World of Warcraft’s eighth expansion is upon us, and boy, what a mess it is.

After a rocky beta test period that showed players that the game was nowhere near ready for its initial launch date, and a much needed delay, Shadowlands was released with an effervescent and optimistic start that fizzled rather quickly. Now that it’s been out for a couple months and the dust has long since settled, it’s time for me to once again—and hopefully for the last time—brandish my self-appointed title of Venezuelan WoW authority™ and share my impressions of World of Warcraft version 9.x.

tl;dr: don’t even bother lmao, even if you have friends to play this disaster with.

From the moment of its announcement, Shadowlands has had to not just be able to stand on its own legs, but also achieve the meteoric and uphill task of mitigating or outright undoing the absolute disaster left by its predecessor, Battle for Azeroth. This expansion has to deliver a gameplay experience solid enough that lets Blizzard retain what’s left of the sunk cost playerbase and regain as much of the lost player trust—doing all of this, of course, while sticking to Activision’s corporate mandates and Blizzard’s current design vision for World of Warcraft, and that’s when the flimsy Jenga tower falls apart.

The core foundations of WoW remain relatively unchanged, combat is still business as usual, and all the tech is still there, however, it’s no secret that WoW has been dragging a series of fundamental problems over the past years, especially in the elements that comprise it’s endgame loop. The problem, however, is that all of these problems have originated from Blizzard’s development team choices, and they continue to address these problems in a very Blizz-like fashion: by making the remedies worse than the disease.

Their obsession with fixing that which isn’t broken, and attempting to reinvent the wheel with every expansion cycle has made them completely lose their way. I have serious doubts that the current dev team even plays the game, and what we have now is a development team drowning in hubris and far too detached from its playerbase.

For WoW players, it has become exceedingly tiresome to see Blizzard address player feedback through a monkey paw. Every solution has given rise to one or two new problems, which are then ‘addressed’ by creating even more problems. Years upon years of this endless cycle is what has driven so many out of this franchise, and I’m among those that has had enough of it.

To make matters worse, Blizzard’s obsession with Monthly Active User metrics has tainted the game’s development in such a detrimental way that’s beyond absurd at this point. Everything has been designed in such a way that you need to engage in the game’s systems almost on a daily basis, lest you risk falling behind the arbitrary timegated curves.

Nothing is designed around player fun anymore, now it’s all boring mandatory grinds that are artificially stretched out just so Blizzard can rack up those engagement statistics for their shareholder meeting reports and earning calls. Things that were once trivial and fun now require obscene grinds and longer time investments that I cannot justify in any way or form.

MMOs are about character progression, yet progression through Shadowlands feels utterly impersonal. The game is as streamlined as it can be right now, and yet it’s paradoxically the clunkiest it’s been since its launch in 2004.

I preface this post with all of this because this obsession with Monthly Active Users is one of the main reasons for the most egregious design choices in the game right now, and it explains why everything in the game feels unrewarding and utterly meaningless to do despite the game boasting the best underlying tech in the genre.

With all that said, let’s finally delve into the disastrous Shadowlands experience.

The Premise

Sylvanas Windrunner (the lead Narrative designer’s waifu) is up to no good!

The Banshee Queen has teamed up with The Jannie, an Ancient Evil™ from Warcraft’s version of Super Hell that’s totally a bigger threat to reality than the Legion and the Void. You see, it turns out that The Jannie was the hidden hand behind many crucial events in Azeroth’s past, including more recent ones, such as the Fourth War, and now the stage is set for him to execute the next step of his Master Plan.

The veil between life and death has been shattered, along with the Lich King’s iconic helmet (you can interpret the symbolism behind the breaking of the helmet in many ways). Death rises upon the World (of Warcraft), threatening to consume it all—but worry not, for Azeroth’s greatest champions will venture into the realms of the afterlife to fix this mess and, together with the Covenants of the Shadowlands, will put a stop to The Jannie’s plans and getting some sweet loot while at it.

He is very bald, aight.

Let’s be real, story content has never been World of Warcraft’s forte, and Blizzard very much knows this, so it’s hard to treat the expansion’s story with the ‘seriousness’ that the narrative team expects. It really isn’t my intention to take a jab at the quality of the story of this expansion but I’m being real here, the majority of the players don’t care about it anyways. Paying attention to the story won’t increase their parse logs or Mythic+ rankings, and that’s what ultimately matters in this game.

The flow of the plot so far is rather straightforward: You chase Sylvanas into the Maw, bad things happen, and you barely manage to slip by The Jannie’s grasp. You immerse yourself into the current state of the Shadowlands, and then go to each of the realms to try and fix things up, with their usual twists here and there. Nothing too revolutionary or groundbreaking—like I said, it’s never been their forte, and it doesn’t have to be, because at the end of the day, the sunk cost playerbase is centered around killing bosses for their loot and increasing their score rankings, not about the expansion’s narrative.

Despite that, there is a much bigger emphasis on delivering story to the players this time around, commendable, yes, but futile within the context of the playerbase’s mentally. Another problem is that much of the story elements that set the stage are locked behind books and other forms of media and are never presented in-game to the players, so there will always be gaps and lapses that chip away at the narrative’s cohesion. 

Blizzard wanted a cool and unique name to attach to each player, something more original than ‘Hero’ or ‘Champion,’ and they found their solution with “Maw-walker,” a narrative title that your character earns pretty early throughout your journey.

You will find even more in-game cutscenes than before as part of a renewed effort to put your own character at the central spotlight, and while they feel much more polished than the in-game ones found in Battle for Azeroth (some of which were so bad Blizzard unlisted them from YouTube out of shame) they still have a long way to go before matching that of other games in the genre.

They certainly wanted to get out of their comfort zone and experiment with more camera tricks and precise angles to mask out their use of staple ingame animations for the cutscenes. It makes sense, as the intention is to make them look more ‘natural,’ within the limitations of the animation sets that they have to work with, but they really fall short and in many cases, they look quite jarring and clunky.

Regardless, the effort is there, and from a technical standpoint, the game’s CGI cutscenes are still top notch and often unrivaled. The pre-rendered ones made with their in-house machinima tools are pretty good as well.

I personally find The Jannie to be legitimately uninteresting as a villain, no matter how much Blizzard is trying to sell it as some super ultra powerful evil—to the point that I haven’t even said his actual name throughout this post. All of his dialogue was written in a most obnoxiously ominous way so as to exalt his alleged power level, and they couldn’t possibly be more generic.

You’re told that he is basically the biggest threat to all of existence, but (as of the time of writing this) there’s little to no in-game evidence that suggests that; he’s just there, scheming and showing up every now and then. 

The Jannie is going to be a hard sell because it’s very difficult to match the Burning Legion as a villain. Blizzard hasn’t learned anything from their mishandling of N’zoth, a villain that was hyped for ten whole years only to be unceremoniously dispatched in one of the worst patches of WoW history.

Villains don’t have to be on an infinitely scaling power treadmill to be interesting, this isn’t Dragon Ball anyways.

While each of the four zones, Bastion, Maldraxxus, Ardenweald, and Revendreth have their own storyline, you as a player only get to go through the initial appetizer of each when you’re leveling, and due to the way the covenant system works, you effectively get locked out of 3 out of 4 of these storylines.

You could switch to a different one, but that’s not something you should do for the sake of story content. Your only real solution is to play different characters, which requires time and in turn inflates the MAU metrics for Blizzard, but quite frankly, it isn’t worth the effort.

Not much more to say, as the expansion is still underway, inb4 Sylvanas gets redeemed and reunited with the lead narrative designer’s self insert.

The Realms of the Afterlife

The areas are very unique from one another, and the art team shouldn’t be crucified for the shortcomings of the gameplay problems of the game. Bastion is your run of the mill generic ‘angelic’ and peaceful land. Maldraxxus is your rough and war-torn zone that feels like an amalgamation of zones in WoW’s past. Ardenweald is a blue forest, which isn’t bad, and is rather visually appealing. Lastly, Revendreth’s gothic castle and aristocratic vibes are pretty appealing, and is my favorite zone by a longshot, even if it’s rather clunky to navigate due to the nature of its structures.

Oribos, this expansion’s main city, feels like a proper hub/port, with many callbacks to the Ouroboros snake that gives it its name along with other life/death motifs that you can find in it. Lastly, the Maw is a real desolate zone, and the extremely unfun gameplay mechanics slapped on the area serve only to complement and amplify the sense of hopelessness that it’s supposed to evoke.

Each of these areas are ruled by their respective Covenant, and in turn each Covenant (along with The Jannie and the Maw) have their own color-coded special effects for their spells and anima-related powers, which I dig, specially Venthyr’s edgy reds and the Night Fae’s blue/black.

It’s understandable that the zones are disjointed from one another, due to the nature of the Shadowlands themselves being separate realms, but this in turn dramatically increases travel time when going back and forth. While justifiable for lore/setting reasons, it feels like too much downtime, and again, it increases the amount of time you have to spend to do anything in the game, which artificially inflates the engagement metrics (starting to see a pattern here?)

As for the music, I have not much to say, it is what it is, it’s not bad, it’s not great. Music in WoW serves its ambiental purpose, and nothing more.

Once you pick a Covenant you will be spending plenty of time in their respective zone, yet, while the zones themselves are pretty memorable, you won’t be doing much on them once you’re done leveling beyond the occasional World quest or what have you—which take more time to do this time around, thus inflating the engagement—you get where I’m going with this.

Borrowed Power 3.0 and its Systems

And now for the biggest problem in the game: Mr. Hazzikostas’ infamous systems. I’ll try to keep it consice and to the point.

All of your character progression in Shadowlands is dependent on several mandatory systems that at first feel loosely disjointed, but you quickly realize how intrinsically interdependent they are from one another—and must be partaken into if you wanna go anywhere in this game beyond hitting the level cap.

Covenants, Soulbinds, Conduits, Renown, Thorgast, Anima Power, Valor Points, Callings, Stygia. These are all things that you must work on (some are more important than others), you will partake in these grinds not because they’re fun, but several of these are absolutely mandatory.

It would seem like Blizzard thinks that the secret to a good expansion is adding a bunch of modular systems that can be flipped off with a switch at the end of the expansion. These systems are not even complex, they’re just tedious, and tediousness doesn’t make for a fun game.

Let’s start with the first, and most important of these systems: The Covenants.

The illusion of choice

Choosing a Covenant is the first step towards your descent into the abyss of systems. Kyrian, Necrolords, Night Fae, or Venthyr, as Blizzard has stated, this is a Meaningful Choice™, but in MMOs, where it’s all about doing the highest numbers, the choice is made for you.

Not picking the correct meta one is basically akin to shooting yourself in the foot, even if you absolutely abhor their aesthetics and prefer the rewards of a different one. Why in the world would you hinder your performance, especially when in many cases, there is a clear choice as to what you should choose for your character.

Blizzard is to blame for all of this, they’re the ones that want to push a ‘pick what you like the most’ narrative while fostering and nurturing the meta mentality that goes against any player choice, so they’re reaping what they’ve been sowing, so to speak.

Furthermore, depending on what you choose, you could be seriously impacting your character’s off-spec performance, so if you’re one to play different specs, then you either pick the ‘all rounder’ or pick one that will be effective for your main spec, but not as effective for your offspec.

For example: If I wanted to tank with my Demon Hunter I best go with the Kyrian covenant, if I wanted to DPS then I best go with Venthyr/Night Fae, but if I wanted an allrounder that works best for PvP then I’d go with Night Fae. Lastly, if I wanted to be bullied, I’d go with Necrolords.

Aesthetically, I prefer Venthyr for its edgyness, but I went with Night Fae because it was more fun, and it was the ‘all around’ choice, even if I don’t like the covenant at all.

Then comes the Soulbinds, which are locked behind your Renown progression, a pseudo battle-pass progression bar that’s timegated (currently it is easy to catch up to, but the max cap will be doubled come next patch).

Next comes the Conduits, which you must farm for. Switching conduits is also limited by a gacha-like stamina system that, while somewhat forgiving, can get in the way of things if you’re experimenting with different Conduit combinations, or if you switch around specs often.

And if you think you’re finally done, then think again, you still need to craft your Legendary items. To do so, you must farm for the recipes, get the base materials, and participate in Thorgast so you can farm for soul ash, which is, surprise surprise, time-gated and it takes weeks to max one legendary.

Thorgast itself is an unfun chore, Blizzard wanted their own rogue-like instance, full of random powers that range from lame to absurd but kinda fun, and yet they managed to make it all boring—but without the ash there’s no legendary items, and without a legendary you’ll be going nowhere. Sure, you sometimes get to break the instance with an overpowered and fun combination of skills, but that fun is ephemeral in nature.

Which begets the question: Is a legendary truly a ‘legendary’ when it’s mandatory to have and everyone has it too?

The anima grind is completely indefensible. It’s not tied to player power in a real meaningful way, but the cosmetic rewards of each covenant are, and a lot of casual players do partake in collecting mounts, pets, and what have you. Making this types of grind extremely time-gated for the sake of MAU and engagement statistics will simply burn people out.

Once you have your Soulbinds properly set up, the correct conduits obtained, the appropriate legendary item equipped, and an acceptable item level, that’s when you can really start to have ‘fun’ in PvE or PvP, and not a moment sooner.

That’s when you will realize the futility of it all, that all the effort and preparation was for naught, because the game isn’t simply worth your time anymore—so the correct course of action is to stop being a number in Blizzard’s MAU statistics, that’s the only way to win right now.

The next patch will add a few more systems, and the grind will resume on some of these (Thorgast, Renown, Soulbinds, some legendaries depending on what class you play). All of these systems are borrowed power, and at the end of the expansion they will be switched off, and your character will be just as it was when it hit the level cap. Expansions are now compartmentalized and extremely modular in design.

The chores and grinds leave very little time for you to actually play the game—I guess, in a way, doing these chores is the game itself.

Loot and Itemization

Gear will always be a fundamental part of any MMO, it’s the main source of character progression, the end reward of clearing a dungeon or raid, the eternal treadmill. Blizzard continues to tamper with the sanctity of loot, making it worse with each iteration.

After the disaster that was Warforged, Titanforged, and Corrupted items, Blizzard returned to tradition and removed these rng elements—with their monkey paw. Their vision of making ‘loot be loot’ consists of making loot drops more static but scarcer, lowering the overall amount of loot that drops in the game as a sort of punishment to the players.

Really, they went, “Oh so you want less rng in your loot drops? How about we remove the rng but lower the overall amount of loot you get? Now that’s a solid engagement boosting design choice there.”

Again, notice the pattern, padding the hell out of the loot gearing process makes it so that people have to play more, therefore boosting the MAU and engagement metrics. This is all done on purpose.

Their grand solution to the often unrewarding weekly random Mythic+ chest reward is the Great Vault, a system that gives you more choices to pick from based on the amount of high end PvE and PvP activities that you do each week (again, artificially boosting the metrics).

Tier sets, the cream of the crop rewards of raiding, and one of the main reasons people kept farming raids, haven’t existed in the game since 2018. They’re slated to return at a later time in this expansion. Without tier sets, loot now feels completely bland and static, even from a visual standpoint. It’s all just numbers, and with diminishing returns on secondary stats it all becomes bland endeavor. Having to run simulations to see which combinations of gear yield the best results, constantly updating your stat weights, it’s all too mechanical.

The reduction in loot drops across the board and complete lack of meaningful rewards makes you feel like a fool for having wasted all that time for such meager rewards. The complete removal of Master Loot and Need/Greed systems is still as bewildering as it was back in 2016, it was simply done to (unsuccessfully) quell the raid sales market that I once was part of.

Dungeons & E-Sports

The eight dungeons that the expansion launched with are ok at a first look, but once you further look into them, the cracks start to show. Dungeons are no longer designed as a traditional dungeon, they’re simply designed around the new Mythic Plus e-sports mentality.

Each zone gets two dungeons each, with a “megadungeon” coming in a few weeks/months. Boss encounter design is still one of Blizzard’s strengths. Some of the bosses are rather fun, others not so, and others draw parallels from games such as Final Fantasy XIV in terms of using the room’s geometry for the telegraphed attacks (The last bosses in Plaguefall and Sanguine Depths come to mind).

To me, making an e-sport out of PvE dungeon clearing is still one of the most bewildering and baffling choices Blizzard has ever made. Competitive dungeon clearing makes it so that dungeons must be built to facilitate these races, making them extremely linear, with only one real path—to the point that you need to use specialized addons to chart routes and plan the most optimal pulls and all that. Long are the days of elaborate dungeons with different pathways, replaced by literal racetracks with obstacles.

Furthermore, each dungeon has a hidden perk that can only be activated by someone with the correct covenant. This is certainly optional in casual content, but becomes more mandatory as you push higher ranks of M+, so not having the ‘correct’ covenant can be detrimental to the ‘push.’

There’s only one raid right now, Castle Nathria. I only glanced over it for a time during my brief stay in the Shadowlands. It’s ok, I guess, some bosses were dope, others a slog. There’s some real difficulty pacing issues with its last two bosses that, in a way, help mask the astounding content drought that the game is going through right now.

Leveling Squish and Lecagy Content

This one’s a double edged sword, the level squish and turning all prior expansion content into a non-linear ‘legacy’ mode has its ups and downs.

For starters, it really removes one of the biggest entry barriers for new players: having to go through 120 levels of content just to reach the current expansion. On the other hand, leveling is so fast now that new players have little to no time or explanation about the core aspects of combat. There are so many things that I, as a longtime player, don’t need to be reminded when creating a new character, but someone else, who is picking WoW as its first MMO, would certainly need to know, (interrupts, tanking, and all that stuff).

Exile’s Reach is meant to be this new introductory experience scenario of the game’s mechanics for new players, sure, it explains the basics, but after that you’re on your own, and we know that WoW’s playerbase isn’t known for its empathy and receptiveness towards newbies.

Leveling is pretty fast now, a couple hours at most if you know what you’re doing, so it won’t take long for new players/characters to reach Shadowlands content.

The new non linear, modular approach to vaulting old expansions into a sort of legacy content easily provides Blizzard with the framework to throw Shadowlands away once it’s time is due. That’s one of the reasons that the systems of Legion, Battle for Azeroth, and Shadowlands were designed with compartmentalization in mind, to fit this new design philosophy.

New Player Customization options

WoW’s character creation is still from 2004, it really needed a revamp, and more character customization was something that Blizzard had been promising for a while. It’s more power to the players, a rare thing to expect from Blizzard, really.

Some races got more options than others, new skin tones, new hair styles, eye color, jewelry, that’s all fine and dandy, my Blood Elf Paladin that I made back in 2008 finally has a brand new hairstyle. The removal of the $10 fee to change a character’s gender was tried to be sold as a diversity move that fell flat, it’s whatever in the end, like I said, gives more power to the players—they’ll continue to satiate their greed through $70 Burning Crusade mount/cosmetic packs and their perpetual six month sub bait mounts.

Looking good is a DPS bonus, many not know this—but there is no point in playing a pretty looking character when the game is simply not worth playing in its current state.

Closing up

As of this date, Shadowlands still feels like a beta expansion, completely unfinished in many regards, and just plain unfun overall. There is currently no scenario where I’d recommend playing this expansion in any capacity whatsoever. They might still be able to turn ship and fix it up by the time the final content patch is up like they usually do—and that’s where you maybe could play this disaster with some friends, maybe.

Shadowlands is a testament to the absolute state of Blizzard as a company. They desperately want to seek a profitable redemption after a disastrous Battle for Azeroth, but they will find no success in doing so as long as they remain drunk in hubris and inhaling the fumes of their MAU and engagement statistics that dictate the development of the game.

World of Warcraft was, is, and continues to be one of the main culprits of the stagnation of MMOs. For all its flaws, it is still the de-facto money-printer of the MMO genre. It’s the MMO with the best underlying tech and infrastructure, just completely mishandled in every other aspect.

They know what they need to do to get out of this conundrum, but they cannot and will not go against the desires of the suits at Activision, and this will continue to be their downfall, they’re simply delaying the inevitable.

Deep down, in its core, there is a good MMORPG foundation, it simply is shackled and hindered by corporate greed and timegated unfun systems. I still enjoy and miss playing my Paladin, Priest, and Demon Hunter, I just cannot justify investing a single minute in this game and its current state anymore. Shadowlands is utterly boring, and the ‘fun’ parts are grindy and not worth doing, that sums the current state of this game.

Unfortunately, the playerbase has the game they deserve. The boosting economy that keeps this afloat, the obsession with ranks, parses, logs, the pump and the push, if you’re happy with all that then by all means, the game currently has all that you seek.

I suppose that this is it, this is the end of my WoW journey. I wasn’t even planning on playing Shadowlands in the first place (the BfA aftertaste was just that bad), but since I’m still stranded in this country, my guildies enticed me, and I was provided a cdkey courtesy of a good friend, then well, I gave it a shot.

WoW’s best days are long gone, but that doesn’t mean it will be closing down anytime soon. Still, you’re better off playing anything else right now, doesn’t necessarily have to be an MMO, just play something else, you’ll have actual fun while doing so, trust me.

Oh, and don’t forget to farm those Mawnapearls in Patch 9.1!


Categories: Video Games