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).
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.
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.
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).
Claim a covenant's power: players will be called upon to forge a bond with one of four covenants that rule Shadowlands' new zones, setting the tone for their journey through the expansion with a full covenant campaign. As they level up, they'll get new abilities based on their choice, including class-specific abilities for each Covenant—as well as developing soulbinds with specific covenant members, which grant them access to that character's specific traits and bonuses.