Know Your Lore: 2014 Lore in review

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.

I like to do year end reviews of lore we've seen in the past year, but this year's review is going to be a little odd. A little different. This is largely because we didn't actually see a lot of lore introduced until November of this year, when Warlords of Draenor was finally released. Patch 5.4, the last content patch for Mists of Pandaria, was released in 2013. So we had the majority of a year with little to speak of in terms of lore and story development, and then a massive avalanche of new lore and story delivered just last month.

That makes reviewing kind of difficult. But at the same time, we do have plenty to talk about, particularly since we're dealing with a brand new expansion and a brand new world -- a world full of new mechanics, storytelling and characters that are just as vibrant and vivid as anything we've seen in Pandaria. So what did 2014 offer for the Warcraft lore fan, exactly -- and where did it falter?

Books, animated shorts, and written material

Although we didn't see any new material introduced in game during the first two thirds of 2014, we did see some outside material released. War Crimes, the lead in novel for Warlords of Draenor, was released in May, followed by Gul'dan and the Stranger, a free digital comic released on August 7, and Hellscream, a short story released on August 21. In between all of that was the animated short series Lords of War, that illustrated the origins of the different orc warlords and shed some light on the history of their clans. In October, we got the comic Blackhand, just before the pre-patch for Warlords of Draenor.

The good Lords of War was an absolutely beautiful piece of storytelling, and an amazing follow up by the team that worked on the Burdens of Shaohao -- the scripts were fantastic, the voice work was beautiful, the art was incredible. The same could be said, minus the voicework, for Gul'dan and the Stranger and Blackhand. Hellscream was a really good short story as well, and between War Crimes, Gul'dan and Hellscream, we got a pretty good idea of how Garrosh got where he was going, why he was going there, and some fascinating back and forth between him and his father -- something we'd never really seen before. It was cool to see Hellscream at last meet Hellscream and have a conversation, even if Garrosh was unwilling to tell his father who he really was.

The not-so-good The problem here is that all of this material was produced outside of the game. While most people that are fans of the lore have no issues with picking up a book, reading a short story or taking a peek at a comic, the game itself continued to simply sit without any kind of meaningful story progression until the Blasted Lands quests were introduced on October 15. And even then, the quests provided in the Blasted Lands were fairly brief, with little exposition or story offered beyond the fact that the Dark Portal had changed colors and a lot of orcs were rushing out of it.

Lords of War was brilliantly done. It told the stories of these orc warlords and filled us in on where they came from. The problem here is that they, along with the comic Blackhand, were almost too good -- they highlighted these orcs as heroes of their people. And they were heroes of their people, which is something we probably shouldn't forget. At the same time, these guys are the villains we're supposed to be killing -- and these tales made them sound so cool, so evocative, so mesmerizing that you really hate to see them die. You hate taking part in their deaths.

Room to improve While I love the written word, and I love written material, the majority of Warcraft's audience are paying to play a game, and expect to see the story delivered in that context. It would have been nice to see some sort of reflection of the results of War Crimes delivered in a patch or a cinematic. It would have been nice to see some sort of in-game acknowledgement or statement in regards to Garrosh's escape, or Kairoz's deeds. Instead, there was really nothing to indicate that anything had happened, meaning that players who weren't really into or keeping up with written material were left largely in the dark.

As far as the orcish warlords -- you kind of have to wonder what the intent was. Because if you're going to write a villain, if you're going to write a character that people are going to have to kill at some point in the future, those stories should maybe be approached from the perspective of giving a player a really good reason to vanquish these guys, instead of wondering why we're fighting them at all. If you write it from the other direction, people are going to just feel terrible about what they're doing, instead of basking in what should be a glorious victory. It just seems counterproductive. Alternatively, if this material had been released after we'd already taken care of the Iron Horde, there would have been an excellent opportunity to pause and take stock of what we had just done, maybe even regret that we'd done it, after the fact.

Warlords quests

In November, lore and story exploded onto the scene with the launch of Warlords of Draenor. Suddenly we found ourselves stranded on Draenor, an alternate universe version of the world in which the orcs never drank Mannoroth's blood, and instead united to form the Iron Horde and turn its attention -- and thirst for conquest -- on Azeroth.

The good Draenor is quite possibly one of the best leveling experiences Blizzard has delivered to date. The story is presented clearly, the voice work is absolutely exceptional and just enough without being too much, and the balance between main story and side quests was perfectly managed. And even the side quests, such as they are, are full of new story and lore as well. The moments in which you're sent to simply go collect a certain number of items for little to no reason are few and far between. Having the quest experience intertwined with the garrison was an excellent idea that works really well -- the thematic element of building a base on Draenor and establishing your own stronghold was well handled.

The arakkoa, one of the more fascinating side notes of Burning Crusade, have been fleshed out in full in Warlords to the point of getting their own zone and their own set of stories and quests. The dynamic between the flightless arakkoa and the ones that are still able to soar the skies is endlessly interesting, and the whole zone manages to answer a lot of leftover questions from TBC, all the while introducing a lot more that have yet to be answered. And the voice acting in that zone is nothing short of superb -- there's just enough seriousness mixed with cheeky irreverence to make the place shine.

For an expansion titled Warlords of Draenor and featuring an orc on the cover, the focus definitely isn't on orcs alone. In fact, there is plenty going on in Draenor, and not everything involves the Iron Horde. The ogres, the botani, the Sargerai, the pale, and even Khadgar have larger roles this time around -- and it's a welcome surprise to many people who were expecting this to be an "orc expansion" and little else. In fact, the orcs almost feel like a side note at times -- there is far more going on with Draenor than just the orc warlords, and it's almost a certainty that we'll discover far more as the expansion moves on.

The not-so-good Unfortunately, there are places where the lore just doesn't make sense. For one glaring example, in Talador, both Horde and Alliance players are barely introduced to Orgrim Doomhammer before he abruptly leaves the scene. Horde players get a little more of an introduction than Alliance, but his shift in demeanor and personality is never fully explained anywhere. Players unfamiliar with the character had no idea who he was or the significance he carried, players who did know the character were kind of shocked to see just how casually he was dismissed from the scene.

In Ashran, Alliance and Horde players have two capital cities built around ogre ruins. There is supposedly a story in regards to a powerful artifact that the Alliance wants to get, and the Horde wants to keep the Alliance from getting it. Each side is obsessed that the other is going to use it against them. Ordinarily this might be a pretty good setup for a story, except that we just finished a war between Alliance and Horde that ended in a tentative ceasefire. Are we really expected to believe, after everything we saw in Mists of Pandaria, that either Horde or Alliance leadership would be behind this kind of conflict? Not from what we saw in War Crimes.

Added to that is the perplexing nature of the story itself. In some cases, we're told we can't leave Draenor, that we're irrevocably stranded. But as far as Ashran is concerned, there are portals to major cities all over the place. We're told that Ashran's portals are purely a game mechanic decision, and shouldn't be taken into consideration with the story -- yet there's clearly a story playing out on Ashran. All of this back and forth is not only confusing, it muddies the story to something that defies comprehension in places.

Room to improve The problem here isn't that the stories themselves are at all what I'd consider terrible -- they just need adjusting and polishing, is all. The problem is that the material that is good is so very, very good that the parts that aren't quite as thought out, polished or clearly explained stand out horribly in comparison. What we're dealing with here is the fact that there's so much story being introduced, so much new lore being filled out and explained, that some things just naturally fall by the wayside. Doomhammer was unfortunately one of those things -- and if he was just going to be hastily introduced and then dismissed in similar fashion, it honestly would have been better if he'd never been introduced at all.

That's the problem with going back in time, or dealing with a sudden glut of characters that hold a lot of importance to players. You can choose to bring them in, but if you do, you need to handle them with the same kind of reverence you would a brand new character that you're just beginning to flesh out -- and the big names, the really big names either need to be carefully highlighted and treated accordingly, or taken out entirely. If we hadn't seen Doomhammer, I don't think I would have cared -- it could've been waved off, and there would have been more than enough lore to fill in his absence. Instead, he's got a hasty treatment that feels very much like he was slapped in last second as an afterthought.

As for Ashran -- as for all lore, really, introduced in this expansion -- gameplay mechanics and lore should never, ever contradict each other -- I'd argue that they should never even cross paths. If something is being introduced as an important story mechanic, that mechanic should be stuck to and followed through with. If we're stranded on Draenor, don't give us portals to Azeroth. Just give us what we need on Draenor itself. Give us the Auction House, the vendors, the bankers, the barber, the transmog and void storage, and call it a day. Those that want to travel back to Azeroth could easily set their main hearthstone to Orgrimmar, Stormwind, Shattrath, Dalaran or even the Pandaren shrines, and just use their garrison hearthstone to get back to Draenor. No lore conflict, no questions asked.

It seems odd and out of place that two factions who had just very clearly been through a blatant, shining example of what war between them could do would actually turn around and go back to fighting each other with full military support, especially when we've got the overlying threat of the Iron Horde to deal with. It seems even more odd that our main capital cities would be stationed on either side of that kind of conflict.

Had Ashran been a place you traveled to for the battleground and nothing else, it would have felt more natural -- it would have felt like the people that were working there might not have been working with the full support of the Alliance or Horde behind them, like they were possibly indulging in shady combat, but taking a risk that the end result would be worth it to their faction in the process. Which is more evocative, arriving on an island and being immediately inundated by a landslide of story designed to frame the island as something worth supporting ... or being approached in a shady corner by a questionable person who says, quietly, "So, we've got this operation going on. Top secret, nobody really needs to know about it. But if you're interested ... we could use you."

In short, while the story and lore presented while leveling is very, very good, that apparent care and attention to detail didn't seem to extend everywhere -- and the places where it didn't reach are easy to spot, confuse more than entertain, and ultimately feel rushed in comparison. Next week, we'll be taking a look at the other parts of lore we've seen -- cinematics, storytelling, character development and more.

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.