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.
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.
A new army of the dead rises: to combat Sylvanas' assault on Icecrown, Bolvar Fordragon— the revered former paladin who took on the mantle of Lich King to keep the Scourge at bay—has raised heroes from among all the peoples of Azeroth to bolster the Death Knights of Acherus. With Shadowlands, pandaren and all allied races will now be able to become death knights.
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.)
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.
The final destination of the spirits of the deceased remains a mystery to the priests and philosophers of Azeroth. However, as spells such as [Resurrection] can reunite a dead body with its spirit, and a majority of living creatures from the tauren to the troll shadow hunters claim they can communicate with and call upon the power of the spirits, a widely held belief is that the spirits of the dead remain on the Material Plane — in an immaterial state that can only be altered or contacted through the use of magic.
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.
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.
This skips all the content before the previous expansion to give players the most modern experience from a quest design POV (and to make sure the players are connected with the current storylines). It also ensures new players have a shorter leveling ramp—Blizzard says it will be as much as 70% shorter than it is currently to get from level one to the cap.
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.
The Realm of Shadows may be the same World of Shadows as the one that becomes visible when a [Elixir of Shadows] is consumed. It may also have something to do with shadow magic and shades. Death knights, necromancers, and undead as a whole share a strong connection with the Realm of Shadows from many hints that can be seen in-game. In the death knight starting zone, death knights are given the task to enter the Realm of Shadows in order to gain their Deathcharger. Later on, death knights are eventually able to learn the ability [Raise Ally] which pulls their ally's spirit back from the Realm of the Dead and forces it back into their body. Upon doing so, a buff is applied to the player stating that: "A touch of the spirit realm still lingers..." This shows that death knights and necromancers both have a connection to the Realm of the Shadows/Dead to perform necromancy which furthers the idea that they actually are drawing their magical power from it.
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.