Samuel Axon Based in Chicago, Samuel is the Senior Reviews Editor at Ars Technica, where he covers Apple products, displays, hardware and software for developers and creative professionals, and more. He is a reformed media executive who has been writing about technology for 10 years at Ars Technica, Engadget, Mashable, PC World, and many others. He is also a hobbyist iOS and indie game developer.
The Shadowlands were originally intended to be a fully playable zone in World of Warcraft, designed for high-level play. The idea was that as deceased characters made their way back to their corpses, they'd see high-level players battling creeps in the area, which would inspire lower level players to increase their character level so they could experience the zone for themselves.
It's hard to get a sense of an entire World of Warcraft expansion from 30 minutes of play. In my short demo, I recreated my main (a Beast Mastery Hunter) and played through the introductory quests from the Bastion zone, a heaven-like plane from Azeroth's afterlife. The minute-to-minute gameplay very much followed the formula of modern WoW questing, with a variety of tasks like challenging specific enemies to duels, helping craft things in timed minigames, and of course, killing 10 rats (well, not rats, but they might as well be).
Beings of death are ancient and powerful, and it is dangerous to meddle in their realm. When Odyn peered into the Shadowlands, he saw some of its inhabitants: souls in torment, the husks of the dead, ghostly wraiths with no face, and others with no form, all made of death itself. This was enough to frighten even him. Several races in the Shadowlands, such as the kyrian of Bastion, are souls of deceased mortals who have been transformed to serve a new purpose. If one of these former mortals is killed in the Shadowlands, they die permanently. Other creatures—such as dredgers and stewards—are endemic to the Shadowlands and are naturally born from the magic of death to serve the different realms and help facilitate the process of the afterlife. If one such creature of death is killed, their energy is recycled back into the Shadowlands, and eventually another member of the same race will manifest to take the place of the one that was killed.
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.)
Blizzard's new solution in Shadowlands is to return the level cap to its original value of 60 and to make current content appropriate for levels 50 through 60. New players start at level one, and they all play through a new introductory zone built for Shadowlands based on the quest design lessons Blizzard has learned over the years. Once they play through that introductory experience, they can then level up to 50 to catch up with current content by playing through the previous expansion (Battle for Azeroth) right away (from around level 10).
Further, once the new character has completed the starting zone, the player can then choose to level up to 50 in any previous expansion of their choice—vanilla/classic, The Burning Crusade, Wrath of the Lich King, Cataclysm, Mists of Pandaria, Warlords of Draenor, or Legion. The expansion's content will scale perfectly with the character level, and each is tuned so that reaching level 50 involves playing through the content at a similar pace to a similar level of completion as those expansions offered when they were current content.
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 experience curve is adjusted to make it faster than ever to prepare for the newest challenges, and each level along the way will provide more meaningful increases in progress and power. All expansion zones are getting more flexible, too; they'll be able* to scale to you and your friends while you level to 50, so it's easy to try a zone you've never played.