By Michael Blackwell
With the blockbuster Warcraft movie premiered this past June and the new expansion set to be released at the end of August, interest in Blizzard’s Warcraft franchise has never been higher, and with this we see an unprecedented number of newcomers signing up for World of Warcraft. With this in mind, a brief history of the game seemed to be needed to explain its development both as an introduction for newbies and a refresher for longtime fans returning to the game.
World of Warcraft has long been considered the quintessential massively multiplayer online role-playing game or MMORPG for short and is by far the most well-known game in that genre, but the franchise actually started out as a strategy game called Warcraft: Orcs and Humans which was released in 1994.
In the game, players took control of one of those two factions and did battle with the other using a variety of different troops. Over the course of playing through the game, we follow the story of the once peaceful orcs who, due to the actions of their demon worshiping warlocks, are corrupted and left on a dying world with dwindling resources.
Using the magic the warlocks open a Dark Portal to a new world and, thinking the humans weak and defenseless, unite all the orcs into a massive Horde and begin to plunder their lands for resources culminating in the sacking of the human capital of Stormwind
The game proved to be an explosive success is due to its strong story in the single player mode and highly balanced multiplayer. It quickly spawned a sequel titled Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness which was released only a year later, continuing d the first game’s story and adding a whole new selection of options for both factions, including introducing new races the game such as elves and trolls.
Here we see the humans join with elves, dwarves and gnomes forming the Alliance to beat back the Horde who have aligned themselves with a vicious troll empire and reclaim their lands.
This game was even more popular than the first one and received an expansion which tidied up the last loose ends of the game’s storyline such as the remaining works on their own world, the closing of the Dark Portal and the placement of the surviving members of the Horde in internment camps.
This seemed to be the end of the franchise for a while as Blizzard moved on to other projects. It wasn’t until seven years later in 2002 that the story of Warcraft continued with Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos featuring dramatically improved graphics, two new factions and the most detailed storyline yet, while setting up most of the game world as we find it in World of Warcraft.
In Addition to the Alliance and the Horde, this game includes the undead Scourge in the wild Night Elves with the game’s single player story mode divided into linear chapters where you control a different faction in each.
The prologue to the game begins 30 years or so after the events of the previous games with a young orc named Thrall rallying the broken remnants of his people under the guidance of a mysterious prophet to break free and travel to a new land called Kalimdor in search of a better future.
From there we move into the Alliance chapter following a human prince by the name of Arthas in his increasingly desperate and zealous attempts to rid his lands of a mysterious plague that causes its victims to rise as the undead bring him into direct conflict with the demon led Scourge.
In the next chapter we play as the Scourge themselves as they ravage the land, before summoning their demonic master into the world heralding the start of a full demonic invasion.
The viewpoint then switches back to the Horde as they join with the peaceful minotaur-like Tauren as they try to seek out the profit while establishing a home for themselves in the new land. They come into conflict with the Alliance forces, also sent by the prophet, who still sees them as the invaders they were 30 years ago.
This is exacerbated by one faction of orcs who cannot let go of their violent past and the Night Elf natives of Kalimdor who resent the intrusion into their land, the conflict between these two groups ultimately leads to these orcs succumbing to demonic corruption and going on a rampage through the lands of the night elves.
Both Thrall and the alliance leader, a human mage named Jaina Proudmoore, reach the prophet who convinces the two to work together to stop the demons who are then revealed to be the same ones who corrupted the orcs years ago.
They join forces in order to break the demonic hold over the corrupted orcs before beginning preparations against the coming full-scale demon invasion. We finally switch perspective to the night elves under the leadership of Tyrande Whisperwind as the demon led Scourge arrives in full force to invade their lands and they desperately fight to defend themselves.
After awakening their heroes of the past, including the Druids led by Malfurion and the tainted demon hunter Illidan his brother who consumed the power of the demons to fight them but becomes one in the process and is exiled by his kin as a result. They ultimately align themselves with the Alliance and the Horde, despite still bearing significant mistrust for the latter. Together they are able to destroy the demon Lord and stop more demons from entering the world, ending the invasion.
This eventually was one of the most popular and critically acclaimed games of its genre ever and also received an expansion titled Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne. Like the expansion to the previous game, this one was used to tie up loose ends in the main game’s story arc, but also served to set up the soon to be released World of Warcraft.
We see the fate of the high elves, now calling themselves blood elves, as they try i to survive the Scourge. This leads to the group splitting into two factions, one dubbing itself The Forsaken after regaining free will and their memories from when they were alive.The rest go north to establish an undead empire.
Illidan continues to fight demons, becoming even more like them in the process as he establishes his own empire in the ruins of the orcs original home. The expansion was wildly successful and also perfectly set up the release of World of Warcraft barely a year later.
World of Warcraft was an extremely ambitious project, in addition to being a completely different genre than previous games in its series, a genre that blizzard had never created a game in before. It was entering into a very niche market that was dominated by small number of well-established companies.
Despite this, upon release it rapidly became the most successful game in the history of the genre, blowing all of the competition out of the water. The game took place three years after the demons’ defeat during Warcraft III and allowed you to join either the Alliance or the Horde who were once again on the verge of war.
Humans, dwarves, and gnomes returned as playable for the Alliance as did orcs, trolls and tauren for the Horde with the night elves and the forsaken having joined the alliance and horde respectively in between games for a total of four playable races per faction.
The game’s content varied greatly with some of it able to be done alone, but some of it needing as many as forty people working together. However. once a player reached the maximum level of 60, nearly all content required a group and was structured in such a way that the most difficult challenges awarded the most powerful equipment, but could only be completed if your group’s current equipment was already at a certain power.
This created a sort of progression system where you had to beat your current tier multiple times in order to become powerful enough to advance to the next one. Despite this,most of the content was otherwise self-contained, and the numerous storylines and events found rarely had direct connections to each other, creating the feel of a world that had a lot going on but never really changed.
Additionally, most of the game’s major updates were focused around adding a new challenge level above the one that was currently the max so that players would always have a new challenge look forward to, no matter how powerful they got. After about 10 major updates over the course of two years, these factors started to combine and create a problem.
Challenging endgame content became increasingly inaccessible to new players because in order to reach the current top, they had to find a large group who were willing to spend weeks or even months working their way up through the various other difficult levels that most players had already mastered and had little interest in doing again.
This led to the game’s first expansion, titled The Burning Crusade, which added 10 new levels to the game and essentially reset all endgame progression to the new top level, 70. This expansion was far more story oriented than any of the game’s previous content, not only having a definitive start and endpoint within itself, but concluding the tale of Illidan and many of the demons from Warcraft III.
It was a huge success and established the way in which World of Warcraft would update itself to this day using story-based expansions with a set end and a limited number of endgame content updates that continued expansion’s story along until it is concluded in the highest difficulty content after which work will be started on a new expansion that will once again increase the max level and reset the endgame.
There have been four expansion since; Wrath of the Lich King which deals with with the downfall of the Scourge, Cataclysm which focuses on the aftermath of a global earthquake created by the return of an ancient evil, Mists of Pandaria where the discovery of a new continent brings the long standing tension between the Alliance and Horde to an explosive boil, and finally Warlords of Dreanor which through time travel and alternate dimensions features the return of several of Warcraft’s most infamous historical characters, including Gul’dan.
In addition to the new level of endgame content, each one, with the except of Warlords of Dreanor, introduced new playable races or character classes to both factions. Cataclysm saw most of the games lower-level content redone to current standards.
All of the stations were very successful, although players and critics reception has been mixed for some of the more recent expansions with, Warlords in particular having noticeably less new content than any of its predecessors.
However, despite complaints, the game continues on strong and prepares for the release of what may be its biggest expansion yet in the wake of its summer blockbuster movie adaptation. World of Warcraft: Legion looks to feature the return of some of the franchise’s most iconic characters, both hero and villain, though we will have to wait until it’s released at the end of August to see if it lives up to the hype.