This is the third zone in the upcoming World of Warcraft expansion, Shadowlands. If you have read my previous articles then you’ll know that, to this point, I’ve not been massively impressed with how production is progressing. For a start, many would agree that the decision back in Legion to introduce scaling to the new expansion zones and allow players to choose what zones to level in was a massive improvement. That is gone in Shadowlands which has returned to a rigid zone progression order. This may be because a lot of players were unhappy with the story in the last expansion, Battle for Azeroth, which wasn’t very well received. The production team may have decided that the scaling of zones and open world progression style hampered the story and decided to drop it this time round to improve the story. Unfortunately, the story in Shadowlands is no real improvement.
The Ardenweald zone is, in my opinion, an improvement on the previous three zones. It looks impressive and does have a unique visual style that makes it stand out. However, many of the issues carry over from the previous Shadowland zones. The range of quests is still limited. In fact, near the start of the zone, I was tasked with extracting near same items from downed mobs in a quest two areas in a row which really felt like being stuck in a loop. For the first time I can remember, the need to visit all areas of the zone and carry out a pile of chores was used as a plot point.
While playing through the Beta, I have been thinking deeply about just what is missing from this expansion and from BfA which has led to the game’s decline. I’ve played since vanilla and it is true that the storyline has never been exceptional and the gameplay has always included grinding mechanics and limited quest types. Had it not been for Legion which I genuinely enjoyed immensely, I would have accepted that perhaps I’ve just grown tired of the formula but Legion proved to me that the formula can still work.
Thinking back on the what I have experienced of this beta and of BfA what sticks out to me as being missing is character development. Take Anduin for example. I remember way back, when he tasked me with escorting him on a secret foray into Stormwind City. In that single quest he showed curiosity, a sense of adventure, innocence and a certain appetite for breaking rules. Again in Mists of Pandaria, a lot of those traits were reinforced when he went on his adventure of self discovery. However, the moment he became king, those traits seem to have vanished. He is now just a king. Khadgar who has long been a player favourite with his dorky, slightly geeky personality was not in the last expansion or in the upcoming one. I’m sure a lot of players would agree that he has one of the strongest personalities in the game.
Looking at the characters who have been featured in BfA and in Shadowlands, so far , we have Jaina. Sure Jaina can make ships fly and freeze a whole area of mobs but what are her personality traits? She has her past, the issue with her mother and the death of her father but that is just her back story. What are her personality traits? She doesn’t seem to have a sense of humour, she doesn’t seem to be particularly friendly or buddy like with anyone, not even the player character who went to a lot of trouble to save her in the last expansion. All she seems to do is mindless perform actions and make decisions that move the plot forward. Even Thrall who was one of the most popular horde leaders, seems to have lost his personality. Nearly all his dialogue so far has been plot related. He had much more personality during the Cataclysm expansion where he featured quite prominently. He explained back story, lore and plot points with much more of an air of wisdom that seems to have been completely lost in Shadowlands.
The point is that the production team seem to think that the key to good story telling is epic scenes and events, conflict, danger and drama but they seem to have missed the point that in order for any of that to engross and engage, the player needs to feel a connection to the characters involved. Anduin is trapped in The Maw, had I been back in Mists of Panderia I would have cared, but he has become such a null personality that I feel I’ve lost all connection with him. I’ve never, through any expansion, developed a relationship with Jaina. When she got taken captive in BfA I really couldn’t have cared less about saving her. I only did it because the plot demanded it. If that had been Khadgar in her position, things might have felt quite different. Again I loved Thrall as a character but he just feels like a husk compared to who he was in previous expansions. So do I care that he’s stuck in the Maw? Not really. I find myself playing the Shadowlands Beta in the vain hope it will improve and/ or to feed back my opinions in hope that might help it improve. However, with the expansion already announced for an October 2020 release and with the development team historically proving that Beta, for them, is just a bug fixing exercise, where they ignore all other criticisms, improvement seems unlikely.
I really wish World of Warcraft could recapture its glory days, but the heart and soul that shone so bright in Legion has spluttered and gone out. There’s no passion in the storytelling, just empty blockbuster movie extravagance thrown at the player through cut scenes. WoW development now seems to have all the appearance of a small, yappy dog, desperate to invoke fear/ respect in all who approach, but where the only result is a flick from the person’s trousers, with the realisation that it’s all bark and no bite.