Spoiler-Loaded Discussion of 8.2.5 Disappointment

Alright, so now I’ve played the patch 8.2.5 story, seen the cinematics and the total package it all comes wrapped in, so let’s revisit yesterday’s short, spoiler-free rant.

I don’t like this story. There are some expected things Blizzard did (lazy things, mostly), there were some unexpected things (which gave me hope that was subsequently squashed), and then there was the gameplay – all 15 minutes of it out of the roughly hour of content.

Rather than allow myself to freeform write a recap of the whole story, I’ll write this on the assumption that you’re familiar with the story being told in Battle for Azeroth, and we’ll weave in spoilers and plot points that way.

Also, to be really clear – these are all my opinions. I won’t pretend I represent a silent majority or anything, these are just the things I feel personally about the story.

Sylvanas – to be perfectly clear, I didn’t expect that she would break out of being Garrosh 2.0. I’ve been spun enough bullshit in panels about the story from Alex Afrasiabi to know better, so when the Q&A panel at last year’s Blizzcon insisted that she’d be far more terrifying than Garrosh, I had a hunch there was no way they’d deliver that and we’d just end up repeating his storyline over again, with an undead elf instead of a hulking orc.

What I didn’t expect (and perhaps should have!) is that Sylvanas’ story this expansion is damn near a literal copy and paste of Garrosh from Mists of Pandaria. Horde destroys an Alliance location of interest at direction of the Warchief? Check. Horde goes to a new land and makes allies of the native race? Check. (yes, yes, Ji Firepaw was from Shen Zin Su and not Pandaria, but come on.) Current warchief makes inroads to the resources of the new land? Check. Warchief works to free an Old God for their own self-empowerment? Check. Warchief abandons the Horde for their own selfish reasons? Check. Factions unite and storm the gates of Orgrimmar? Check.

Oh hey, don’t worry though, this expansion is going to be different, because now we have a patch coming after all of that, so there can be depth added!

No, just stop it.

Sylvanas has been made fully uninteresting by the story of BfA. The problem I really have boils down to presentation – the game took some effort in Legion to subvert expectations with what a Sylvanas leadership would look like, only for BfA to bring back around her more natural conniving characterization. If Legion doesn’t unfold the same way, or less effort was put into pushing her characterization in a newer, slightly more kind direction, then I’d honestly be a lot less irritated with the plot of BfA. The Windrunner comic that led into BfA had an almost caring Sylvanas meeting with her sisters and having a fairly normal (if somewhat warped) family gathering and conversation, which ends with the sisters parting amicably. To go from that to Teldrassil is such a whiplash that my neck still hurts and an ambulance-chaser wants me to sue Blizzard.

Oh, and if you’re a Sylvanas loyalist in the Horde, you get a bit of additional exposition that shows that after running away from the end of the mak’gora with Saurfang, Sylvanas is fine and still seemingly acknowledges you and your contributions. She’s made a deal with Azshara, which is in fact what led to the 8.2 events in the first place. Through this deal, it would seem that she serves N’Zoth, but what she gets out of this is the death of thousands more – for whatever reason she wants that (cough *9.0* cough). Her actual motivations for this are ill-explained and seemingly out of nowhere – it is shocking but seemingly just for the sake of the shock. Maybe 8.3 will add a meaningful twist to this, but I’m not holding my breath.

Oh, also, Nathanos loves her. Great. Those two deserve each other.

Saurfang – Saurfang has been the MVP of the expansion in my eyes. His crisis of conscience about Sylvanas and the Horde has been one of the few bits of writing I could get behind. I actually really wanted to see more of it, because it is logical, grounded in a realistic ideal of how such a person would react, and could have led to a lot of interesting places.

The gut-punch of 8.2.5 is that the first portion of the patch story actually sets up more of this quite well. Saurfang comes to a realization that is, I think, actually quite well-grounded and pivotal to the game’s story. The cycle of conflict tends to come around because the Horde are aggressors, fighting for a fictitious “honor” built on a bed of lies and a mound of skeletons. He recalls how the Horde began on Draenor with the march over the skeletons of those living peacefully, the irony of calling it the “path of glory.” He admits that the Horde is, in fact, kind of garbage, and connects that to the current story by showing that Sylvanas is the inheritor of that legacy and rightfully the warchief because of it. He dismisses his own claim to honor for his role in building that foundation for the Horde to rest on – which is the best written thing in this whole expansion!

Anduin refocuses that through the lens of the Alliance’s transgressions, but the narrative weight and impact is summed up easily here. The Alliance has two villains it can lay claim to – Arthas Menethil and Daelin Proudmoore, both of whom committed atrocities, but neither of which carries the weight of those from say, Blackhand or Garrosh. The problem here is that this narrative is handwaved away as “both-sides” like a family Thanksgiving dinner in an election year, despite one side obviously having a strong claim to villain-status.

Saurfang says what I’ve thought about the writing of this story the whole time – the faction conflict is stupid and outdated, because Blizzard tries to pretend there is a depth and nuance to it that doesn’t exist in their writing. The Horde are villains, outright – every time this cycle comes about, the Horde does something awful and atrocious that pushes the world into conflict, the Horde leaders who suddenly have conscience about it reject the action and rebel, we storm up to Orgrimmar to depose whomever the despot is today, and then we move on until the next time it happens. He makes clear in-lore precisely what I’ve felt about the faction conflict the whole time – it was set dressing that no longer serves a meaningful purpose.

In the end, the remaining Horde leaders and the present Alliance leaders offer up their “For Azeroth!” and move on to tackle the Sylvanas problem together. Therein lies the second problem – it’s clear from the jump that there is no real plan, just a move to immediate action. Sure, the only gameplay the patch offers is the preparation for a battle that never comes – clearing the way to Orgrimmar and ensuring the forces massed at the gates are ready, positioning the various racial forces according to a threadbare plan with no idea how Sylvanas will react.

Once you complete the prep work, it’s time…to watch a pre-rendered CG cinematic.

It is an artful cinematic and fairly well done, so I will absolutely give Blizzard props for that. However, the story it tells is absolute drivel. The notion is that Sylvanas is without honor, that she must be deposed and we are prepared for conflict, however, Saurfang conceives of a plan. The plan is to challenge Sylvanas to mak’gora, an honorable battle. Already the disconnect should be apparent, but then it gets worse – Sylvanas breaks the characterization of honorlessness given to her and accepts the challenge, and fights honorably! Like, she’s got void powers, the particle effects are made quite clearly to point this out, but nothing she does in the battle is dishonorable. She succeeds on her own merits and ends Saurfang’s life.

Saurfang’s own last moments are cliche as well – he wields both Thrall’s axe and Anduin’s blade Shalamayne in his final battle, the closest this cinematic gets to Alliance representation besides a few seconds of weepy-faced Anduin nodding sternly and handing over the sword. Saurfang fights, failing to land a blow on Sylvanas until all looks lost, when he becomes the only person besides Varian to split the blades of Shalamayne and finally hits Sylvanas once with a small cut to her face (hey, remember Single-Minded Fury playstyle?). This one cut, not even enough to bring Sylvanas to a knee, makes her stop and acknowledge Saurfang’s moralizing, with her claiming that the Horde is nothing as a hush falls over the battlefield and the loyalists are shown to be taken aback by this.

Saurfang is blasted to death, you can’t even see if Shalamayne survived the blast, and ultimately, Sylvanas retreats like a cartoon villain after further sticking in the knife about how pathetic everyone else is.

Saurfang was so close to being the best-written Horde character, he had a legitimate change of heart and questioned his whole legacy, but in the laziest possible way, Blizzard used that as his last act – he gets to go out without regrets or a burden on his shoulders, but also doesn’t have to oversee the difficult act of using that revelation to inspire meaningful change within the Horde. Of course, that isn’t to say that Thrall, Zekhan, or the other Horde leaders won’t likewise take on the burden of that change, but honestly, their best chance to salvage the Horde side of these conflicts died with Saurfang.

(Also, based on the Sylvanas loyalist scenes and her death powers, I 100% expect that we’re going to get Saurfang undead, just to really rub it in, especially if we get that Death expansion as 9.0.)

Anduin, Genn, Jaina, Really Most of the Alliance Leadership – after months of bloody conflict, the freezing of Mekkatorque, the capture and reanimation of Derek Proudmoore, and TELDRASSIL, everyone is here just chilling. Genn is barely angry about sharing a Horde hut with Horde leaders leading an assault whose primary purpose is to restore the Horde! Oh, at the end he sounds barely upset that Sylvanas lived, so I guess that is something! Jaina could have a fantastic role here as peacekeeper given her history as both the kumbaya lady and the bloodthirsty vengeance fiend wanting the Horde to suffer – but she doesn’t offer that perspective in 8.2.5, and is just barely around enough to make that infuriating. The rest of the Alliance leadership present is presented as barely there, just involved with the strategic development of the battle.

Then there is Anduin. Anduin is, by nature, peaceful and desires an end to this conflict, this much is known and honestly – sure, it’s fine. What I take issue with is that the Alliance is depicted by the dialogue as being on the ropes, with no soldiers past the initial wave at Orgrimmar – if we fail here, the Alliance is over. Yes, this is to quell a war, but that kind of sacrifice and that potential outcome would give a bloodthirsty general pause, let alone a pacifist monarch ascended to the throne far before he was ready. The potential problems this could cause the Alliance seem to outweigh the benefits!

We could remedy that with a secret weapon, but…

Where the Fuck is Tyrande? – Anduin tells us Tyrande has not returned since Darkshore, and is brooding. He fears that the desire for vengeance has taken her (cough *she’ll probably be a raid boss soon* cough). It sucks, though, because this isn’t just some other battle – this is their best shot at taking out Sylvanas. Instead, Shandris Feathermoon is there, and she’s just kind of…there? I had to lookup her name before writing to make sure I knew I had the right character! This seems like her moment to use those Night Warrior powers to full extent, but instead, she’s off sulking somewhere. Good riddance.

The Windrunner Sisters – if Saurfang wasn’t put forward in this patch in the way he was, this would be my greatest disappointment. The whole point of the Windrunner family reunion is to make clear that while there is a sisterly bond still there for these 3, the others do not trust Sylvanas and BfA has shown them (well, Alleria at least via the Void Elves and Battle for Lordaeron) taking an active stance against their sister. However, now comes the time for us to make good on that and to address the Sylvanas issue, and they instead want to not just spare their sister, but argue for letting her continue to lead the Horde to her goals instead! It is an incredible ignorance of the storytelling to this point to suggest that the Windrunner sisters want to allow Sylvanas to continue doing what she’s doing uncontested, and the mere thought of suggesting it is laughable. Now, given this and where Sylvanas ends up after Team Rocketing away from the mak’gora, I fully expect that a new Windrunner reunion is bound to happen in game, and I imagine that a third death is going to happen there to Alleria. I suppose it is perhaps also possible that Alleria senses the void within Sylvanas and finds herself sympathetic to that, although that is both an asspull and an attempt to justify the awful writing, neither of which I am fond of. Right now, as presented, this is incongruous with the larger story, the presented Windrunner story, and only vaguely makes sense as an appeal to family bonds.

The Alliance’s Role in the Story – look, maybe this is my inner Alliance-player coming out, and the fact that I have about 18 Alliance characters and only 6 Horde, but the number of times a war story in WoW has turned into pure Horde drivel is too many to count and it sucks every time. What faction has actual conflict, character development, and growth? The Horde. What role does the Alliance play in the actual story? Making sure the Horde grow and develop. We save the Horde from devastation at their own hands every time – first with Garrosh, now with Sylvanas. As an Alliance player, I’ve spent BfA training a gorilla, fighting Horde-aligned vampire-elves the Horde players STILL DON’T KNOW ARE IN ITS RANKS, and learning about these barely-developed noble houses of Kul Tiras. The Horde, on the other hand, has had a central role in every raid – Uldir’s story is fully theirs, Dazar’alor is their expansion capital, and the whole reason we end up in Nazjatar fighting Azshara is because of Sylvanas. The Alliance has followed Magni to cleanup Uldir, fought in Dazar’alor as our own goal (the closest we’ve gotten to having a clear purpose in a raid this expansion), and been led to Nazjatar by the Horde, including to the gates of the Eternal Palace. Our war campaign has involved freeing Horde captives, the aforementioned vampire-elves, and loose explorations of Zandalar that barely involve any sort of strategy against the Horde. Only Zuldazar questing later in the war campaign has much of anything to do with the war as it happens. Oh, we also get the Horde invading Brenadam, but nothing equivalent for the Alliance in the Horde experience.

The story of WoW for far too long has been the Horde as villain-protagonists, driving the story forward even when they’ve often been evil or acted poorly, while the Alliance barely qualifies as the protagonist’s sidekick. The game has always focused on the Horde as their backstory is far more interesting, but the problem is that the Horde never really recedes for an Alliance story. We’re dealing with weakness in the Horde ranks from division of Sylvanas, but they are still somehow the main protagonists. The finale of the war campaign spells this out – the prerendered cinematic has Thrall, Saurfang, Sylvanas, and a full rank of Horde soldiers standing and watching. The Alliance presence? Anduin. No effort is even being made to pretend otherwise, and much like late MoP, the Alliance are watching and acting but not important enough to be involved with the Horde-centric story unfolding before us. If it wasn’t just a copy and paste of Garrosh, it’d be fine – but that is all it is, and it is awful for it.

Even when we do get teases of Alliance plotlines, like Tyrande, they are quickly backburnered or pushed out of frame, given no importance, no screentime, and no value.

The General Nature of the Plot – look, I want to like this story, but it highlights something awful about Blizzard’s style in a post-Metzen world. The entire lore of WoW is built now on shock factor and surprises, and they attempt to backtrack from those into semi-coherent storylines. We were told in the announcement and leadup to BfA that Teldrassil’s burning would be a mystery and the solution would surprise us, but it didn’t – it was Sylvanas. There was no surprise or shock, other than from mega-Sylvanas fans who are generally checked out from the reality of the lore pretty heavily anyways. So then we were told she wasn’t going to Garrosh-out and be an evil Warchief, but hey, guess what, she did exactly that! The surprises just haven’t been that surprising and have typically been the lowest common denominator, most expected plots we all saw coming. Worse still is that they often twist themselves in knots trying to keep things consistent and still fail at making clear, coherent cases for character motivation or the why behind elements of the plot. If we lived in a world where the game was less discussed and shared, the only way we’d have the full story is if we played Horde – and even then, it is not clear how much of the loyalist plot is the real story, as Sylvanas could betray even her most loyal in service of her own power. Before the Storm tries to paint a Sylvanas concerned with the survival of her own people, and yet the cinematic yesterday undoes a lot of that – as did her reanimation of Derek Proudmoore.

There’s almost not even a point to following the damn story anymore, at least not as it unfolds, because you’ll be left with unsatisfying cliffhangers and changes in direction. More and more, it feels like the best way to enjoy WoW is to buy the expansion on-discount at the end of the expansion and play all the story content in one shot. Legion, as much as I liked it, was the same way – the main plot was far more coherent when the originally-intended cliffhangers instead gave way to the next plot point immediately. Blizzard loves ending patches with major surprises – Gul’dan sent away, Illidan appearing, Argus in the sky, the sword buried into Silithus, and the kidnapping of Azshara all come to mind – and those are just in the past 3 years!

But outside of the lore, I think my biggest beef with this patch is this – a content release designed to keep us engaged for what is likely to be at least 4 months has roughly 20 minutes of new gameplay via the main story quests. There is no new dungeon, no new raid, no new season of PvE or PvP gameplay, and no major new features. The biggest gameplay impact is delivered via the updated Recruit a Friend, and those changes are great! However, the majority of players are not going to interact with those changes – in my IRL friend circle, everyone either currently plays WoW, plays Classic, isn’t playing because they have and aren’t interested, or flat-out don’t want to play. Firelands opening up for Cataclysm Timewalking is cool, but I fully expect it will carry the same weight as Ulduar or Black Temple in their respective timewalking events – too high a barrier to cross to enter and play, therefore, not many will bother. I think the first Cataclysm timewalking event will be the first and only time many people will even try – and I say that as someone that absolutely loves Firelands!

Already, most WoW players I talk to or read are pushing in the same direction – the sooner Blizzard can announce 8.3 and put a new thing on the horizon, the better. This content release, to be fair, didn’t necessarily have a lot riding on it – it is a minor release, after all. Blizzard didn’t do themselves any favors by pushing on the features as world-changing. The end of the war campaign is upon us, and yet, nothing feels that impressive or interesting in the end. All I find myself thinking now is how I have a sense of dread over 8.3 – Blizzard could have had a slam dunk here but instead went with this laziest, simplest writing they could, and it has mostly ruined my interest in where the lore goes from here. Barring some amazing Shadowlands hook for 9.0 (EVERYONE DIES), I’m probably just checked out of the lore for now.

I’m tired of having any false hope I might have snuffed out by the awful stuff Blizzard pushes out.

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8 thoughts on “Spoiler-Loaded Discussion of 8.2.5 Disappointment

  1. I’m disappointed in that the potential here was significant, to deliver something qualitative at the story level that would have brought a significant shift in the gameplay (cross faction).

    On the meta, I am equally confused. Blizz may stretch the truth a bit, fine, but this seems like an outright lie in terms of storyline. In that sense, either Blizzard doesn’t actually believe this is Garrosh 2.0 (in which case, holy crap) or they do believe this is Garrosh 2.0 and thought no one would notice (again, holy crap). Take a week, hire Red Shirt Guy to provide some QA feedback on your storyline, and save yourself a year of misery. Or just cut your cinematics budget so you can retain a real writer.

    I keep thinking of the ending of ME3, where an amazing storyline just gets shoved into the corner to eat lead because they fired the lead writer and project exec tried their hand at it. Pure bullplop, and that 10 minute section of a 100+ hour series was nearly all that people remember.

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    1. I think there has to be an approval or chain of command issue. Christie Golden is writing for the game full-time now, and I have a hard time believing an author with pedigree would be on board with the content they’ve pushed out since she was announced as hired.

      I feel like in story terms, we’re moving faster to the finish line but they weren’t willing to cut 8.3 and move on faster. Everything about this patch feels like it was a rushed mess to get the plot points out so they could move to N’Zoth and on from there. Curious about 8.3, but I can see the writing on the wall with Sylvanas and N’Zoth being a one-patch wonder is going to be a shame.

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  2. He dismisses his own claim to honor for his role in building that foundation for the Horde to rest on – which is the best written thing in this whole expansion!

    I also thought that was surprisingly deep… and then the rest of the cinematic(s) happened, heh.

    As for Sylvanas… her arc is not out of character exactly, but ultimately kind of disappointing. If you combine all the material about her from quests to books to comics, she had so many nuances that could have gone either way… hell, I wrote a post about this back in 2011 (!) but hey, I guess she was simply evil and bent on world domination all along. Yawn.

    It seems to me that Blizzard’s biggest weakness in their writing right now is that they care little about keeping up with the big picture. They have these ideas for one character to have an arc, or a cool cinematic, but then everyone else outside of that is completely disregarded and either happily goes along with whatever that one guy decided in the cut scene or is mysteriously put on ice in the background, doing nothing until the writers decide to pull that person out again two expansions later.

    I do believe that you can have a strong central narrative in an MMO, but you’ve got to be considerate of all the major players’ characterisations and how they interact with each other. If someone just ignores a big event that you’d really expect them to care about, the writers better have a damn good excuse; and if plot “just happens” mostly with disregard for whether it makes sense for these characters in that situation or not, players will be justifiably dissatisfied.

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    1. I had to contain myself on the Saurfang points – I was so excited for his development to be something interesting and engaging and then he just…dies, and that’s it, and there’s not any clarity in the current storytelling to suggest anyone else (like Thrall!) is going to take up that same mantle and work for positive change.

      I totally agree on Sylvanas – I think she had potential to be so much more, and she’s had this interesting writing about her where she fears her true death and wants to carve out a safe future for the Forsaken, and this writing does service to one of those points (can’t be afraid of something you can conquer!) while dismissing the other (she murdered a lot of Forsaken at Battle for Lordaeron for…reasons we won’t see for another patch). Once she was in that concept art of a burning Teldrassil, I could feel the walls closing in on her writing – Blizzard never lets villains have any righteous motivation, so it was just a matter of time before her depth and nuance was done away with. If she has a face turn again after BfA, suddenly it will all come back. Illidan is probably the best example – his actions in TBC are not well-defined, but when he’s back in Legion, actually, he was good the whole time and now we have all this extra depth, including a nearly full retcon of the events of Black Temple that makes him always good!

      This will be a future post, so I won’t go deep here, but I think I preferred Blizzard’s old self-contained expansions much more. The new model just exposes the weakness in the character writing for no discernible gain.

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  3. Thank you for this. As a mostly-Alliance player, too, I have long since gotten tired of my characters just ending up as the background extras in the Horde’s story.

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