Blizzard hasn't talked about what it plans to do after Shadowlands. I speculate that the longterm solution would be to do this every expansion—so in the next expansion, Blizzard might move Battle for Azeroth into the multitude of choices for new character-leveling experiences and push level-cap characters back down to 50 to start whatever expansion comes after Shadowlands—an odd hybrid of traditional MMO and a seasonal model common in plenty of modern multiplayer games.
Adventurers entering the Shadowlands will find the realm of the dead in disarray. In the natural order of things, souls are sorted and sent on to an afterlife realm appropriate to the lives they lived, but starting around the time of the Burning Legion's third invasion of Azeroth, all souls who have perished—including the innocents slain at Teldrassil—are being funneled directly into the Maw. The Shadowlands are starving for anima even as the Maw continues to grow from the glut of fresh souls. Sylvanas Windrunner has been seemingly perpetrating acts to bring about great amounts of death and destruction. In partnership with the Jailer, they have been working toward a common end for some time.
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.
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.
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.
As always, though, Blizzard really delivered on the art front. Bastion is striking, with big, beautiful skies, banners realistically waving in the wind, and fascinating characters, like a humanoid, owl-like race that inhabits the zone. Blizzard artists told me that they plan to support RTX raytracing, as well as new kinds of real-time lighting, in the expansion. I'm surprised by how good modern WoW looks on a high-end PC these days, given that it originally came out in 2004, and it looks like that work will continue.
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).
Keep raising the level cap with no changes to the leveling experience up to that point. This leads to ever-lengthening leveling ramps that make it extremely difficult for new players to get to current content. That's because each expansion adds another several dozen hours to how long it takes to get from the start to being able to play with friends in the endgame. (Final Fantasy XIV has this problem to some degree, even though it's nowhere near as old as WoW.)
The origins of the Shadowlands remain uncertain, but they have existed ever since mortal life first arose in the physical universe. They span all worlds, including Azeroth, on which Icecrown serves as an anchor to the Shadowlands. There are those who believe mortal souls are drawn into this dark place when they die, remaining there forever. Others hope their souls will go on to a brighter place rather than languish for eternity within the cold confines of the Shadowlands.