World of Warcraft has had a tumultuous time trying to tell stories in the lead up to the newest expansion, Battle for Azeroth. The current expansion, Legion, has largely been considered a success by the fanbase, and its high stakes and cosmic scope make it a tough act for Battle for Azeroth to follow. After heading to the stars, we’re going back to the muck and grime of faction-versus-faction war.
In the weeks prior to Battle for Azeroth, Blizzard needs to set the stage for the factions to break their truce and get back to each other’s throats. In the first pre-patch story, Sylvanas Windrunner led the Horde through the Night Elf territories in an act of aggression that peaked with genocide. The War of the Thorns’ in-game depiction was criticized roundly by the player base. Two novellas (Elegy and A Good War) and a cinematic focusing on Horde fan favorite High Overlord Saurfang were released shortly afterwards, and patched many of the problems players had with the in-game story.
All of that poses a problem. If War of the Thorns was criticized for being poorly told in-game for feeling rushed, taking Sylvanas’ deeds too far and missing essential details, does that mean that the Battle for Azeroth story is doomed to a similar fate? The second pre-expansion story scenario, Battle for Lordaeron is told exclusively through a mix of gameplay, cutscenes and in-game cinematics. As it turns out, the Battle for Lordaeron is the perfect palette cleanser after the War of the Thorns, and it embodies the best parts about Warcraft’s story.
Blending serious and silly
Let’s be clear — World of Warcraft, even at its highest notes, will never be Citizen Kane or The Last of Us. The narrative is inherently going to be a little Saturday morning cartoon-y. There’s nothing wrong with that, and the Battle for Lordaeron leans into it hard. The Alliance rally outside the gates of Lordaeron, their once great city that has been turned into the underground haven for the undead Forsaken. Both sides engage in traditional warfare, until the Alliance starts to make ground.
Sylvanas responds by dropping chemical weapons on both armies and then raising them as skeletons. The Alliance start to fall back, and Jaina Proudmoore shows up on the wreck of her father’s old galleon, which she has enchanted to fly ... and shoot arcane cannonballs.
It’s silly. It’s a spectacle. It’s undeniably a little cool. It’s Warcraft at its best.
The Alliance heroes eventually make their way to the Lordaeron throne room, where Sylvanas greets them. It’s another fantastic cutscene: Sylvanas lounges on her throne, chewing through scenery to great effect. It’s the first cutscene that made me really confident in the direction the writers are choosing for Sylvanas. Yes, she’s evil. Yes, she’s objectively, morally wrong. But she has style, and I found myself grinning at her bored little barbs. Warcraft’s conflict has so commonly been defined by large men shouting at each other; Sylvanas is a villain, but she’s so effective at the job that I want her to stick around.
The cinematic Old Soldier (which takes place just before the in-game Battle for Lordaeron scenario) is emotional, perfectly rendered and full of stunning imagery. There’s plenty of room for that in the Warcraft universe, but at the end of the day, players still need to strap on their massive shoulder pads and fight alongside gnomes, goblins, void elves riding on giant, starry chocobos, and Tauren with bovine pun names. The in-game storytelling of the Battle for Lordaeron tips its hat to the serious themes the game is setting up, and then just has fun with the characters and setup. After the War of the Thorns, I felt angry and sick. After the Battle for Lordaeron, I laughed and immediately started the story from the other faction’s perspective.
Set-up and execution
Part of the reason the Battle for Lordaeron works so well is that it’s told exclusively in-game. The story of the War of the Thorns was told in two in-game questlines over the course of two weeks, and much of that glossed over things like character interactions, motivations and responses.
In order to get the full story of Sylvanas, Saurfang, and Darnassus, you would need to:
- Play the in-game quests;
- Wait for the Old Soldier cinematic to hit;
- Wait for the release of the Collector Edition novellas, which answered many of the players’ questions;
To get the full story of the Battle for Lordaeron, you log in, and you play the game. It doesn’t seem likely that Blizzard will stop with its out-of-game media (Battle for Azeroth was preceded by Before the Storm, a novel by Christie Golden), but keeping it on the sidelines definitely works better than hiding essential plot details in there.
The Battle for Lordaeron is also so fun, so joyous, that I wonder if we needed to start with the War of the Thorns to get there. Sylvanas is a fun villain, a blast to watch, and she ... committed genocide. I wonder if it would be possible to have the joy of Jaina on a magic pirate ship and a showdown between the Windrunner sisters without leading in with genocide. While Warcraft offers both serious and silly storylines, the tonal whiplash in the pre-expansion events got to be a little much.
The War of the Thorns landed wrong for me as a player, to the point that I wondered if I’d be back for Battle for Azeroth. The Battle for Lordaeron ensured that I’m strapped in for the expansion. As long as the game remains so fun, so over the top, and with tongue firmly planted in cheek, I’m ready to rejoin the faction war. Battle for Azeroth is set to launch on August 14th, with a global launch for all regions.