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LoreFeb 20, 2015 1:00 pm CT

Know Your Lore: What is the story of Warlords of Draenor?

Warlords of Draenor ushered our characters back to the world of Draenor — a slightly altered, different version of Draenor, but Draenor nonetheless. It introduced characters we’ve never seen in the context of Warcraft‘s MMO before, big names from the RTS games that preceded WoW. Blackhand, Grommash Hellscream, Kilrogg Deadeye, Durotan, Kargath Bladefist, and many more. These are names we should be excited about, and we were. The moment Grommash Hellscream crested the hill in the original announcement trailer for the expansion, I was hooked. See these guys in their prime? Sign me up. Experience draenei culture and lore before the massacre they suffered at the hands of the original iteration of the Horde? I’m all in. See what the Horde of old would look like if they’d turned away from drinking the blood of Mannoroth, instead choosing to stand on their own? That’s a story I can absolutely get behind.

Which is why it’s so weird that right now, standing a little over three months into the expansion, I am desperately looking for a story that simply is not there. It’s even more strange because the leveling experience from 90-100 was so good — but once you hit level 100 and finish all zone quests, the narrative simply peters out. Draenor is a world that reeks of history, untold stories and mysteries that have yet to be discovered, much less solved, but we are floundering in our garrisons looking for some kind of meaning to it all.

Please note that there is a difference here in story and content. Content is something that you can do once you log into the game — it is an experience you can use to pass the time. Content doesn’t necessarily have to have story, it just has to be something suitably engaging. Things like garrison missions, PvP and to a certain degree raiding all fall under that content umbrella. Story, on the other hand, is content that you are actively engaged in beyond just pushing the buttons and keeping yourself amused — there’s an ongoing dialogue with it all to keep you entertained as you’re diligently completing your content. What we’re focusing on here isn’t the content, of which there is plenty — we’re looking at the story, of which there is very little. Follower missions have little to no engagement factor as far as the story is concerned. While your followers are off doing missions for you, and maybe even acting against the Iron Horde by doing so, there’s no proof, evidence, or presence to indicate that they are having any effect. It’s a passive story that plays out behind the scenes, one you don’t get to see.


Perception and presence

Most of Warlords of Draenor‘s story content seems to have been shunted to quests during the leveling process, where it should be — but there is little left once that leveling experience has played out. The end result is that you experience this really cool story with a lot of really cool moments, but you never see what comes of those moments afterwards. Once you reach that pivotal moment in Nagrand, you have characters saying three very different things — we should go to Highmaul and defeat the ogres. We should deal with Gul’dan. We should confront Blackhand. Three different possibilities for story, yet two of these story opportunities play out in raid content. Raid content and story content rarely go together hand in hand — either the complicated nature of the raid distracts from the story, or the story slows down what should be a fast and engaging raid.

For example, many players didn’t notice the names of the Fallen Protectors or the familiar spirits they summoned, nor did they realize Ji Firepaw was in the Siege of Orgrimmar. It wasn’t that these weren’t poignant, well thought out moments of story, it was largely because most people were too busy fighting the mobs, clearing trash, and getting on with the business of raiding to really focus or reflect on the story being presented. Conversely, moments that force players out of the raid — like Saurfang’s speech before you engage Deathbringer Saurfang, or the many speeches and story vignettes during the course of the Dragon Soul raid — are interesting once or twice, and then quickly become a running joke. The first time you encountered Kael’thas Sunstrider in Tempest Keep and listened to his introduction was thrilling. The luster of the experience quickly paled once you realized you couldn’t actually engage the enemy until they stopped prattling on and got down to the business of trying to kill you.

Gul’dan, on the other hand, is another puzzle altogether. He is part of a legendary story that will presumably play out over the course of the expansion, much like Wrathion’s tale did in Mists of Pandaria. Yet while Wrathion’s journey was pretty interesting and engaging, Khadgar and Guldan’s tale is falling a little flat in comparison. Why? Because it’s been separated so far from the main narrative that it no longer feels important. We’ve been told we need to deal with Gul’dan, but so far the most Gul’dan has done is fuel the Dark Portal — against his will — and send some people out to take care of some business. We took care of those people, but Gul’dan himself doesn’t seem to be much more than a glorified taskmaster at this point. So what’s the difference? Why did Mists of Pandaria’s legendary storyline,  so similar in construction to Warlords, come across so much better? Where exactly is Warlords falling short?


Dailies and story development

The biggest difference isn’t the amount of content presented at level 90 in Mists vs level 100 in Warlords — it’s the story in that content. People may not have cared for the daily quest system, but it provided something that nothing in Warlords is currently providing — progressive narrative, the second you hit max level. Each factional daily hub had its own storyline surrounding it, and that storyline progressed as you gained reputation. While some reputations were more successful in presenting this story than others, the important part here is that they were stories — real, progressive, dynamic stories that played out in a timely fashion. You didn’t have time to sit around and think about what was going on in Pandaria, because it was literally happening all around you, as long as you chose to engage in it. And each reputation in turn fed into the main narrative of the expansion in a way that was easily recognizable and easy to follow. Patch 5.1 is still the best set of daily quests I have ever seen in this game, hands down — because the narrative that those daily quests led to pushed the overall story of the expansion forward, and man was that story entertaining.

We don’t have a narrative right now. We have a lot of vignettes, scattered all over the world, some that are sequential, some that are not. We can’t really figure out how time is flowing out here in Draenor, because each narrative moment we’re presented with is independent of the next. We have a garrison storyline that clearly shows Grommash Hellscream meeting with the Iron Horde leaders, clearly stating he is heading to Tanaan, we see him in Tanaan as promised at the end of that story. Yet inexplicably, we also see him in Highmaul with Kargath, with no indication of how he got there, why he went there of all places instead of presumably heading to Tanaan as he’d stated. And not a single one of these instances includes any kind of recognition or realization that the Warsong are leaderless in Nagrand, and Garrosh Hellscream is dead. There is no thematic tie between these moments, they simply exist, and we take them at face value and move on.

The problem with daily quests in Mists of Pandaria was not the story. It was never, ever the story. It was the fact that these daily quests restricted access to valuable gear upgrades, and by the time you actually did enough dailies to get that gear, you already had better gear from either heroics, or the first tier of raiding. It was the fact that players were being presented with a delicious carrot on a stick that they had to run ten miles to get to, only to find out the thing had gone moldy by the time they actually got to it. And by the time they got done running those ten miles, it really didn’t matter how pretty the scenery was along the journey — the moldy carrot at the end ruined the entire experience.

The simple fact of the matter is this: If we had Mists of Pandaria‘s dailies delivering narrative story, presented right alongside mob grinding as an alternate means to gaining reputation, and if that reputation offered mounts, cosmetic rewards, toys, and non-gear related upgrades, we would not be having this discussion right now. And people would know why we’re still in Draenor, and why we haven’t simply packed up and gone home already.


A clear and present danger

There is no sense of urgency to Draenor once you hit level 100. Instead, there is a long, drawn out session of vignette after vignette, mindlessly killing mobs to fill a bar on your screen. There is no story in that bar, there is no narrative enveloping the few daily quests we do. We have a chain of garrison quests that are presented once a week, quests that can be completed in under an hour and forgotten about for seven days. Most of these garrison campaign quests don’t have any real, legitimate ties to the main narrative at all. Or if they do, that connection is so remote, so distantly connected that it seems to bear little importance at all. We have a lot of villains, but they are villains only because we have been told that they are villains — we have seen no direct threat to ourselves or our safety. Not unless you slog through filling bars long enough to get someone’s attention and make them attack your garrison, and even then, the garrison attacks aren’t really story driven, simply objectives that you complete.

It doesn’t feel like we’re really in any kind of danger at all. For a land that should, by all rights, be teeming with savage enemies that would very much like to rip our faces off, there’s little threat to be seen. We go to Blackrock Foundry because we’re told that they are one of the backbones of the Iron Horde. We’re told to go to Highmaul because they are allying with the Iron Horde. Yet as an entity, the Iron Horde itself doesn’t seem to be posing much of a threat. There’s no feeling of looming threats on the horizon, no feeling that at any moment, things could go horribly wrong. The wolf does not, in fact, have any teeth.

What is the main storyline of Warlords of Draenor? We don’t know.

It’s clear through the leveling experience that there is a story to be told here, and we know with absolute certainty that Blizzard knows how to tell it, because every zone in Warlords of Draenor is chock full of leveling quests that make you really care about what’s going on. The absolutely stunning cinematics at the height of zone stories are all beautiful high points to an incredible leveling experience. Fetch and kill quests are few and far between, instead quest hubs are present because they serve a particular purpose in the region that fuels into that zone’s progressive story. It’s an amazing, fun, entertaining ride from 90-100, and when you reach that pinnacle of leveling in Nagrand, when you witness that final zone cinematic, you are left raring and eager to go get things done and see what happens next. But that story, the one that really seems to be leading up to something absolutely magical, stalls out at level 100 — and you’re left with an overwhelming void where all that story should have been. You can ask what’s next all you want, but at present time, there doesn’t seem to be any kind of coherent answer.

These are the kind of articles I hate to write, largely because I really love this game. I love how the story has progressed over the years, I love seeing it unfold. But despite the elegance and beauty of the story given to us during the leveling experience, Warlords has yet to deliver that same level of excellence in its endgame content. With 6.1 on the horizon next week and no new story to show for it, it seems as though the story in this expansion has become an afterthought, something deemed somehow less important than simply giving players content to do. And although I will continue to play, because I do love this game, I find myself wondering if or when we’re going to see that story continue — and whether we’re ever going to get the excitement and narrative drive of the leveling experience back again. I know Blizzard is capable of it, they showed us just how capable in Mists of Pandaria — I’m just hoping we’ll see the same passion that was so deftly applied to Pandaria’s tale come to Draenor. Because Draenor deserves it, and so do we.

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