The world in World of Warcraft is once again changing with its latest expansion, The Battle for Azeroth. Stepping back from epic universe-ending events from previous expansions, The Battle for Azeroth sets up a good old-fashioned war between the Alliance and the Horde. However, the recent pre-expansion events have left a lot of people, including myself, worried about what might unfold in the story.
The Battle for Azeroth introduces a new and powerful mineral called Azerite which has been, literally, bleeding from wounds of the planet. The Alliance makes proclamations about healing the planet while the Horde’s new Warchief, Sylvannas Windrunner, actively mines Azerite in preparation for a war that she knows will inevitably come. Secretly, the young leader of the Alliance, Anduin Wyrnn, doesn’t trust Sylvannas and seeks to sabotage the Horde’s strongholds. Regardless of objections, this is a strong set-up that can allow for a war that doesn’t make either side look evil.
The recent pre-expansion event, called “The War of Thorns”, has seen Sylvannas Windrunner start the war by burning Darnassus, the Nigh Elves’ city, in a per-emptive strike to destroy the Alliance. In the process, a lot of civilians die as Sylvannas orders her troops to kill the Nigh Elves. Anduin Wrynn attempts to retaliate by sieging the Undercity, the home of the Undead, only for Sylvannas to destroy the city with explosives and diseases, killing her own troops in the process.
To say Horde and Alliance players are mad is an understatement.
To make matters worse, this isn’t the first crazy, bloodthirsty leader to take over the Horde. It has happened before with the Horde’s previous leader, Garrosh Hellscream. The whole event has left a sour taste in the mouths of devotees, since Horde players are forced to follow the genocidal Sylvanans and Alliance players simply lose two cities. Many players are furious that a beloved Horde character has once again becoming irredeemably evil.
The biggest problem with this new story is this: it’s gotten rid of Warcraft’s nuance.
The Warcraft story, on its surface, comes off like another fantasy tale about a war between orcs and humans. Where Warcraft set itself apart from other fantasy stories was by subverting expectations. Orcs weren’t mindless bloodthirsty monsters in Warcraft, they were a complex clan of warriors and shaman fleeing a broken home. Similarly, humans weren’t always good as they struggled to contain a bloated bureaucracy that allowed injustices to occur (though really only in Warcraft 3: Reign of Chaos). Races like the Undead weren’t just zombies, they were victims of a war and a curse that has left them with nothing. All these small twists made for a rich tapestry of a world where few characters are completely evil.
Sylvannas’ destruction of both Darnassus and Undercity has thrown this complex relationship out the window. In the Battle of Azeroth, the Horde are the bad guys and the Alliance are the good guys. It strips Warcraft of what made it unique.
Activision-Blizzard, the developers behind World of Warcraft, has tried to alleviate the situation with a new cinematic, “Old Solider” (which you should absolutely watch). In it, Varok Saurfang, an orcish leader and war hero, struggles to come to terms with what Sylvannas has done on the eve of the Siege of Undercity. Saurfang nearly leaves the Horde to fight the Alliance before a young soldier convinces him to stay with his troops. The message behind the cinematic is that even though Sylvannas may be evil, the Horde have to stick together in order to survive. It’s a brilliant video that accurately captures a Horde players’ mixed emotions about the war.
In fact, the “Old Soldier” cinematic even inspired a minor movement in the game with Horde players removing their pauldron armor pieces in a symbolic stand with Saurfang. But at the end of the Siege of Undercity, Saurfang is captured by the Alliance, leaving only Sylvannas and her lackies in charge. It also raises questions while the other races haven’t spoken out against Sylvannas. My worry, and many others, is is that the expansion will continue to make Horde look like complicit murderers to Sylvannas’ actions.
After all, it’s happened once before.