Sunday, 9 September 2012

World of Warcraft - The Burning Crusade


Surprise, we're doing the burning crusade!

The Burning Crusade was World of Warcraft's first expanion, coming out in january of 2007. It raised the level cap to 70, introduced two new playable races and added the continent of Outland, heroic instances and the jewelcrafting profession. However, as usual, we're mostly skipping the gameplay elements in order to focus on the story.

The Burning Crusade is the story of the re-opening of the dark portal, the magical gateway that connects the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor (now known as Outland). Through this portal, an army of demons emerges, led by the vicious Highlord Kruul. Though the horde, the alliance and the argent dawn eventually manage to beat back the demon invasion, the dark portal remains open and both the horde and the alliance mount an expedition to see what's on the other side. In the process, both factions gain new allies: the Blood Elves for the horde and the Draenei for the alliance. In addition, the factions make new contact with old allies that had been considered dead, with the mag'har joining the horde and the alliance expedition joining the alliance.

And that's where the first big problems of the expansion set in. In order to fit these guys into their respective factions and to integrate some of the new concepts, massive retcons were needed. Let's address them one by one.

Blood Elves
An issue that gets raised by a lot of people is the fact that blood elves were the new horde race, despite not really having any connection to the horde. This is a point I disagree with, as the blood elves do have a connection through Sylvanas Windrunner, their former ranger-general of Silvermoon and the current leader of the undercity. While the blood elves do still have a closer bond to the alliance, it isn't as strong as a lot of people seem to think it is. Silvermoon only joined the alliance for a few years during the second war and was never happy with the results. Plus, the blood elves actually did try to join the alliance during the burning crusade. One of the early blood elf quests has a dwarven ambassador with whom the blood elves are negotiating, presumably in an effort to join the alliance. However, the alliance turns out to have been using the negotiations to commit sabotage. The blood elves only join the horde after the alliance negotiations go sour and the forsaken have helped the blood elves retake the ghostlands. As far as plot in world of warcraft goes, this actually gets an exceptional amount of in-game explanation. We even see various NPCs in Silvermoon address concerns regarding this.

However, that does raise another question: Why are the alliance sabotaging the blood elves? Sure, the blood elves are using demonic magic now, but there's plenty of people doing that, including actual demons. You'd think that the alliance would be busy with the warlocks and demons that are actively attacking them, not going out and picking fights with warlocks in distant lands. 

As an aside, there's two retcons regarding the blood elves that I do actually enjoy. First, The Burning Crusade ignores everything the RPG ever said regarding them. Thank the gods. Second, The Burning Crusade retcons a lot of the backstory given to Dar'khan, a traitor blood elf introduced in the sunwell trilogy. As that backstory never worked in the context of greater warcraft lore (Dar'khan was supposed to have blown up the sunwell, despite the fact that Arthas still uses the sunwell later in the timeline to resurrect Kel'thuzad), I'm glad it got reworked.

Draenei
As far as burning crusade developments go, there's probably none that deserve more scorn than those related to the draenei. In warcraft III, the draenei were an ugly bunch of sneaky, shamanistic primitives led by Akama. In The Burning Crusade, the draenei are majestic light-worshippers who live in massive temples and flying, technologically-advanced fortresses, are unable to sneak in any way, and are led by the prophet Velen. While there is an explanation for this (the draenei we saw in warcraft III were degenerated due to demonic magic) and we do see some of the warcraft 3-style Draenei, the fact that the draenei we know and the draenei we were allowed to play have absolutely nothing in common is ridiculous. The playable race having this sort of relation with the draenei is fine, but they should have at least been given a different name. Instead, its the old draenei that are suddenly called “Lost Ones”.

There's another issue regarding the draenei that's often discussed: the retcon. In The Burning Crusade, its revealed that the draenei are an uncorrupted form of the Eredar, who had been corrupted by Sargeras. However, in the World of Warcraft manual, it was established that the Eredar were one of the demonic races (along with the dreadlords) that corrupted Sargeras. While this is a minor point, it annoyed a lot of fans, some of whom called blizzard out on it. Surprisingly, blizzard actually replied on this point, stating that they had forgotten the minor plot point, apologising, but stating that they were going to keep the new lore since it made both the eredar and the draenei more interesting. I do actually agree that the new lore is more interesting. Having the draenei and the eredar be connected adds a lot to their backstory. Plus, having only one race of original demons makes a lot more sense anyway. However, the problem is that the two origins aren't incompatible. Why not have Tichondrius, the leader of the dreadlords, be the one to corrupt the Eredar? You keep the corruption angle and it works with the original timeline. It's the best of both worlds.

There's a third issue, which I don't think I've ever seen discussed: The draenei are ridiculously overused. Previously, the draenei were a footnote, even before their near-genocide. However, when you walk around outland in The Burning Crusade, draenei ruins and settlements are everywhere. It's especially notable when you compare the amount of draenei ruins and settlements to the amount of orcish ruins and settlements. Despite the latter supposedly being the dominant species of Draenor, there's about twice as much architecture of the former. Of the 18 instances that are located in outland, 9 are draenei ruins (with 4 others featuring draenei mobs extensively). It also starts raising some questions regarding their gencoide. If the draenei are an ancient race of holy warriors with thousands of years if experience fighting demonic corruption, access to advanced weaponry, magic and building materials from throughout the universe and control over massive strongholds throughout the world, how did the orcs ever manage to drive them to genocide?

A fourth issue that I've never seen discussed is the weird timeline regarding the broken that is caused by the draenei retcon. There's a bit of an inconsistency regarding the origin of the broken, as some sources say that they were mutated by their own use of fel magic, like the orcs, while others say that they were mutated by the use of fel magic by the orcs. I'm not holding that inconsistency against it, since its possible that both are true. However, no matter which origin, the creation of the draenei race dates back to the rise of the orcish horde, so they started emerging somewhere between 46 and 72 years ago. Considering the long lifespan of the draenei, the draenei who first became broken should still be alive. However, whenever we see the lost ones, they appear to have developed their own completely unique culture. They have their own religions, their own architecture and sharp tribal distinctions. Some comments by the draenei suggest that the broken have had their minds afflicted, but there is plenty of in-game evidence to oppose this and it wouldn't really explain it anyway (plus, the draenei are known to be prejudiced against the broken, so it's best not to take their comments in this regard too literal)

There's also a lot of issues with the draenei starting quests. First of all, while azuremyst is pretty decent mechanically, bloodmyst isle is an absolute mess, with many quests that are just grinding wildlife. Narratively, there are a lot of problems as well. For example, Velen supposedly had this prophesy about the draenei having to attain for the sins of their fathers, which is supposed to be proving to the alliance that they are nothing like the eredar. However, all that happens is that a single character eyes you suspiciously for a single quest, which is hardly enough to constitute the fulfillment of a prophecy. Another good example is that when your character first starts, an NPC mentions that you have been in a stasis pod for weeks. Even ignoring the fact that the portions of the ship where the stasis pods were located crashed on different isles than the one where you start, that would mean that weeks have passed since the crash. However, you still find fresh crash victims lying around. Have they been lying unconscious in the woods for a few weeks? And where the hell did all the broken go? The architecture in the starting zones also makes little sense. All of the draenei buildings are supposed to be crashed components of the Exodar, but they don't resemble parts of a greater ship at all. Instead, most of the buildings look more like mini-exodars.

Mag'har
The mag'har are a group of orcs who never partook in the blood of demons, leaving them as the sole uncorrupted orcs in existence, maintaining a brown skin colour, which has now been established as being the original orc skin colour. The orcs from previous games apparently only turned green due to exposure to fel magic. However, the mag'har resided in Nagrand, kept distant from the warlocks of the shadow council, allowing them to keep the original skin colour.

Okay, that sort of makes sense. However, the mag'har have been joined by refugees from the surrounding villages, with the refugees also having brown skin, despite belonging to clans that explicitly used warlock magic. Plus, if the orcs were turned green as easily as they did, shouldn't the mag'har have changed skin with either the destruction of Draenor or the current activity of demons and ogre warlocks in the region?

Alliance Expedition
I must admit that, amidst all my scorn, I do really like how the alliance expedition was handled, with each member of the expedition getting its own stronghold. This was also the perfect way to reintroduce the high elves (remember that for when we get to Wrath of the Lich King and Night of the Dragon as well), though I would like to have seen some more interaction between them and the blood elves.

Shattrath City
While the four points above are frequently discussed, there's a major subject that is incredibly significant to the story of TBC, but is rarely discussed: Shattrath City, the new neutral capital city. Having a city of refugees led by beings of light is a great idea, as it helps gives focus to all the stories related to the “minor” races of outland. However, the inclusion of the scryers and the aldor was, in my opinion, a big mistake, as they take the roles that the alliance and the horde should be taking, to the point where it starts creating plot holes.

For example, take the draenei. If the draenei who crashed on Azeroth  are actually members of the Aldor, loyal to the Naaru, why did they join the alliance? A temporary pact to reach outland makes sense, but they stayed in the alliance even when they discovered that Shattrath City had been rebuilt by the Naaru. Why stay in the faction that you only met a few weeks ago and is on the brink of war, when you could just rejoin your people in Shattrath?

The same goes for the blood elves. While it makes sense for the blood elves to join the horde at the beginning of the expansion, it makes no sense for the blood elves to still be in the horde by the end of it. It was the Shattered Sun Offensive (formed by the naaru, manned by the scryers, the aldor and the blood elves of Silvermoon) that stopped the burning legion invasion, retook Quel'dalar, brought Kael'thas to justice and restored the power of the sunwell. The naaru have helped the blood elves with every single problem that's been plaguing them since the end of the third war. So why are the blood elves still in the horde, which has done nothing to assist the blood elves since they joined?

For that matter, what have the horde and the alliance done during the Burning Crusade? The Sha'tar retook Tempest Keep, the Sha'tari Skyguard took care of Terrokk, The consortium took care of nexus-prince Shafar, the lower city took care of the auchenai and Talon King Ikiss, The protectorate took care of the ethereum and Dimensius, the cenarion expedition took care of Lady Vashj, the violet eye took care of Karazhan, the netherwing, aldor and scryers took care of the Dragonmaw Clan, the ashen verdict, scryers and aldor took care of Illidan's forces, ogri'la killed five of the sons of gruul and the shattered sun offensive defeated Kael'thas and the third burning legion invasion. That means that the alliance and horde's only major accomplishments are breaking through the burning legion defenses in hellfire ramparts and the fall of hellfire citadel (which are admittedly significant), the death of two of gruul's sons (not really all that important) and the defeat of nexus-prince Razaan (so insignificant I doubt any of my readers will even remember who he is). Giving focus to factions outside the horde and the alliance is good, but the division between the horde and the alliance is so central to gameplay that you can't really afford to sideline them like this.

Science-fiction
One common complaint regarding The Burning Crusade is how it feels more like science-fiction than it feels like fantasy. Most of the criticism seems to be levelled against Tempest Keep and its various satellites (including the Draenei capital city of The Exodar), which are commonly compared to spacecraft. I don't think the comparison is warranted, as Tempest Keep is just a plain-old magical flying city, and suspect that the complaints are just part of the general disappointment with the draenei.

However, I do have to agree with the sentiment due to two other points. First is that the expansion seems to be way too fond of using scientific and/or science-fiction terminology. For example, the blood elves that occupy Tempest Keep have physicians, botanists, chemists and gene-splicers, rather than, say, healers, druids, alchemists and monster breeders. The Draenei of the exodar can also be used as an example, with dialogue referencing to holograms and escape pods. The differences between science-fiction and fantasy lie mostly in the feel of the setting, and terminology is a huge part of that.

The second point is that there is a massive increase in the use of technology for pretty much every race in the setting. Goblins have searchlights, radiation showers and manned rockets. Naga utilize a massive complex of steampunk lake-draining technology (which is a real shame, since I loved their architecture in Warcraft III and find the new one rather dull). The Burning Legion now has mechanical strongholds, cyborgs and giant mecha. The blood elves have their massive Mana-forges. The fel horde has their fel-injection laboratories. You can even see it in some of the smaller details, like there being gun-wielding troll marksmen in Thrallmar.

The villains
There are two big villains in The Burning Crusade: Illidan, who leads the Illidari, and Kael'thas, his former follower, who leads the legion-loyal blood elves. Both of these men were previously seen as at least somewhat heroic characters in Warcraft III and in both their cases, their turn to evil is poorly handled.

Let's start with Illidan, an ancient night elf demon hunter who was imprisoned for ten thousand years. Of the two, he is the most likely to actually turn to villainy, as he's willing to cross some moral boundaries to feed his lust for magical power. However, that doesn't mean he would be a generic villain. The only act of outright villainy we've ever seen him commit was the destruction of the night elf villages in the first night elf mission of The Frozen Throne, and that was to safe his own life. While he has done several other actions of questionable morality, they could all be argued to be for the greater good. Absorbing the skull of Gul'dan made him capable of killing Tichondrius. Damaging Northrend with a demonic artifact was an attempt to kill the lich king. Getting the blood elves to use fel magic was an effort to safe their civilisation.

However, in outland, Illidan has become an insane tyrannical overlord, committing dozens of evil acts without it being for direct self-preservation, gaining more magical prowess or any greater good. Hell, in some cases, he just does evil things for the sake of doing evil things, like when he enslaved draenei tribes that were already serving him. The explanation we're given for this is that his defeat at Arthas' hands drove him insane, but that's complete nonsense. Illidan has had his eyeballs gouged out, was at the heart of the destruction of the world during the sundering and was imprisoned for ten thousand years by the time of Warcraft III, yet he was still in control. But now a single wound is enough to drive him over the edge?

And, compared to Kael'thas, that was the believable fall to evil. Unlike Illidan, Kael'thas didn't commit any morally questionable acts at all. The only justification that could be given for him becoming evil is the one given in the game, and its not a satisfying one: Addiction to magic. While its a staple of the warcraft setting, it feels very awkward to apply it to a character we know and love without seeing any transition. Plus, we see in a quest that Kael'thas actually owns one of the vials of the original well of eternity. Why wouldn't he have used that to simply create a new sunwell, thereby solving all the blood elf addiction problems in one fell swoop?

Some positives
Before this devolves into a hate-fest, let me add some positives first.

As usual, the zone designs are all well-done, being both distinct from one-another and at least somewhat interesting. Netherstorm and Zangarmarsh stand out the most due to their alien environments.

The new humanoid races (arakkoa, ethereal, sporeling and bog lord) all manage to have their own identity, distinct looks and interesting backstory. The ogres also get a really nice expansion of their lore. As a whole, they do make Draenor feel like a wholly unique world, rather than “that place where orcs and draenei come from”.

Flying mounts were an amazing addition to the game that added so much to the feel of exploration. I'm a bit peeved that flying was disabled on Quel'dalar, but otherwise it was handled perfectly.

All the professions were expanded well, and jewelcrafting was a nice addition. I'm admittedly not fond of sockets and having so many recipes be reputation awards, but those are personal tastes.

Karazhan is awesome, still ranking as my favourite raid. The other dungeons and raids, while not as good, are still a notable improvement over the original world of warcraft.

From fairly serious to barely serious – Chapter one
The Burning Crusade is the first step on the road in a process that annoys me to no end; world of warcraft turning into a comedy. Now don't get me wrong, warcraft has always been fairly light-hearted and there's always been some goofy humour present. However, the goofy humour was mostly limited to easter eggs and areas with little else to do, with the main story aiming to be serious.

Burning Crusade is the first step on the path, so it hasn't started overwhelming the setting. However you can see a notable rise of shout-outs in NPC (Amilya Airheart, tauren flight master and Haris Pilton, socialité are obvious examples) and quest names.

And then there is Budd Nedreck. Dear god, I can't believe anyone at blizzard thought that guy was a good idea. Budd Redneck is a questgiver in WoW, responsible for sending players into the Zul'Aman dungeon to look for treasure. Having a treasure-hunter be the justification for killing Zul'jin, one of the hero characters from warcraft II, is bad enough, but Zul'jin is also the master of the Revantusk Tribe, who are members of the horde. Yeah, horde players go kill one of their oldest and greatest allies for a random guy whose name is a nonsensical reference to rednecks. Ugh.

Elemental Lords, Old gods and Druids
The Burning Crusade introduced the idea that there were old gods and elemental lords outside of Azeroth. The latter was confirmed with the appearance of outland's firelord Cyrukh, and Ahune and Murmur may also be elemental lords. I actually kinda like the presence of elemental lords outside of Azeroth, especially if the elemental lords are of non-standard elements (the elemental spirits utilised by the shaman seem to be different from the elemental lords anyway, so there's no plot hole there).

However, I can't say the same for the old gods. All the information we'd previously gotten regarding the old gods made them seem as something exclusive to Azeroth. However, in The Burning Crusade, we see the dark conclave attempting to summon an old god, and there are references to there being more old gods both inside and and outside the game. I'm not really fond of this change, as it takes away from the uniqueness of Azeroth.

I'm not sure how I feel about there being lost one druids and ancients in outland though. On the one hand, it's pretty logical for the nature of outland to possess similar powers to the nature of Azeroth. On the other hand, the only druids on Azeroth were the ones who were trained by the ancient guardians, who don't exist on Draenor (though some later sources would suggest that at least one did, but that's a stupid retcon we can discuss some other time). On yet a third hand, the old warcraft II manual makes references to High Elf druids, suggesting that its possible to be a druid through arcane magic. On the fourth hand, the lost ones don't seem particularly well educated in the ways of arcane magic. All in all, It would probably have been better if the lost one druids had been named naturalists or something similar. A secondary issue is the presence of ancients in outland, including a few native ones. Considering it takes a wisp to grow an ancient and wisps have thus far only been seen in night elf territory, its kind of hard to imagine how there are ancients native to other planets.

In the end
Burning crusade is a great expansion to the world of warcraft game. It's a lot less great as an expansion to the world of warcraft story. Part of it is that it feels thematically disconnected, due to almost every faction on Draenor being more technologically advanced (a change which only stuck with the goblins). What doesn't help is the fact that the later warcraft expansions seem to stay away from TBC lore, with both the draenei and the blood elves shoved into a corner. The only major element from TBC that stays important later on is Garrosh Hellscream, who acts so completely different from his TBC incarnation I may just have to make another post related to the discontinuities in that character.

Awards
Best Instance Karazhan. Absolutely massive dungeon that's fun to explore and has a ton of interesting encounters.
Worst Instance: Magtheridon's Lair. Boring and minimalistic.
Best New Zone: Eversong Woods. Not sure what it is, but I absolutely love the blood elf architecture.
Worst New Zone: Terrokar Forest. Not terrible, but completely unfocused to the point where the region fails to have any sort of central plot. Plus, I'm not a particular big fan of the design. Bloodmyst Isle is a close second for the problems with its' storyline, but I really liked the design of that place.
Special Design Team Props: The person who decided to give a couple of epic drops small lore texts. It was a small but nice addition.
Favourite new monster: Arcane guardians. I always thought the golems of Warcraft III were a bit too clunky for the otherwise elegant Elven magisters and Dalaran archmages.
Coolest NPC: Shattered Hand Legionnaire. I love the voice-acting on these guys.



Next; We return to the RPG, as well as a regular release schedule.

2 comments:

  1. Kael'thas was desperate. The guy only worked with Illidan because he thought he could help him; when he failed he's turn somewhere else. People do stupid things when they're desperate

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