There are three themes I want to talk about: secularism, the player, and environmentalism.
Let's start with some background, before this expansion. The Orcs are native to Draenor, until the Draenei arrived one day fleeing their homeworld Argus which had been taken over by demons. The demons followed them to Draenor, and made pacts with various Orcs – the first of which was Grommash Hellscream – where the Orcs drank demon blood, became stronger and fiercer, and were also enslaved to the demons. The demons worked on the planet Azeroth (where humans are from) to open a portal to Draenor, from where the Orcs invaded. The Orcs were eventually defeated, fought back again, became stuck on Azeroth, and forswore their demon lords. Grommash gave his life in the fight to kill the demon who had possessed them, Mannoroth. Thrall united the Orcs on Azeroth, and humans and orcs (and all other races) visited Draenor to stop the activities of the demons there. Along the way, Thrall met Garrosh Hellscream, the son of Grommash, who was moping over the dark legacy of his father. Thrall convinced Garrosh to look up and honor his father's sacrifice, and come to Azeroth. Later on after many adventures (and one duel), Thrall gave up leadership of the Horde (the organization of Orc friendly races) to Garrosh.
Garrosh became a very militant leader, emphasizing loyalty, brutality, and Orc superiority. He created a superweapon that could nuke a city, and nuked a city. He freed an Old God in order to join with it and absorb its power. He was the final raid boss of the previous expansion, and the Horde turned on him and the Alliance invaded. Thrall dueled him for a second time, lost again, and the players defeated Garrosh. He was put on trial for his war crimes. But then the last of the Black Dragons broke him out, and a renegade Bronze Dragon transported him back in time to Draenor, before his father took the demon blood.
Then this trailer happened.
This created an alternate timeline, where the Orcs don't drink demon blood. They don't become enslaved and they don't use that power. Grommash then begins uniting all the orc clans under the banner of the Iron Horde. They open the portal to Azeroth again, start to invade, and that is where the expansion starts.
(Apologies to the uninitiated who just had to make sense of all that. Double apologies to the WOW fanbase that had to read through all that lore again.)
One of the things that happens at the end of the leveling experience is that Thrall has his third duel with Garrosh, and kills him.
This is a good decision. It was going to be annoying to deal with YET ANOTHER expansion around the disturbingly evil Garrosh. Instead we barely saw him while questing, and he won't still be around for defeating him to be a big turning point. It's good that Thrall was the one to defeat him, and it allowed them to hash out their legitimate argument that many fans had noticed but the game had so far ignored. Now the decks are cleared, and this expansion can be about something new. Except how are these orcs new?
They're certainly uh, pretty bad. Garrosh was very racist towards anyone not an Orc, and naming this collection the "Iron Horde" conjures some Nazi imagery. So basically it seems we are being sent in there to fight an incredibly cliché enemy: the same race as before, but with Nazi imagery. You can see why players were unexcited, including me.
Instead, these guys are pretty great. They're certainly competent. The Iron Horde isn't channeling any fel forces, or bringing any supernatural horror into existence, so all of their threat and power has to be about them. And that comes across pretty well, with the initial quest line in Tanaan jungle making us feel constantly surrounded by vast, undefeatable numbers of Orcs, and the Orc leaders not falling for any of our plans. They really felt like non-idiotic enemies.
And then the gods start getting involved.
Warcraft has a lot of mythologies. A lot of supernatural beings who are above the humanoid races, and want to manipulate us to do their bidding, for good or ill. There are demons, and dragons, and titans, and the elements, and liches, and space angels called the Naaru, and more.
Grommash rejecting the demon blood means an alternate time line where the orcs bow to no god. They could have chosen another of the very plentiful gods to serve instead, but we don't see them do that. Heck, they only open the portal to Azeroth again by channeling it through an unwilling warlock Gul'dan, and not in the service of any demon. Additionally we get a quest where we find out what happened the moment Garrosh arrived in past-Draenor. The renegade Bronze Dragon who took him back (the Bronze Dragonflight is in charge of keeping time orderly and stable and pure) demanded that Garrosh serve him and recruit the armies of the orcs to serve him.
Garrosh immediately kills the time-traveling dragon in single combat. He is serving *no* superior beings.
And it was really striking to me how many times we're fighting orcs, and the orcs aren't actually stand ins for some greater power. In the past they've served the Black Dragonflight, and that dragon (Neferian, or Deathwing) were the real boss, or the Dark Iron dwarves were enslaved to the elemental lord Ragnaros, or just this general string of servant/master relationships all over Warcraft. There are, so far, no masters above them.
Which isn't to say the gods don't get involved. Oh they do.
In Shadowmoon Valley for most of the quest line, the orc shaman Nerzhul is trying to bring forth a Dark Star that will help destroy the Draenei city of Karabor. It's described in very vague, commodified terms, as just this vague generic source of dark energy. It's viewed as some sort of extra-artillery for the assault the Iron Horde has planned, which features ships and cannons. The Prophet Velen (a major NPC in the original timeline) manages to interfere, and channels his last life energy – dying – into the Dark Star. Which turns from a glowy ball of purple energy into… a Naaru, the light-beings that originally escorted the Draenei to Draenor. We've fought beside them before, particularly in the first expansion Burning Crusade where they lead the city Shattrath. It's a pretty cool reveal, where we have hope that we can kick some ass because guys we have a Naaru on our side.That fight works out at least, and we defend Karabor while fighting next to the Naaru.
In Gorgond, we dig up an artifact that can attract the attention and support of a genesaur, giant dinosaur like creatures that bring life and greenery wherever they go. We attack the gates of the Orc mechanical fortress with it, and kill large legions of Orcs, until their canons break the artifact and we lose control of the genesaur. It runs away, and we back off.
Let's talk about the bird people. In Burning Crusade, our first trip to original timeline Draenor, we had a random dungeon and questing zone that involved fighting these bird people called the Skettis. They worshipped a dark raven god called Anzu, and his ancient long dead prophet-king Terrok. They were creepy and insane and pretty cool. In this expansion, we run into them again, but we see them as part of the whole bird empire called the Arak. The non-insane bird people can still fly and live at the top of spires, and throw their political enemies into poisonous waters below, where they become the Skettis. So now we fight on behalf of the Skettis, to throw off the oppression of the cruel elitist Arak birds. This is pretty cool, if only because the creepy, insane Skettis make fun allies to quest for.
We have to help them summon Terrokk, of course (the guy we were so afraid of in the previous expansion.) When we do, he possesses us and we become his powerful avatar and we go fight the local leader of the Iron Horde, an orc named Kargarth Bladefist (most of these leaders we had met before in previous Warcraft games). As avatar of Terrokk, complete with his power, we fight non-supernatural Kargarth in single combat. And he wins. He punches us until we retreat. And he laughs at our failure.
I found this quest incredibly powerful. We were a god! And the orc wasn't even in some mad invention of science and metal, he was just himself, and he beat us up.
In the dungeon Blackrock Spire, we fight an orc boss in the same spot where in the vanilla expansion we fought an orc boss who was serving the Black Dragon Neferian (Neferian stands in the room watching, giving various humorous commands to his servant.) During the fight, a Blue Dragon appears and helps us out for a little bit. This is a callback to vanilla, where you could get the Red Dragon Vaelstraz to help you in that fight, but then Vael was really trying to fight Neferian. Here, the Blue Dragon is only here to help us out. Dragons vs Orcs now.
If you watched that video of Thrall vs Garrosh, you notice that Thrall eventually defeats him by summoning the elements. Specifically, a fist of earth rises out of the ground and grabs Garrosh while lightning strikes him. Sometimes the elements are personified, sometimes they are mindless, but I think the symbol of a fist means we are more on the personified side.
I imagine we'll continue to see other forms of gods vs Orcs. I admit I don't really know where this is going by the end of the expansion, but the Iron Orcs really come off as more noble than the Azerothian forces that are constantly calling in gods we don't control in order to get help. They are the heroes. Watch that first trailer again -- it's really hard to believe that these are the bad guys.
Now, R points out that a lot of this is colonialist imagery. The Draenei, who we are generally encouraged to look at as very sympathetic and good (Velen gave his life to save an angel of light, etc) are actually the invaders here on the Orc homeworld and they named it after themselves. And they brought demons with them. Garrosh brought iron technology and social change to a pre-portal Draenor. And of course we're here now, trying to put down these tribes. So you can see how the Orcs there are constantly being interfered with by colonial-type forces.
I'm not so sure (several of the gods I mentioned are native to Draenor), and the unity the Iron Horde is displaying is, well, pretty much the opposite of what you get in colonizer scenarios (where the invader uses the chaos of the native tribes to weaken opposition to them, and even get invited in.) But there could be a more coherent thematic message there, if someone wants to point it out to me.
A major advertised feature for this expansion was your garrison. Each player would have a specific little zone where they marshalled and rallied the forces of Azeroth on Draenor (you become a Warlord of the title of the game.) You build buildings based around your professions, and what you prefer to do in the world. You farm materials for recipes. And you recruit followers. Followers come from quests you don in Draenor, where you help or work along side an NPC and once you're done they decide they want to continue to help you in your garrison. Followers can work in your buildings, they can escort you while you quest in the real world, but mostly they go on missions. You have a mission board of various threats you need to deal with, and you can assign followers to them, and they bring back rewards for having done so. They gain xp on these missions, and they level up, and they have cute names and classes and races and skills. It's all really super addictive.
You're in charge of something.
In vanilla WOW and the first two expansions, you were early on referred to as a recruit or otherwise treated as some foot soldier. You had just showed up to a battle front after all, where the NPCs have to tell you what's going on, and you're running errands, and well it's just very initiatory.
Now, everywhere you go people call you Commander. You're recognized. People are grateful for you the moment you show up. And they make frequent references to your garrison, and how it's the greatest force on Draenor. It's fairly silly, given that you're doing the same things as you were in the previous expansions (except the garrison), but it really does work to convey that this isn't baby's first adventure.
Addendum on environmentalism:
Warcraft, both as an MMO and an RTS has always had typical fantasy environmentalism themes. Various sides, either the "evil" side or even the human side when it becomes morally questionable, tear up the landscape to acquire resources for their war machine. In WOW, we frequently see Orc lumber camps, and either fight against or on behalf of elves who are trying to stop the pillaging. (Dwarves, gnomes, and goblins also have these camps to a lesser extent.) The environmental damage is very visible and aesthetically stark. (And Warcraft as an RTS definitely had to deal with mineral depletion, a theme Starcraft mostly gave up on I think.)
We still have that with the Iron Horde, though frankly with less frequency than we saw with the original Orcs in Azeroth (I don't know whether this is just a coincidence, or has greater meaning.)
What's really interesting is *your* participation in it.
In order to build your garrison, you need garrison supplies. If you get a lumber mill, you can cut down trees and turn them into garrison supplies. In previous expansions you could collect herbs and minerals and skins, which you can still do, but those could be traded between characters. So you did not need to collect herbs, you could just buy them, distancing yourself from the collection (capitalism in action.) Lumber cannot be traded, and so the only way to get lumber is to collect in yourself.
You soon develop a very strong addiction for lumber. Upgrading your garrison (building new buildings, upgrading buildings, sending followers on missions, all depend on supplies) is enjoyable and the game trains us to want to do that a lot. Every saw-able tree you see become a step towards that, and the only way you can progress that.
Given my fervor for tree cutting, and how I leave no tree standing, I soon began to feel much less capable of criticizing the orcs for their resource collection autarchy.
(Trees grow back, although slowly. You can also find treasures throughout Draenor, which have garrison supplies in them, but can only be collected once. So we have both the renewable parts of resource extraction, and the non-renewable parts.)
The actual flavor of lumber farming only emphasizes this further. When you mark a tree, you don't cut it down, but an NPC immediately flies in to chop it for you. They're funny NPC's, and they comically emphasize the brutality of tree cutting. They refer to it as murdering trees, they have giant buzzsaw wielding exoskeletons, etc. They do not make you feel better about the process.
At some point, one tree fights back (because, fantasy). So you have to kill it. That beings a quest to kill four trees that will fight back, so that you can become a tree assassin.
At a later point, a mysterious nature protector appears to stop you from cutting trees. You defeat him and he runs away. You do this twice more, and he submits. That's the only word for it. He declares you the new god of this world, and enthusiastically wants to go forth and spread your will. He happily works at your lumber mill, improving the efficiency with which it turns lumber into supplies. It is definitely the creepiest part of the game I have encountered so far, perhaps because it makes explicit the thematic connection between your commanderness and the god commentary elsewhere in the game.