Are we heading back toward less opposite-faction aggression in Expansion #5?

As 5.4 – reportedly the final raid patch of Mists of Pandaria – draws near, along with Blizzcon 2013, speculation is ramping up as to the exact setting and nature of the next WoW expansion. We’ve seen announcements and hoaxes and so on… I won’t go into those here.

However, I do wonder about how the story in the next expansion will affect our gaming experience, with respect to the intensity of conflict between the Horde and Alliance. As I see it, there are several possible factors that will determine this – beyond, of course, how much priority the game’s creators give to the conflict itself.

Here of a few of them, and, while they’re all related of course, to my way of thinking, these fit into two subsets of the equation.

A) The Antagonist and The Setting

1. Who is the big baddie, and what is the nature of the threat that he or she presents to the entirety of Azeroth?

2. Where will this entity come from / where will we be questing and fighting it?

Let’s expand a bit upon these questions.

1. Who is the big baddie?

I don’t know about you all, but to me, Garrosh Hellscream, the Thunder King, and the Shas don’t seem… quite as much the dire threats that recent end-bosses have been.

We’re coming off the threat, and subsequent destruction, of Deathwing. As in Deathwing the Destroyer. Consider that during the Madness of Deathwing fight, Deathwing periodically attempts to invoke a second cataclysm. The spell tooltip states that he is “trying to finish the job he started” – during the boss fight! It doesn’t get more dire than that, in my opinion.

Previous to this, we fought through a fairly long mess of Arthas’ minions en route to the Frozen Throne, where we fought the Lich King himself. Arthas, who murdered his own father and destroyed his kingdom and birthright, along with the lives of untold numbers from virtually every race and civilization on the known planet. Who made his presence felt all over Azeroth – even before players stepped onto one of the boats to Northrend – and constantly threatened and taunted us thereafter, until we came face to face with him.

While we did fight the Lich King in the coldness of his throne room, as opposed “out in the world” with Deathwing, it was still the climax of a story that went carried us throughout the expansion. One of the overarching themes of Wrath was that fighting the Lich King was a do-or-die task: if we did not defeat him once and for ever, he would eventually overwhelm the entirety of Azeroth with his might and that of his ever-growing Scourge army, and we would join him in our own unwilling undeath. And Icecrown, with its constant threats, the undead and insectoid trash, the ever-presence of his voice, all had a creepy effect on the raid instance, giving it a vast yet claustrophobic feel that enhanced one’s dread. The Lich King was an amazing antagonist for an expansion.

In contrast, the mogu and the sha – while obviously fascinating from the Titan connection and the burying of emotions manifested in as corporeal malevolent power – seem to really only be an imminent threat to the serenity and normalcy of Pandaria and those who live or go there. Sure, we’ll be descending on Orgrimmar shortly, and Garrosh is intent on using heretofore unseen power to expand the strength of his New Horde, but it still seems to me to be isolated in a way that we didn’t see in the past two expansions or so. Ok, so it’s Pandaria and Orgrimmar. And Theramore, before the expansion came out. Certainly not insignificant, but we’re already looking beyond this raid, and it’s not even out yet. And we’ve been looking for a while now.

In summary: while the Lich King and Deathwing were omnipresent threats to the whole of the peoples of Azeroth for the entirety of their respective expansions, Garrosh still seems like something of a noob, comparatively. And while his transformation has been swift and terrible, as apparently are his dreams of destruction, the situation seems less like a world-wide threat like those others, or like the Burning Legion.

2. Where does this entity come from, and where will we be playing?

This is a huge unknown. While the speculation recently has been about Azshara and N’zoth, and about the return of the Burning Legion, we really don’t know who and where we’ll be fighting. Will it be Azeroth, phased? Will it be a new place, like an underground/underwater expansion (please, dear Lord, no…)? Will it be a phased Azeroth and a phased Outland? Will there be some other dimension that we go to, or some island off the coast of whatever that has only ever previously been hinted at?

In BC, Wrath, and Cata, we had a host of neutral factions that chose to put themselves apart from / above the Alliance and Horde for the good of the world. In MoP, we have several as well, but we seem to have more Alliance or Horde factions than we’ve seen recently. The Kirin Tor Offensive vs. the ousted Sunreavers. Dominance Offensive vs. Operation: Shieldwall. Jinyu vs. Hozen. Tushui Pandaren vs Huojin Pandaren. And while we’ve had conflicting Horde-based and Alliance-based factions before, it has long seemed that we were generally fighting for a common cause, regardless of affiliation: the Argent Crusade/Ebon Blade/Ashen Verdict. The Avengers of Hyjal, and so on.

Based on Wrathion’s forboding conversations during parts of the Legendary questline, it’s easy to presume that there is an imminent,  dire threat to the world. When he beheld an image of the world, and spoke of an unimaginable power threatening Azeroth, it was easy to let our thoughts go to their speculative space. “Hmm, does he mean Sargeras? Old gods? Bolvar Fordragon going insane? Azshara? Something we’ve never heard of before?” Etc.

While we don’t know what we will face, if Wrathion is right and, in the next expansion, that unknown power surfaces and threatens the fabric of the Azerothian universe, the Horde and Alliance will likely have to put aside their differences again.

B) The Warchief, the Horde, the Alliance, and the world

3. Who replaces Garrosh?

Names have been thrown about. Some are reasonable, others seem less so. The popular ones include Vol’jin, Sylvanas, Lor’themar Theron, Baine Bloodhoof, and Varok Saurfang. The most divisive idea – even more so than Sylvanas – seems to be that Thrall could reassume his position.

There seem to be some generally accepted thoughts on the levels of Alliance-Horde conflict that could result from the choosing of some of these people. Baine, Vol’jin, Thrall, Lor’themar, and Varok seem to be somewhat less hostile and more reasonable. Sylvanas has been one of the more aggressively anti-Alliance leaders of late (see: the northern part of Eastern Kingdoms, post-Shattering), and would likely be the leader that the Alliance would have the most objection to. Which leads to the next part of this subset…

4. How does his replacement come into power? Who has influence over that decision? 

One of the biggest questions, post-Garrosh, is how much influence certain entities will have over the selection of the next warchief.

Assuming that Thrall isn’t reinstated, will he have a say? And will his be a “final say,” giving credence to the idea that he ultimately has the most universal respect among Horde-related leaders (and the Alliance, for that matter)?

And, for that matter, how will the Alliance be involved in all of this? Are they going to march on Orgrimmar – the combined might of all of the factions along with the Darkspear Rebellion – unseat Garrosh, and then say, “Well, good work, all. Grats on loots, see you next time” and head back to their respective homelands? Or will they insist upon sitting at council with the remaining leaders of the Horde and the “neutral” parties involved (such as Thrall), in order to monitor, moderate, or otherwise influence the picking of the next warchief, directly or indirectly?

Will they allow the Horde to be as they were – allowing them autonomy, while insisting on some treaties to keep things copacetic – or will there be an Alliance Kor’kron-like presence in Orgrimmar for the foreseeable future?

Or, will Wrathion’s prophecy fall upon us and the world before there is any resolution?

Looking at what has happened doesn’t make predicting the future any easier. The general questions I ask in this post merely splash the waves in the sea of possibilities regarding the next expansion, and I’m not enough of a lore nut to write cogently about anything much deeper than this.

I do think that we’re facing multiple “mind. blown.” scenarios in the next several months. Assuming that Blizzard announces the next expansion sometime within the month-long window leading up to and including Blizzcon, it’s likely that we’ll soon have a grasp of the nature of the next expansion’s lead antagonist, the new “area” – if there is one – and perhaps even some idea of the level of faction antagonism. And if there is indeed a post-Siege patch that wraps up the warchief question and begins to lay out foundations for Expansion #5, we’ll have some closure there, too… maybe.

My gut feeling is that we will face a danger that once again makes the Alliance-Horde squabbles seem trivial, and that, while there will be different flavor to the factions’ leveling experiences, the anti- nature of those differences will be toned down compared to what we’ve seen in Mists of Pandaria.

Of course, I could be completely wrong.

Thanks for reading this incomplete thought by Mushan at Mushan, Etc. Comments are welcome!