WoW Shadowlands is Blizzard’s 8th expansion to the 16-year-old World of Warcraft phenomenon. This time, WoW takes players beyond the mortal realms to battle for the sake of life and death. A malicious force has really made a mess of things in the afterlife, and now even the saintliest of the world’s departed are doomed to a bleak eternity in the planes of torment. It’s time for Azeroth’s heroes to sally forth once more to lands unknown to battle horrors unknown… we leave at daybreak.

Before diving into WoW Shadowlands, let us briefly decamp to discuss my history with World of Warcraft, since this inevitably colours my expectations going in. I played a lot between 2004 and 2008, and have tried every expansion since, albeit with diminishing levels of engagement. WoW holds a special place in my heart for the detail, variety, and scale which blew my mind back in 2004. Back then, it took a huge amount of effort to reach the maximum level and there was less attention paid to playing ‘optimally’, inviting the uninitiated player to discover the game, its massive world, and its incredible depth in a manner still unparalleled to this day.

With that said, I know not to expect the experience of WOW 2004 in Shadowlands; and am of course aware of WoW Classic, which literally provides a version of the game as it was back in 2004-2005.

Over time, World of Warcraft has become more efficient and focused, with the gameplay experience for most players focused on endgame - max-level - PvE and PvP content. Recent expansions have provided a questing and levelling experience to introduce new zones and progression mechanics while developing the story, before providing a steady pipeline of new dungeons and PVP-seasonal content to keep the endgame interesting. I went in expecting this much as a baseline, while also wanting to see if the game had a compelling offer for other types of players, both new and returning to the game.

Shadowlands welcomes players with an impressive cinematic that involves Sylvanas Windrunner, a vengeful banshee queen deeding nefariously to break the barrier between life and death. The leaders of the Alliance and the Horde, the game’s two playable factions, have been captured and taken to the realm beyond, calling for Azeroth’s number one hero - that’s you, hotshot - to give pursuit.

The setting for your otherworldly transition is the seat of the Lich King, arguably World of Warcraft’s most infamous antagonist, and one which was bested when the game was at its zenith. Kicking-off the expansion in such hallowed grounds hooked me and, one ritual later, Ladderdwarf the Kingslayer found himself embattled in The Maw of the Shadowlands.

The first hour or so of the expansion provides a great introduction to the setting and story. The quests involve pushing through The Maw with the help of storied heroes from WoW’s lore, with frequent cut-scenes and events which make for a surprisingly cinematic experience. WoW’s expansions have been a little inconsistent in the strength of their stories, but I found this narrative and its characters to be compelling. Although The Maw is not the most aesthetically pleasing zone, perhaps by design, the overall introduction seemed like a very polished experience and demonstrates quite how far WoW has come in 16 years.

Once through the introduction, questing takes on the more familiar format of running around zones, killing enemies and collecting things for various NPCs. However, Shadowlands offers the quickest levelling experience of any WoW expansion so far, allowing experienced players to advance from 50-60 in as little as 5 or 6 hours, though for the average player this will be more like 10 hours. The game makes it clear which quests progress the story, meaning that side-quests need not be undertaken if you’re keen to get to the endgame content as soon as possible.

The zones in Shadowlands are a strong point, with each zone representing a different location to which souls can be sent in the afterlife. In addition to The Maw, and a new player hub called Oribos “The Eternal City”, Shadowlands introduces the resplendent Bastion for the virtuous, the war-torn Maldraxxus for the warmongering, the enchanted Ardenweald for the naturalists and the gothic Revendreth for the sinners. The zones are varied, striking, and at times beautiful. The age of the game is hidden well by excellent visual design, and by pushing the game’s engine to its limits with greater use of things like particle effects – in Ardenweald, this is quite magical.

The zones are more than just locations, however, they’re also the basis of the expansion’s new gameplay mechanic, Covenants. The expansion requires players to choose a covenant to align with, providing unique quests, rewards and, perhaps most importantly, abilities. This means that on top of choosing a race, class, and skill tree, players in WoW Shadowlands can further customize their character’s abilities through Covenants. The choice of Covenant is not trivial, and some Covenants will be objectively better than others for certain classes. Some WoW expansions have been criticized for adding mechanics that don’t offer real choices to players, but while Covenant choices do matter, they are less restrictive than mechanics in previous expansions.

For PvE players, the expansion adds eight new dungeons (for groups of 5 players), a 10-boss raid (for groups of 10-30 players) and a unique game-mode called Torghast, Tower of the Damned. This is a repeatable, changing dungeon with multiple levels of difficulty, rewarding unique currency which can ultimately make your character more powerful. As is always the case with WoW expansions, further PvE content will be released in the coming months/years, providing new challenges for the best players to get stuck into.

For PvP players, WoW Shadowlands provides a new arena (2v2 or 3v3), though does not provide a new battleground (large team PvP), a departure from previous expansions. However, PvP does return to a currency system used in previous iterations of the game which provides better rewards for players interested in this aspect of the game.

For players who have stayed loyal to WoW over the years, this expansion delivers successfully on the established formula. However, WoW Shadowlands also brings significant changes that make the game more accessible for newer or longer-returning players. There is a new tutorial zone, which does an excellent job of introducing players to combat and questing, culminating in a short dungeon completed with a group. New players will then go through a levelling experience which can take them to the level cap in around 20 hours. This compares to around 100 hours to reach level 60 when the game released in 2004.

If you already have a character and wish to create a new one in Shadowlands, you will also have the option of playing through any of the game’s expansions for levelling, though the efficiency of levelling in this way varies with older expansions taking the most time. Either way, there is an absolute trove of locations and quests to be explored.

WoW Shadowlands has made it easier than ever, and perhaps more enjoyable than ever, for new or returning players to get into the game. Such players will be at a disadvantage compared to experienced players and will likely not ever be able to close that gap completely, but that seems a fair reward to players that have dedicated a lot of time to WoW throughout.

It’s difficult to generalize the WoW experience. It’s a game with so much history and manages to keep its appeal to players who have stuck with it over so many years, who have left and are considering returning, and who have never experienced the game before. This expansion looks to be one of the stronger recent entries and demonstrates that Blizzard has a good grasp on the winning formula. It’s also impossible to overstate the sheer variety of things there are to do in the game, and WoW Shadowlands also deserves praise for making this content more accessible than ever.

As exciting and wonderful as the real world is, it's just not possible to explore much of it at the moment and the main quest involves staying inside for months on end. Meanwhile, the greatest MMORPG that has ever existed is welcoming you to explore its vast continents, worlds and planes of existence with open arms. There’s no time like the present – make haste adventurer, the Afterlife beckons. 8/10