A Tale of Two Cities

Astute players might remember that the event that kicked off Mists of Pandaria was the preview version of the Theramore’s Fall scenario, where the Horde dropped a super mana-bomb on Theramore and BLEW IT THE HELL UP. And then players might later recall that during the Patch 5.1 Landfall storyline, Jaina Proudmoore (who survived the destruction of her city) ended up bringing Dalaran back into the Alliance.

Now, that description above is accurate, and at face value, it makes it sound like both factions wound up getting an even deal by the end of it. The problem is this: I don’t feel like either faction got a proper shake out of that bargain, and the result is that while players have been directed by the last two expansions to really pay attention to the faction war that’s a cornerstone of the Warcraft franchise (the first game was called Orcs vs. Humans, and they’ve stuck pretty well to that idea) that faction war hasn’t really been implemented in a way that makes players feel gung-ho about the factions they’re on.

And there’s a lot of pretty loud arguments that have been going on for the last couple years where you’ve got players on both sides claiming that the other side has got the favor of Blizzard’s dev team. Overall, it’s getting pretty toxic. But let’s look at the issues particular to Mists and then look at how it could have been mixed better to serve the intended purpose.

Bomb a Head

The way that the Theramore scenario plays for Horde players goes like this: players are tasked with planting bombs on docked ships to disable the fleet, killing critical members of the city’s defense, and freeing a captured Sunreaver infiltrator before warping out in advance of the Mana Bomb getting dropped on the city. In fact, the brief cinematic of the bomb dropping is your reward for clearing the place.

The way it plays for Alliance players is dramatically different: the players arrive on the Ferry from Menethil Harbor just in time to see the bomb dropped, and then spend the scenario killing Horde stragglers and defending Jaina Proudmoore while she secures the Focusing Iris that was the heart of the bomb. Alliance players get to witness first-hand the sharp change that’s taken place in jaina: someone who had espoused peace with the Horde for the longest time is now brutally killing Horde troops, not just in self-defense but out of tragic rage.

Now there are a few ways players likely reacted to this layout of events, dependent on faction:

  • Horde players might fist-bump and say “we just toasted an Alliance position on Kalimdor. For the Horde, baby! Yeah!”
  • Horde players might feel betrayed a little by the idea that Garrosh would drop a nuke on Theramore, which, sure, was an Alliance stronghold, but prior to the Alliance invasion of the Barrens, Theramore had kept to itself and Jaina had been a critical part of the creation of the Horde, AND its preservation at the Battle of Mount Hyjal. “This wasn’t an honorable victory…”
  • Alliance players don’t really have a choice on how to feel about it: “OH SHIT THEY JUST BLEW UP OUR SHIT WHERE’S JAINA YOU OKAY NO CLEARLY YOU ARE NOT OKAY YOU JUST ICED LIKE FORTY DUDES”
  • For completion’s sake, yes, there are players who are going to give zero fucks about the story. This is the last time I’ll mention those folks because nothing in this article will mean anything to them anyway.

Horde players have got a spectrum of choices on feels, and the Alliance pretty much don’t. It’s a victory for the Horde that they might not be 100% okay about, but it’s 100% a defeat for the Alliance, not just in the form of losing the city, but also in the huge character shift (albeit justified) in Jaina that’s taken place.

The follow-through here isn’t even really received in-game: it’s delivered in Christie Golden’s Jaina Proudmoore: Tides of War novel, and covers how Jaina, after almost destroying Orgrimmar with the Focusing Iris out of retribution, calms down a bit, is made the leader of the Kirin Tor, and vows to take down Garrosh. Garrosh, meanwhile, loses the momentum of what was to be a grand campaign of conquering all of Kalimdor for the Horde when his fleet loses a sortie with the Alliance, and Northwatch Hold ends up getting re-taken by Varian Wrynn.

There’s your tone for the beginning of Mists: the Alliance took a major blow, and the Horde won a clear victory, even if not everyone in the Horde is happy about it.

Balance the Scales

Let’s skip ahead to Patch 5.1 (mostly because there’s nothing pertinent in the launch content aside from Admiral Rogers rallying the troops with “For Theramore!” a bunch and being an uncompromising field commander). In 5.1, the footholds established by both the Alliance and the Horde on the south shores of Pandaria set off an arms race; mainly, Garrosh has learned about the Sha and what Sha energies can do to people, and hears tell of an artifact, the Divine Bell, that ostensibly can be used to control the Sha energies. He employs the Blood Elves, his magical experts, in tracking down the Bell. The Alliance discovers this, and hunt for the Bell in kind. The Alliance ultimately gets the Bell first and takes it to Darnassus for study, only for it to be stolen by the Blood Elves due to some inside-job shenanigans. This triggers Jaina to purge the Sunreavers from Dalaran, and bring the city firmly back into the hands of the Alliance. Oh, and then Anduin Wrynn finds the perfect counter to the Bell (a lubed-up mallet? Really guys?) and almost gets himself killed destroying it.

The way the Purge of Dalaran plays for Horde players is like this: once the player is told that Jaina’s gone off the deep end and the Silver Covenant are throwing all the Sunreavers into the Violet Hold, the job is to go into Dalaran and help the Sunreavers escape. The Covenant are rolling around like thugs, Jaina is pimp-walking around the city with two gargantuan water elementals and very clearly should not be engaged, and the whole event takes the form of a fallback action for the Horde. Greater emphasis is placed on Lor’themar being pissed at Jaina and moderately upset with Garrosh for continuing to risk sin’dorei assets in his power grab.

The way the Purge plays for Alliance players, you ask? You’re basically butchering Sunreavers at every turn. They’re stealing from the bank, they’re lurking in the sewers, they’re lurking in their own quarter… the Covenant aren’t characterized any more heroically for the Alliance than they are on the Horde version, and the Sunreavers are just blanket evil instead of blanket innocent. Jaina is still rolling around like a gangster, meaning Vereesa Windrunner is giving you orders, and if there’s anything they’ve solidly done with Vereesa over time, they’ve made her REALLY HATE the Blood Elves.

The different reactions here are interesting:

  • Horde players might feel like Jaina is overreacting to what a handful of Sunreaver agents are doing. That’s justified by the unmitigated brutality of the Covenant assault on the Sunreavers in the city. The Sunreavers on the whole are made to look 100% innocent, even though Horde players know that at this point Fanlyr Silverthorn really has pretty much betrayed the Kirin Tor’s neutrality.
  • Alliance players might feel like a fist-bump moment is justified for blendering a bunch of Blood Elves on the streets of Dalaran, but I found myself wondering that if the whole organization had been complicit in the betrayal, why wouldn’t they have tried to organize a better coup, or more aptly, a better escape attempt?
  • Which leads me to the other Alliance reaction: is going wholesale slaughter on the Blood Elves really the only way to go about this? We’re given the promise from Vereesa that all of the Sunreavers who are going to go peacefully have done so already, but we don’t see that happening, and we’re certainly not agents of that event. And even then, if this was something that the organization as a whole was involved in, and if there’s a bloody magical prison within the city limits, wouldn’t it be better to insist on capture instead of kill?

I don’t feel like the Alliance got quite the same spectrum of feels on this that the Horde did about Theramore. And the Horde doesn’t really get the point driven home that they’ve lost Dalaran, because by the end of it, Lor’themar is complaining about Jaina going apeshit and about Garrosh being a jerk. There’s no sense of loss on the Horde end of this; this wasn’t a defeat for them, just an inconvenience overcome by how awesome the Horde players were at evacuating so many Sunreavers with so little preparation. By contrast, the Alliance get slapped in the face a little bit when Varian Wrynn reports that by assaulting the Sunreavers, Jaina sabotaged the King’s plot to get the Blood Elves to defect. Which Jaina gives zero fucks about, BTW.

Now, the follow-through for this actually works out okay, because it’s done in 5.2 when the Kirin Tor and the Sunreavers are going toe-to-toe, racing to see who can beat the Thunder King first. And the way stuff plays out, both the Sunreavers AND the Kirin Tor walk away from Lei Shen’s crib with powerful weapons; the Horde gets the Dark Animus, and Jaina gets a super-powered Lightning Stick to go along with her nigh-godlike powers with the Focusing Iris. But even then, things don’t feel exceptionally balanced.

The Remix

So the problem here is that while the Alliance has a victory (winning Dalaran) to replace a defeat (the Fall of Theramore), it doesn’t really feel like much of a victory, because we just slaughtered everything in sight, which isn’t what the Alliance is typically all about. Meanwhile, the Horde doesn’t really have a defeat (losing Dalaran isn’t acknowledged as such) to balance the victory they won (Theramore), because even if you don’t like Garrosh’ tactical choices it’s still a victory for the Horde.

And yes, while you can argue that the Siege of Orgrimmar is an upcoming “defeat” for the Horde, that doesn’t really work: the Darkspear Revolution (which all the Horde players are aligned with) and the Alliance together are taking down Garrosh, and the city is just collateral damage at that point. The Horde aren’t really defeated because once they take their city back from Garrosh, they get to keep it. The Alliance doesn’t get to keep Theramore, and it’s debatable if they get to keep Dalaran in a post-Garrosh world, given the Kirin Tor’s past stance on neutrality.

So the only way to make this work is to make Dalaran feel like more of a defeat for the Horde, and more of a victory for the Alliance. How does that get done?

  • On the Alliance side, the questing is oriented around 1) capturing Sunreavers and getting them into the Violet Citadel, perhaps through a magic wand that will port a subdued target to a cell, 2) pumping Aethas Sunreaver for information, revealing that he was complicit in Garrosh’ plans the whole time, 3) constructing overflow cells in the Underbelly, and 4) defeating Horde reinforcements attempting to free the Sunreavers. If you characterize the Sunreaver NPCs with gossip text indicating that “our loyalty was with the Horde all along!” and other such sentiments, then the Alliance feels like they’re really eliminating a cancer from the city with an eye to dealing a blow to the Horde by securing so many of their magical assets.
  • On the Horde side, having the Horde players struggling against a wider spread of Alliance heroes would be a great way to eliminate that sense that the Silver Covenant are just rolling around like Gestapo agents. Rescuing innocent bystanders is great, but some of the holdout Sunreavers ought to insist “y’know what? Aethas was right. We should have done this ages ago.”
  • More importantly, at the end, when you’re chilling with Lor’themar, I’d have wanted the dialogue to go like this:

Lor’themar Theron yells: Aethas! 
Archmage Aethas Sunreaver says: Yes, my lord! Thanks to this hero, a few of us made it out of there. Many more have been sent to the Violet Ho–
(Lor’themar draws his sword and levels the point at Aethas’ neck.)
Lor’themar Theron says: Give me a reason not to send your head back to Proudmoore in a box.

Archmage Aethas Sunreaver says: My Lord? I… I don’t understand!
Lor’themar Theron says: Your lackey Fanlyr told me everything once this accursed Bell appeared in my city. Do you realize what you’ve done? 

Lor’themar Theron says: The Kirin Tor now belong to the Alliance. Their city, the headquarters of the most powerful magical organization in the world, belongs to the Alliance! 

Lor’themar Theron says: And all we have to show for it is your sniveling face, what few Sunreavers aren’t trapped in a Dalaran dungeon, and this damned relic!
Archmage Aethas Sunreaver says: My Lord, everything I’ve done has been at the order of our Warchief…

Lor’themar Theron spits.

Lor’themar Theron says: Oh, of that I’m certain. 

Lor’themar Theron says: Hal’duron, summon the rangers. Rommath, assemble the Blood Magi, and add the remaining Sunreavers’ strength to your own. And lock this maggot in the darkest cell you can find. 

Archmage Aethas Sunreaver says: Wait, no!

Lor’themar Theron says: We Sin’dorei will take our future into our own hands. We were burnt by the Alliance, and we’ve now been burnt by the Horde. We’ll see what the ‘Warchief’ says to that, when the time is right. 

Grand Magister Rommath says: My Lord. YOU would make a fine Warchief.
Lor’themar Theron says: We shall see. Prepare the fleet! The next move is mine, and I’ll brook no quarter for the next fool who forces my hand. 

This helps to set-up Lor’themar’s position with the Sunreaver Onslaught on the Isle of Thunder; it’s about getting something powerful that he can use to turn the tables on Garrosh. And it demonstrates very strongly that the Horde not only lost Dalaran (which is bad) but they’re on the verge of losing the Blood Elves as well if Garrosh stays in charge. Combined with the Darkspear Revolution in Patch 5.3, it more soundly spells out what’s coming while also demonstrating the precarious position of the Horde as a faction.

As far the Alliance changes, it’s all about demonstrating that the faction isn’t about righteous slaughter, but containing the problem, as well as showing that at least from the Alliance perspective, some of the Sunreavers are totally aligned with the Horde instead of being neutral. Also, it preserves the element that Jaina acted without Varian’s approval, ruining the diplomacy side-game that the King was running to get Silvermoon to defect, but it gives Jaina the ability to argue “maybe we can turn some of them to our side. Since they’re alive and not dead, we can try that and still get something out of this.”

The Wrap-Up

I don’t normally like wading into the whole faction debate; my position is that as long as there’s a good story being told, it doesn’t matter which faction it’s for. The problem is when it’s not a good story, and the Silver Covenant going all hate-crimes on the Sunreavers doesn’t give me a good feeling about being an Alliance player. When it comes down to it, the Horde is missing out on the same dramatic rollercoaster as the Alliance if both factions aren’t given victories and defeats of similar magnitude. So if you’re going to take the Alliance military presence out of Southern Kalimdor by nuking Theramore, the Horde ought to lose access to the resources of the Sunreavers and the Kirin Tor and really feel that impact.

Sound off in the comments if you agree or disagree!  ^_^

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