Friday, 14 June 2013

A special look at - the horde - part II

Now for part two, where I discover I have a surprising amount of things to say about TBC.

Expedition to the unknown!
I mentioned before how little sense the orc outposts in the eastern kingdoms (minus Kargath) made little to no sense because the horde should be focused mostly on securing their new homelands. This becomes even more of a problem when it comes to expansions, because both factions need reasons to establish a presence throughout the new zones. For the alliance, this is rather easy. They already have large forces present in both Outland and Northrend, as well as forces present for hypothetical south seas and emerald dream expansions.

For the horde, it's a bit harder. They don't exactly have much of a motivation to send random military expeditions into every new land that pops up. Hence, the horde always needs a specific reason to get involved in expansion content.

And a lot of the weirder story decisions for TBC can be traced back to just giving the horde a reason to go to outland. Magtheridon surviving and being used to create fel orcs? A group of orcs (including the families of four of the greatest horde heroes) somehow remaining uncorrupted? An entire community of half-ogres? A vast community of blood elves somehow surviving on Azeroth and thus needing the help of the horde to reach Outland? The alliance attacking the blood elves despite being friendly with them before? One could even speculate that one of the motivations for Illidan and Kael'thas turning into generic evil overlords between games is to explain why the forsaken don't just tell the horde to go screw itself and join them instead.

And really, it still didn't really work. Sure, we've given them a reason to send forces to Hellfire Peninsula and for Garadar and Mok'nathal village to join the horde, but still nothing beyond that. Why would they establish a military presence in Terrokar Forest or Blade's Edge Mountains? They're not on the offensive against anyone there. Sure, there are guys they dislike, but no one who is an active threat to them. Why not spend those soldiers on the conflicts at home?

The one that strikes me the most though is Zangarmarsh. Seriously, why is the horde there? Even if we accept that the horde simply has soldiers to waste on picking fights with random factions, the zone still doesn't make sense. The naga plans and broken hostility are only discovered during the cenarion questline in the region, when the troll outposts have already been long-built.

Which brings us to other questions. First, why trolls? No, seriously. Why would the darkspear trolls, a near-extinct tribe incapable of defeating a single rogue witch doctor decide “Hey, screw retaking our capital or defending our handful of barely defended villages against local threats. We should really just send our soldiers to another planet to fight people we never even heard of. It makes complete and total sense to have the single largest city we own to be outside our territory.” Second, when exactly were the troll outposts established? Or any of the other new outposts for that matter? For the alliance, all outposts existed before the opening of the dark portal, so it makes sense. However, the horde only got in troops after the opening of the dark portal. So how did they get so much materiel and soldiers into areas beyond Hellfire Peninsula, when demon and fel orc forces were still blocking all access routes?

Looking at the quests, the entire affair makes even less sense. Why are troll scouts investigating missing water? Why is there an entire outpost that only consists of random traders? Why do 90% of the quests have nothing to do with anything, simply consisting of grabbing stuff for random traders and killing animals because they annoy people? No, I'm not exaggerating. There's several quests where you massacre animals just because the local horde forces find their sounds annoying.
And those aren't even the most baffling quests. How about the quests where you are sent to kill the ogres because they're cutting a path to Zabra'jin, despite the fact that the ogres are clearly cutting a path towards the Orebor Harborage? Or the quest where one of the trolls complains that there aren't enough murlocs on outland, and has the player release them into the wild? Did the writer forget the entire backstory for the darkspear tribe, what with them being slaughtered en masse by murlocs?

Zangarmarsh is easily the single most blatant example of a zone only being designed for one faction, with the plot of the other faction being tacked on without thinking for the sake of balance (and considering the existence of patch 5.3, that is saying quite a lot). However, even the quests for other zones feel really half-assed, because the vast majority of them basically amount to the same three things in every zone:

1) Somebody randomly attacked us, now go kill them. Whether it's the Shienor arakkoa in Terrokar or the ogres of Zangarmarsh, the horde seems to attract a lot of rather odd amount of aggression from the natives, who seemingly attack the horde for no reason other than general evilness.

2) Go help our merchants. Apparently, the horde has suddenly turned into a mercantile empire between expansions, as there are way too many quests that are justified by needing to do them for horde traders. Seriously, we're on a military expedition to deal with demons, get blood elves to Netherstorm and find the mag'har. Why are we concerned with setting up trade routes and outposts? If it was just one or two quests from opportunists, I would understand, but it seriously is about half the horde quests on Outland. Guys, we're supposed to be noble tribal barbarians and mana-addicts. Neither of those societies is aimed at the acquisition of wealth. This is the laziest possible way to give the horde quests. Try again.

3) Just kill something. Nevermind about number 2 being the laziest. This one is worse. All too often we have to go kill enemies without any justification whatsoever. My favorite has to be Stronglimb Deeproot however. Apparently, the faction peace-supporting Rexxar has put out a kill order on an alliance ancient for the horrible crime of standing guard.

There are admittedly some similar quests for the alliance as well, but not nearly to the same quantity as the horde. Mostly, it's because the alliance towns actually have a good reason for existing and are in a unique situation, with quests that tie into that reason and situation. Meanwhile, most horde towns are just there because... well, when you have two factions you need to give them an equal amount of content. It's why Nagrand and the Blade's Edge Mountains have by far the best quests for the horde: The population there is actually in a unique situation.

Why do we want this?
While we're at it, let's talk about PvP. Because the world PvP objectives from vanilla were so incredibly popular with the fans (a.k.a. no one did them, even before PvP started focusing on battlegrounds), they decided to add them to Outland as well. Hellfire Peninsula had three small outposts near the back that could be used to stage attacks on the citadel, while Zangarmarsh, Terrokar Forest and Nagrand had old draenei ruins. So, my obvious question: Why the hell are we fighting for these?
The attack on Hellfire is a joint effort by the alliance and the horde. Even with the logical distrust from the alliance side (being stormwind and expedition forces), they do end up actually helping out the horde. So you'd think that, even if they refused to actually work together, reaching an agreement would be as simple as “You guys get the northern outpost, we'll take the southern outpost, and we give the third one to the cenarion guys so we have a buffer and they won't have to sit on a random hill anymore. We all win!”
The other three world PvP objectives make even less sense. Why does the horde care for random draenei ruins? Why are we willing to fight and die for something that has no strategic, monetary, tactical, religious, historical or even entertainment value for us? Plus, if we're trying to steal holy sites from the draenei, shouldn't the sha'tar and aldor be really pissed at us? They are the draenei pantheon and priests after all.
Finally, there was also the new battleground. I don't think the writers even bothered to think up a reason for it, they just wanted to add a new battleground for the sake of diversity. Well, good for them, but couldn't they think of a reason why either the alliance or the horde would want it?

Also related to this is pretty much the entire Blade's Edge Mountain Zone, where we keep getting mentions of and quests related to a local conflict between the horde and the alliance, without any mention whatsoever of how or why. This zone seems like the one where conflict should not be happening at all. The horde is being led by Rexxar, who has been advocating living together with the alliance for decades. The goal of the alliance presence in the region is to restore the nature of the blade's edge mountains, which seems like it would be something the orcs and half-ogres would both want.
And yet the quests treat the two factions as if they were in a state of war, with several horde attacks, including at least one directly ordered by rexxar, against the restored nature of the living grove. Meanwhile, the alliance is planning to permanently occupy the region (of all the regions in Outland, why would you do that here? Go restore the nature near Honor Hold, or some other place you actually already own) and creating a blatant contradiction to justify killing horde wolves by stating that the new horde orcs brought and command the wolves to attack their fey drakes despite the wolves being thunderlord wolves (the thunderlords aren't in the new horde, were in the region for a long time, and died before the alliance even arrived. Plus, the wolves don't seem to be commanded by the new horde at all). Also, why isn't the cenarion expedition of Evergrove, whose goals and methods are the exact same as the alliance night elves, involved in this conflict?
I think this stems from the blade's edge mountains quests being part of an early draft. While it's never been officially confirmed, you can notice that a lot of design conventions here work differently from most other zones. Quest items have a limited amount of charges, important quest items appear as separate objects near the corpse rather than loot, there are some random stealth-detecting generic mobs and the merchants in Ogri'la are largely unnamed. It's likely that the original idea for the expansion was that the arrival of the draenei and them joining the alliance would have set off the war with the horde, as Rise of the Horde, essentially the prequel to the expansion, ends on Thrall thinking that that's going to happen.

As a side-note, while I was speaking of the cenarion expedition, I realized something. Evergrove has several NPCs who are very obviously not druids. It has the same dryads as Sylvanaar. It has a gnome from Toshley's station. It has several alliance-only questgivers, and ties closely into their quest-line. Meanwhile, members of the horde races present are very generic, and could be replaced without changing any dialogue. It also ties in very awkwardly to the questline, with the horde player likely passing through it several times before he's supposed to visit it according to the quest flow (where it comes after Mok'Nathal Village). I'm calling it: This place was originally an alliance-only quest hub, but got changed late into design.

Where mah orcs at?
There is also a weird retcon thing going on where orcish presence on Draenor is being seriously down-played in favor of the ogres, the arakkoa and especially the draenei, to the point where it becomes more than a little silly. Remember the old warcraft II maps?



Good luck finding most of this in TBC. The warsong, bonechewer and laughing skull territories are completely devoid of any sign of orcish presence, instead being replaced by draenei territories. Fortress Auchindoun gets retconned from being a great orcish fortress into being a draenei necropolis in the bone wastes, with a massive draenei temple complex (Shattrath City) taking its place on the map, while Fortress Shadowmoon gets replaced with another draenei temple complex.

Seriously, you're neutral?
Okay, one final point to make. Remember how I talked in the previous post about all the changes made to lore to try and justify the horde and the alliance as counterparts? Specifically, how alliance-themed factions have this tendency to go neutral, because otherwise the alliance would be ridiculously more varied than the horde? Well, as a natural counter-point to this, it also means that neutral quests tend to be alliance-themed, especially at the highest levels.

We already saw this in vanilla, where the most important neutral factions were the paladin-themed argent dawn and the druid-themed cenarion circle. Even amongst the less important factions, the majority really had nothing to do with the horde, but had a long relation and cultural kinship with the alliance. The bloodsail buccaneers were Kul Tiras deserters, the brood of nozdormu were allies of the night elves, the shendra'lar were former members of the highborne class of night elves, the thorium brotherhood are dwarves and Timbermaw Hold was a long-time ally of the night elves. Meanwhile, the only neutral factions that were horde-themed were Ratchet and the Zandalar tribe.

As a result, horde players basically stopped being horde players as early as level 45, instead becoming an off-brand version of the alliance. Again, this is why the horde should never have been a playable faction. There just isn't enough good guy horde culture on the planet.

With vanilla, I honestly didn't mind too much. I like both the alliance and the horde, so I do have fun playing an alliance-lite character. If anything, I wish the neutral factions wouldn't downplay their ties to the alliance as much. Having members of the horde actually work with an alliance faction that isn't trying to kill them fits in perfectly as a sequel to warcraft III. However, I can't say the same for the sha'tar.

There's a couple of reasons for that. First, I don't really like the naaru. Star-beings constructed out of holy energy are a pretty cool idea, but the fact that the naaru are the ultimate good guys is being played up way too much. I generally don't mind having clear heroes and villains in a story, but the naaru take it way too far, going into mary sue/gary stu territory (what exactly do you call a genderless mary sue?). All the good guys love the naaru, even when they don't really have much of a connection and the naaru really don't do anything. Every command given by any naaru is treated as if they are absolutely right, with no good guys questioning it. The only way a naaru could do anything wrong was if he was corrupted by some outside force. Everyone who opposes a naaru is an evil and corrupting presence, and no one questions whether exterminating them is wrong.

Second, I don't like how much the naaru dominated the TBC story. Having a city of refugees was a cool idea, but that aspect of the sha'tar was forgotten way too early, with the lower city only appearing in Terrokar Forest. Instead, all the big engagements of TBC just featured the scryers, the aldor and the naaru themselves.

Now, neither of those points have much to do with a horde retrospective. However, they do lead into a point I'm trying to make here: TBC is the story of the naaru, and their sha'tar. The entire expansion revolves around the way the naaru bring light and guidance to the people around them.

And the naaru are pretty blatantly alliance. And no, I'm not saying alliance-themed here. They are beings of the Light, they are the gods of the draenei, they provided guidance and safety to the alliance expedition, they power the draenei capital, they are the gods of a theocratic alliance society, they live in the city of the aldor, whose highest ranking member is a leader in the alliance, several of their temples are members of the alliance and they have Khadgar as their personal agent.
Meanwhile, the horde is keeping one naaru prisoner, torturing it to fuel a drug addiction, while another naaru is accidentally eating thousands of orcish ancestor spirits.
It's really like they intended shattrath and the sha'tar to be an alliance faction, but when the expansion was nearly ready to ship they realized that they'd either forgotten the horde counterpart or that the horde counterpart just sucked. Some of the quest dialogue feels especially out of place for quests that are available to the horde:

Kirrik the Awakened: If the touch of the blessed Naaru, A'dal, is not enough to bring the arakkoa to redemption, nothing will be.
Ramses: Hold on here. Weren't the naaru unable to cure the broken as well? Maybe if we tried some alternative divine magics..
Kirrik the Awakened: Those who have not given themselves over to the Light are mere servants of evil. They must be destroyed.
Ramses: Dude. I'm, like, standing right here.
Kirrik the Awakened: We cannot hope to redeem those in Terokk's grasp. But we shall deliver them a devastating blow in the name of the Light.
Ramses: Okay, dude. You can just go straight to hell. I'm off to stonebreaker to play grab-ass with the wolf spirit or something. Maybe get a troll/blood elf cultural exchange party involving hookahs and blow going. Try not to have people killed for having a different religion while I'm gone, 'kay?

The Kirrik quest is admittedly a bit of an exception, but I really do get a pretty serious case of cultural whiplash whenever I play TBC. It's just not very hordey, which, considering it starred the orcish homeworld, was very disappointing. Also, small side-note. In Kirrik's caravan, there is also a troll by the name of High Priest Orglum. There is no possible way that his dialogue was written for him. Seriously, he was written as a draenei, and then at the last possible second someone realized that the neutral sha'tar really should have some members from horde races, switching around this guy and a couple of generic mobs in the lower city.

Well, I think I covered everything relevant to the horde in TBC here. Let's just move on to Wrath of the Lich King and...

Blood elves
Oh, right, the blood elves. Completely forgot about them. I'm not even making a joke here. I seriously went through no less than seven completely different drafts of this post, trying to get my opinion out in exactly the way I want. And yet somehow, none of those drafts ever talked about the blood elves. How exactly could I forget about them?

Well, it ties into one of the big problems I have with how the horde is used in TBC. The way I do these special looks is by looking up the major quest hubs for the respective factions, and going over a list of the quests. The horde blood elves only have one quest hub in the entirety of outland: Falcon Watch. And while the quests aren't exactly bad, there's really not much of a story to them.
Outside Falcon Watch, there's barely any horde blood elves at all. As far as I can tell, the only ones are Advisor Faila in Stonebreaker Hold, the four NPCs that appear when the horde conquers Halaa and Yala the Fair, the Eye of the Storm battlemaster in Shattrath City.

Considering just how big of a role blood elves play in the expansion, I was more than a little bit surprised to discover just how few of them there were. And because they're nearly all concentrated in hellfire peninsula, none of them even mention anything related to finding out Illidan is insane or finding out Kael'thas joined the legion. They aren't involved in their own story arc!

No, instead, that's left up to the aldor and the scryers.

TBC seems to have a real problem figuring out who it should focus on during the conflicts. For example, take the naga of Zangarmarsh. Should we focus on the plight of the sporelings, who have been driven to the brink of extinction, their very last eggs under siege? The Kurenai, whose brethren were systematically hunted down and enslaved? The jungle trolls, who lost their chieftain and most of their populace to the naga plots? NOPE! We should focus on the cenarion expedition, whose conflict is strictly about maintaining bio-diversity for its own sake.

Terokk? We've set up this backstory throughout Terrokar, establishing two redeemed arakkoa who have taken it upon themselves to direct the battle against Terrok, and are the ones who first uncovered evidence of his return. But when it finally comes to taking the battle to him, we instead focus solely on the sha'tari skyguard, which has no backstory at all.

However, there is no greater example of this than the scryers. The blood elves of Silvermoon have been suffering hardships throughout the starting zones. They've been divided internally, betrayed by their allies, have seen their friends and family reduced to gibbering madmen and have been rejected by nature itself. And throughout all that, there was only a tiny glimmer of hope. A distant world, a paradise where they could build anew. And then it all turned out to be a lie. There was no paradise waiting for them, only enslavement by forces from beyond the stars. But no, all of that is ignored, with us not even seeing the reaction to the betrayal. The people we follow have suffered none of the hardships. They just fight Kael'thas because a shiny light told them to.

Both the scryers and the aldor were terrible, terrible ideas that should have never made it past concept, though for entirely different reasons. The scryers are just a pale imitation of their silvermoon brethren. They have none of the internal conflicts and none of the tragedy. Hell, even their mana addiction seems oddly absent. They just saw the light one day, and turned a shade of uniform blandness. Even the idea that they're slightly shadier than the aldor is so completely underplayed, it seems more like a left-over from an earlier draft rather than an actual characteristic.

Even during the final battle on Quel'danas, the silvermoon blood elves seem oddly absent. Okay, Lady Liadrin is involved, but she's been practically converted to the scryers by this point. Like I said in my TBC review, the complete and utter absence of the horde in the resolution of any of the blood elf plots creates the rather massive plot hole of the blood elves still being in the horde by the end of the expansion. As a result, I'm somewhat loathe to call the blood elf plot a horde-related plot. Really, the blood elves only have the thinnest of story threads connecting them to the horde. Though those story threads are actually well-handled, they don't change the fact that they just aren't part of the story. In the end, it's a very weak story, both from the perspective of a horde fan as well as the perspective of a blood elf fan.

I think I should also talk about the idea of the blood elves joining the horde. Thinking about it, there actually is a surprising amount of cultural overlap between the blood elves and the horde. Rangers share a lot of their cultural aspects with the tauren. Partying and substance abuse form a nice connection to the trolls. Dark magics and shared history form a connection to the forsaken. And all the red and green coloring makes them fit in with the orcs. Okay, that last one is stretching it a bit.
However, my point remains. Blood elves as part of the horde is something that could definitely work, if you emphasize the right cultural aspects. They still wouldn't be as closely integrated as the orcs, trolls and tauren, but they'd fit a hell of a lot better than the forsaken.
On the other hand, that's not what's being done. The partying was a one-time thing only, and the substance abuse is removed at the end of the expansion. The connection to nature is pretty much removed entirely, with regular arcane magic being emphasized very heavily. The most frequently used colour scheme is red and gold, rather than red and green. And, to put a final nail in a potential great cooperation, the horde and the blood elves barely have interaction beyond tranquillen.
They still fit better than the forsaken though.

Final thoughts
I do feel like I'm being a little too harsh here. There were admittedly some bits of lore for the horde. However, even some of those felt out of place or underdeveloped.
For example, there was the wolf spirit quest in Terrokar Forest, in which the player crafted a magical pelt from wolves to call back the wolf spirit to the forests of Terrokar. Except that's completely contradictory to the way animal spirits are supposed to work. The wolf spirit is quite literally the spirit of all wolves. As long as there are wolves in the forest, the spirit should be there. And if it wasn't, something would be seriously wrong with every single wolf in the zone and restoring it sure as hell would be a lot harder than simply calling for it.
Or the Nagrand quest chain connected to Garrosh Hellscream, in which the player discovers one of the naaru has become a creature of void, and is feeding on thousands of spirits. The naaru, K'ure, is rather regretful of his om-nom-noming, but has no control over it. Instead, he sends the player to A'dal to ask for help. A'dal says he can't help either, but that this other corrupted naaru, D'ore, can totally help. Then the player speaks to D'ore, and he too says he can't help, but that he can at least give the player a mirror to help safe a few spirits.
The player uses the mirror, makes fifteen ancestor spirits ascend, and returns to the Mag'har. And suddenly, everyone treats this like a total victory. Thousands of souls have been eaten by one of the draenei gods, with no sign of stopping. Guys, this really isn't a happy ending. Hell, I was expecting the next quest to be the player being ordered to kill K'ure, stopping any more spirits from being absorbed and maybe even freeing the consumed ones. But nope, apparently the mag'har are fine with their ancestor spirits being eaten by the gods of their enemies. Because everybody loves the naaru!

Wait, wasn't I trying to be less harsh? Attempt number two!

To end on a positive notes, there's actually a few good quests for the horde as well. My favorite has to be Rexxar's quest chain, where he lends you his various beasts in order to defeat the ogre threat to his people. I also like the blood elf starter zone, which delivers a pretty good story and gives you a very nice feel for the new race. It's just a shame that that was all there was.

3 comments:

  1. Is it wrong that I dream of a shiney new retcon that just hits the reset button and starts over from the end of WC3 and actually makes sense?
    I'm sure almost anyone could write a better story than what is going on now. I bet you could with half the effort they've put into it. XD

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  2. My most hated part of the Scryers was their modus operandi regarding what goals to choose - if the Aldor at least genuinely asked the player to combat the Burning Legion, the Scryers provided trinkets for slaughtering their very own race that already was on the brink of extinction. Hey, if you guys think Kael'thas is so bad, why don't you organize swift and accurate attacks at him and his clique, instead of massacring whole towns of blood elves for some stupid signet rings?!

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  3. You made some very good points about the thematic inconsistencies in Cataclysm.

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