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The Warcraft universe is a setting created by Blizzard Entertainment in 6 hours and 23 minutes way back in 1994, when (allegedly, as it has only been rumored and never proven) Games Workshop decided that Warhammer Fantasy didn't need a video game (to hear Blizzard tell it, it was a rejected fan game that GW refused to license). Thus Blizzard took the main concept of Warhammer and created the game Warcraft.
In actuality, it was intended by the marketing team in the middle of development to branch into other eras; then, one guy said "Why don't we just obtain the Warhammer licence?" This was highly unpopular with the development team and it was dropped. Still, myth evolved into something else. This shit is not made up. An ex-Blizzard developer came out with the truth several years ago.
The plot of the game was simple, and the artistic style was mostly drawn from the sketchy scribblings of the viking enthusiast Chris Metzen. Azeroth is the kingdom of men and knights, demon-worshiping Orcs came from a swamp one day, both sides want to wipe each other out. The plot was considered so unimportant back then that all of it was just improv by the narrator.
Regardless of whether or not Warcraft was a stillborn Warhammer game, Warcraft still borrowed their green skinned Orcs from the Warhammer greenskins which had been the first. Notably, unlike Warhammer which had changed their Orcs to asexual fungus apes, Warcraft still retained females as mentioned in the first game. Overall it was an okay RTS game back in the day, but it hasn't aged well thanks to limitations of the time. Blizzard hadn't yet had a hit game, so it kept them afloat and enabled them to make a sequel.
In Warcraft 2, the canon turned out to be the Orcish end. Azeroth, now known as Stormwind (the continent is Azeroth), fell and most of the inhabitants were slaughtered like livestock. What few survived were lead by a man named Anduin Lothar, the champion of Stormwind, across the snows and seas to the other great human kingdom of Lordaeron, where the king named Terenas Menethil called a meeting of the world leaders. Lothar's ancestors were owed a debt by the Dwarves of the Ironforge mountain, and so the Dwarf king Magni Bronzebeard sent his brother Muradin. The wild Dwarves of the north, who rode giant gryphons, came after recognizing the threat the Horde presented. The magical kingdom of Dalaran came as well, as they also realized the danger the Orcs posed since one of their own, a powerful mage named Medivh who was the head of a secret society, had intentionally lead the Orcs to the world while under demonic control. The Elves refused to see reason, and instead hid themselves away behind their magical runes despite the General of their great armies coming to the aid of mankind. They quickly changed their tune when the Horde rampaged through their lands and slaughtered their people. The other human kingdoms were drawn in as well including Stromgarde (Lordaeron Jr.), Alterac (trade hub), Gilneas (smug isolationists), and Kul Tiras (naval).
Warcraft 2 was a successful game, to say the least. It hit shelves only a couple months after Command & Conquer, and the two together are generally regarded as the point where the RTS genre really got its shit together to deliver a complete product. Compared to C&C, Warcraft 2 was bright, fantasy, had better music, and didn't take itself quite so seriously. It was a 90's game: The fluff was there if you went and read the manual, and if you were too illiterate to care about the story, you were also welcome to just play the game and send out your Footmen en masse for the fun of watching the fighting, or to repeatedly click on them to listen to them say funny things.
When Blizzard employees were rich enough to afford weed instead of booze, they started to do weirder shit to the setting in Warcraft 3. Mummified spidermen and cow-people ripping off Native American culture started to roam the lands of Azeroth. Also it was the age when plot holes began to surface, but they were small and insignificant at that time, and it did put the series on track to its own distinctive lore. Units continued to have hilarious quotes. Plus, at a time when online multiplayer was still an afterthought for most games, it had solid matchmaking along with a very flexible mapmaker, which allowed for the creation of some very unique custom game mods. One of them was the unique Defence Of The Ancients map and game mode, which created the MOBA genre.
All this shit culminated into World of Warcraft, which was initially planned as a spin-off, but got far more popular than the RTS games (so don't expect to ever see any more made. At this point, Warcraft 4 would likely have 26 factions and if you are curious to see what that is like, then try this ultimate battle mod), where time traveling immortal dragons are fighting with bugs created in the image of space squid-bugs by ancient beings of darkness while dimension-faring demon look-a-likes are furious that space-faring blood elves kidnapped an alien made of positive energy crystals and are siphoning its powers so that they can become paladins and so on and so on. Since the majority of the players are 14 year old Blizzard-drones (or else adults with the mindset of such a person), the developers take that as an excuse to not really care when previous fluff is brutally raped or that new fluff is simply stupid. Consistency, what's that?
In fact, WoW is an experiment financed by the government to find out how much shit people can take or willfully deny.
Speculations are that gnomish death knights will make people wonder at least a bit, but I'm much more pessimistic. OLOLLOLOLOL, Wrath has come and gone and no one questioned the existence of Gnome Death Knights. Fuck you, Warcraft.
The good, the bad, and the ugly
- WarCraft 3. Widely hailed as one of the best RTS games ever, and not without cause. While it arguably gets more credit for being revolutionary than it actually deserves, it tells a good story, has distinct factions with a host of colorful 3D models that looked pretty good for their day, and also got some solid expansions to boot. It also tells the tale of Arthas' downfall, which is basically the best story WarCraft has done to date.
- The "stop poking me!" lines that units say in the WarCraft RTS trilogy. So much fun that a few other video games have copied this.
- Arthas. Again, his story is the best (think Anakin/Darth Vader in High Fantasy or a less skubby version of Archaon and you'll get the idea).
- Elves that feel closer to Tolkien's take than many other modern Fantasy portrayals, and also having their own unique flavors instead of rehashing the High, Wood, and Dark varieties.
- Dinosaur mounts. Mostly only available to Trolls, but every now and then one gets available for non-Troll players.
- Thrall, who is basically an Orc blend of Moses, Spartacus and Thor, and as Awesome as that sounds.
- Playable Werewolves in the Worgen (even if they do mean attracting a certain number of furries).
- The Cinematic Trailers, which manage to be consistently epic and well made even when they're for expansions that turn out to be awful (we're getting to those).
- Dragons, especially Deathwing.
- Death Knights
- Samurai Orcs
- King Varian Wrynn
- Grom Hellscream
- Depending on who you ask, Illidan being retconned from an incel wild card into an edgy-anti hero.
BAD: Some of many examples of Warcraft's horrific experimentation are, roughly in order;
- Tauren Paladin "Holy Cows," (whilst this was initially explained by having them draw not from The Light, but from the Sun, the writers later forgot this and had Tauren paladins worship the Light only one expansion after their introduction).
- Night Elf hippies using environmentally unsafe arcane magic that they avoid because it's addictive and served as a homing beacon for the demons threatening the world.
- Forsaken Hunters that don't have a sense of smell and can't eat what they kill.
- Blood Elf "I broke a nail!" Warriors, because even though WarCraft's Elves are less hated among the /tg/ crowd as a whole, they don't totally drop all the usual Elf traits.
- Not one, not two, but THREE furry races with the Worgen, Pandaren and Vulpera (Tauren may or may not count, depending who you ask). And as already noted, Worgen do translate to playable Werewolves, so there is that.
- Deathwing in Cataclysm, who's essentially reduced to an Derp-tastic emo dragon who has a ridiculous looking jaw and acts like an obnoxious kitteh (except in the Cinematic trailer, where he's still boss).
- Lightforged undead princess, with holy magic raising someone in an unholy form despite holy magic being able to resurrect people anyway.
- The Devs having the bad habit of telling players that they've "heard" them and are "listening" to what they want, and then completely fail to deliver. Over time people have started to call the devs out on their bullshit, but seriously, for all they get right, the above is the tip of the iceberg for issues.
- The retcons. So many retcons. Everything from the color of people's outfits to the nature of the cosmological forces is changed every 1-3 expansions, often without an in-universe explanation.
- Depending on who you ask, Illidan being retconned from a trickster to an edgelord.
- WarCraft III: Reforged: Intended as a remastered, new and improved version of a beloved classic, the launch was filled with a ridiculous amount of bugs and some brain-dead decisions from the Blizzard devs, leading it to get review-bombed with a ferocity that makes what happened to TLJ look almost tame by comparison. Patches and updates were promised of course, but a blunder like this is a hard thing to forgive (which is probably why most folks haven't).
- Everything having to do with Sylvanas Windrunner from Legion/Battle for Azeroth onwards. On that note...
- Battle for Azeroth and Shadowlands: Two expansions that managed to annihilate what goodwill still existed between the fans and the developers faster than dropping Tyranids into an "all you can eat" buffet. To keep it short, Sylvanas turning into a genocidal psycho, Horde players being forced to go along with it, Alliance players (especially Night Elf players), feeling like they were once again being shat on, and an absolutely convoluted mess of a story in the setting's afterlife that involved a bland, underdeveloped villain, an unsatisfying end to Arthas' story, and giving Sylvanas a redemption she didn't earn. And none of that's even mentioning the stories of other characters and the numerous hated gameplay elements (grinding, timegates, etc.)
Now we know what you're thinking: "Oh God, here we go again, another case of fans hating the new thing while critics love it and accusations of SJW and /pol/ flying back and forth between the two, someone please get me a scotch". But in this case, many gaming sites/online journals actually agreed that Shadowlands' storytelling was bad, or at least sympathized with the fan outcry. So there's nowhere near the battle-lines between critics and fans that you see in some other recent stuff.
It's kind of a big deal
Today the Warcraft franchise towers over the world of video gaming like an Olympian god on a mountain. But it's important to remember that it got there incrementally, by stealing the best bits of other people's ideas and improving them just enough to not get sued. Warcraft II took Command and Conquer and made it bright and fantasy in contrast to C&C's drab olive maps and fifty shades of quonset hut buildings. Warcraft III took 3D and made it interesting by focusing on heroes that conveniently reduced the amount of 3D they'd have to draw on screen at any moment; it also gave birth (for better or worse) to the tower defence and MOBA genres. World of Warcraft took every original idea every other MMO ever had and did it just slightly better, leaving behind a veritable skull pile of defeated challengers, at least two of which began with the prompt "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...".
Warcraft does also have a boardgame, a tabletop RPG, multiple novels and comics, and a trading card game, so it is not all /v/.