It's getting hard to say that the current version of the Horde in Battle for Azeroth isn't distinctly "evil" compared to its counterpart. After setting aside differences in previous expansions to face down bigger threats like Guldan, Sargeras, and the Burning Legion, the Horde and Alliance have resumed the conflict that defined Warcraft since the beginning. Battle for Azeroth returns to both sides fighting it out over territory and bragging rights.
Unfortunately, if you're a long-time player of the Horde, Battle for Azeroth's opening salvo is a bit hard to swallow. I've been playing on the Alliance since Legion because that's where my friends are, but I've long held a spot in my heart for the Horde. So with my invitation to the Battle for Azeroth's beta, I decided to see where my old compatriots currently stood.
Both sides have gone through a number of leaders since vanilla World of Warcraft, but the Horde seems to be trucking through them quicker. Original Horde leader Thrall got a model upgrade, found a wife, and essentially retired into a neutral spot in the game's lore. His chosen successor, Garrosh Hellscream, started as an interesting contrast to the peaceful Thrall, before becoming the final boss of the Mists of Pandaria expansion. The troll leader Vol'jin took the spot for an expansion and some change before finding his story cut short in Legion. He chose the Undead leader Sylvanas Windrunner as his successor, making her the current Warchief.
Sylvanas has always been a bit callous, but Legion showed her willing to work with the Alliance against a common foe. With Battle for Azeroth though, Sylvanas is trying to live up to every part of the title of "Warchief".
The Battle for Azeroth beta kicks off proper with a scenario called "The Battle for Lordaeron," which is the one depicted in the expansion's opening cinematic. The Alliance has finally come to take the Undead capital of the Undercity, which sits underneath the ruins of Lordaeron, the birthplace of the Alliance itself. The Alliance has previously left Lordaeron alone, because they have Stormwind to worry about and the Undead are the former citizens of Lordaeron itself. New Alliance leader King Anduin Wrynn has decided to finally move on the city, backed by his more Horde-hating generals Genn Greymane and Jaina Proudmoore.
At a certain point during the battle, when the player is tasked with pushing back the Alliance's frontline, Sylvanas finally releases her last-ditch weapon against her enemies. Her plan: to use the Blight, the undead plague originally released by the Lich King in Warcraft III, against the entire battlefield. This is a clearly evil move and one that the game acknowledges as such in two moments. In the first, the player is given the option to either take up a gas mask and help Blighted Horde troops, or grab a gas mask and blight pump to spread the plague. Either option counts towards completion of the scenario, but one is definitely more nefarious.
The second acknowledgement is the defection of High Overlord Saurfang, who has been a long-running Horde hero since the launch of World of Warcraft. Saurfang (graced with an upgraded model) calls Sylvanas to task for fighting without honor, while the Warchief counters with the fact that honor doesn't matter if you're dead. Something she has a great deal of experience with. Then Saurfang disappears from the conflict.
Players later find Saurfang again in the following scenario, The Stormwind Extraction. Sylvanas sends the player on a stealth mission into the Stormwind Stockades. In an early cell, you find Saurfang and your team of lore characters tries to save the High Overlord. When you free him, Saurfang tells you point blank that he won't be returning to the Horde. Sylvanas has proven a bridge too far. Instead, the rest of the scenario finds you freeing Princess Talanji and Zul the Prophet of the Zandalari Trolls, who will end up being your allies for the expansion.
The spread of the Blight and the loss of Saurfang has caused some Horde players to be dissatisfied with the beginning of Battle for Azeroth. Under Thrall and Vol'jin, the Horde is positioned as a group opposed to the Alliance, but not measurably worse. Even the early warlike nature of Garrosh was contrasted with King Varian Wrynn's equally violent nature. But with this lengthy prologue to Battle for Azeroth, there's nothing the Alliance is doing that's equally flawed or warlike.
The dissatisfaction with the Horde being portrayed as evil from the top down actually had players asking World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth director Ion Hazzikostas about the reasons behind that story choice in a Live Q&A today. Hazzikostas' answer wasn't the most satisfying one.Watch Live Developer Q&A with Ion Hazzikostas from Warcraft on www.twitch.tv
"Evil is a matter of perspective. The Horde has many facets to it. There are aspects of what the Forsaken have represented for a long time that have not necessarily been directly in line with what the Tauren represent for example. There's been this uneasy partnership between these groups for some time," he explained.
"There's a lot of harsh things that happen in war in general. When groups are fighting for survival, at the end of the day, they resort to desperate measures. There's a lot of story to tell going forward. Both sides should be worried about this. Azeroth is a world of grey, it's never been a world of black and white," he added.
The latter part of the quote seems to point towards the Alliance undergoing their own issues in this regard. Veteran players have already assumed that Battle for Azeroth will shift towards an Old God focus as the expansion storyline progresses. Many believe Jaina Proudmoore has already been tainted by their influence, and Anduin Wrynn is a likely candidate as well. Currently though, the Horde are framed as the "bad guys," even within the confines of their own storyline. The loss of High Overlord Saurfang is a keen one for many Horde players.
The beginning of Battle for Azeroth has already led many Horde players to wonder what the Horde is about, given its long history. Some players have even asked for Sylvanas to be deposed already; if that happens it would make her tenure as Warchief one of the shorter ones in WoW's history. I'd say this focus on the faction war and the interpersonal conflicts of the factions themselves is a good place for Battle for Azeroth to be. I just wish the Alliance was feeling the heat a bit more this time around.