World of Warcraft: Shadowlands has been announced to wild and dramatic buzz throughout the MMORPG’s community, even prior to its finale patch for Battle for Azeroth. In previous Blizzcon coverage this week we discussed its premise and the main hooks into its story. However, a much greater discussion is to be had about the game systems; what will build up the vital aspects of gameplay for adventurers coming into a new expansion. Before we discuss the endgame and the particularly ‘newer’ bits of content, it is far time for me to give Blizzard-Activision some accolades.
While Shadowlands is still quite some ways off, with a promised 2020 release date despite very early work being displayed at Blizzcon, Blizzard and director Ion Hozzikostas seem to be making a step in the right direction. The new player experience has become a paramount discussion, particularly with issues and questions raised regarding the Draught of Ten Lands and the widespread bans that came with it. In an effort to correct and assist in it a number of large-scale changes are coming to all of Warcraft.
The first, and one of the more controversial, is the level squish. Previously, World of Warcraft has had two major stat squishes in an effort to reduce numbers. The first, at the start of Warlords of Draenor was quickly undone in roughly two patch, with the second coming at the end of Legion to combat player health pools reaching into the multi-millions. This level squish is not unlike that, though there’s no word if we’ll see a stat squish come alongside it for the new expansion. With Shadowlands players will cap out at level 60, with all current max-level players being squished down to level 50.
The reason for this, as Hozzikostas explained, is two-fold. The first, is that leveling is INCREDIBLY long. In working on a 15th anniversary review for this website, I’ve easily clocked over 30+ hours on new max-level characters. The second, which we’ll dive more into momentarily, is that there simply isn’t enough to create intrinsic reward systems. With how few and spread out both abilities and talents are you could go for nearly 15 levels with some classes before getting a new thing. Previously, the effort to combat it was making leveling flexible in a sense; players would start on Cataclysm’s Azeroth, graduate to a pair of expansions, and unlock more every 20 levels. However, players would STILL out-level expansion related content with this new system. With a major focus on end game, newer players would apparently become confused with the lack of dungeon-guided content to participate in.
Instead, all of this has been completely scrapped.
Now, new players to Azeroth will play through their first ten levels on a completely new zone. Exile’s Reach is a small island off the coast of Stormheim, and it’s there that your faction has sent an exploratory force. They have since gone missing, and you’ve been recruited to assist in discovering their whereabouts and safety. This zone will culminate in a flexible, 2 boss dungeon for up to 5 players where heroes will thwart the efforts of a dragon-worshipping ogre cult! From there, new players will be guided to Battle for Azeroth content to level from 10 to 50, before being introduced to Shadowlands. Reportedly, this squish will make leveling through Battle for Azeroth to 50 roughly 50-70% faster.
In line with this system, Blizzard wants to have Veteran players making new characters feel like they’re investing in more of, ‘a New Game+ system.’ Players who have already completed Exile’s Reach may choose to level in their original racial starting zones, and afterwards may talk to Chromie to level through ANY expansion content. The reasoning for it is to make the player experience more flexible overall, while allowing people to enjoy entire expansions worth of content without interrupting the story. Citing Mists of Pandaria as a prevalent example for this, players would reportedly complete the Jade Forest, half of their second zone, and suddenly be ready to dive into Warlords of Draenor content. Death Knights and Demon Hunters will now start at level 1 for any starting zone, leveling up to 10 by the time it’s completed. Allied Race characters, as is the current course, will start at level 10.
This, in no simple terms, is a brilliant fix. In discussions I just had last week with a member of my guild, the notion of making, ‘every piece of past expansions relevant’ came up; that desire to explore ALL of Azeroth and have it matter. Right now, Azeroth feels cracked into splinters with its wealth of content, but shallow level banding and irrelevant storytelling in older zones. Between initiatives in Timewalking and now this new leveling system it quite holistically unites the whole world. It makes it a cohesive Roleplaying Game again.
Imagine your first MMORPG, or even your first RPG. That exploration of a world foreign to you despite its threats. Games without enemies, like Shadow of the Colossus, do exceedingly well in this by making every piece of its world’s content relevant. Games such as Dragon Age face issues where, while new exploration is exciting, the challenge quickly begins to fade when you blow past enemies. Melding those two philosophies together, allowing you to explore a self-contained continent WHILE it still being relative to how you progress your character, is the perfect solution players have been crying for since we first broke the level 100 barrier.
This is enriched with the Great Unpruning. Jokingly referring to himself as ‘Ion the Unpruner,’ Hozzikostas revealed to a joyful crowd that classes would be having abilities returned to it. Citing issues with individual specializations carrying more identity than the class, the team has begun working on breaking down barriers to equip classes with old abilities and more utility. Some abilities, such as the Druid’s Cyclone, will be removed from the Talent Trees and reintroduced as a baseline ability. Others like the sorely missed Shattering Throw for Warriors, are being unretired and brought back into the game. Classes like the Mage will have spells like Frostbolt as a standard, with specializations adding more abilities regarding that spell, instead of mass-stripping and exchanging spells wholesale.
The idea seems to be to return to a mindset more in line with Classic’s development mentality. Each class has a large assortment of baseline abilities, some relevant to their current rolls and some not. Arms Warriors, provided they have a shield, will be able to once again use Shield Block which is currently Protection restricted spell. Activating particular specializations will then add additional mechanics and abilities around what is already available instead of resorting and landscaping hotbars en masse. “Every priest can call upon the Light,” lead game designer Brian Holinka said on stage, “And they can harness the shadow… That shouldn’t change between specs.”
In doing this every class reportedly should get something new every level. While its not necessarily a long-term fix for Warcraft, particularly if we have a whack of expansions in the future, it solves the fundamental problem currently. Players are once more intrinsically rewarded as they level. End-game and high-level players will now have a far more adaptable and complex toolkit to experiment with. Even in the case of the Warrior, where both DPS specializations are essentially build-and-spends around damage windows, even just adding Shattering Throw opens up the field FAR wider. Is it wiser to use it as an additional Colossus Smash to make the most out of an early Avatar, or is better to spend it on soon-spawning adds?
The problem, however, comes in with Blizzard’s new penchant for ‘temporary’ abilities. With spells such as the Artifact power abilities and now our Essences for the Heart of Azeroth, they will disappear at the end of the expansion. These spells are irrelevant with new content. This trend will continue in Shadowlands with Covenant Powers, abilities your benefactors will impart to you in exchange for your allegiance. Invariably, much like Shaman Totems, players WILL get connected to these incredibly unique abilities and will miss them once they are gone. While Legion reintroduced several powers into Talent Trees, many are still compulsory and have the entire class built around them. Eventually we will return to the problem of ‘not enough reward,’ in leveling, especially if when the 9th expansion comes out, Shadowlands has to compete with Battle for Azeroth for the 10-60 bracket of leveling.
Ultimately, time will tell if these systems hold true. All in all, the level squish and new changes to dynamic leveling are a massive step forward. Exile’s Reach, if successful, may become a wonderful system for engaging and reaching out to new players. While focusing on getting to the endgame still seems to be the team’s main design direction, honing the first ten levels does remarkable dividends. Making what new players experience more in line with what they can look forward to in the endgame not only culls player confusion but has better chance to retain new adopters. After all, don’t you enjoy playing something if you know exactly what you’re getting into?