It’s often said by diehard fans that, like most MMORPGs, the real meat of games like World of Warcraft only begins once you reach the level cap. With Shadowlands, Blizzard is looking to make that adage more literal.
Over the years, Blizzard have tinkered with the formula for their flagship MMORPG in this way and that. Earlier expansions like Burning Crusade or Wrath of the Lich King offered Horde and Alliance players slightly different takes on the same regions of the world. Later efforts like Legion opted to merge the two leveling paths into one but give you more freedom about where your adventure takes you and the order in which you tackle the game’s various storylines.
Nevertheless, the core arc of what playing through World of Warcraft looks like haven’t fundamentally changed in some time. You make your way through zones and quests of ascending difficulty until you hit the level cap. Then, you get better and better gear by completing more difficult PVP content or PVE content or chipping away at the various rep grinds in the game.
By the metrics of these past efforts, Shadowlands veers firmly towards experimentation. Picking up where Battle for Azeroth left off, the new expansion will see players sample a little bit of what each of the major regions in the titular Shadowlands has to offer on their way to the new level cap.
Once they reach 60, they’ll then be able to choose which of the expansion’s four major Covenants they want to throw their lot in with. On the surface, siding with your afterlife of choice isn't that different to the various reputation grinds and region or faction-specific progression mechanics that Blizzard have dabbled with in previous expansions.
However where things like Artifact Weapons, Class Halls and Garrisons provided another ingredient in the familiar main course of leveling up and progressing through each of the zones in their respective expansion, it sounds like Covenants will ultimately define the endgame of Shadowlands. They’re the reward for reaching the level cap rather than just something else to keep yourself occupied with while you grind your way there.
Shadowlands features four possible Covenants for players to team up with, the aforementioned Venthyr plus the angelic and owlike Kyrians, metal-as-hell Necrolords and the mythical Night Fae. Depending on who you go with, you’ll get access to unique companions (who can be levelled up and customised through a skill tree-like Soulbinding system), the ability to customise the stronghold-like Sanctum for your Covenant, a bevy of faction-specific quest content plus a unique endgame activity.
The last looks to be the biggest gameplay difference what players following different Covenants will experience in the endgame of WoW’s eighth expansion pack.
Going with the Venthyr gets you access to the Ember Court, where you’ll set out to throw a lavish gala for guests. Compare that to the combat-heavy Path of Ascension available to Kyrian-aligned players - which Blizzard are describing as a boss rush experience where you get to temporarily take control of your companions - or the Queen’s Conservatory - which builds on the farming mechanics of Mists of Pandaria - and you’ve got a recipe for an era of World of Warcraft where your personal endgame experience is going to differ from that of other players in a pretty significant way.
The enormous popularity of last year’s World of Warcraft: Classic looms large over the impending release of Shadowlands but Shadowlands production manager Patrick Dawson says the development team behind the game isn’t daunted.
He tells PC World that “We want to make sure we’re servicing both communities as well as we can.”
“I think we see each as a different offering. WoW: Classic is not just a blast from the past but a very different game from what modern WoW is.”
Asked whether older expansion-specific features like Garrisons or Artifact Weapons will ever be modernised, Dawson indicates
Dawson says that “There are definitely things that we do that are tied directly to an expansion, whether it be the garrison in Warlords [of Draenor] and artifact weapons in Legion. We do always have a plan to sunset them in some way.”
“I think what we try to do is learn from what worked and what didn't work about the system so that we can pull some of the greatest hits forward. I think you're seeing that a little bit with the Legendary system that we're doing for Shadowlands. A lot of that is informed based on what was popular in the Legion timeline for the Legendary [items] there.”
“We’re looking at the things that worked for that and maybe some things that maybe leaving out some that weren't as well received.”
World of Warcraft: Shadowlands doesn’t have an official release date yet but is expected to launch later in 2020.