WoW Factor: World of Warcraft’s Battle for Azeroth has a weak conflict for a strong focus
The last time I saw this many people asking “why?” about a new World of Warcraft expansion was at the announcement of Mists of Pandaria. I agreed then, too; the idea of bringing in the Pandaren to the game seemed to be slipping into territory that just didn’t feel appealing to me. I’m still not entirely sold on the idea, a fact which is not helped at all by the fact that the very next expansion was so creatively bankrupt the team seems to have thrown every good idea at once into Legion.
Really, we don’t know what happened behind the scenes of Warlords of Draenor development, but that seems like a plausible theory.
So, yes, Battle for Azeroth. That is the actual title of the next expansion, one which feels almost as if it was cobbled together by drawing a few random words that usually get used with the game and hoping they assembled a coherent sentence. It seems, at face value, like a really dumb idea, especially since the very basic premise is one that you know is absolutely not going to be resolved by the end of the expansion.
Up to this point, every single expansion has had an obvious face of the Big Bad pretty early on. That doesn’t mean that it was always immediately obvious who the “final” boss would be, but you knew that The Burning Crusade was going to force us to go up against Illidan. There was enough discontent going into Mists of Pandaria that it was obvious Garrosh was becoming a problem, and the Sha burst onto the forefront with enough vigor to really take center stage right off. We know whom we’re fighting.
And in each and every case, those villains get to be put down, usually with finality, and without rising again. Assuming you do the raids, anyway. (Pay attention to this; it’ll be important later.)
Battle for Azeroth has an enemy implied by the title, but it is abundantly clear that this can’t actually be resolved in an absolute fashion. We know, as players, that neither the Horde nor the Alliance can actually win because that breaks the game. Thus, we also know that this is going to be a case where we get the football yanked away at the last second, that something bigger and more dangerous is going to start needling us in the side until we have to deal with that.
By then, what will have been accomplished? Another attempt to drive a wedge between the factions, another illustration for the players that it would make sense to work together. Isn’t that kind of pointless?
I don’t think it is. And while there’s totally a point to be made about the fact that we’ve all spent a huge chunk of time in Legion working with the cross-factions Class Orders, I think that’s entirely the point.
One of the things that bugged me from the game’s launch was the fact that Horde and Alliance players couldn’t interact in any meaningful way. That bothered me because it didn’t sell the faction divide; it weakened it. If you have to go fight a Tauren who’s out harassing Southshore, that’s just a chore you have to do; if that Tauren is your friend on the other faction whom you party with, you suddenly have a real emotional stake in what’s happening.
We, as players, have never gotten that with players on the other faction. But those of us who pay attention to the lore and have been seeing how senseless this divide really is now get to watch it claim things around us yet again. We get to see leaders who want to win at all costs take control, doing damage, and ultimately ensure that the long-simmering cold war is finally bursting to absolute heat.
But even that isn’t why I ultimately found this compelling, and I found myself struggling to figure out why my reaction to the expansion announcement was so much more positive than even the very premise would suggest. I play both factions and have long been a fan of the idea that the current faction divide is arbitrary and not great. Why would I want this to take center stage?
Then it hit me. Because every other expansion has given us an end boss.
The goal of Wrath of the Lich King was to get up to the Lich King’s lair and punch him until he died. Period stop. Every other thing that you did was, ultimately, a side activity designed to make it easier to accomplish that goal or provide you with more power for when you reached that goal. And you either got to the top of the raid and killed the hell out of Arthas, or you let the story peter out somewhere shy of its conclusion.
In fact, that’s been something that’s bugged me about the game’s core structure for years. It was at its worst in Warlords of Draenor, where the story literally made no sense unless you were following along with the raids, but this problem has been shot through every expansion. Don’t like raiding? The Burning Crusade ends with your killing a boss you never actually faced the first time and then assuming someone else will take care of the actual Sunwell.
But the conflict in Battle for Azeroth cannot be resolved that way. If neither side can really win, you can’t have a final raid to conclude the story that’s been going on the whole time; at best, you have a final raid to conclude something else that’s been going down. Putting the focus on the Alliance and the Horde at war means that suddenly there isn’t one story to follow along; there are lots of little stories, all of them going on all over the place.
The last time that was true about the game’s story? Vanilla. Sure, Kel’thuzad was the hardest boss, but he wasn’t really the final boss. We bounced around fighting various problems all over the place, and there was no sense that all of the conflicts had been building to Naxxramas; that was just our last port of call before the Dark Portal opened.
What’s the best part of Legion’s storytelling? It’s not the “unifying” story about Illidan; it’s all of the diverse stories going on elsewhere. It’s the zone quests that let you get to know and explore what’s going on with the Vrykul, with the Highmountain Tauren, with Malfurion making all the wrong decisions yet again. It’s working to help the Nightborne rise up and fight back against a ruler who sold her people out. It’s bringing an order together to work as a unified force. It’s side stories.
What makes me excited is that Battle for Azeroth does seem to have the weakest overall thrust to “here is the big bad.” But the result is that there’s lots of space to do everything. It was the sort of wide-open feeling that we actually got when Mists of Pandaria launched; when you don’t have to bend everything to “kill the baddie,” you’re free to focus on other things.
In truth, it feels like a features-based expansion. There’s a lot of different new systems being put forth here, and glory of glories, they actually seem to be mechanics that can carry forward if the designers see people like them. Artifacts became too top-heavy almost instantly; Warfronts, by contrast, are a type of content that actually could continue along in the future. Ditto island exploration. Ditto allied races. You get the idea.
And that makes it a breather expansion. A welcome one, in a sense, one that feels a bit more grounded than it otherwise would be. There’s a conflict here, but it’s one that we’ve given rise to ourselves, a case where compassion and forgiveness is sidelined. It’s the classical definition of a tragedy, where we all know the consequences and the fact that things could be better even as we see things not being better.
But it’s also a conflict that doesn’t have a good guy and a bad guy to beat up. It’s a chance to explore things where lots of individual parts all have relevance to the present.
Bringing the game back to its roots, to me, means bringing it away from everything being about fighting the central bad guy. It’s about central conflicts that don’t get resolved by one side (ours) winning and the other side losing. It’s about a world where a lot of things are going on, and the player characters are special not simply by virtue of special artifacts but by being able to act outside of the chaos.
So I’m all right with this. Even if that title really is terrible. Seriously, why not just go with World of Warcraft: Tides of Darkness? It at least makes sense.