Know Your Lore: The curious dissonance of Alliance leveling

The World of Warcraft is an expansive universe. You're playing the game, you're fighting the bosses, you know the how -- but do you know the why? Each week, Matthew Rossi and Anne Stickney make sure you Know Your Lore by covering the history of the story behind World of Warcraft.

Back when I was writing up the five must-do Horde zones and five must-do Alliance zones articles, I decided to play through those zones again just for experience's sake. In beta and the early days of Cataclysm, I spent a lot of time going through the Alliance 1-to-60 leveling zones and experiencing the content. I remember being really pleased with how well the zones were laid out and how nice it was to see actual story instead of just, "I'd like six pig heads; go get them from the field next door." After that experience, I played through them on Horde side and was terribly pleased to see they were just as well done on the other side of the faction fence.

I didn't really think about it afterwards, and it wasn't until I decided to do these two articles that I took it upon myself to level through these zones again. And this time ... something had changed, a little. Perhaps it was because it had been so long since I'd played through the Alliance zones. Perhaps it was because I had just finished experiencing the Horde zones when I went back to Alliance. But there was something very, very different about the experience.

While leveling as Horde, I was having all kinds of lighthearted fun mixed with bits of serious story. While leveling as Alliance, I felt like there was an oppressive weight bearing down on me at all times, and that weight was never really removed. Odd, that.

The Alliance, from classic to Wrath

The Alliance has never had it really easy, but the days of vanilla were a largely idyllic time in the neverending battle between Alliance and Horde. In vanilla, most of the major issues the Alliance experienced were at the hands of various sources -- a major one being the Dark Iron dwarves, the Blackrock orcs and of course, the Black Dragonflight's major representatives of the time, Nefarian and Onyxia. These enemies weren't just enemies of the Alliance, however -- they were also enemies of the Horde, and the Horde worked just as hard to take them down as the Alliance did.

The various zones of the world were split into either Alliance-controlled areas, Horde-controlled areas, or contested territory, with the majority of zones being contested zones. But speaking as someone who leveled through both in vanilla (Alliance first, Horde later), it always seemed as though most of the zones were far more entertaining and engaging on the Alliance side of things than the Horde side of the equation. Oh, there were fun Horde zones, to be certain, but nothing with the lively amount of engaging interest like early Westfall, Redridge, or Duskwood -- especially Duskwood. It was one of my favorite zones and Alliance-only. And nothing on Horde side could compare to the epic conclusion of The Great Masquerade, in which Alliance players got to fight Onyxia in their capital city.

There was a shift in The Burning Crusade in which both sides got two new races, but we both left Azeroth behind and moved to new territory in Outland -- and that territory didn't really favor either faction. Instead, there were lone outposts scattered across the alien landscape, with some familiar faces for Alliance players and a few for Horde as well. The Horde experience shone in this expansion, with the first appearance of Garrosh Hellscream as well as Thrall discovering his roots a highlight of the Outland leveling experience. For a Horde player who experienced a lot of, well, nothing major really in classic WoW, it was nice to see something special put in place, something that compared in coolness factor to The Great Masquerade.

In Wrath, the balance shifted again. There were plenty of entertaining Horde storylines throughout the various zones in Northrend, but after playing through both, I enjoyed myself on the Alliance side a little more. This was largely due to seeing events that highlighted things that happened in Warcraft III over in Dragonblight -- but it was also due to the effect of Battle for the Undercity. Don't get me wrong, fighting in the Undercity was fun on both sides, but on Alliance, it felt more dangerous. Here we were, heroes of the Alliance, boldly tromping into the depths of Lordaeron's ruins, someplace Alliance players simply weren't supposed to be. Only we had our king at our side along with Jaina Proudmoore, and the whole effort felt far more daring, more heroic.

Cataclysm in the eyes of the Alliance

And then we have Cataclysm. Cataclysm marked a complete overhaul of all of those 1-to-60 leveling zones to bring them up to date. It re-designated territory, and all of a sudden, the embers of anger between Alliance and Horde roared into full-out fire. On the Horde side, players got to explore the effects of Thrall's decision to leave and experience what the Horde was like with Garrosh Hellscream at the helm. The Horde gets to experience the odd, sinking sensation that perhaps their faction is slowly tearing itself apart, and the only person who can bring them back together again has stepped down in favor of saving the world.

But for Alliance, the story is far, far more grim. It's dark, it's gritty, and there's almost no saving grace to it. While Horde zones are interspersed with the silly fun of quest chains like the ones found in Hillsbrad Foothills, there are no real Alliance counterparts. The flavor is completely different between the two. Westfall may appear to be a silly CSI reference, but it's a much larger and more complex story of one shattered little girl who watched members of the Alliance cut off her father's head and dealt with the consequences.

Redridge may seem like a fun reference to Rambo, but the overall tone of the zone is one of desperation in which the Alliance are trying desperately to hang on to what they've managed to build. Duskwood is still as dark and gloomy as ever. Darkshore is a nightmare of kaldorei corpses and devastation. Ashenvale is overrun by Garrosh's Horde forces. Stonetalon features a druid training ground blown abruptly to smithereens by a Horde bomb. South Barrens highlights a decent man just trying to do his job that is viciously murdered by the Horde. Gilneans have to flee their city due to attacks from the Forsaken, forced to seek refuge in Darnassus. The list goes on and on.

The overall impression is one in which the Alliance are fighting a battle they cannot seem to win. And that is not a terribly fun experience to play through, no matter how many supposedly lighthearted moments are slipped in. There is a noticeable absence of activity on the part of any of the Alliance leaders. Tyrande Whisperwind is seen briefly, and Varian Wrynn is stuck in Stormwind. Genn Greymane isn't even with his people in Darnassus; he seems to have decided chilling with Varian is the best option for himself. As for Malfurion, he is inexplicably asking for help from both Alliance and Horde, despite the atrocities committed against his people at the Horde's hands.

For worgen, humankind seems to have given them the cold shoulder, and they've instead been shuffled off to Kalimdor. For night elves, both the Horde and the very land they have settled on are deliberately out to get them, slaughtering the kaldorei en masse. For gnomes, the attempt to take back Gnomeregan was ultimately unsuccessful. For dwarves, the tensions between the Council of the Three Hammers are evident. For humans ... For humans, Varian Wrynn, who did plenty in Wrath, seems to be content to rest on his laurels while the rest of human civilization falls apart and riots right in front of his nose. And for the draenei, they're stuck in a time warp where they are still trying to settle into the Alliance and simply be accepted.

Leveling through a bleak future

That is ultimately the biggest issue with Alliance discontent. The problem is, once you hit level 85 and start going through the Alliance content, it's relatively similar to the Horde stuff. Most of what you see in Hyjal, Uldum and Deepholm is pretty identical no matter which side you're on. Twilight Highlands features a different intro, but both chains ultimately lead to the same thing, albeit with different companions along the way. It's fun no matter which side you're on, from 80 to 85.

Coming from someone who's gone through all of Warcraft, from Orcs and Humans until now, this all makes sense, honestly. There is an overarching cycle to it all, and we'll discuss that at a later date. Speaking as a WoW player since the days of classic beta, when you look at it all laid out from beginning to end through all of the expansions, it all lines up and works out well enough, and the story is honestly compelling when looked at as a whole.

But if you're a new Alliance player just starting out in the world of Azeroth, what you're confronted with for 60 levels worth of play time is a bleak future in which you're destined to lose. And that's the crux of the issue: New Alliance players, or Horde players who decide to make the switch and try out the Alliance side of things, are left with the impression that there is little to nothing to look forward to while playing Alliance zones. That somewhat brighter look at Azeroth's Alliance -- the Alliance of classic WoW -- is no longer present in game. Any reminder of times where the Alliance may have had it good have simply evaporated.

That isn't really a fun game to play through. And honestly, only the die-hard Alliance fans would be willing to slog through it without complaint. For Horde players, the cries of Horde favoritism and complaints from Alliance players seem ridiculously overblown and over the top, and for good reason. Leveling through the Horde experience gives the impression that the Alliance are pulling some really dirty tricks and are happily murdering Horde.

The lesson of South Barrens

This issue is best seen by playing through the South Barrens zone -- not just on one side of the faction. Play through it on both. See what kind of impression you have when you come out of the experience. When I first experienced this zone on Horde, I was outraged at what had happened to Camp Taurajo and at the gall of the Alliance that so casually looted the remains of what had been a quiet tauren outpost. I didn't even flinch as I was ordered to murder General Hawthorne, thinking that this reaction was ultimately justified -- especially after witnessing what had happened to the Taurajo survivors.

And then I played the Alliance half.

Suddenly, the Horde were presented as the aggressors. And General Hawthorne, the guy I'd just murdered in cold blood, turned out to be a decent guy. He let the civilians of Taurajo go; he had no idea that the only place for them to flee was through hostile quillboar territory. The looters that I'd been so angry at weren't even part of the Alliance forces; they were military men who had defected and run off to go reap the spoils of war. Hawthorne hadn't ordered the looting; he was disgusted by it and actually has the player go apprehend the looters.

General Hawthorne wasn't bent on conquering the Barrens. He simply wanted to build a road through it so that the Alliance could get supplies up through Kalimdor and into Stonetalon Peak, where they were desperately needed. He knew that fighting was a natural consequence of war, but he wanted that fight to be as short and precise as possible, with minimal losses to either side. He wasn't cruel; he was one of the decent, honorable men of the Alliance.

As I finished playing through the zone on the Alliance side, I felt a flash of appreciation for what was truly some compelling storytelling and a clever way of handling it. And I felt really terrible for what I'd done on the Horde side of the quests. This is what is happening in game right now, however. Horde players are seeing one side of the story, and in that side of the story, they are completely justified in what they are doing. Alliance players are seeing exactly the same thing, only the justification for the Horde's actions isn't there. It's just the Horde, brutally murdering whatever happens to be in the way between them and total domination.

What the future holds

It is a testament to Blizzard's brilliant creative development team that they've managed to pull this off so flawlessly. Both Alliance and Horde players feel justified in their reactions, and they will argue relentlessly over basic facts -- but each will present the facts as seen from their respective side. This results in Alliance and Horde players constantly fighting with each other in a never-ending spiral of aggression, which dovetails quite nicely into the overarching theme of Mists of Pandaria -- Alliance vs. Horde in all-out war.

I cannot deny that I am excited to see what we're going to experience in Mists. What we are experiencing as players, both Alliance and Horde -- that discontent with the situation, the derision we hold for the opposite faction -- that's what the various characters in WoW are feeling right now. It's a perfect mirror to what is happening in game, and I am guessing there are going to be some very, very big stories in Mists wherein we will learn exactly what all that aggression and fighting is going to get us.

But at the same time, there's an underlying issue with Alliance leveling. It's not fun. There aren't enough lighthearted moments to counteract the sorrow. There isn't really any joy in playing through a bleak future that looks as if the suffering will never end. The cool factor of the various quest mechanics and rewards doesn't really make up for the overall emotion one gets out of playing through the experience.

And that's a pity, and maybe it's something that needs to be addressed, because as it stands, the Alliance are going to be stuck in a 1-to-60 experience that leaves them at a loss and feeling slightly depressed for the next several years. I don't know about anyone else, but I don't play video games in order to come out of the experience feeling miserable. So the question is what's to be done about it? Will anything be done about it at all?

For more information on related subjects, please look at these other Know Your Lore entries:

While you don't need to have played the previous Warcraft games to enjoy World of Warcraft, a little history goes a long way toward making the game a lot more fun. Dig into even more of the lore and history behind the World of Warcraft in WoW Insider's Guide to Warcraft Lore.