Battle for Azeroth In Review – Part 1: The Story

(There will be some spoilers in this post for the BfA story and all of the cinematics released, including the Ny’alotha raid-ender and the new Darkshore cutscene. Be warned!)

With Battle for Azeroth’s story beats completely concluded (a bug with Heroic Darkshore on EU realms has put the cutscene from that in to public view), now is the time to fully review the expansion from my viewpoint – that of a gameplay-first, AotC-barely raiding, story-following player.

Now, to be clear, after my last post, I took a few days away to think about the raid-ending cinematics and to see if there was any news I missed of new cinematics. There wasn’t – just the voiceover for an in-game cutscene that had already been seen on PTR without the voices. It is worth saying this – what I am about to write is ultimately just my opinion, and I won’t pretend my critique is objective. It is subjective, and I’ll make every effort to make clear why my opinion of the expansion is what it is.

This whole series is going to be an effort to do that by analyzing the expansion in 3 parts – this one, the story, next the gameplay, and finally the overall package and its place in the game’s longer history. The very short version of the case I am making – for me, BfA is the worst expansion WoW has ever had, and these 3 posts will make the case as to why I feel that way!

For story, the core question and concern I had coming out of Legion was this: how will Blizzard bring things back into a story focus on faction conflict when we’ve spent so long in-game aligning the factions against shared threats? The last time the faction conflict was a major source of in-game lore was Mists of Pandaria, and even that story was largely about how Garrosh pushed the faction conflict for his own false vision of the Horde, which led to the Horde’s other leaders turning on him, first with Vol’jin and then the whole of the Horde. Since then, we’ve had the usual state of affairs in WoW – faction “tension” as the factions look suspiciously at one-another while tackling the bigger threats. Garrosh unified us and set us against the Iron Horde, which became the Fel Horde, which triggered the invasion of the Burning Legion, which unified us loosely, although with heightened tensions due to the events of the Broken Shore. We stayed in that loose sense of unity, bound by class orders rather than factions, until Sargeras’ sword plunged into the surface of Azeroth and unleashed Azerite.

Since that point, faction conflict made some sense – we’re fighting over Azerite! The problem this expansion has had is…well…everything since that point.

We started with the patch 8.0 pre-patch content, the War of the Thorns. Leading into the story of the expansion, Blizzard hyped the idea that we’d be surprised by how things started – we knew the two major events of the War of the Thorns ahead of time, and the question was if the Burning of Teldrassil or Battle of Lordaeron would be first. Then Blizzard told us and we knew that the world-tree was going to burn first and the question would remain as to who did it, with a surprise promised.

Well, we got there, and the logical sequence of events that most people saw coming happened – Sylvanas burned Teldrassil, and in retaliation, the Alliance took the fight to the Horde at Undercity. The events of the pre-patch had some cool setpiece moments – largely, the return of Jaina – but otherwise, it failed to deliver on any major surprises and was a rocky start. Nearly two years ago here, many of us played through, and there was a sense of general unease about what the events of the pre-patch told us about the expansion we had coming.

The main story of 8.0, after all of this, sees us recovering the Heart of Azeroth, seeking to empower it while seeking new allies for our factions. As a standalone story, this element of the expansion is not bad – I enjoyed the starting quests and learning more about the two continents we got with BfA. As a part of a broader story, however, this felt like a bit of a flat note. In my opinion, if the story notes had been flipped, the flow of the story would have been a lot better. We recruit allies for the strength of their navies, bringing them into the respective factions, and then our resource conflict turns into an all-out war with the War of the Thorns. In the order we got them, they create a scenario of hot and cold – we have a boiling, steaming faction conflict heating up, which then recedes for us getting allies into the folds. During this, the faction conflict is supposed to be a part of the story as a whole, but in practice, it just feels like the story falls off the tracks from the start – losing focus on the actual war for what is largely a side-story to the main conflict.

As the path forward through the war continues, we have a multitude of plot elements that are all happening in parallel – Jaina’s reckoning with her feelings about the events that have defined her life and her relationship to her family and homeland, pushing the conflict as the Alliance sabotages the Zandalari navy while the Horde begin to move towards an internal conflict with the Alliance, as the undead resurrect Derek Proudmoore. On top of all of this, we have the Old Gods coming into focus and Azshara, the plot threads that drove us through the expansion, and the Vol’jin spirit story, which, in many ways, is the only existing bridge into Shadowlands we currently have in-game.

Early on, the biggest problem I had with the expansion is that the lack of focus on a single main plot hurt the prospects of the future of the story. The expansion was a faction conflict story, but we spent more time in the actual story content of the expansion…not doing that. Of the 5 patches of the expansion, 4 had story content about the war, but only 3 of those made the faction conflict the focus – and that is the chief problem the expansion has had.

Coming out of Legion, with the exception of the Azerite quests added in 7.3.5, the lore build had created a story of how the Old Gods and the Void were becoming larger factors – the return of Ethereals, the void-empowerment of Alleria Windrunner, the brutality of the Light shown via X’era, and the full understanding of how Titans work – and that Azeroth’s awakening was an event that Sargeras most wanted to stop.

Since then, we’ve barely grazed two of those plot points, neither of which was the main event on offer for BfA. The faction conflict could have been interesting, largely because the game hasn’t really featured a true faction warfare since the RTS days, but the BfA plot got lost in the minutiae of coalition-building and telling a larger story about Sylvanas becoming the game’s chief antagonist as she turned away from the Horde and towards the future of the story, with Shadowlands waiting on the horizon. However, this flies in the face of everything we were told in the leadup to the expansion – that Sylvanas would not be like Garrosh, that the story being told was fundamentally different than that of MoP, and that we’d be pleasantly surprised.

What has happened has been anything but that promise, foreshadowed very early on when Alex Afrasiabi said that Sylvanas would make Garrosh’s rampage look like child’s play. That was at Blizzcon 2018, with only 8.0 under our belts, and while at the time it seemed an empty promise, now in context it seems an ominous bit of foreshadowing. At the time, there was a lot of consternation over how Sylvanas has been portrayed to even just that point in BfA, and everything since then has only been worse. Sylvanas has gone from someone trying to secure a future for the Horde to a genocidal maniac hellbent on generating as many lost souls as possible.

I feel a need to cut a careful distinction here, because I am of two minds about this. Firstly, the obvious – in the context of solely BfA, this is not great storytelling, as Sylvanas’ turn is sudden, ill-explained, and a sharp contrast with how she was portrayed for most of Legion. If (and this is a huge IF) Blizzard can connect the Sylvanas plot of BfA to her past and the events of Shadowlands in a satisfying way, it could pay off huge. However, I’m not one to give Blizzard credit for a possibility, especially given how poorly the team has taken advantage of the lore they’ve led into in the past. Therefore, in solely the context of BfA, I can only state disappointment with Sylvanas’ arc here. I mention Legion because Sylvanas seemed to be moving in a very different direction there, leaning into the role of Warchief of the Horde in a positive way, all of which was thrown out the window when we got to BfA – that Sylvanas feels a far away memory, almost like she never existed.

The faction conflict had a problem of lacking focus, compounded by the story being told with Sylvanas necessitating that the Horde get the majority of the focus. As with every other time the game has had a focus on faction conflict, the Horde quickly becomes the faction with agency and importance, while the Alliance is left responding, reacting, and generally just failing to play much of an active role in anything happening in-game. The burning of Teldrassil was a chance to tell an interesting story with the Night Elves…but outside of Tyrande’s ill-explained ascension to the Night Warrior, they’ve had nearly nothing except a speech added to the end of the Darkshore warfront. They’ve teased dissention among the ranks of the Alliance, with Tyrande disagreeing with the peace treaty in 8.3 and setting out to find Sylvanas on her own.

Again, with Tyrande as with Sylvanas – we know there is more to come in Shadowlands, and if that content is delivered amazingly well, then this is just a speed bump at worst and potentially great at best. Without that future context, for now, all we can judge is BfA, and the content here has been fairly mediocre. Yes, Tyrande becoming the Night Warrior is a cool moment, but it’s only cool in that it looks cool and seems like a cool event. Until the lore develops more, all we have currently is Tyrande losing the head to head fight with Nathanos even with the Night Warrior powers, and given all of that – it just seems like a bit of a mess to me.

For a last major point, we cannot avoid talking about the Old Gods subplot, which has become the main plot of the expansion, much as was predicted before the launch of BfA. The thing about this story is that I really want to love this story, because in 2017, prior to the announcement of BfA, it was the thing I was most looking forward to. The story isn’t actually bad here (with an exception we’ll definitely get to), it just feels terribly rushed in a bad way. N’Zoth has multiple teases and cameos (well, sort of) throughout BfA content, from 8.0 all the way through to now. However, for as major a villain as N’Zoth is supposed to feel, he just kind of doesn’t feel like that much of a threat. In fact, the 8.3 story quest pretty cleanly sets up what happens in the raid – the Forge of Origination is the key, and we configure the forge to fire neatly upon N’Zoth, specifically targeting the Old God by using beacons placed throughout the Ny’alotha raid as the means to tie N’Zoth to a location on Azeroth, as Ny’alotha is a sort of alternate reality version of what Azeroth could be under the rule of the Black Empire.

It just kind of doesn’t feel like enough to me. N’Zoth is the Old God, more than any other, who has been built up and setup as this sort of ultimate, existence ending threat, and yet, we take the fight to his doorstep, are welcomed into the Waking City to be possessed by N’Zoth, only for a lineup of fortunate circumstances to come together to save us – the sanity protection of Ashjra’Kamas saving our minds, the beacons revealing the true location of N’Zoth, and the power of Azeroth saving us. All of this is very decidedly disappointing, if only because after nearly 10 years of development of N’Zoth – the Old God that corrupted Deathwing, the weakest physically among the Old Gods, but the one with the most established story by far – ended in a single patch story, after only minor hints and mentions for most of the time spent in the game’s lore.

The ending cinematic/cutscene of the raid makes things even more confusing. If Ny’alotha as a whole is gone, does that mean the Old Gods as a threat are? What about Xal’atath the being? The Blade of the Black Empire, last seen piercing the carapace of N’Zoth? If the Old Gods and their lieutenants slumber in Ny’alotha – what came of it?

Ultimately, just as with the Night Elves and Sylvanas, I can only judge this story on the context of what we currently have, and it just feels flat and uninspired. N’Zoth needed more development to be a major threat – and the fact that he is the most developed Old God in-game says something about that! Sylvanas needed a more consistent story arc to get here, but she didn’t get it, and I’m not going to be surprised when she dies in Shadowlands without getting any narrative lookback or closure. Tyrande is the character among these that has the greatest chance of getting a story payoff, but even then, it is unlikely to be satisfying if BfA’s storytelling is anything to go off of.

However, I can’t leave off without recapping the good stories, of which there were a few.

Jaina’s BfA Arc: Arguably the best story all expansion, in my opinion – Jaina’s story cuts a clear path for Jaina as an unquestioned force for good, getting her out of the post-MoP rut of wanting the Horde dead and instead working to contextualize all of Jaina’s development in Warcraft, from her relationship with her family and homeland through to Thrall’s return in 8.2. Jaina had a beautiful character story, and the cinematic at the end of the Pride of Kul Tiras questline almost moved me to tears. It is the best kind of story to tell – a simple, human story, on how perspective changes events and how Jaina’s perspective on nearly all the major story beats of her life have cast her as a failure and left her feeling alone and disappointing. She’s reunited with her family, excised her of rage towards the Horde as a full entity, and has given her people a new lease on life with their return to the Alliance.

Saurfang’s Arc: As an Alliance player primarily, I’m not going to lie – Saurfang being arguably THE focal character in an expansion where we go to Kul Tiras makes me salty, but his story is one that the Horde needs. The Horde in WoW is a bloodthirsty mob, and that never changes – Garrosh’s story is about manipulating that right up to the line, and Sylvanas’ story played out much the same. Saurfang is one of a very limited number of Horde characters to stop, contemplate what the Horde actually does against its fictionalized “honor” and then realizes that there is no honor in any of it. Saurfang’s story, similar to Jaina’s, works because there is a believable human element to it – a constant state of growth and development, the realization of a mistake, and re-contextualizing all of that and reconciling words with actions to make right again. Coupled with a bunch of movie-quality CG cinematics, and well, there’s a recipe for a good story. Him being the one to reveal Sylvanas’ use of the Horde as a simple tool and nothing more fit the story being told, and he finally dies with honor. I’m going to jinx it with a slight expectation here, however – I bet we see him in Shadowlands. Somehow, someway, his soul is going to be involved somewhere.

The Zandalari Monarchy: Princess Talanji and the court intrigue of Rastakhan’s inner-circle is done well enough. Personally, I think it doesn’t match the grandeur of the Alliance-side questing and 8.0 capstone story, but it is about as good as one can hope for with little context and less background. Rastakhan setting his house in order, being forced to pledge loyalty to Bwonsamdi, and ultimately cursing his kingdom and daughter with the stench of the death loa anyways all feels like an interesting plot, and one that will likely see development in Shadowlands when we face Bwonsamdi in the dungeon Da Other Side. (okay, it’s not confirmed Bwonsamdi is a boss yet, but…it feels obvious!)

In short – BfA is full of cool set pieces and moments that are fun stripped of all context, but fail to materialize into any sort of coherent, well-built single story. The game’s lore isn’t really enhanced in any meaningful way by what happened, and I’m left feeling like I was at the end of Warlords of Draenor. WoD made me feel that for around two months, and then Legion’s announcement made clear what was to come and it did, in retrospect, make me feel better about WoD than I would have said in June 2015 when Hellfire Citadel launched.

However, we have no idea what comes next or if we’ll even find that same sense of narrative intrigue with the Shadowlands alpha launching, or if it will even launch in the next couple of months with the details we are looking for. For today, all I can say is this – Battle for Azeroth represents a lot of missed opportunities to build a coherent and satisfying plot today, and without any idea where the payoff winds up at – all I can express, with the ending in the wild and nothing left in hiding in 8.x patches, is this.

Blizzard, Shadowlands had better be really, really good, because Battle for Azeroth wasn’t.

5 thoughts on “Battle for Azeroth In Review – Part 1: The Story

  1. WoD was probably my favorite expansion considering major plot. Surely they rushed to wrap it up, and several places just cry out about the stories untold, but there was iron logic in the plot development, and its finale beautifully wraps up the whole story – binding the central “fel slave” theme from the expansion trailer to final cinematic into a one strong narrative.

    I have a counterpoint to Legion plot too: it was the very same brutal and heartbreaking introduction, but then we just forgot about it, despite the major invasion point was on the neigbor island. For the whole course of leveling and endgame before Broken Shore we never saw ANY Legion presence or Legion narrative. Surely there were some feeble kinda-Legion spots like Skovald, Suramar or Blood Totem arcs, but absolutely nothing will change if you take demons out of the equation here. They just could be a fascist society or common warmonger clans without any demon influence – your normal local foes that simply don’t like us.

    As for BfA – I see two major problems here.

    One, the overall plot is badly sewn together, and transition pieces are most weird. It all can be explained and understood, but whenever the next piece of story is introduced, it almost makes no sense.

    Two, splitting into four stories – A, H, their war and Old Gods – didn’t help at all. The writers had all these amazing pieces, but they did not wrap up around any core, there was simply no glue to bind them together.

    Solution? The whole expansion should have been Sylvanas-centered. That’s what she should have been – the core and the glue to bind the story. The storytelling should have taken her out of Grommash Hold and put in the center of events, arriving at every major point and pissing off both Horde and Alliance alike.

    Mark you, there are a lot of writers in Blizzard, and those who were given the task to perform all the separate parts did that perfectly. All the small and middle-sized story pieces were quite engaging, fun, tearbreaking and what not. It’s the mastermind who wrote the big picture failed 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I generally agree with most of this (including WoD, actually!) but I want to really emphasize the point about Legion – I totally agree. The start was a big gut-punch moment that wasn’t acted on quickly, in fact, barely at all. Vol’jin is being dealt with now in BfA rather than at all during Legion, and Varian was a throwaway quest in 7.2 that gave a cool cinematic and some AP. I mean, if I am being charitable, both are big plot foundations for how we get to where we are now, but it feels weird to, for example, not be exploring the contrast of how Varian handled war compared to Anduin. To not see the Horde have much of any contemplation over Vol’jin until his spirit started talking to us in Zandalar. A lot of missed opportunities there, and while my heart hopes those stories go somewhere in Shadowlands, I can’t really count on that!

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  2. Not gonna lie, 8.3 really underwhelms me with its scope, but that’s not the first time. We have had more than our fair share of end-patches that took something GRAND and then crammed it into a biscuit tin and played it at 4x speed through the final patch. Consider Argus, which deserved its own expansion; here we are now with an entire different dimensional representation of Azeroth – the Black Empire – and instead of exploring all of that for the span of a year or two, we get however long it takes to get to the next expansion. I don’t know what the hurry is here, but it’s like they’re rushing through concepts in order to get us somewhere else as fast as possible. But where?

    I’ve taken to searching for and focusing on those parts of any particular expansion that I find pleasing, and just enduring through the rest. The factional war for example – every time they say we’re going to get a faction war centered expansion I just roll my eyes because what they REALLY mean is that they’re going to give us some content that doesn’t really involve actual faction warfare, just us going up some sort of facsimile of the enemy. Warfronts are a great example of this. And while I enjoyed the warfronts, I felt let down that they didn’t keep the rewards from the warfronts current with the current iLevel for the current patch, unlike world quests (I know, that’s outside the scope of this discussion but it just came out).

    And yeah, the faction war story was pretty much non-existent outside of The War of the Thorns (which in fact I did buy in to emotionally) and Stromgarde – and I feel I missed a major part of the story there because it was, well, in a novel that I didn’t read. But overall, the faction war basically took the shape of seeing if I could gank mobs ahead of a hordie attacking it or vice-versa. That’s some fierce warfare there, boys. (story wise, this whole faction war thing should be discarded. they never do it well).

    I don’t think that Sylvanas’ story was as much a hell-turn as some might think, simply because I think her mechanizations in Legion were leading in to it. I do think that the storytellers did everyone a disservice by keeping all that as low-key as possible so as to not give away her big story in BfA (assuming they had knowledge of) but if you take her dealings with Helya as precursor, it adds up.

    Overall, this expansion retains the patina of a B-team effort just bridging the gap between two good expansions – at least, here’s hoping, as you say, that Shadowlands is one of the good ones.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Definitely agree – last patches tend to be huge content dumps with stories that suffer for being jammed into a single patch. At least, they definitely have felt that way since the team started getting stuck on end patches for a year. Sometimes, it feels too dense but not bad (I didn’t mind Argus being that way, for example) but sometimes it just feels too overwhelming (N’Zoth, Dragon Soul’s story elements, etc) and the game kind of loses focus for me at those points.

      Gameplay-wise, I’ll have more positive things to say and I’ll touch on some of the things you mentioned when that piece comes out!

      Liked by 2 people

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