As may or may not have already become apparent, I play World of Warcraft. A lot. I’ve been playing it since shortly after the release of “vanilla,” a wild, lawless time during which hunters still had to worry about their pets getting pissed off and randomly deciding to say “peace out, bitch” and Molten Core was like the hardest raid ever, you guys.
The world of Azeroth has changed a whole Hell of a lot, and the benefit of basically having been in on the ground floor is that I’ve been able to watch its metamorphosis for long enough that every tiny tweak to the storyline, every added continent or race is a huge deal for me. We already know that due to my aspirations as a game designer for the Warcraft team, I take special interest in lore, continuity, characterization, all of that stuff. I often end up getting way too excited and emotionally invested in the story. Because I like to pretend I’m important enough to have an opinion, and The Fiance is sick of hearing me go “Holy shit. HOLY. SHIT. YOU HAVE TO COME LOOK AT THIS” every fifteen minutes, I have decided to start reviewing the things in the game that resonate with me, which will eventually come out to “all of it.”
The most recent addition that has made me completely lose my shit is the Dominance Offensive storyline. As of patch 5.1, characters reaching the current level cap of 90 will automatically receive a quest to talk to a scout in the Krasarang Wilds at this new faction’s outpost. Admittedly, before I actually played through the complete story, I was pretty unenthusiastic about it. I’d just finished grinding through all of the other Pandaria reputations — the hard, pre-commendation way, might I add — so the idea of even more dailies made me throw up in my mouth a little.
What ended up pulling me in, however, was that once again the focus was so strongly on the ongoing battle between the Horde and the Alliance. I got a little taste of it in the Fall of Theramore scenario when my Horde-y self straight up ruined Jaina Proudmoore’s day and absolutely loved it. The Mists of Pandaria expansion itself opens with both factions vying for control of the mysterious new lands that have risen out of the mist. Players choosing to create a Pandaren character find themselves in the middle of this power struggle and, at around level 12, are directed to select which side to ally themselves with. The Dominance Offensive brings us back to this fight for, well, dominance, which has intensified since the discovery of an ancient mystical artifact known as the Divine Bell. Its great power is sure to shift the balance towards whichever side controls it. So far I’ve only played through the Horde storyline, meaning that I can only review that side of the story as of now, in which Garrosh Hellscream is determined to use the Divine Bell to strengthen his forces and push the Alliance out once and for all.
The story starts to get interesting shortly after completing the second “act,” of sorts, Voice of the Gods. Players are sent to retrieve an ancient tablet that is believed to reveal the location of a mythical artifact of reputed great power. After running the typical errands — go here, find this, bring it back to the questgiver — a message from the leader of this excavation arrives in the mail with an attached facsimile of the translated tablet.
In the one-hundred-and-seventieth year of the Thunder King’s reign, the Korune spellweavers came to Lei Shen with their greatest creation.
A bell cast from the makers’ flesh, shaped by stars’ fire, and bound by the breath of darkest shadow. This bell, when rung, could shake the world and call to the heavens.
Taken to war, the bell’s cacophonous tones stirred the hearts of Lei Shen’s warriors. It fueled their hatred and anger, lending them strength on the field of battle. The bell’s screaming voice struck fear and doubt into the hearts of the Emperor’s enemies, sending them fleeing in his path.
Awed by its power, the Thunder King described the instrument as “the voice of the gods,” and named it Shenqing, the Divine Bell.
Pretty cool, right? Given Warchief Garrosh’s obsession with strengthening the might of the Horde, it’s no surprise that he’s on this like a naked dancing Night Elf on a mailbox in Ironforge. (Don’t judge. We’ve all done it.)
In the next chapter, “The Horde is Family,” we are directed to seek out everyone’s favorite alcoholic panda, Chen Stormstout. We find him desperately trying to save the life of Vol’jin, leader of the Trolls. Vol’jin has been poisoned, as it turns out, by Garrosh, who believes him to be standing in the way of achieving total Horde dominance. He’s absolutely right, by the way. Vol’jin is adhering to the old Troll standby and staying the Hell away from the voodoo; it is also made clear from the opening quests in the Troll storyline that his allegiance lies with Thrall and that he does not accept Garrosh as the Horde’s Warchief. Gee, I wonder why.
The good news is that Vol’jin lives. The bad news is that Garrosh tried to pull a Suge Knight on one of the most reasonable, awesome leaders in the entire game. I’ll admit, I’m a Troll fangirl. Like most of the rest of the Horde, they’re only doing what they’re doing to try and survive. Their lands were destroyed in the Cataclysm, and all they want to do is find a safe place to call home. Garrosh is definitely not making any friends with this latest campaign of his.
“Blood for Blood” guides us to the Kun-Lai Summit, where Garrosh’s forces need a little bit of backup on their quest to recover the Divine Bell. Armies of vicious terracotta Mogu warriors have sprung to life at the ruins of the Korune in order to protect a codex describing a type of magic never seen before. Could this be a key in the acquisition and use of the Divine Bell? Yes. Yes it can. This is also where the only awkward bit of design in the entire storyline comes into play, and though it is a minor detail, I feel the need to point it out due to the confusion that it has caused: though the final quest in this entry is called “The Korune,” it does not, in fact, highlight the meta achievement objective of the same name. Many players initially assumed this to be a bug, but it is, in fact, working as intended since it triggers the completion of “Blood for Blood.”
We finally find out more about the mysterious Korune Mogu in “The Korune.” Under the leadership of the terrifying Shan Kien, these Mogu are manipulating the power of the Sha themselves for their own nefarious purposes. Our goal is to kidnap Shan Kien for later interrogation, that he may assist us in tracking down the Divine Bell once and for all. The Blood Elves leading Garrosh’s excavations are beginning to grow restless. They have lost many from their own ranks in the attempts to subjugate and harness the magical power of a race that none of them can even pretend to understand, even with their own arcane roots. It’s easy to imagine rumors circulating about what use Garrosh could possibly have for these strange spells, each one more horrible than the last. They couldn’t be true… could they?
Yep. According to “Pride,” they are. Garrosh turns his own soldiers into unwitting test subjects by infecting them with the power of the Sha that he seized from the Korune. Baine Bloodhoof stands by Garrosh’s side and watches in horror as these crazed grunts run rampant throughout the Shrine of Two Moons, erupting into random acts of violence. Garrosh’s experimentation with the magic of the Korune seems to have failed, and everyone except for him realizes this. After “saving” these Orcs by beating the everliving shit out of them, the Blood Elves’ Lord Regent Lor’themar Theron appears to chastize Garrosh for his irresponsible actions. He points out that the power of the Sha cannot be controlled and that it has decimated their troops more than it has helped them. Garrosh arrogantly dismisses his concerns, insisting that the Horde must consume any and all power it comes across if it ever hopes to rise. Lor’themar takes his leave, but not after making his displeasure apparent in a manner so subtle and coldly polite that it reminds me of Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish from the Game of Thrones series.
We are able to further explore the effects of Garrosh’s iron hand on the Blood Elves upon being dispatched to Silvermoon City for “Rise of the Blood Elves.” Garrosh has forced them to retrieve yet another mysterious artifact with unknown powers and bring it to their home city for further study. All investigations of the object have been fraught with disaster, as the negativity of the Sha overwhelms anyone attempting to reveal its secrets. It is up to us to assist the Blood Elves in overcoming this devastating magic. As a special bonus, the final quest in this chapter is called “What’s in the Box?” prompting me to spend the entire fight yelling “AAAAAAWWWWW, COME ON, WHAT’S IN THE BAAAAAAAAWWWWX” in my best (worst) Brad Pitt impression.
After the dirty work of the day has been completed, Lor’themar asks to speak to us in private. What he has to say confirms his harsh view of Garrosh’s methods.
I am a ranger, not a politician. But like it or not, the mantle of leadership has fallen on my shoulders. My people, who have suffered through so many challenges and betrayals, look to me to secure their future. We Sin’dorei were driven to the Horde by the bigotry and distrust of the Alliance. Now, I look at our Warchief and I begin to see the very same racism. He is willing to throw away our lives for his agenda. Know this: I won’t stand idle if the Horde interests conflict with those of my people. I may reconsider old alliances.
Keep your eyes open, champion. We are all in this together… for now.
That doesn’t sound good. In fact, I’d venture to say it’s double-plus ungood.
Baine Bloodhoof summons us in “Secrets of the Past” to assist him in the creation of an ancient memory brew that could potentially be used in extracting the necessary information from the captive Shan Kien. The primary ingredient is the essence of another Mogu who lived during the time of the Divine Bell’s creation, which we obtain by somehow murdering a ghost (happens more often than you’d expect in this game) in a nearby tomb. The cutscene we are treated to upon completion shows that Shan Kien shares the same bloodthirsty, borderline sociopathic tendencies as Garrosh as he seals his own people within the cave they’ve been working in and leaves them to die. Though Baine never really took a stand against Garrosh’s deplorable tactics, I still came away from the story with the feeling that the peaceful nature of the Tauren is what stopped him from doing so. He never actually got his hands dirty or involved himself in the Sha experiments, other than to summon us for assistance when it became apparent that Garrosh was dealing with things beyond his control. Rather than allowing Garrosh to torture Shan Kien for the valuable information he possessed, Baine chose to brew the special elixir to much more gently and passively retrieve whatever it was he needed to know, to open a window into the Mogu leader’s memories without violence.
In “The Divine Bell,” we have finally discovered the location of the eponymous artifact, unfortunately at the same time that the Alliance has done the same. With the aid of Garrosh’s right-hand man, Ishi, we must defeat Sarannha Skyglaive and take possession of what is rightfully no one’s except for the Mogu who created it, but for purposes of Horde pride we will refer to as “ours.”
This is where the quests actually turn to somewhat hard-mode for a moment. Sarannha’s Night Elf Lady Squad stationed throughout the ruins hit hard and fast, and even with Ishi fighting alongside you, it’s pretty much at least one guaranteed death, especially in the last room where you get jumped by four at one time. These mobs are probably some of the toughest non-rare elites in Pandaria outside of those found in instances. After corpse-running your way back and finishing off (giggity) the last couple of guards, we reach Sarannha, who informs us that we’re too late and that the Divine Bell has already been taken to Darnassus. Son of a bitch.
Not to be deterred, however, we are sent to Teldrassil for “The Darnassus Operation” and given a special stealth buff and “oh shit” charm to return you to the safe zone should you get caught. Our mission is to avoid guards and sneak into the underbelly of the Cenarion Enclave to tag the bell, then return to Dominance Point to report our success. I’m usually terrible at stealth sequences, as evidenced by the six and a half hours it took me to successfully complete Be Raptor, but I’m happy to report that this one is made of baby shampoo, i.e. no more tears. It’s completely irritation free. Just avoid any NPCs, something easy to do if you go behind buildings and have at least one functioning eyeball, and you win. I was extremely grateful to the designers here for taking into consideration that not all of us are Solid Snake and tuning the difficulty of the quest accordingly.
Remember when I said earlier that Jaina had completely lost her shit after the destruction of Theramore? Well, in “The Purge of Dalaran,” she’s decided to retaliate against the Horde, undoubtedly not just for stealing the Divine Bell but also for the aforementioned crimes against her fortress, by forcibly removing all of the Horde from the floating magical city, taking citizens and Sunreaver leaders as prisoners of war and sending her forces to exterminate any traces of resistance. This is the part of the storyline where I really started biting the back of my hand and blurting out “OH GOD” and “NO WAY” as the quests progressed. It’s actually the longest installment of the Dominance Offensive story, weighing it at 10 individual quests for completion. We begin by liberating the captured citizens from the sewers of Dalaran, then fighting back against Jaina’s enforcers from the Silver Hand, and taking out their leaders. After laying the smackdown upon the Alliance ranks, we are then tasked with freeing the important players of the Sunreavers. Jaina patrols the city with her water elementals, teleporting any unwitting players who get too close (or accidentally tab-target and attack her) back to the Violet Hold where they’re forced to fight a “punishment” boss of sorts in order to escape again. Luckily, she RP walks the whole way and is easy to dodge if you’re paying attention.
This part of the story carried with it an exhilarating feeling of immersion and triumph. With each mission to save as many of the Horde in Dalaran as possible, I felt more and more like I was a freedom fighter. My adrenaline was actually racing throughout the whole thing. As sick and twisted as it sounds, I was happy with the choice of the designers to make it clear that not everyone was able to be saved. A bubblegum ending where everyone lived happily ever after would have cheapened the horror of Jaina’s virtual genocide and detracted from the overall grittiness of the Dominance Offensive story. This is a war, or at least the beginning stages of one, and it definitely feels like it.
The final installment is “Breath of Darkest Shadow.” Garrosh Hellscream stands before his prize, ready to use the already proven uncontrollable force of the Sha as amplified by the Divine Bell to empower his Horde warriors. It is up to us to prevent the ceremony from being interrupted. Apparently we really suck at this, because Anduin Wrynn rushes to the scene and pleads with him to stop, that the terrible power of the bell should not be used in this manner, but Garrosh ignores him and proceeds. As the Sha essence possesses Garrosh’s warriors and compels them to lash out and attack all bystanders, we are forced to put them down, destroying the mighty soldiers that the Warchief is so determined to create. Only Garrosh and Anduin seem to be immune to the effects of the bell. Ishi succumbs to its dark power and is summarily defeated by the player. Rather than mourning his faithful friend, Garrosh steps over his body and dishonors him by calling him weak and useless. Fans of Firefly will get this reference (and if you’re not, you’re a terrible person): Anduin is a leaf on the wind.
Well, maybe he doesn’t get fully Washed. Alliance players will receive a follow-up quest called The Silence, in which it is revealed that Anduin is still clinging to life, though every bone in his body has been broken. The Prophet Velen has been sent for to try and heal his grievous injuries. Savvy Horde players will be given a hint as to Anduin’s miraculous survival if they highlight his body; the “corpse” still has 6 HP left. Not quite dead, but close to it.
There is a design choice here that I’m rather disappointed with: the quest objectives inadvertently give some spoilers, listing 0/1 Defeat Ishi and 0/1 Defeat Anduin Wrynn. Granted that Garrosh slamming Anduin through the Divine Bell is a twist on what would be expected, but we know from the get-go that we’re going to have to fight Ishi and that something is going to happen to Anduin. A better objective would have been “Prevent the ceremony from any interruptions.”
But overall, the Dominance Offensive storyline was an example of game design and story development at its finest. Mists of Pandaria, overall, is a shining jewel in World of Warcraft’s crown based on writing alone, but this takes it even further past “awesome” straight into “I cried, screamed, and ranted about this for three hours straight to everyone who would listen and I’m not afraid to admit it” territory. It is so exceptionally good that it has actually shaken my confidence in my ability to be a game designer, because I cannot even imagine being able to top it. Not that I’m going to stop trying, of course. By the same token, it’s made me more determined than ever to not only refine my own storytelling skills, but also to find a spot for myself on a team that regularly creates such awe-inspiring things.
The progression method introduced with the Molten Front in Cataclysm and polished in MoP that intersperses storyline quests with dailies, revealing a steady stream of new chapters as the player’s reputation with the particular faction increases, is a great way to breathe new life into the otherwise mind-numbing grind to Exalted. The epic-quality rewards for the “finale” quests are also a really fantastic goal to strive for; in the case of the Dominance Offensive, players will receive a Grand Wyvern flying mount that is the basic version of the Grand Armored Wyvern available for purchase at Exalted. Also available from the Dominance Offensive quartermaster are epic item level 496 PvE gear pieces that are purchasable with Valor points, the best in the game obtainable thus far without raiding.
The Grand Commendation system introduced in 5.1makes life a lot easier by giving a 100% bonus to reputation gains with each faction that the commendation is purchased for, starting at Revered for the character who actually purchases it and extending account-wide for all other characters from the beginning. Thankfully there is one available for the Dominance Offensive, meaning that players can more rapidly advance the story and experience the fantastic content that the design team has offered us here.
Regardless of what side you play, it’s pretty apparent that Garrosh has lost his damn mind. His obsession with vengeance and domination has led him to (try to) murder the child of his enemy, King Varian Wrynn of Stormwind, and it is unclear as of yet what repercussions this will bring for the Horde. Will the King snap, himself, after seeing his father assassinated by a Horde agent and now very nearly losing his son? Will Velen be able to mend Anduin’s battered body? How much longer will Garrosh be allowed to run roughshod on Azeroth as Warchief before his disenfranchised and rightfully malcontent subjects rise up against him, or will he maintain his deadly grip on the throne? I could speculate even further on potential storylines for the future, but we shall see with the release of Patch 5.2 how exactly the tides are going to turn.
As an interesting side note, a few weeks ago the official World of Warcraft Twitter posed a hypothetical question to fans of who they’d like to see as a new Warchief. Just making conversation, or a sign of things to come?