Know Your Lore

Know Your Lore: Warlords lore in review

It’s the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016 — and around this time is when I like to take a few steps back and look at the broader spectrum of lore we saw in the year prior. What worked? What didn’t work? What do we want to see out of 2016? It’s a little different this time around, though, because we’re looking at pretty much the majority of Warlords of Draenor as a whole. Last year, Warlords had just launched after a year of mostly nothing in Mists of Pandaria.

Compared to the year prior, it had a lot to offer, but that’s because of that lack of content that carried us through much of 2014. Siege of Orgrimmar was released in September of 2013, and the pre-patch for Warlords didn’t hit until October of the following year. So yes, comparatively, we had a lot of content in 2015…but what about all that Warlords lore? How does it measure up with everything else we’ve seen out of World of Warcraft?

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The good

Warlords of Draenor had a lot of lore to offer — if you jumped in and participated fully in the leveling experience. Leveling quests and zones on Draenor were some of the best designed we’ve seen to date. Each zone had its own carefully orchestrated story arc, and each arc led into the next zone, guiding you through the story. But it never felt heavy-handed. It didn’t have the “theme park” feel that some used to describe Cataclysm‘s heavy hand-holding and required quest points.

We got another expansion-long legendary quest, and quests and zones fully utilized in-game cutscenes to emphasize dramatic moments. That was the part that I honestly enjoyed the most: the fact that leveling through a zone invariably ended with a dramatic event or cutscene that pushed your character ever onward. When you finished a zone, it felt like an actual accomplishment and gave you a reason to move on — something that was sometimes missing from expansions prior.

And once you’d reached the end of it all, you were poised and ready to take on patch 6.2. Compared to the pacing of 2014 — which was again, largely nonexistent — there was plenty of story to be found. The patch trailer was excellent, and Tanaan Jungle was teeming with the efforts of everything the Iron Horde had been up to while we were busy on the rest of Draenor…and the results of Gul’dan’s coup. The expansion was wrapped up with the end of the Hellfire Citadel raid and a cinematic that deliberately left the door wide-open for what we’ll be seeing in Legion.

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The not-so-good

But as a whole, Warlords of Draenor gave us very little for the time invested. Did we get story? Yes — but nothing compared to the massive scale of Mists of Pandaria and its wealth of patches and story. Did we have factions? Yes — but they lacked the story quests that made Mists factions so pleasant to do. We were missing scenarios, which were great for presenting small chunks of story in Mists of Pandaria. In fact, beyond the leveling experience — which was hands-down the best we’ve ever seen out of Blizzard — there was a dearth of anything story-relevant to do. Instead…we had a garrison. That garrison had a series of story quests, ones that were purported to be as interesting as what we saw out of Mists of Pandaria‘s patch 5.1, but they were so spread out in pace that they simply didn’t stack up to what we were offered in Mists.

For players looking for pure content, there was plenty of content to be had — between garrison invasions, garrison missions, raids, and the smattering of dungeons, there was a lot for a player to go out and accomplish. But for players looking for story, for the reasons behind what we were doing, for a reason to continue further, for…any kind of major character development or even minor character development, we got close to nothing once we hit level 100. And that’s a crying shame, because out of every expansion we’ve been presented with to date, Warlords had the potential to be something really, really amazing.

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Players who may never have touched the original RTS games suddenly got a glimpse of the major figures from those old storylines…and promptly killed them. Whatever stories those old warlords had to tell were lost in the quest for loot. Thrall’s interactions with the Frostwolves would’ve been amazing to see — but they were either off-screen or nonexistent. It would have been amazing to see how the Draenei of Draenor interacted with our Draenei, survivors of a world that no longer exists. It would have been amazing to see some of the interaction between Garrosh and his not-quite-father Grommash, but that was relegated to a reveal in a cinematic and a brief flicker of expression that screamed for more exposition later on — exposition we never received. It would have been amazing to see how these natives of Draenor really reacted to Archimonde’s fall — were they fine with falling in under Grommash Hellscream again, or did they take a second, longer look at Hellscream once the thrill of victory faded?

And we got none of that. We got a small handful of short stories and comics, compared to the pile of short stories and written media we got in Mists. Warlords of Draenor didn’t even get a novel — it got a tie-in novel, War Crimes, which was an excellent book, but said nothing about Draenor itself or the people on the planet. It was much more about resolving that big storyline we got in Mists of Pandaria instead. We got Lords of War, a beautiful, stunning, brilliant piece of cinematic storytelling…that told the stories of old, without shedding any light or relevance on what was happening right now.

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Points to ponder

And all of this leads me to wonder — what happened? Because if you disregard that year-long stretch of nothing at the end of it, Mists of Pandaria was without a doubt, hands down, the best storytelling we have seen in World of Warcraft. It was the resolution of a regime that showed its first inklings all the way back in Wrath of the Lich King. It was the reveal of a long-forgotten land, shrouded in mystery, and the exploration of that mystery. It was the introduction of a completely different culture. Pandaria felt like another continent, and its residents felt like they not only belonged there, but they had been there for so long that their existence was simply oozing out of every piece of architecture in every zone. And every moment of Pandaria’s story was current, relevant to both Alliance and Horde, and felt like it mattered.

That’s the major problem I have with Draenor — supposedly our actions carried great weight on the world, but where, in the long run, did it really relate to Azeroth? Where was the danger? Supposedly the Iron Horde was meant to be a major threat, but it felt like we barely even blinked and half the great warlords were taken care of. If that was the case, maybe we should have just let them come through the Dark Portal and dismantled them piece by piece as they arrived. Or maybe we should have had Khadgar working on the problem of shutting down the Dark Portal for good, instead of taking us through it and following along on Gul’dan’s silly goose chase.

But we went there, we did what we had to, we established a foothold on Draenor, we kicked back and waited for something to happen, and the Burning Legion finally arrived. And then we took care of the Burning Legion, and Yrel bid us a fond farewell while Grommash fist-pumped in triumph. And…that was that. None of the people we helped on Draenor had any apparent urge to come back to Azeroth. We went through a portal to another reality, “fixed” it, and then returned home. In the meantime, we had no word of events back home — nothing to tie our actions back to Azeroth in any meaningful way. Which meant that the entire expansion itself felt largely meaningless.

Let’s look at it from this perspective: What meaningful thing did we get out of Warlords of Draenor?

We got the attention of the Burning Legion. We had that already.

We got Gul’dan. We didn’t really need him.

If, in fact, Blizzard was so gung-ho about bringing Gul’dan back into active canon, they could have simply used their own rules. Just establish that Gul’dan didn’t actually die in the Tomb of Sargeras all those years ago, he was simply assimilated into the Burning Legion, and have him make his shocking return. Not the Gul’dan of some alternate version of reality, our Gul’dan. We didn’t really need all those other warlords or any alternate reality to tell that story.

If it sounds like I’m being overly critical here, maybe I am, a little. But the reason for it is because of what we’ve been presented with so far. Mists of Pandaria took so many steps forward in terms of story development and the way that story is presented in game…and Warlords of Draenor felt like it it took just as many, if not more steps in the other direction. When you compare the two, Warlords manages to edge out Mists in the leveling department. But where do players spend most of their time in an expansion? At max level. And there was far, far more to do, far more relevance with the story, far more actual story progression in Mists‘ endgame than the singular patch we got with Warlords.

From what little we’ve seen of the Legion alpha so far, the leveling experience is going to be absolutely phenomenal — as it should be, because Warlords knocked it out of the park. But what worries me, and what will likely worry me until we see it in action, is what comes after. Are we going to see a return to Mists of Pandaria‘s excellent serial storytelling? Or is endgame going to be another bout of plenty of content, but very little story? We won’t know until the game is launched and we’re at max level. For me, I’m hoping for the return of stories that feel like they matter — and more short stories too. Don’t get me wrong, cinematics are fantastic tools, but they can’t carry the story by themselves — Blizzard has a brilliant group of storytellers on staff, and I really hope we see more of their work. For now, we’ll have to wait patiently to see what 2016 holds in store.

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