From gear grind to story campaigns, you'll make a lot of choices in the Shadowlands.
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The next expansion to World of Warcraft takes the game to a place that hasn't been explored much before: the Shadowlands, Azeroth's version of the afterlife. With little mentioned about the place in either lore or past games, Blizzard has been free to explore a whole new world, with its own rules and peoples, that are set to bring a bunch of new ideas to the long-running MMO.
As was discussed on stage at Blizzcon 2019, a big focus for Shadowlands is on enhancing player agency. Though the new expansion will have a fairly linear story that will carry you through its major locations and introduce you to its various factions, it'll also include a lot of opportunities to make big choices. You'll pick a faction to join, which will come with an endgame story to complete, and present you with decisions that factor into your look and gear loadouts.
As executive producer John Hight and senior game designer Johnny Cash explained in an interview with GameSpot, your entry into Shadowlands will first take you through its four major locations: Bastion, Maldraxxus, Ardenweald, and Revendreth. In each, you'll meet a different Covenant--Shadowlands ruling groups--and talk with their leaders, while completing quests that give you a sense of who all these people and what they're after.
"We wanted to have a good story arc [in Shadowlands]," Hight explained. "So this time we're going to take you through each of the Covenants in linear fashion so that the story, and the conflict and the alliances that exist between the Covenants can be told. When we've given players the choice before to go to one zone or another--that's cool, and those stories are kind of self-contained. I think we did a really great job of that, especially in [Battle for Azeroth]. But this, it's important too, because these Covenants have been completely unknown. This is not something that's covered in Warcraft lore. I think it's important that we roll out for you and kind of serve up the interactions between each of them."
Meeting each of the Covenants and learning what they're all about also gears you up for a big choice you'll make when you hit max level. At that point, you'll be able to choose a Covenant to join, which will give you some specific cosmetic options for how you look, and new class-specific abilities that are unique to that Covenant.
Your choice in joining a Covenant also provides an end-game story campaign specific to that group, providing an incentive to make different decisions with alternate characters.
"While we're not offering, specifically, new player races, we are looking at joining your Covenant as one of the game's really major systems, that actually plays into both race and class," Cash said. "When you're going through the Shadowlands, like John was mentioning, on this big narrative journey, you're getting exposed to each of them and you're having an opportunity to play with their toys a bit to say, hey, if you join us, you're going to get this and this as opposed to this and this, and so on. When you finally reached that choice moment, the goal is that players have a really deep understanding of, especially from a gameplay perspective, what they're going to get. And of course, from there, they're going to unlock all sorts of cosmetic upgrades, armor sets, and mounts, and all that sort of thing. Between those two things, you end up having that kind of secondary identity. You're of course a warrior first and foremost, and maybe you're a Tauren warrior or whatever it might be, but you're also going to have the identity in Shadowlands as a Kyrian or whatever you choose."
Apart from the Covenant you'll gain in Shadowlands, you'll also encounter the new Soulbind system. As Cash explained it, from a functional standpoint, Soulbinds are kind of like artifacts; you can equip one at a time for specific abilities. But they're not just gear--Soulbinds are related to characters you encounter in Shadowlands.
"As you join a Covenant, you're going to meet certain characters in that covenant that you're going to help out in some way," he said. "Maybe you save them from great peril or they save you from great peril, or you end up having a bond or a kinship. Those characters are going to, at some point inevitably, offer to engage in this ritual for you. This is something that all a soul races in the Shadowlands engage in called Soulbinding. It's a kind of exactly what it sounds, this link, this powerful kind of ephemeral link between two souls. And so, when you engage in a soul bind with someone in the Shadowlands, you get some of their power and they get some of yours."
Cash said you'll have more than one Soulbind as you travel the Shadowlands, and you'll be able to customize the abilities your Soulbinds bestow on you. That means you might have Soulbinds that are good for specific situations or activities that you can swap between.
Player agency is a big part of Torghast, Tower of the Damned, the new activity that's part of Shadowlands' spooky endgame zone, The Maw. Both the way you'll fight through Torghast, and the rewards you'll take away from it, are all about choices. The tower is an endless replayable activity where you work to get as far as you can, and it contains rogue-like elements like a layout that shift between runs and randomized power-ups you'll earn as you play through. Though the slate of power-ups that pop up is out of your control, you'll be able to choose between some options as you go, to guide your build.
Fighting through Torghast gives you more choices in the form of runes you'll earn, which you'll use to craft specific Legendary items.
"We know that people love loading in their Legendaries," Hight said. "They told us after Legion, 'Where are my Legendaries?' They're not Legendary weapons, but they are going to be Legendary pieces that you can equip--up to one, but you can build more than that and you can swap out. You're going to have a lot of control over the aspects, the abilities that are on those Legendaries."
From the sounds of things, Blizzard is looking to balance a linear, grand story feel in Shadowlands with lots of opportunities for players to define the expansion for themselves. We'll have to wait until Shadowlands' release, sometime in 2020, to find out just how well those two ideas will gel.