World of Warcraft changes with each expansion. All the gear a player has earned is instantly outclassed, all powers change, and there are new systems to navigate. There’s one word that keeps coming up when Blizzard talks about Shadowlands: choice. Blizzard very much wants to return to the RPG part of MMORPG, and that’s influencing every piece of World of Warcraft’s next big expansion.
Pick and choose
Shadowlands will offer more choices than past expansions, and those choices will have immediate consequences. Pick a Covenant, and you’ll find yourself with a unique set of abilities that can’t be changed. Players will then need to level up companions, and choose their abilities. The Covenant campaign will give players the impression that they are actively changing the world based on what they chose.
Picking a Covenant unlocks a series of cosmetic items and powerful abilities, but it also gives players access to their Covenant’s campaign.
“You’ll have an impact on the world and the zone — specifically on the Covenant that you choose,” says art director Ely Cannon. The Covenant’s Sanctum will evolve: New characters will show up, and new areas will reveal themselves. A once-sparse, dying area will become vibrant, activating daily quests and endgame activities. Their choice of Covenant and companion will color their view of the expansion’s greater story.
“The expansion will see the Shadowlands as a whole change as new events happen,” said Cannon. “This will be an interesting expansion because you’ll see very big changes [to the world] as we progress through patches.”
This isn’t another Legion, where every paladin walks into their Order Hall to be granted the title of Highlord and given their very own Ashbringer, only to turn around to see a whole line of Highlords equipping new Ashbringers. Instead, we’re one member of an army, and the endgame has us building our own Legendaries and making choices about who we side with, what we prioritize, and where we go. It’s all part of a concerted effort by Blizzard to make Shadowlands feel like an RPG. Previous expansions had been streamlined to the point where they felt like a theme park ride; now, the players will have more control of the reins.
The potential problem
The only issue is that these choices have a built-in conflict. I am expected to make choices based on my character and how I think they fit into the world. The Night Fae are connected to nature, while the Necrolords are a militant faction that believes in strength above all. The Kyrian are for those who believe in purging doubt, while the Venthyr redeem through punishment. I’m expected to quest through all of these zones, and see which faction best suits my character aesthetically and morally.
But the consequences will impact the gameplay; I’ll be using my Covenant ability in every dungeon and quest. I may have picked an appropriate Covenant for my character, but sacrificed a ton of DPS or mobility. Do I choose what fits my story best, or what will get me the most in-game utility?
It’s difficult for these things to run in parallel, and the fear of picking the wrong Covenant is already the biggest controversy around Shadowlands.
Some players are legitimately afraid that in six months, they’ll be unable to join a Mythic Plus group because they picked Necrolords, and everyone knows that for top DPS, you need a Night Fae player.
Blizzard is clearly aware of these concerns, and hopes that it will end up being like the choice of which class to play. Which is better — mage or hunter? Game director Ion Hazzikostas points out that even at the highest levels of play, the answer isn’t simple.
“Both [classes] are great, but which is more fun, which do you enjoy playing more? That’s actually a valid answer that can drive you, and there’s no wrong choice between those two,” he said in a group interview during the Shadowlands press summit. “That’s what we want Covenants to be.”
After 15 years, I’m still not 100% sure who my Alliance paladin is. Having to make a solid, tangible choice between Saurfang and Sylvanas on the Horde in Battle for Azeroth forced me to outline my characters, and it impacts how I think about them to this day. I want to make a similar choice for all of my characters in Shadowlands. Ideally, the system works out. If not, Blizzard will have to continually pull out the Covenant nerf bat and keep tinkering with the system throughout the entire expansion’s run.