Let's be clear where I'm coming from, here: I've been playing World of Warcraft almost continuously for 15 years. (I lapsed for a big chunk of the Wrath of the Lich King era for IRL reasons.) While I understand the appeal of WoW Classic, I am very much a proponent of modern WoW; the game has evolved over time to be more accessible for me to play just a couple of hours a week, as real life now dictates. But I tend to play solo or just with one or two friends on a sporadic basis, which means I'm looking for something very different than the hardcore raiding or PvP crowd.
During the Burning Legion's third invasion, the Knights of the Ebon Blade traveled to the Shadowlands to acquire the Aggregates of Anguish, five tormented essences of powerful souls - Admiral Proudmoore, Soulbinder Nyami, Grand Empress Shek'zeer, Grand Apothecary Putress and Archmage Arugal. Salanaar required these to conjure the Steeds of the Damned for the order's new Horsemen.
Spirit healers decide when it's time for a mortal soul to pass into the Shadowlands. When a mortal dies and their soul crosses the veil between life and death, it is shepherded by the kyrian to Oribos so that they can be judged by the impassive Arbiter. All of the soul's contents—deeds, misdeeds, thoughts, accomplishments, and failures—are instantly laid bare before the Arbiter, who then judges in a mere instant and sends the soul off to one of the infinite realms of the Shadowlands, each of which is ruled over by a powerful Covenant. The Covenants are ancient and powerful orders who have existed since the Shadowlands were shaped long ago, and who bear sacred duties to help maintain the afterlife's ecosystem. Not every soul is filtered into the main four Covenants. Each soul brings with it a vital force known as anima, the product of all of the soul's experiences and actions in life. Anima is the lifeblood of the Shadowlands, making trees grow and rivers flow and is the source that's drawn upon to conduct the magic of death. Great souls—both good and evil—have a lot of anima, while those who have lived humbler lives have less. Four of the realms—Ardenweald, Bastion, Maldraxxus, and Revendreth—are especially vital to the functioning of the Shadowlands. However, there could be infinite afterlives, some small and tailored to a single person while others are vast and full of either splendor or torment. Between each realm is a cloudy space which was once rich with streams of anima connecting the different domains, but the current anima drought has caused the realms to become cut off from one another, breeding fear and mistrust among the inhabitants.
The Shadowlands can be seen as a shadowy version of the physical world, and can be routinely visited as a spirit when player characters die. Governed by the Covenants, the four ruling realms of the Shadowlands are Bastion, Ardenweald, Revendreth and Maldraxxus (although countless others exist), which serve as the main setting of World of Warcraft's eighth expansion.
That might seem odd or negative to those who aren't currently playing WoW, but it's actually something a great number of today's WoW players have been asking for. As the levels rose in this 15-year-old game that frankly wasn't designed with a 15-year plan in mind, Blizzard encountered all sorts of frustrating game design problems that players have been cranky about, too. The WoW team has already crunched player stats like health and mana down on multiple occasions as a way to postpone fully solving the problem, so this is the culmination of something that has been underway for a few years now.
The Shadowlands are accessible upon death, where the player-character can roam, and can only be seen by other spirits. The Spirit of Tony Two-Tusk describes the Shadowlands as all grey and dark, swirling clouds. While Uuna was in the Shadowlands, she described it as dark and she was unable to see anything, though she could hear people interacting with her in the physical world. From within the Shadowlands, she could see the light of the naaru A'dal who was in the physical world, but it was so bright that it scared her. The moonlight at Lake Falathim allowed her to see a friend in the physical world.
Since this was an early questing experience and not an endgame one, I didn't get much sense of how Covenants—Shadowlands' new Order Hall, Garrison, or War Campaign-like systems—work. Neither did I have much time to dive into the story, though I saw enough to know that, if you like the flavor of the recent WoW expansions, you'll probably like this one, too. (I, for one, am glad we're going to get a brief respite from the Alliance vs. Horde war storyline.)
Frankly, the aspect of Shadowlands I'm most excited about is an overhaul of the leveling system—something that wasn't a part of this demo in a major way. This kind of breaks the rules of a hands-on article, but I want to take an opportunity to talk about it and why I think it's interesting, regardless, since it came up in my interview with WoW developers.
Alpha Beta PTR Vanilla 1.1.0 1.2.0 1.3.0 1.4.0 1.5.0 1.6.0 1.6.1 1.7.0 1.8.0 1.8.4 1.9.0 1.10.0 1.11.0 1.12.0 Burning Crusade 2.0.1 2.0.3 2.0.4 2.1.0 2.1.2 2.2.0 2.3.0 2.4.0 2.4.3 Wrath of the Lich King 3.0.2 3.0.3 3.0.8 3.1.0 3.2.0 3.2.2 3.3.0 3.3.3 Cataclysm 4.0.1 4.0.3a 4.0.6 4.1.0 4.2.0 4.2.2 4.3.0 4.3.2 Mists of Pandaria 5.0.4 5.0.5 5.1.0 5.2.0 5.3.0 5.4.0 5.4.7 Warlords of Draenor 6.0.2 6.0.3 6.1.0 6.2.0 Legion 7.0.3 7.1.0 7.1.5 7.2.0 7.2.5 7.3.0 7.3.5 Battle for Azeroth 8.0.1 8.1.0 8.1.5 8.2.0 8.3.0 Shadowlands 9.0.1