Welcome to the Maw. Yesterday marked the announcement that World of Warcraft: Shadowlands is coming this fall. The expansion has been in alpha since April, and Blizzard has finally locked down all its planned features. Shadowlands officially enters beta next week, but before that Blizzard Entertainment offered a few folks a look at the expansion's endgame, including us at USgamer.
With World of Warcraft's last expansion Battle for Azeroth, the endgame faltered, leading to negative reactions from the community. Fixing that endgame is where Shadowlands seeks to course correct. Blizzard's hope is that players will feel less grind and randomness in the process. The endgame will always have repeatable content, but it's a matter of how that content is presented that matters.
Same Characters, New Faces
Jumping into the preview server, I had to make a new character, giving me a glimpse at the new character creator. Not only are there new flavor intros when you choose a class, there are a host of new options within the creator itself. There's new skin colors, hair styles, tattoos, and more across almost every race. I was finally able to make my Black Blood Elf! Even if that doesn't entirely make sense within the lore of Warcraft, I find myself enjoying it immensely, which is better for an MMO.
The overhaul of the character creator is also far more modular. "We see this initiative as an ongoing one," game director Ion Hazzikostas tells me. "It's not something where we're going to ever call it done. It's a platform upon which we can continue to build and add. We've already heard tons of requests and feedback on the existing customizations. While we of course can't get to everything in the limited time we have, that doesn't stop as soon as Shadowlands is out. It's a process that will continue. There's a lot of races that we want to give attention to. And continue to revisit, letting people express themselves as their avatars."
Hazzikostas says the new character creator is the result of "a huge engineering undertaking" in how World of Warcraft puts characters together. Now that the engineering is done, more customization options are on the table. "We're still going down the list of the races that haven't been updated yet and getting those into alpha and soon-to-be beta," he says. "We're really excited about the passion of the community around it, and our artists love going through all those ideas and suggestions people are hyped about and seeing what we can make real."
Putting your personal spin on your fantasy heroes is what RPGs are all about, and I'm never going to turn up my nose at Blizzard giving players more choices. Plus, my Black Blood Elf Paladin looks fly.
Covenant Sanctums - Get Into the Anima Flow
The Covenants are the signature feature of World of Warcraft: Shadowlands. Former Horde Warchief Sylvanas Windrunner has torn a hole into the Shadowlands, the world of the dead. As a result, souls of the dead now flow into Oribos, the Eternal City, to be judged and sent to several stewards. The Kyrians of Bastion move those souls on a path of upstanding service; the Night Fae of Ardenweald teach their charges to protect nature; the Necrolords of Maldraxxus prize power and survival of the fittest to protect the Shadowlands as a whole; and the haughty Venthyr of Revendreth are about penance and punishment. And in Shadowlands, players have the chance to align with one of them.
But first, players must move through all four realms in Shadowlands's main campaign. Each offers a unique Covenant-wide ability and class-specific ability, but you also chip in to build upon your relationship with various members of the sect and improve your Sanctum. It's a bit like Warlord of Draenor's Garrisons or Legion's Class Halls. It's a new place to focus your efforts, offering a visual sense of progression and further rewards.
As a part of the preview, Blizzard enabled the Venthyr Covenant. Following the events of the Venthyr storyline, the rightful regent of Revendreth is forced to hide in the ruined fortress of Sinfall. Here, backed by your efforts, Prince Renathal and his kin will rebuild their Covenant. Sinfall becomes your home base and gateway into the elder game content of Shadowlands. After pledging yourself to the Venthyr, Renathal sets you to improving your group's lot in afterlife.
In the basement of Sinfall, you'll find the Anima Conductor, a massive gothic engine of souls that powers everything in the Shadowlands. As you collect anima by doing quests, running dungeons, and completing raids, you'll bring that anima back to your Sanctum to power further anima conduits around Revendreth. Each conductor opens up new repeatable content for players to tackle. For example, powering the conductor in the Castle Ward offers a new world quest, while powering the Forest Ward opens up a difficult enemy champion to fight. Instead of dropping a host of world quests and daily quests, powering these conductors acts as a ramp to everything Shadowlands's endgame has to throw at you.
"The goal there is for all of those to be accessible within your first week," says Hazzikostas when asked about Covenants gating endgame content. "It's not about gating so much as actually pacing. If all of those systems were unlocked the second you first arrived in your Covenant sanctum, it's frankly overwhelming. Our goal is not to delay access to any of these things for a terribly long period of time, but rather to have a more tutorialized structure, which is fully in place. Yet, that should be a pretty accelerated process, limited only by how long it takes to be able to focus on and convey each piece of information."
The conductors also visibly show where you've diverted your anima flow. "As you begin diverting anima into the open-world with the anima diversions, you're going to be able to see the anima conduits going through the zone, which is a cool bit of technology," says Shadowlands technical director Frank Kowalkowski. "Different players might have diverted anima in different ways. Are we going to get those represented in the game world? Yeah, you're going to see some visual representation of what you're doing to those given zones."
Covenant Sanctums - Build Your New Home
Behind Prince Renathal sits a squat little character named Foreman Flatfinger. This is the creature that will help you upgrade your Sanctum. The improvements come in four different areas. There's the Transport Network: in Venthyr's case it's a series of mirrors around Revendreth that you can teleport between. Hazzikostas points to this as a strong feature of Covenants, making you feel more comfortable playing in the region specific to your Covenant.
The Anima Diversion section increases the number of Anima Conductors you can unlock. The new mission system, Adventures, are unlocked and improved in the third section. The final section is the Ember Court, a section that will be unique to each Covenant. The Ember Court is a vampire-style soiree with drinks, gossip, and art installations of tortured souls, but other Covenants's versions will take different forms. ("It's a hosting venue for pretty rad parties," said Hazzikostas during the recent developer update.) The other sanctums are the Kyrian's Path of Ascension, the Necrolords' Abomination Factory, and the Night Fae's Queen's Conservatory.
"One of the core ideas behind this variety of features is to reinforce the breadth of what Covenant choice is all about," added Hazzikostas previously. "To make your experience different from that of your peers as you journey through the Shadowlands." You can research one item in each category at the same time. Research costs a certain amount of Anima and a certain amount of souls-as-currency. When you bring souls back to a vendor in Sinfall, those souls will be separated into Artisans, Architects, and Anima Weavers.
I chose to unlock the first research item of The Ember Court, and Blizzard was kind enough to lower the research time to 1 minute. Finishing this research item unlocked a new quest, "A New Court" from Theotar. The quest first had me recruiting characters from around Sinfall to handle certain parts of the Court, like Hips the classy Dredger roadie or Temel, the tiny gargoyle turned Party Herald. The Ember Court sits on top of Sinfall's catacombs, and improving it requires entering a scenario of the same name.
This is where things get weird, and it likely won't be everyone's favorite bit of WoW. See, the Court has an overall atmosphere that you have to balance within a certain period of time. Certain guests prefer one type of party, while others may fall in the other direction. For example, Theotar and Watchmaster Boromod are opposed forces, the former wanting a formal affair, while the latter prefers more casual gatherings. You push the court in either direction by serving piping hot tea, or picking fights with guests.
When the Court's timer runs down, the party ends and you gain rewards based on the moods of the named guests. This system is far deeper than I expected, as you can acquire items to change the guest list or improve the party amenities available to you. A massive number of items were available at an event vendor, but it looks like players will have to find these items in Adventures, dungeons, and more. My guess is your general aim is to stack the party in your favor, making your guests and amenities match to produce a full group of happy party goers.
I had fun throwing a vampire party, and I think there will be players who absolutely love the Sanctum improvement system. And while the Ember Court party plays out in a lone scenario, upgrading the Court will change its appearance in the world forever.
"We like helping players feel like they're having an impact on the world to some degree. We don't want everyone to have these completely weird, disparate experiences where they can't group and and nothing makes sense, but we do want to give players some idea that what they're doing is impacting the world around them, whether it's something like spawning these gigantic anima cables or having access to being able to spawn unique aspects of a zone because of how you've upgraded your sanctum," says Kowalkowski.
Making New Friends With Soulbinds
Over the course of your questing in each realm, you'll run into certain characters and get to know them. Some of these characters will be Soulbinds, characters who will join their souls to yours to unlock gameplay bonuses. Only one Soulbind was available in the preview build—the Venthyr duelist Nadjia the Mistblade—but I was able to take a look at others in the Forge of Bonds.
You can change your Soulbind at the Forge at any time, and there's no cost to doing so. Being a duelist, Nadjia's skills improve your damage and debuff your enemies. Stone Legion commander and gargoyle General Draven has bonuses focused on more health, armor, and strength, as befits his stature. Finally, Theotar the Mad Duke has skills focused on movement and buffing your character. In the preview server, I was able to unlock the full tree for Nadjia; on live servers, you'll need to gain Renown, a weekly objective resource, to move further down the tree.
There are also empty slots in the Soulbind's personal tree where you can fit in Conduits in three categories: Potency, Finesse, and Endurance. These Conduits are like Relics according to Blizzard, items that you'll obtain by playing that can be slotted in these spots.
"[Conduits] are relatively straightforward modifications to class abilities. They're not going to be awarded or earned exactly like Relics are. They're not competing with other drops on drop tables. They are kind of like gems. You are physically putting this item into the Soulbind device. If you want to replace that Conduit one, that will destroy the one that was already in the slot," says Hazzikostas.
The idea here is that players will be able to switch between these different Soulbinds in order to push themselves in different directions. It's also an expandable system, as Blizzard can add more Soulbinds over time. Unfortunately, this was one of the systems I didn't get to test with the time given. Logically it makes sense, but without knowing how often Conduits are going to drop, it's very difficult to have an understanding of its larger impact. Relics in Legion and Essences in Battle for Azeroth were similar systems to Conduits, but the latter allowed you to collect them once and reslot them as needed. Hopefully, Conduits work more like Essences, but we'll see.
Soulbinds are also key for Adventures, the new version of the Mission Table. Blizzard has blown up the system more than ever before. "The basic loop there, we moved away from its central importance in [Warlords of Draenor]. We're not looking to go back to the Warlords era," said Hazzikostas in yesterday's developer update. "It's an outlet for some storytelling, some offline progression. We want to add more depth to the system. We want to re-envision the foundations of that system to be something that is a better analog to the fantasy that we're trying to convey.
In Shadowlands's version, you send your Soulbinds and a host faceless soldiers into battle. Adventures combat works oddly like Ogre Battle or the auto battler genre, with units sitting on either the front or back row of combat. You don't control them directly, but you place them on the game board to properly deal damage. As an example, The Venthyr Soulcaster unit has the Siphon Soul ability, which deals 262 damage on the enemy unit furthest away from its position, so it's a good back row unit. The Venthyr Nightblade on the other hand, stabs the closest enemy twice, so they need to be in the front row to deal damage. Soulbinds seem to come with two unique abilities, and you can't start a mission without a Soulbind on the squad.
It's an interesting expansion of Battle for Azeroth's missions, but this is another feature where it's hard to feel out without the full scope of options available to me. Players will also be able to run Adventures through the WoW Companion app, just like missions.
The Maw - Bat Out of Hell II: Back into Hell
Finally, I took a crack at the Maw itself. To travel to the Maw, you have to go to the top level of Oribos and then leap in the Well of Souls. I took a deep breath and jumped in, falling through the tower and landing in the Maw like a Blood Elf-shaped meteor. Seriously, the transition is awesome.
The Maw is a haunted hellscape, similar to Legion's Argus in design: all broken rocky crags and metal structures inspired by Sauron from the Lord of the Rings movies. There's a weird filter that's supposed to represent the souls floating around. The landscape is all sharp rocky edges, burning flames, and metal chains and cages. The Maw is intended to be a freeform zone, a place for players to explore, find treasure, and face difficult foes. It's similar to the Timeless Isle from Mists of Pandaria.
There's only one way in and out of The Maw, and one friendly NPC, the cryptic Ve'nari, Purveyor of Cyphers. This mysterious figure will teach you how the Maw works, primarily introducing you to the Eye of the Jailer. As you face stronger enemies and bosses, or free souls within the Maw, a small meter below the Eye will increase. When it reaches the maximum, you'll move up a Tier. Similar to Grand Theft Auto's Wanted levels, each tier includes more enemies that will be sent your way.
The ultimate result was a Mission: Impossible-style tension to my exploration of the Maw. I didn't want to fight every enemy, because some of them were far stronger than me, and I didn't want to raise my Jailer level if I didn't have to. I resorted to more sneaking around, and only taking on the fights that were in the way of my immediate targets. It's a cool feeling, though I think some of that might be lost once there's a groundswell of other players; during my time in the Maw, it was just me.
The Maw is also where players will recover those lost in the transition to the land of the dead. After finishing Ve'nari's opening series of quests, I was introduced to a lost and disoriented Baine Bloodhoof, who I then led back to Oribos. I'm wondering who else will be pulled from the Maw. Even the recently-dead, like Varok Saurfang, would be intriguing candidates for a sort of rebirth in Shadowlands.
And at the north end of the Maw is Torghast, Tower of the Damned. If you want to know more about the roguelike tower dungeon, you can look a look at my previous forays into the Jailer's prison.
Shadowlands is looking to make all the right moves for Blizzard, potentially as strong an expansion as World of Warcraft: Legion. The switch to a more open development process is paying off, like Blizzard's decision not to limit Torghast runs after receiving extensive alpha feedback on the matter. The studio is showing that it's more than willing to change direction, and perhaps that's just what will make Shadowlands worth playing this fall.