It is difficult to say with any sort of conviction, but I’m strongly leaning towards the Shadowlands alt leveling experience being the worse it’s ever been in any expansion.
The normal leveling experience in Shadowlands is certainly the most on-rails I can recall, perhaps in the history of WoW. You go through the Maw tutorial and head into Kyrianland, which just happens to be the least interesting of the afterlives. And the actual quest content and layout in Bastion is horrible. There are long stretches of time in which you are far from an Inn or mailbox or flightpath. Want to take a break after 30 minutes? Better hearth back to wherever and then plan on spending 5 minutes riding back to whatever quest you were on. Or just buckling down and spending the extra 15 minutes to finish the quest chain in that area.
For as bad as Hellfire Peninsula was back in TBC, you at least had the ability to skip certain hubs and go to others. Once I figured out that hitting level 62 opened up the questing Christmas trees in Zangarmarsh, you bet your ass I was hoofing it out of Hellfire. No such skipping in Shadowlands. Do every quest in order, every time. Oh, and if you’re not level 53 by the time you get to Elysian Hold, go do some sidequests or pick some herbs until you are.
And can I just say something that I don’t feel enough people have complained about yet? The gearing situation is shit while leveling. Every single expansion I can remember had you immediately kitting out in expansion-reasonable questing gear within the first 30 minutes. That leads to casual raider tears when yesterday’s epics were replaced with greens, but it’s a necessary evil. Because it’s an incredibly dumb, unnecessary evil for my toons to still be rocking ilevel 58 shoulders throughout the entire fucking zone when 87-100 is the baseline.
What could be worse than all that? Threads of Fate.
On its face, Threads of Fate sounds like an incredible innovation. NPC meets your alt immediately outside of the Maw tutorial, and you unlock all the zones to complete in any order. What they neglect to mention is that “complete” means “grinding mobs like in a 1990s MMO.” Some of the Bonus Objective areas literally give you 1% completion per mob kill. “Just don’t do those.” Sure, let me just ride around this entire zone with only three flightpaths unlocked while trying to complete the same World Quests I’ll be grinding at endgame for the next two years. Oh, and they give 12k XP, same as each of the dozen story quests you could do in the same amount of time.
In many ways, Legion was considered the worst expansion for alts due to the way Artifacts (and AP) were spec-specific on top of the RNG of Legendaries. What is mentioned less in that calculus is how all the zones were available from the start and each class had engaging class-specific story content on the way up. With Shadowlands, everybody has the exact same story and quests in the same order until endgame, and then everybody is grinding Torghast for their Legendary, on every character.
There’s some Kyrian NPC who mentions that the Path is grinding Aspirants into dust. You’d think I’d remember his name after seeing it ten times but whatever. That’s what leveling feels like: being ground into dust. My character roster is 60, 60, 57, 54, 53, 52, 52, 52, 51, 51. I kept thinking maybe a different class would make leveling more enjoyable. But that’s when I realized that it wasn’t the class that was the problem, it was the rote, banal, awful design of Bastion through which all characters must pass. Well, that, or level 4x slower by chain-killing mobs inside a yellow shape on your mini-map. Engaging!
No escape in BGs either. Winning a 15-min match gives you… 12k XP. Once per day. Then it’s half that every other time, for a win. Not particularly reliable when you queue as Alliance.
I have never been more discouraged trying to level alts in an expansion than Shadowlands.
What would fix it? There is no fixing of the on-rails story portion, which wasn’t that bad the first time. It really comes down to Threads of Fate and fixing the jank there. Take the only page out of the Jay Wilson handbook and just double everything. World Quests give 24k XP, Bonus Objectives complete twice as fast for 16k XP, and the overall zone meter gives 1.5 levels. I am not even sure that this doubling would result in things being faster than mindlessly grinding the story quests, but at least it would be closer. And what exactly would the point of Threads of Fate be if it was slower than just doing the story again? I think you get a whole 4 extra Renown that you wouldn’t have, for all the good that does an alt facing down the barrel of 10-20 hours of Torghast and Maw busywork.
I forgive you for wondering whether I just don’t like leveling anymore. Thing is, I would take all my characters through Maldraxxus again in a heartbeat. I want to start over there. The Theater of Pain is where the actual Shadowlands experience begins, IMO. But you have to drag your face through four levels of Bastion broken glass to get there. Every. Single. Time.
I hope that this leveling setup is an experiment that Blizzard never tries again.
I have spent about 15 hours total in Torghast thus far, and I can’t quite tell if I’m having fun. Which probably means I’m not.
The design of this endgame activity is weird, which may be a result of Blizzard’s whiplash direction. It was originally very challenging for a solo player, then it was made to be harder presumably to not surprise players at reaching an unkillable (to them) final boss, and then made much easier across the board. Which is fine, because this is the primary source of Soul Ash, which is necessary to craft Legendary armor this expansion. And everyone is absolutely expected to have one. The recently-released Twisting Corridors with its cosmetic rewards is a better place for challenge.
But even that aside, it doesn’t feel great. Each run takes me 40-60 minutes and it is a commitment. If you don’t kill the last boss, you get nothing. If your gameplay gets interrupted by something, you get nothing. If you die too many times to random things even before the last boss, you get nothing. So, given the risk, you are highly incentivized to kill every mob pack and scour every crevice for Anima Cells to gain more power. If you skip things on the early floors to try and finish more quickly, but end up not having enough juice to kill the boss, well, you get nothing.
Oh, and don’t forget that the elites and bosses all get a rapidly-stacking 10% damage buff every dozen seconds or so. Berserk timers would have been one thing, but really? Why is that necessary at all?
When you first unlock Torghast, you just have access to Layer 1. Beating a Layer gives you Soul Ash and unlocks the next Layer. Each Layer gives you a decreasing amount of Soul Ash – it goes 120, 100, 85, 70, 60, and so on. The good news is that Layers stay unlocked, so that next week you can instantly go to Layer 5, beat it, and gain all the Soul Ash from that and the lower Layers automatically (435 total in this case). Plus, by virtue of having beaten Layer 5, you can do Layer 6 next week. Or this week, if you want to put in another hour or so for 50 Soul Ash.
The bad news is that unlocking 5-6 Layers right away on a toon is exhausting and will burn you out quickly. All of your alts start at Layer 1 just like your main, and Legendaries are gated behind Torghast, so it is not as though you can readily ignore it, even if you only PvP. You could “take it easy” and only run one Layer at a time, but that’s going to delay your Legendary by weeks.
Finally, the Anima Powers you have available are really hit or miss. There are sometimes fun combos to unlock, like when my Guardian Druid got to auto-cast Roots on enemies that stuck me when Barkskin is up, and when Roots breaks it deals 4000 damage to nearby enemies. Oh, and Barkskin was all but permanent with duration boosts. That combo let me charge into multiple mob packs, do a few Swipes, and then the Roots breaking for 6+ mobs simultaneously dealt 24k damage to everything.
When you roll in with an Affliction Warlock though, you get runs where your Seed of Corruption gets buffed five times. Which is fine for trash, but doesn’t do anything for the boss.
Torghast is probably one of the most interesting design decisions Blizzard has implemented since Scenarios. Reminds me of Dungeon Runs in Hearthstone. But is it fun? Eh, it can be. Sometimes. It’s also exhausting, kinda formulaic, and also required. If Blizzard leaned more into the overpowered abilities angle, or if each floor guardian gave a little Soul Ash, then I could see it being better.