World of Warcraft has been around the block a few times. Launched in 2004, the MMORPG redefined the genre once dominated by Everquest, Ultima Online and Asheron’s Call. Now, over a decade later, WoW continues to be the benchmark by which other games measure their success.
For all the game’s strengths, however, storytelling has not been one of them. The world of Azeroth is rich with lore and backstory and interesting characters, but the way it was presented in the early days of WoW left a lot to be desired. Like most CRPGs, WoW‘s lore was presented mostly through text boxes and environments. It was left mostly to players to choose what bits of lore they wanted to absorb. There is nothing inherently wrong with this method of storytelling, but it resulted in the feeling that the story was optional content, not an integral part of the world.
During Wrath of the Lich King, Blizzard made storytelling a larger focus. Deeper characters connected to the franchise’s RTS roots, a world that changed as you quested through it, and the addition of in-game cutscenes all provided a richer storytelling experience.
Since Wrath, Blizzard has been refining their bardly chops with each new expansion. Cut to today and the recently released expansion Legion. So far, I have enjoyed my time in the Broken Isles. I hit the new level cap of 110 on my priest a couple days ago and am enjoying new features like World Quests and the the Demon Hunter class. The new dungeons are polished with design philosophy that has been carefully honed for years. But without a doubt, the thing that has surprised me most is how much I’ve found myself caring about the story.
The return of the Burning Legion serves as the larger backdrop of Legion‘s story, but it’s the smaller quest arcs I feel more invested in. Each of the five new zones boasts its own overarching story, usually culminating with a quest that will send you into a dungeon. While questing through the zones, you’ll meet characters important to the zone’s backstory, battle recurring villains, and learn about the history of the Broken Isles. The quests are finely paced and offer rewards at a satisfying click.
Val’sharah, an idyllic elven forest twisted by corruption, really shines. The story here is so well-woven into the zone itself that I’m confident in saying that this is Blizzard’s best effort thus far in terms of narrative. It helps that a figure from WoW‘s past, Malfurion Stormrage, plays prominently into the lore here.
Blizzard isn’t afraid to go full George R.R. Martin, either. Quests will take surprisingly dark turns and characters you spent the last hour with will die. This newfound penchant for death isn’t limited to minor characters, either; Blizzard isn’t afraid to pull the plug on some of the big players this time around.
World of Warcraft has never impressed me with its storytelling in the past, but with Legion I am now more invested in the fate of Azeroth than I have ever been before. From a lore point of view, Legion is Blizzard’s best effort so far.