Shadowlands Beta Shows That Maybe You Can’t Go Home Again

World of Warcraft: Shadowlands makes the nearly two-decade-old game more new-player friendly, while also spiffing up several old systems.

I’ve been playing World of Warcraft off-and-on for the better part of two decades. It’s been a lot more off than on for the last few years, but the point stands that I’m a long-in-the-tooth WoW player. As each expansion launches, I hope that Activision-Blizzard can find a way to recapture the magic from the game’s early days and bring me back in a massive way. Recently, I had the chance to hop into an early preview for the upcoming Shadowlands beta. Does it finally bring back those heady days from the 2010s? Not really, but I’m also not sure if that matters anymore.

Let’s start with the good in World of Warcraft: Shadowlands. One of the biggest deterrents to WoW picking up new players is the massive slog of getting to max level so that you can play the new content.

Blizzard has tried a few different ideas to fix it, but, at least from my perspective, none of them have really alleviated the problems. Even if my friends can just jump a character up to the level of the current expansion, they’ve never felt comfortable sticking with the game.

To a large degree, Shadowlands rectifies most of the problems in a variety of ways. First, is the new level squish. Now, instead of needing to quest your way through 120 levels to hit the cap, you only need to hit level 60. That, in itself, greatly speeds up the process, but the team has taken another step further.

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Shadowlands introduces a brand new starting zone meant to bring new players up to speed with how WoW and MMOs in general work. As someone who’s been playing around in Azeroth since he was 16, it’s tough to say if this is successful. I mean, I certainly think it is, but I’ve also spent thousands of hours in this game. So, I’m not the best judge. That said, there are copious tooltips and tutorials that seem to clearly communicate how to play WoW.

The new zone also does a great job of getting you into some real action. Instead of meandering through the early stages of WoW, you’re instantly thrown into an ogre plot to raise a previously dead dragon. Sure, you still get to fight off a few quillboars, but your tour of Exile Islands feels like much higher stakes than fumbling your way through the Valley of Trials.

The whole thing culminates in a mini-dungeon experience that shows new players what it’s like to play with a group. Obviously, this is much easier than a typical dungeon, but it at least gives you an idea of what to expect when you move onto the Wailing Caverns or whatever.

Importantly, once you finish your hour-long onboarding, you can choose where you want to level. This is actually a great step because it lets players jump straight to Battle for Azeroth content, helping to set the stage for Shadowlands.

Forcing new players to play through each expansion was always a big ask lore-wise. If you’re not playing the content as it comes out, the story is incredibly dense and tough to follow. You don’t understand why this person is a Warchief or what made that banshee lady go crazy. The new system seems to make everything much easier to follow.

However, as a returning player, I continue to have many of the same problems that pushed me away from WoW in the first place. This early version of the beta lets you play through a good chunk of the coming content and so much of it just feels like the same soil we’ve trodden over and over again.

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On the surface, the covenant system is intriguing. You get a meaningful choice between four different factions, each with their own set of rewards and abilities. In my own time, I played as a new member of the vampiric Venthyr. It’s a fun take on classic vampire tropes and their unique ability, Door of Shadows, is a hoot.

Basically, it gives any character a sizable teleport every 60 seconds. As someone who has spent days of my life soloing old raid content, the possibilities for this tool are tantalizing. I also want to call out how gorgeous the zone looks. The Gothic theme is prevalent throughout the entire area, giving it a darkly suitable vibe.

However, the zone’s design incorporates a ton of verticality, which leads to both confusion and annoyance. I completely understand why Blizzard doesn’t let you use flying mounts at the start of an expansion. That said, this zone is begging for that option.

I also got my first hands-on time with some of the marque end-game content coming with Shadowlands. Unfortunately, most of these just seem like iterative versions of things we’ve already played with and gotten bored of.

For instance, each covenant has its own Class Hall-like area that you can upgrade. These remind me of a streamlined Garrison, which is fine but doesn’t get my jimmies rustled. Then there are the new Adventures that just feel like a better version of the old missions. Again, improving a feature and making it engaging isn’t a bad thing. It’s just not enough to excite this particular old man. The one area that has me excited is The Maw. This procedurally-generated dungeon looks like it could add some intriguing content to grind.

So maybe this is all a “me” problem. After all, I’ve mostly stopped playing World of Warcraft because everything was starting to feel too similar. The new content didn’t seem to justify the time sink.

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Plus, playing the game under beta conditions is from far ideal. It’s expected (it is a beta after all), but between locked off content, work in progress cutscenes, and more frequent crashes than you’d like, it’s tough to get a real feel for what Shadowlands can become.

That said, WoW continues to feel like a game in drastic need of a sequel. WoW 2 is a long-running joke and will likely never happen. However, there’s only so much you can expect the developers to do with a game that can almost legally vote. I love World of Warcraft. It’s easily in my top five favorite games of all time, but it’s hard to imagine myself coming back without some much more drastic changes.

Of course, if you aren’t as jaded as me, Shadowlands certainly seems on its way to being another solid World of Warcraft expansion. The covenants alone should inject tons of replayability into the experience. And the freshened up systems will likely be welcome for long-time players who haven’t lapsed in their commitment.

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