WoW Shadowlands Deep Dive: Blizzard Explains the New Leveling Experience, Returning Abilities, and the Roguelike Dungeon

WoW Shadowlands Deep Dive: Blizzard Explains the New Leveling Experience, Returning Abilities, and the Roguelike Dungeon

Blizzard gives us a few more Shadowlands details.

We're heading into the land of the dead in the next World of Warcraft expansion, Shadowlands. At Blizzcon 2019, Blizzard Entertainment has already revealed some of the features behind the new expansion. Today, during the World of Warcraft: Deep Dive panel, the team behind the Shadowlands highlighted some aspects of what WoW players can expect in 2020.

You'll help rebuild the Covenant Sanctums. | Blizzard Entertainment

Covenants - A Little Order Hall, A Little Shal'Aran

First up, WoW senior game designer Paul Kubit talked about the Covenants, the primary new feature of Shadowlands. These four Covenants form the foundation of the Shadowlands themselves, handling a different aspect of the afterlife. The Kyrians are generally seen as angelic soul guides, similar to the Spirit Healer. According to Kubit, they prize "purity, humility, and righteousness," pushing their members into service for the greater good. The Necrolords are the spies and soldiers of the Shadowlands, forming the frontline army and always searching for greater strength.

The Night Fae are focused on nature and the cycle of rebirth. Demigods like Cenarius return to the Night Fae's realm of Ardenweald to rest before heading back to the land of the living. Finally, there's the Venthyr, a group of vampiric aristocrats who punish and reform the guilty and evil. In Revendreth, they rehabilitate the sinful souls that can be saved.

The Covenant Sanctum is the physical centerpiece of your Shadowlands experience. It grows over time, similar to Shal'Aran in Legion, but most of your work early on will be about "keeping the lights on". The choice is partially about which aesthetic you prefer, whether that's the gleaming spires of the Kyrian's Bastion or the wild nature of Ardenweald. Blizzard noted that a lot of folks are already big, big fans of the gothic vampire look of Revendreth.

Choosing your Covenant gives you Covenant Abilities, which Blizzard sees as a way to solve a problems without fighting. Kubit highlighted Soulshape, an ability that turns the player into a Spirit Fox, increasing their movement speed by 30% and making enemies ignore you for 10 sec. The ability last 10 seconds in combat, or forever within a rested area. The best part of the example ability is it's customizable, with alternate deer and moth skins if you're not a spirit fox fan. All of these abilities are non-combat, at least from the examples given.

For combat purposes, each Covenant will also offer a unique Class Ability. According to Kubit, these should feel like Artifact abilities. The example given was the Kyrian Mage ability, Radiant Spark. The attack causes direct damage and damage over time, but also makes your next four direct damage abilities scale another 25%, up to 100%. The other Covenant abilities for Mages offer alternate damage types as well: the Necrolords' Contagion Bolt gives Mages some Shadow damage, while the Night Fae's Shifting Power gives Nature.

The next facet of Covenants are the Soulbinds. These are characters attached to a Covenant who you can tie your soul with. They give you passive bonuses and let you unlock more power over time with tiers. These tiers look to be very simple talent trees, and you can easily switch Soulbinds within your Covenant, like changing up talents. They won't follow you around like Garrison bodyguards from Warlords of Draenor, but you will uncover the Soulbind's backstory as you strengthen your connection with them.

As shown in yesterday's WoW: What's Next panel, Covenants offer unique weapons and armor, or Backpack-style cloak options. Kubit revealed that they'll also give players a unique, upgradable mount, and world benefits, like the Necrolord allowing you to build an Abomination companion. It is possible to change your Covenant, but it takes time to rebuild your standing, similar to Aldor/Scryer ion The Burning Crusade.

Even Blizzard doesn't know. | Blizzard Entertainment

New Leveling Flow - Faster, Better, Stronger

The next part of the panel involved a focus on the upcoming level squish. WoW lead designer Kevin Martens took to the stage to explain how the new system would work and the philosophy behind the change. Blizzard noticed that leveling takes too long and isn't rewarding, for new players or alts. Also, many of the expansion timelines and stories aren't being represented in the best light, because players are quickly outleveling the content. Martens said it was confusing for players to know where they were in the timeline, as evidenced by a funny image with all the Horde Warchiefs over these past 15 years.

With 120 levels available, the two options available to Blizzard are a marathon, where each level has time to breathe, but it takes forever to bring a character to maximum. The other option is a sprint, meaning you quickly outlevel any content. Martens noted that with the current leveling system, if you played Mists of Pandaria, you'd outlevel the expansion by time you reached the second zone.

Martens stressed that the change isn't about balance, it's about pacing. In fact, the new system will see players getting from level 1 to our current maximum 60-70% faster than right now. All current level 120 characters will become level 50, while any below that level will scale to an equivalent.

Blizzard has crafted a new starting zone for Shadowlands, called Exile's Reach. This is available to all players, including Death Knights and Demon Hunters. Exile's Reach is a level 1-10 zone and seems to be a grab bag of the favorite creatures and hallmarks of WoW's designers. You'll get vast forests, dark caves, and mighty waterfalls, playing host to classic creatures like Quilboar, Harpies, and Ogres. Exile's Reach ends in a 2-boss mini-dungeon, where you'll have to face an Ogre Necromancer who is trying to bring life to a dragon. You can queue for the mini-dungeon or run it solo. Finishing this task will see your new character catching the eye of your world leader, thus thrusting you into the rest of the story.

Welcome to Exile's Reach. | Blizzard Entertainment

The leveling experience will change slightly, depending on if you're a new players or a veteran leveling an alt. First time players have to level in Exile's Reach and move directly into Battle for Azeroth. Others can choose Exile's Reach or one of the existing Starting zones. Once you leave the starting zone, the time-traveling Chromie will find you and note you've done this all before. Then you can tell her which expansion story you want to cover, in a system Martens said is "analogous to outdoor timewalking". (Allied Races start at level 10 and jump right into the choice.) You're not forced to do the new system though, fi you want to level freeform, you still can.

Welcome back. | Blizzard Entertainment

Classes - Auras, Poisons, and Curses Return

The next section involved a number of the class changes, hosted by lead combat designer Brian Holinka. He offered a look back at how classes had changed over the years, like the removal of certain skills, the streamlining of the classes, the simplification of talent trees, and the focus on specializations. With WoW Classics' success, Blizzard sees that fans enjoyed some of the muddier aspects of the game.

Blizzard wants to fix some of these issues with Shadowlands, and that means a number of abilities are coming back. The team has separated these returning aspects into five different categories. The first up are class-defining mechanics, which sees the return old class features like Paladin Auras, Shaman Totems, Rogue Poisons, and Warlock Curses. These were cut in many cases for not being fun enough, but they do provide more class flavor.

The next category redefines the class's overall range, bringing some spec specific attacks back into the class toolkit. This means all Mages will have Frostbolt, Fire Blast and Arcane Explosion again and all Priests will have access to Mind Blast, Flash Heal and Shadow Word Death. Primal Strike will be coming all Shaman at level 1. Specialization buffs certain abilities, instead of locking you out of others completely.

A number of abilities that Blizzard believes are iconic to certain classes are returning to their class-wide forms. This category includes Raise Dead, Frost Shock, Consecration, Ursol's Vortex, Shiv, and Death Coil. Other abilities that became talents or honor talents will go back in the spell book, like Demonic Circle, Summon Gargoyle, Hunter's Mark, Hammer of Wrath, Cyclone, and Anti-Magic Zone. Finally, old abilities that were cut outright will be making a return, like Shattering Throw, Kill Shot, Ritual of Doom, Challenging Shout, and Eyes of the Beast. The idea here is some of these abilities—like Eyes of the Beast—are useless, but added flavor to their class.

Torghast and The Maw - Freeform and Roguelike

For the last section of the presentation, senior game designer Paul Kubit returned to the stage to talk about the max-level zone for Shadowlands, the Maw. In the lore, Revendreth is where your soul goes if you're evil, but capable of being redeemed. If redemption is not possible, tou go to the Maw, where there is supposed to be no escape. For some mysterious reason though, all the casualties of the Burning Teldrassil and the Fourth War have entered the Maw. Thanks to your connection to Azeroth, you become the Maw Walker, able to leave the realm freely, or free others.

The Maw itself is a vast outdoor zone, with no friendly spaces. As you complete objectives and kill enemies, you'll be seen by The Eyes of the Jailer. As the Jailer's notice of your actions grows, the aggro range of certain enemies increases and eventually, the Jailer will send killsquads after you. Within the Maw, you're supposed to be surgical and focused; get in, get out.

The Maw is the resting place of Torghast, the Tower of the Damned. This is an endgame dungeon of sorts, available for 1-5 players. Akin to a roguelike, Torghast has variable, always changing layouts, encouraging more exploration. The idea is your party needs to scour a floor for all available Anima, before progressing to the next floor, which will be harder and more complex. The Tower changes every time you enter it.

As you tackle Torghast, you'll gain new Anima abilities. An early example is the choice between Obleron Endurance, which increases maximum health by 10%, or Obleron Talisman, which increases your mastery by 5%. As you collect new Anima abilities, you'll find they can have interesting effects when brought together. Kubit brought up the example of Bloating Fodder, which causes the Mawrats enemy to explore with 10,631 Plague damage upon death, combined with Heavyhoof Sandals, which causes Mawrats to explode when you pass through them while in Soulshape. That's a great combo for clearing floors with Mawrats, but one that might not help you on another floor. Floor builds will become rather important, though there's no word if you'll retain any facet of those abilities when you leave the tower.

As you progress further into the Maw, the Jailer will change up its tactics. There will be events like the Beasts of Prodgium, which change the encounters and the abilities you can pick up. These abilities include Chain of Command, which allows you to call forth a Shade Hound that draws enemy attention and can stun.

Finally, Torghast will offer the chance at picking up runes and crafting legendaries. You'll collect runes as you climb the tower, and meet with the Runesage to craft new legendaries. This mysterious figure will also offer the player information about the origins of death-related artifacts, like Frostmourne or the Helm of Domination.


With that, the panel wrapped up, leaving an upcoming Q&A panels as the only place left to get WoW-related news at Blizzcon 2019. So far though, everything in Shadowlands is sounding fantastic. You can read about the announcement and further details from game director Ion Hazzikostas elsewhere on USgamer. Otherwise, it'll be a long wait for World of Warcraft: Shadowlands, which is coming sometime in 2020.

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Mike Williams

Reviews Editor

M.H. Williams is new to the journalism game, but he's been a gamer since the NES first graced American shores. Third-person action-adventure games are his personal poison: Uncharted, Infamous, and Assassin's Creed just to name a few. If you see him around a convention, he's not hard to spot: Black guy, glasses, and a tie.

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