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Blizzard learned all the wrong lessons from the MCU

The developer has taken a few wrong turns

World of Warcraft - the Jailer is chained in Torghast, Tower of the Damned Image: Blizzard Entertainment
Cass Marshall is a news writer focusing on gaming and culture coverage, taking a particular interest in the human stories of the wild world of online games.

I’ve been a fan of Blizzard games since I was a kid. I love the pulp and drama of their settings, the polished cinematics and bold characters. But over the past few years, I’ve become frustrated. Part of this is almost certainly that I’m getting older and less patient, but a big part of it comes from the games themselves.

World of Warcraft: Shadowlands is a narrative mess that recently culminated in a big reveal centering around split souls, rewriting reality, and villain monologuing. Overwatch, on the other hand, is stuck in the past — we won’t get to see the actual Overwatch organization in action until Overwatch 2, which currently does not have a release date.

Both settings have a comic book-y vibe, bigger-than-life characters, and action-packed cinematics. But not in a good way. It’s like Blizzard is learning all the wrong lessons from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

World of Warcraft - the evil lcih Ke’Thuzad stands in the Sanctum of Domination, wearing a cloak over his skeleton body. Image: Blizzard Entertainment

The “wow” moments

Playing World of Warcraft right now can be a little rough. There are fantastic stories in the game, like Zandalar’s quests, or the zone of Revendreth. But the main narrative feels like it’s held together around a few big moments that can be easily clipped into gifs. Sure, it’s super cool when the small cast of heroes fights the bad guys and fires off both rockets and one-liners, but it’s also a “sometimes food.”

Right now, World of Warcraft feels like everything is set up around those big moments in the form of cinematics and cutscenes. The main story is there to set up a series of real cool story beats, with little regard for whether they make much sense. And when the story doesn’t make sense, Blizzard will just patch up those parts with ... a tie-in book.

Sylvanas has essentially been the main character of Warcraft for three years now. I still don’t know what her exact plan is, or why she thought siding with the Jailer was a good way to go about it. The last time I got a look at her internal thoughts was in the Battle for Azeroth book Before the Storm, and it was later … retconned. The Jailer is apparently a master manipulator, but all I ever hear him say is stuff like, “Death comes for the soul of your world!” or “I will crush you with my endless armies!” Thanos’ plan might not have made a lot of sense either, but at least he took a few minutes to explain his goals and reflect on them.

Blizzard even indulges in things like post-credit stingers. Take the Overwatch cinematic at the end of the Storm Rising Archives event. Mercy asks if she can get an audience with someone, and we see Talon leader Doomfist meeting with a new ally. The ally removes his hood and it’s … a guy?

If this was a Marvel movie, I’d either know who that guy was, or my buddy would go “Oh! That’s so-and-so, from the comics!” But in Overwatch, I threw my hands up. I don’t know who that guy is! This entire scene means nothing without that context! Sure, we can speculate, but when we go years without answers, it’s real easy to just stop caring altogether.

It keeps getting bigger

You know how the Marvel movies start with Iron Man, who is just one dude with a mecha suit, and then the world around him slowly develops, culminating in a massive, sprawling cosmic threat? That was pretty cool! World of Warcraft is trying a similar cosmic threat, with the Jailer claiming the Shadowlands Sigils. It’s a very Infinity Stones-esque plot … and I am so tired.

In the early days of World of Warcraft, we fought factions like the Defias Brotherhood and the Scarlet Crusade. These organizations naturally rose up in the aftermath of the war against the Burning Legion in Burning Crusade, and soon we took the fight to the Legion and the Scourge up in Northrend in the beloved Wrath of the Lich King expansion.

After killing a variety of Big Cosmic People in armor, fighting against gods and guardians has lost its shine, especially since the ante has to be upped for every single guy. Sargeras was a massive threat who ended up stabbing the planet before we could take him out. The Jailer, the game’s follow-up Big Bad, has apparently been manipulating everything for decades behind the scenes. The entire culmination of 2003’s Warcraft 3: The Frozen Throne is the Lich King (created by the Jailer) fighting against the Burning Legion (created and run by the Jailer’s secret agents).

The Jailer says he’s going to rewrite reality, and I kind of think we should let him do it. There’s a lot to love about Blizzard’s games and cinematics, but the overall narrative holding them together is buckling under the weight. Overwatch 2 might be a great solution for the Overwatch franchise, but there’s no similar silver bullet for World of Warcraft. I’m hoping that once we wrap up Shadowlands, we can reset the scale and go back to stories with clear beginnings, finite ends, and lots of information in the middle.

The next level of puzzles.

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