World of Warcraft is continuing on the momentum the game built in the pre-expansion event of the Battle for Lordaeron, and roaring into Battle for Azeroth with its best storytelling ever. Blizzard is firing on all cylinders with the initial campaigns for both Horde and Alliance, and the end result is low-brow but a blast to play.
As much as Blizzard loves to dabble with high key cosmic concepts across all of its franchises, Battle for Azeroth kicks off with pure pulp and popcorn. Even though the narrative is based around lower stakes and petty drama, the world feels alive and the story is more engaging than ever. Are some of the stories the game is telling a little dumb? Sure, this isn’t exactly high art. But everything so far is fun, and I find myself leaning into these messy, silly, over-the-top scenarios.
The Horde and Alliance head to different continents, looking to revitalize their faction with two of the most powerful navies of all time. The Horde pursue the Zandalari trolls, and the Alliance head to Kul Tiras. Each faction needs to go through three different storylines in three very well realized, fully developed zones. One of the first things I noticed in Kul Tiras’ Tiragarde Sound zone is that NPCs casually lean, arms crossed, regarding you warily. It’s a small touch, but the game is full of these; it makes everything feel alive. Even the simple act of dying, the most common thing you can possibly do in a MMO, gets a whole lot of flair.
Blizzard also has a wider array of storytelling tools than back in “Vanilla” WoW, where NPCs mostly just stood in the world and /yelled at each other. There are, of course, quest boxes and text overlays...
Then there are in-game cutscenes, which is admittedly the roughest part of the game, but you get to see your character in them, hanging out next to big lore characters. This is a nice change; usually we show up, do the hard work, kill the raid boss,and then get a cutscene where all of the important NPCs get to react. These short cutscenes are awkward and show World of Warcraft’s age, but they get the job done.
They’re also pretty rare — we mostly get these more polished cinematics that communicate bigger story beats and developments.
All of these tools are telling World of Warcraft’s most ambitious stories yet, but the questing experience and leveling is where things really get good.
When Star Wars: The Old Republic came out, the MMO’s big boast is that it would tell amazing stories and offer players compelling choices, unlike World of Warcraft. Those claims weren’t wrong; the Imperial Agent or Jedi Knight stories alone are worth the price of admission to SW:TOR. But the biggest weakness of the game is how narrow it is, how confined it is to the canon built by six Star Wars movies. When your bounty hunter starts navigating through their slum in an attempt to escape from the stars, they must rescue someone who has been frozen in carbonite. You take calls from blue holograms, stop nefarious Sith from overthrowing their masters via lightning, and help rebels traverse the icy plains of Hoth. SW:TOR offers tons of variables, dialogue trees and fun characters, but they’re all inexorably tied to the set dressing of Star Wars.
World of Warcraft’s greatest strength, on the other hand, has been the sheer variety it has to offer in terms of takes on fantasy; a veritable mosaic of dozens of mini-settings, all of which exist side by side with a little handwaving and refusal to think too hard about the details. The pious and noble Night Elves contest the honorable, heavily militarized Orc society, which exists next door to the industrialized, high tech goblin society, who war against gnomes and Tolkien-esque dwarves who make their home just south of a dark, gothic series of settlements filled with undead who love mad science. We parlay with beings of pure energy draped in cloth, tame wild Northern frontiers full of walrus people, forge into an alternate timeline, and eventually get aboard a spaceship to begin a new age of warfare on distant planets. There is no situation that cannot take place in World of Warcraft; there is an arena for any kind of story, if you look hard enough.
As we run out of new ways to explore new and exciting lands, the narrative is forced to wind its way back to existing territories with lower stakes. Kul Tiras is humble and quaint compared to the Fel-stricken surfaces of Argus, and Zandalar builds on concepts introduced years ago, but each zone is handled with such love and care that it blows previous content out of the water.
Drustvar is an amazing excursion through fantasy tropes like witch hunts, Inquisitors, animated wicker statues, and it all just drips with potent atmosphere. Meanwhile, after expansions of fighting one-dimensional demons, the Horde get their best cast of antagonists yet — some of whom cloak themselves as allies, and others who are the literal god of death, meddling in the affairs of mortals.
Even the way that characters are posed as they stand around, waiting for you to pick up a quest, is carefully planned out. Kul Tirans lean against walls, regarding you cautiously. Zandalarian advisors collectively cluster around their king, suspicious and protective.
The best part? You don’t need to play for hours on end to unlock this good content; the game has adapted to give every player the same amount of story content. (Well, you might need to look outside the game.)
Legion was a greatest hits of World of Warcraft, promising disillusioned fans that Blizzard still knew how to deliver on promises of big cosmic enemies and Illidan Stormrage doing cool stuff and oh, hey, remember the Titans and Sargeras? Battle for Azeroth, on the other hand, seems far less concerned with what players think of it. Sure, there’s some good fodder for longtime fans to obsess over, but Battle for Azeroth just forges boldly ahead. If you hate Sylvanas, if you’re tired of faction war, if you’re just not interested in what the game has, Blizzard is seemingly responding with a confident shrug and a wink. They know what story they’re trying to tell, and they’re doing it well. In the end, perhaps that will win out above all other factors.