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.
The Shadowlands are accessible upon death, where the player-character can roam, and can only be seen by other spirits. The Spirit of Tony Two-Tusk describes the Shadowlands as all grey and dark, swirling clouds. While Uuna was in the Shadowlands, she described it as dark and she was unable to see anything, though she could hear people interacting with her in the physical world. From within the Shadowlands, she could see the light of the naaru A'dal who was in the physical world, but it was so bright that it scared her. The moonlight at Lake Falathim allowed her to see a friend in the physical world.
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.
Unlike World of Warcraft’s other endgame dungeon activity, Mythic+ dungeons, Torghast is not timed. Instead, you have a limited number of lives before your run comes to an end. Once you’ve died a certain number of times, a giant, unkillable boss called the Tarragrue will spawn at the entrance to your current floor, and will slowly lumber toward the exit. If the Tarragrue spots you, it’ll chase you down and kill you in a single strike. But if you can reach the end of the current floor before the Tarragrue does, you’ll escape to the next floor.
Keep raising the level cap but crunching how much experience is required per level as you do. This is the approach WoW has historically taken. But as this happens, levels start to seem meaningless. You gain them ultra-quickly, and only a smattering of them actually introduce new abilities or other perks. It also means that you blast through the leveling content at such a pace that you never finish individual zone stories; you only finish a small portion of an area before you have outleveled it and are ready to move on.
Blizzard said last week that Torghast was inspired by roguelikes — games like Hades and Dead Cells, where each failed run rewards you with knowledge and skill that aid in your next attempt. Unlike a traditional World of Warcraft dungeon, Torghast has fixed levels with procedurally generated enemy spawns. The floors start simple, and eventually evolve into elaborate wings with traps, locked doors, and puzzles.
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.
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.
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.)
Shadowy Tormentors inhabit this dimension, and emerge from it to torment death knights such as Koltira Deathweaver. The Lich King originally kept them at bay, but after the Knights of the Ebon Blade left his service, the tormentors are now loose upon them. He even appears in the World of the Dead, as he calls it, riding a frost wyrm during  The Power to Destroy.