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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.)
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.
World of Warcraft: Shadowlands marks the eighth major expansion pack for the storied MMO. Judging from a half-hour playing it at BlizzCon this year, it seems like a natural evolution of modern WoW that will run alongside the very-different WoW Classic experience for the foreseeable future. That said, the biggest change wasn't part of my hands-on demo—but don't worry, that won't stop me from geeking out about it in extreme detail.
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.
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.
But it gets even more interesting when you look at how it will work for alts (second or later characters made by existing players). New characters made by existing players will have the option of leveling up the old way in all the same old zones from the start. But they will also be able to go through the new-player starting experience if that's what players prefer.
Ascend the Tower of the Damned: at the heart of the Maw lies Torghast, Tower of the Damned, a cursed otherworldly prison where the wickedest souls in the universe are locked away. Highly replayable and inspired by roguelike games, heroes are invited to explore its ever-changing halls and chambers and do battle with the minions of the Jailer, Torghast's vile ruler. Those who brave its trials can claim legendary treasures and help free the heroic spirits wrongfully trapped within.