WoW Shadowlands review: Blizzard back on form with a gripping story

Ava Thompson-Powell

There’s a lot riding on Shadowlands, the eighth World of Warcraft expansion to be released since Blizzard’s MMORPG launched 16 years ago. Following on from the disappointing Battle for Azeroth, fans will be expecting improvements after the previous edition was criticized for its inconsistent features, some of which lacked variety.

The signs weren’t great with Shadowlands’ pre-patch, which saw players face off against the Scourge in Icecrown as they tried to figure out exactly what was going on in Azeroth. The continuous event infuriated some players as they kept getting killed as they ran around the city.

However, sink yourself into the full expansion and you’ll find that Blizzard are back on form with an experience that provides players with a vast story spanning four zones, each with its own unique dungeons, world quests, and goals to complete each day.

World of Warcraft Shadowlands key details

  • Copy: World of Warcraft: Shadowlands Epic Edition
  • Price: Standard Edition – $39.99 / £34.99, Epic Edition – $79.99 / £69.99
  • Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
  • Release date: 23 November, 2020
  • Platform: PC

Shadowlands game case

Teamwork makes the dream work

After logging into WoW for the first time after purchasing Shadowlands, Highlord Darion Mograine gets you up to speed right away with a typically-gorgeous cinematic. Sylvanas Windrunner’s handiwork is a sight to behold, the sky now shattered like broken glass after she tore the veil between life and death apart.

Having arrived in the eternally cold Icecrown, your champion stands alongside the Alliance and Horde leaders, with Highlord Bolvar Fordragon aiming to keep the peace between the two factions as they squabble between themselves.

Worgen Druid performing a ritual in the introduction of Shadowlands
From the word go, you’re thrown right into the action.

“Enough! The war is over,” he cautions. “We can ill afford to start another”. This may be Warcraft, but in Shadowlands, previously at-odds factions are working together against the greater evil that is the Banshee Queen, who is plotting to destroy everything.

You’re tasked with rescuing Jaina, Baine, Anduin, and Thrall – the missing faction leaders that Sylvanas’ flock of winged beings bound in chains and spirited away to The Maw. You were meant to enter this hellish place alone, but another faction leader named Tyrande – now a brooding, vengeance-seeking Night Warrior – shocks everyone and hops through the portal first.

Right to the point

A Worgen Druid, Anduin, Thrall and Jaina
The Jailer looms over The Maw, presiding over the souls that remain trapped there.

The introductory section is a fantastic prelude to the expansion’s story. First up, you need to find the two factions’ lost leaders that are stuck in The Maw. Souls from all over Azeroth are finding themselves trapped here, unable to cross over into the afterlife that suits them best. Without your aid, they’ve got zero chance of breaking free.

Teaming up with the faction leaders and actively working alongside them makes you feel as if your character is just as important in the world of Azeroth as the NPCs are. Whether you’re sneaking past hordes of The Maw’s inhabitants with Jaina’s cloaking magic, finding a suitable new weapon for the hard-to-please Thrall, or simply trying to find a way to escape this hellish plane, it’s a non-stop action-packed introduction to Shadowlands, with only the series’ typical light-hearted humor breaking the intensity.

There are plenty of standout moments, but the pacing when trying to revive and restore Baine Bloodhoof’s soul can be a bit strange. Here, you are made to seem as if what is happening to the Tauren is extremely dire, yet it’s resolved in a pinch by killing an enemy yards away from where you stand. At times, as fast-paced as it is, it can feel like things are being quickly resolved and tied up too neatly before you move along to the next plot point.

A beautiful afterlife

Bastion's zone in WoW, showcasing beautiful celestial buildings
The WoW devs have outdone themselves with the beautiful set design of the zones.

If you can slow down for a moment to admire the scenery, you’ll find that Shadowlands is breathtaking. The gorgeous worlds – and incandescent musical score that accompanies you on your adventure – make for a beautiful journey. There are some intriguing character models, too, with the Brokers of Oribos’ flame-like heads. reminiscent of Lumiere in Beauty & The Beast.

The first zone you visit outside of Oribos – the main city hub for the expansion – is Bastion. Where Oribos features giant, monolith-like structures with golems and curiosities, Bastion bathes in glittering waterfalls and fields that you want to run through, slow-motion movie-style.

Whilst beautiful, there are moments in which the MMO shows its age – even with a new coat of paint, updated models, animations, and transitions leave a lot to be desired. When Kyrians fly the player character to different locations, it doesn’t remotely look like they’re holding a person. Instead, the character floats slightly inside of the Kyrians’ hand.

Their wings clip through the floor as they kneel, and models appear and disappear as they move from a ‘static’ NPC to an active one. It breaks the immersion, and that’s something that’s vital in an MMO experience. You need to feel like you are really part of the world, and these little unpolished details leave you wanting that little bit extra.

A memorable, moving story

Theater of Pain in Maldraxxus, with lots of enemies on-screen at any one time
The Theater of Pain’s introduction in Maldraxxus was a fantastic technical achievement.

If some of the visuals break the illusion, Shadowlands’ immersive story snaps you right back in. Even in these early days, it is shaping up to be one of WoW’s best narrative expansions. Yes, at times, story points signpost what’s transpiring too obviously, but the level design and the methods that the developers have used to keep each zone feeling fresh and unique is impressive.

Ardenweald’s storyline brings on feelings of sorrow, moving players as they experience the issues that have befallen it. Revendreth is notably quirky, with overly-tall vampiric beings dressed in elaborate, gothic clothing featuring incredibly funny and emotive voice acting. It’s something to behold, and the passion with which this has been created is evident everywhere you travel.

Maldraxxus’ Theater of Pain is one of the great highlights that delivers a huge adrenaline rush and ‘wow’ factor (excuse the pun). While it poses no real threat to the player, being thrown into an arena that’s absolutely chock-full of enemies is a thrilling experience.

If there’s one thing that Shadowlands does very well it’s that it provides something for everyone. Each Covenant and zone fits into a stylistic theme that players will instantly be drawn to. And yet, with elements like the Theater of Pain, there are chances for other zones to surprise you, leaving a memorable and lasting impact on your journey.

Covenants and player agency

Covenant plate sets in World of Warcraft Shadowlands
Covenants have different armor sets available to choose from to fit your style.

As you get further into the story and towards the endgame, Covenants play an increasingly important role. These factions that each inhabit one of the four zones in Shadowlands come with their own specific skill, alongside a class-specific skill related to that Covenant’s ethos. Mounts that you’re able to ride, armor, and soulbind skills work to boost a player’s stats/abilities in a way that reminds us of Legion’s fantastic class-halls. It’s a welcome return for a feature that was much missed in Battle For Azeroth.

This addition of a class-specific skill outside of just a Covenant-related one makes your decisions all the more important, too. In our recent interview with WoW devs Patrick Dawson and Sarah Boulian Verral, they spoke of player agency, and how this is what Shadowlands ultimately centers on, from your customization through to the legendary items that you choose. 

After experiencing the different Covenants and the abilities that they offer, it’s fair to say that’s completely true. Leaving one and joining another is simple enough, but returning to a prior one isn’t as easy as just pressing a button. It feels like there’s a consequence to your actions, so it’s wise to choose which one you need carefully.

Of course, with WoW, it is ultimately a surface-level consequence. That being said, it does feel like steps are being made to make the game less linear.

Dungeons and… dragons?

The Necrotic Wake in Shadowlands, showing a Kyrian attacking an enemy force.
The Necrotic Wake is a simple first dungeon in the Shadowlands expansion.

With eight dungeons – four for leveling and four for endgame content – players have plenty to grind through to get that perfect set of gear. Therein, however, lies an issue. Dungeons lack any real reason to return to them outside of grinding for gear once you’re in the endgame. This is a shame, and is something that Blizzard definitely needs to work on for the future.

Torghast, Tower of The Damned is a unique, rogue-like dungeon that’s never-ending and ever-changing, with anima orbs that provide skill and stat boosts that are able to be stacked to further increase your effectiveness. With the ability to run solo, or with a group of up to five players, it functions similarly to a regular dungeon.

The first dungeon outside of Torghast, which unlocks towards the end of the initial zone storyline in Shadowlands, is The Necrotic Wake. Its large open starting area – full of trash mobs – that turns into smaller, condensed corridors is great, but it essentially ends up with differing fighting rings for you and your team to defeat bosses in. This fist dungeon experience left something to be desired.

It’s fun, though, collecting the unique items that can be found throughout, with each providing a different skill to utilize against the trash mobs or bosses. The dungeons definitely improve as they go on, and as usual, the developers knock the level design out of the park.

Revendreth in WoW Shadowlands, with craggy cliffs and dried grass
Shadowlands is shaping up to be one of WoW’s most well-received expansions of recent years.

Shadowlands’ current elements tie together wonderfully for an experience that will please old and new fans alike. Once arriving in Oribos, you no longer initially feel like a champion or a hero. Here, as you progress through all four zones, you’re set small tasks that gradually grow in importance as you progress through the initial story campaign.

Ultimately, though, you seem to end up perhaps even more important than you previously were. In a game like WoW, where we’re fighting world-ending beings, this is inevitable; but the story does a good enough job of taking you through the illusion of being just another adventurer in this fantastical story.

Rating: 8/10

Battle for Azeroth raised concerns for the future of WoW with its Island Expeditions and Warfronts. For the most part, Shadowlands is an experience that players will look forward to coming back to time and time again. Beautifully crafted, with a fantastic introduction and a variety of abilities, skills, and customization options that aim to give players slightly more control over their personal journey, it’s evident that it’s heading in the right direction.

Issues lie in the lack of ‘multiplayer’ experiences that give players reasons to return to outside of the end-game gear grind. It’s early days, however, and as the expansion progresses, these issues may very well be squashed.

Reviewed on PC