracted the type of player that will pour scorn on a game that they will still play daily. Even in the glory days of WoW’s initial Classic release, the Blizzard forums were awash with players that demanded everything from nerfs and buffs to new classes and bosses.
Looking through the feedback sections of the forum was like ramming your foot onto a bed of Lego pieces over and over again — you’ll often end up with nothing constructive to show for it except a lot of unnecessary pain. The Roguecraft series showed this pretty succinctly — not only is it a great PvP series, but it also calls out a fair portion of the vocal minority for its ill-thought comments on the state of the game.
Despite this, it’s always been a popular game, and for all of the negativity some of the more vocal players throw about, it has lasted for numerous expansions. It has built new systems, features, and playstyles for its subscribers, innovated with new customization options, and implemented new methods of progression for high-end content. It’s hard to argue that the game is dying when its supporters are still sticking around — at least, they’re sticking around for now.
As the pre-patch for the new expansion Shadowlands releases, there is a sense of foreboding surrounding the very expansion itself as it follows a terribly underwhelming expansion, Battle for Azeroth. While players had expectations for world PvP, challenging end-game content, and an engaging narrative, it was instead an expansion that tried to crowbar in-game modes and features that were useless at best, and despised at worst.
In trying to introduce gear that provided the player with perks, it indirectly punished players for gaining better gear because those perks would be locked again upon equipping your new fancy boots. The quality of the content dipped considerably toward the end of the expansion: the culmination of an Old God storyline that spanned multiple expansions fizzled out with a mediocre raid and cinematic. The storyline started with a resource war caused by Sargeras stabbing the world, but this plot was never fully resolved and felt rushed in favor of getting the expansion finished, regardless of its state. There’s still a very awkward sword sticking into the ground…is anyone going to deal with that, at all?
There’s also a generally unfavorable response to Sylvanas’ transformation into a generic Big Evil Bad Guy trope. Her lapdog, Nathanos Blightcaller, is hated even more. I don’t think anyone will mourn his passing when he becomes an optional raid boss when the pre-patch drops. Nathanos is a case study about how edginess and a bad attitude does not always translate into an interesting character.
Many of the gameplay changes were reported as issues to Blizzard during the beta phase of testing, but the playerbase at large feels like the developers listened to none of the feedback and pushed ahead with its way of implementing gameplay changes. As a result, the community feels like Battle for Azeroth could have been better, had it not been for an insistence on the features that bogged it down. This also is why many people are not excited about Shadowlands arriving. Instead, they are wary.
According to prominent streamers and YouTubers like Belluar, the expansion is currently not in a shippable state, and the news that it has been delayed is a welcome sigh of relief to anyone who didn’t happen to book time off work to play the game upon release. The game introduces the idea of Covenants, whereby your choice of allegiance to one of the factions of undeath will grant you different perks and powers, usable in the world and in its rogue-like replayable end-game area, Torghast.
This concept of borrowed power has graced players before — first with Legion’s artifact weapons and continuing with Battle for Azeroth’s Azerite gear. It’s the idea that an expansion will grant your character a temporary change to the game that in some way alters your play style. The unfortunate side effect of this is that systems have been piled upon systems like they are Jenga blocks, and the player base is all but convinced that the tower is close to falling. There is very little confidence in Blizzard’s ability to balance a new expansion’s worth of content alongside the multiple systems playing out in the covenants you can pick from.
Aside from the balance issue, it also makes for an empty experience for your character. Any increases in power ultimately end up feeling hollow, considering that strength will just be snatched away once the expansion ends. From looking at Reddit threads and YouTube videos discussing the state of play, the appetite seems to lie in quality content and storytelling over a need for a deluge of systems. The big introductions and gameplay changes that came with Battle for Azeroth seem to be largely unmissed — with most of the praise going towards the art style and atmosphere of questing locations. Warfronts and Expeditions have been met with tepid reception at best.
Blizzard now has the chance to learn from its World of Warcraft: Classic lesson. Subscriptions in 2019 were buoyed up by the popularity of a game that is decades old, yet enjoyed a huge increase in popularity that its retail sibling could only dream of. Whether this is because of a sense of nostalgia or whether it is genuinely because the game is deemed “better” is a discussion for another time, but there is no denying that the players have shown what they want: a challenging experience that doesn’t rely on temporary powers to prop it up.
That is not to say that Classic is without problems — the raid content by comparison to the retail experience is easy, and players have optimized their characters to the nth degree when it comes to managing how the game is played. World buffs are not so much seen as optional extras, but essential boons for the most devout raiders hitting Naxxramas. There is also a lack of features such as transmogrification that end up making your character look like a fashion catastrophe. It is, however, the foundation of what made WoW great, to begin with, and Blizzard should be drawing inspiration from the original roots of the game.
And even if they don’t, and if Shadowlands turns out to be a massive flop, I guess we can at least look forward to WoW Classic: The Burning Crusade.