Is World of Warcraft: Shadowlands' Starting Zone New Player Approved?

World of Warcraft: Shadowlands introduces a sizeable new player experience called Exile's Reach. We put it to the test by having a non-gamer complete it.

November 24, 2020

World of Warcraft: Shadowlands is upon us. With it comes tons of new content for veteran players to grind through; however, it’s not all about us old heads. One of the more interesting additions is the new starting zone, Exile’s Reach. It’s meant to be the tutorial area that serves to bring brand new players up to speed. The two-hour experience theoretically serves a much-needed purpose for a game as old and massive as WoW. But how well does it actually do with the newbie onboarding experience? For that answer, I sat down with my wife to get the perspective of someone who’s never played World of Warcraft before.

To start, let’s talk a bit about her background. I think it’s important to note that she has exactly zero MMO experience. In fact, I’m pretty sure the only time she’s played a PC game is when I tried to get her to play Portal back in college. Now, I’ve been playing WoW on-and-off for 16 years (please send help), so she’s seen the game. She knows what a Pandaren is and thinks they’re awfully cute. She doesn’t know any of the characters’ names, but she’s at least heard of the Horde and the Alliance. Essentially, she’s like someone who watched that Warcraft movie and thought, “huh, maybe I should try that.” There’s a minimal knowledge base there, but not much else.

It’s also important to say that, during her playtime, I wasn’t allowed to speak. I could watch and take notes, but the only help she’d get is directly from Blizzard. As I’ll detail below, this part was, to put it relatively nicely, painful. However, my agony was important for the experiment. If nothing else, I think this proves that I’m a man of science. Someone please tell my high school Chemistry teacher.

Anyways, on to Exile’s Reach. If you’ve yet to see anything from the new landmass, it’s pretty simple. Blizzard is hand-holding you through a curated experience that touches on most of the more important aspects of the game. You’re given tooltips to explain most of the basics, though these don’t really dig very deep. That said, even these simple tips aren’t always clear.

Now, sometimes this was just my wife not paying attention, but Blizzard has several potential opportunities to improve. Look, I’m not going to fault them for it taking her 10 minutes to figure out how to accept a quest. I mean, the button was glowing green and she just ignored it while I cackled in the background. You can’t put that on Blizzard. They did all they could to make accepting quests clear, but somehow she just never saw it. Instead, she was content to just mindlessly shoot at target dummies while I wheezed behind her in a mix of amusement and second-hand embarrassment.

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However, some of the higher-level things that are incredibly important just aren’t mentioned. Obviously, you don’t want to overwhelm players, but much more could be done to make the ramp easier. For example, she played the Hunter class for her introduction. When you start, the game just tells you to keep hitting Steady Shot; it never explains Focus or how you need to manage it. This is an integral part of the class that is never explained. You get an early Focus dump in the form of Arcane Shot, but are never told why or when you’d use it. My wife just Steady Shot her way through the entire experience, which means her understanding of the class is rudimentary, at best.

As a long-time Hunter main, it was incredibly frustrating to see a mode that’s supposed to be the tutorial not even explaining the basics of the class. Just give her a quick tooltip to explain the basics of Focus. At least then she’d get a decent idea of why using other abilities is a good idea. Instead, she just hit the same button endlessly. Sure, she used Disengage when she got scared of spiders, but that’s not understanding the class. That’s just getting spooked by pixels.

Truthfully, Exile’s Reach feels like such a missed opportunity to bring in new players. Not only are you not really teaching new players how to play their class, but it doesn’t actually give you any reason to care about the current expansion. The starting area is its own contained story. You don’t’ meet any of the key characters or receive a reason to invest in the ongoing story. Is it cool to fight off dragon-summoning ogres? Without question. However, my wife was very clear that narrative-wise, this experience did nothing to make her care about playing Shadowlands.

At the base level, that’s a failure for Blizzard. The whole point is to bring in new fans who have never played World of Warcraft. Obviously, my wife is a special case. I mean, when the game told her to “type /wave” she thought it meant she had to choose between either typing or waving. It took us several minutes to understand what exactly was going on. That said, it’s hard to deny that, at a fundamental level, Exile’s Reach struggles to do the two main things you’d want out of a new WoW player experience.

It’s not all bad. The tooltips given are, for the most part, very clear. It’s just that it doesn’t go far enough. Look, I completely understand that trying to introduce players to all those classes is tough. That said, I’d love to see more done for new players. Whether it’s a deeper understanding of their class or more tie-ins for the current expansion, Exile’s Reach feels like a bit of a missed opportunity.

That isn’t to say Blizzard needs to toss the whole thing in the bin. It’s a solid first effort that simply needs fleshing out. Hopefully, Blizzard continues to address the need to onboard new players. Either way, it’s clear that if the team wants to retain new players, they’re still overly reliant on veteran players bringing their friends into the game. Otherwise, the lore and mechanics are still beyond the grasp of fresh players like my lovely wife. For the purpose of the question posed at the top, consider Exile’s Reach friendly to new players and full of potential, but simply not good enough in its current state.

To close, my wife does have one very important criticism she’d like to pass Blizzard’s way. While she liked creating her human hunter with all the new customization options, she wants at least one more. As she put it, “is there a way to make her boobs smaller? These things aren’t realistic.” The ball’s in your court, Blizzard.

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