The entire expansion of Battle for Azeroth for World of Warcraft has taken place in the shadow of the opening act, the War of the Thorns. In this event, both Horde and Alliance players head to the Night Elf territory of Darkshore to take part in the battle. Eventually, the Alliance falls back and the Horde claims Darnassus, the capital city of the Night Elves. Sylvanas Windrunner, the Horde Warchief, then makes the decision to burn Darnassus down while it’s still full of civilians in an act of genocide.
As a member of the Alliance, you desperately try to save as many civilians as you can while racing against a timer you know you cannot beat. You eventually pass out from smoke and are saved at the last moment, haunted as you think of all the people you could not save.
As a member of the Horde, you stand by as Sylvanas gives the order.
The only way for a member of the Horde to not help Sylvanas burn down the World Tree is to not engage in the new content. By playing, Horde members are complicit. It’s jarring, especially because the first act of the Horde in Battle for Azeroth is genuinely heroic. The Horde land on the new continent of Zandalar to recruit an old enemy as a new ally. The Zandalari Empire is haunted by hubris; it’s a temple city made of gold, but rotting from within. You’re too late to restore the kingdom to peace, but the Horde does unify the Zandalar, delves into the Titan facility of Uldir, and stops the artificial Old God G’huun from consuming all of Azeroth.
The entire time, though, this experience doesn’t live up to the spectacle of the pre-patch. Players go into the campaign knowing that Sylvanas Windrunner is objectively a villain who has burned down Darnassus, lost the Horde the Undercity and started a war with the Alliance with the ultimate goal of killing every human in Stormwind and raising them as undead.
If you play through Alliance content, you can even come across the city of Brennadam in Stormsong Valley. It’s a beautiful, peaceful place... until the Horde shows up and firebomb it. Unarmed civilians are pinned to the wall with spears, while their children stand there and weep.
Patch 8.1, Tides of Vengeance, continues the Horde’s story, and the decision to give players a fateful choice may be the way the developers are trying to redeem the Horde.
[Warning: This post contains potential spoilers for World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth patch 8.1, Tides of Vengeance.]
In 8.1, Horde players are given a task by Sylvanas to hunt down High Overlord Saurfang, who is in open rebellion after the War of the Thorns. The early datamining made it seem as though players needed to play along with Saurfang’s plan and return to Orgrimmar without the High Overlord.
A change to the PTR content shows that’s not the case at all, and players must make a choice. Now, Horde players can tell the young troll Zekhan that they won’t betray their Warchief and return to Sylvanas, committing herself to her plans, or they can play along with Zekhan and Saurfang and remain under Sylvanas’ watch as a sleeper agent.
It’s a genuinely good choice, and isolated from the rest of Battle for Azeroth, it’s a fascinating way to look at the game. My blood elf paladin, for instance, is committed to the defense of her home as the Alliance war machine moves north. Will her moral center win out over her commitment to the faction protecting Silvermoon? This is a genuinely meaty choice that is great for roleplaying characters in Azeroth, and it feels like it may manage to have implications. If this actually affects our characters’ story to a large degree. That’s basically unprecedented in WoW.
In Legion, Demon Hunters got to choose their Order Hall leader, which changed a few lines of dialogue and an NPC model. One could argue that having to make the choice between the extremist Kayn Sunfury and the moderate Altruis is enough to get a player thinking about what kind of Demon Hunter they are, but the Sylvanas and Saurfang conflict will require much more commitment.
There’s also the ongoing problem that Battle for Azeroth is meant to be an expansion all about the Horde versus Alliance conflict. The Alliance does feature in 8.1 prominently with their own scenarios, but they have so far lacked the grit or complexity of the Horde. The Kul Tiras campaign has players reunite Jaina Proudmoore with her mother and overcome the Ashvane mutiny; it ends with smiles and mutual respect.
While the Horde has a conflict so deep set and complex that it literally requires a new gameplay mechanic to navigate, the Alliance hasn’t received the same level of attention. In some ways, Alliance players feel like we’re a prop in the Horde story of Sylvanas, there to provide antagonists or even worse, targets. It’s a common sentiment that it’s hard to cheer for the Alliance because the Horde may be the bad guys, but at least they’re the fun guys, whereas Anduin is a character so pure and good-hearted he literally has a condition where his bones hurt if he thinks he may do something bad.
As Anduin himself says: “Only one of us wanted this war.” The Horde gets agency, the Alliance gets to be moral.
There are signs that conflict will be sown in the Alliance as well, with 8.1 having Genn Greymane and Tyrande abandon the Alliance war effort to go reclaim Darkshore. There’s also early datamining suggesting an Alliance organization called the “Purge Squad” is taking military action against the Vulpera in Vol’dun. But there’s nothing as well orchestrated or involved as the Horde campaign so far. There’s still a lot of expansion to go, and we’re working off incomplete datamining, so we can’t draw our final conclusions on the story quite yet.
Ultimately, the ability for characters to choose between Saurfang and Sylvanas is fantastic. It’s exciting, it’s new, and it may lead to a whole new way that this MMORPG is, well, an RPG. The question is what comes next, and how will this new method of storytelling be used for both sides? The developers have created a very strange scenario for the Horde, and it’ll take more than a branching story to create a satisfying ending for those who want to buy into the selling point of this expansion and finally enjoy faction pride.