I wrote an article not too long ago about how Blizzard Entertainment has lost its storytelling magic. With World of Warcraft becoming such an expansive game, I miss the focused narrative of the real-time strategy titles. Nevertheless, over the years Blizzard has consistently delivered some outstanding moments, usually accompanied by an astonishingly detailed cutscene that even back in the early 2000s could rival Hollywood's finest in terms of animation quality.
Heroes of the Storm is Blizzard's attempt at a MOBA, and features a range of popular characters from across its franchises. And, with the game getting its full release last week, it's a good time to look back at some of the California-based developer's greatest moments. These standout scenes are listed in no particular order, but beware of spoilers for games that are over a decade old.
The Culling of Stratholme – Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos
A good place to start is with one of Blizzard's most famous characters, Arthas Menethil. In that earlier article I gave you the rundown of his downfall from Paladin and Crown Prince of Lordaeron to Death Knight and leader of the Undead Scourge. And Stratholme is where it all began.
The necromancer Kel'Thuzad had been infecting the grain supply across the countryside, which not only caused a plague that killed anyone who ate it, but they then rose from the dead as a minion of the Scourge. When Arthas arrived at Stratholme to confront the necromancer, he found that the grain had already been distributed here. He ordered his fellow Paladin Uther, along with the Knights of the Silver Hand, to purge the entire city before the plague could take effect.
This was difficult for 11-year-old Matt to understand. I was used to the good guys doing the right thing, and always finding a way. Here I was forced to take control of a man who fought for justice, and murder innocent humans. It was simultaneously the most shocking and most badass gaming moment of my childhood.
The Betrayal of Kerrigan – StarCraft
I have a theory that the writers at Blizzard in the late 90s and early 00s were professional wrestling fans, because the games were littered with heel turns. Originally a Terran Ghost, an espionage agent and assassin, Kerrigan was left behind on a planet overrun by the insectoid Zerg by her commanding officer Arcturus Mengsk.
Everyone thought that she'd die at the hands (claws?) of the Zerg, but instead she was captured. After discovering her psychic powers and seeing her potential as a weapon, she was placed in a chrysalis. When she emerged, she became the "Queen of Blades" and fought back against the Terran forces and her former allies.
What's particularly cool about this moment is that it originally happened in the first StarCraft game as part of a mission. In StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty we were treated to a fully rendered cutscene using the same script.
Tyrael's Sacrifice – Diablo III
Sacrifice is another big element in Blizzard's storytelling, and there aren't many bigger than the one Tyrael made for humanity in Diablo III. As the Archangel of Justice, he declared that if the forces of Heaven would not come to Man's aid against the demons Belial and Azmodan, then he'd do it himself. After a fight against Imperius, Archangel of Valor, he rips off his own wings and falls to earth, setting up the game's second act.
Sacrificing your immortality and a place on the council of Heaven in order to save the mortals on Sanctuary below is a pretty cool thing to do, all things considered. It was also a fantastic reveal at the end of the first act, suddenly realizing that you've been accompanied by a fallen archangel. It also helped that the cutscene was totally awesome.
Arthas's Betrayal – Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos
Back to betrayals. The main one here is at the end of the human act of Reign of Chaos, where Arthas, having been corrupted by the Lich King, returns to his home of Lordaeron and murders his father the king. The next act follows the Undead, and Arthas is once again the central character.
Of course, for someone who's turned evil, you're not going to be satisfied with just one betrayal. Previously Arthas had presumably carelessly killed his former friend Muradin Bronzebeard (he actually turned up later with no memory of the event). Afterwards, he murdered the Ranger-General of the elven city Silvermoon, Sylvanas Windrunner, but not content to let her die, turned her spirit into a banshee.
Even as a member of the Undead, Windrunner hated Arthas for this, and formed a splinter faction called the Forsaken. If you choose Undead as your race in World of Warcraft, this is what you're playing as, and you can even pay Sylvanas a visit in the Undercity.
The Destruction of Dalaran – Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos
This moment was another directly linked to Arthas's descent into madness. As leader of the Scourge, Arthas acquired the spellbook of Medivh, an ancient mage who had been possessed and corrupted in previous attempts to conquer the world. Using the spellbook, he was able to summon Archimonde, an incredibly powerful warlock who was many thousands of years old.
Now, when I say powerful, I mean being-able-to-destroy-an-entire-city-using-your-mind powerful, because that's exactly what Archimonde did to the city of Dalaran. Also bear in mind that this city was inhabited by archmages, and they were powerless to resist. After its destruction, some mages moved back into the ruins and began rebuilding. If you played "vanilla" World of Warcraft, you might remember the giant impenetrable purple dome in Alterac Mountains. Inside, the Kirin Tor were working to restore the city. Eventually, the city was moved to an entirely different continent and now floats above a forest, because why not?
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The Secret Cow Level – Diablo II
Let's take a step away from death and betrayal for a moment, and talk about one of Blizzard's longest running jokes. If you complete Diablo II on any difficulty, and combine Wirt's Leg with a Tome of Town Portal in the Horadric Cube, then a portal will appear in the first act's starting area. If none of those words make any sense to you, don't worry: they don't make sense to a lot of people.
The portal takes you to the Secret Cow Level, a small area full of "Hell Bovines" and the infamous "Cow King". The bovine monarch drops the rarest items in the game, and he can only be killed once per difficulty level. So if you know someone who has the full Cow King's Leathers set, they're either incredibly lucky, or they're bastard cheaters.
Over the years Blizzard has consistently said that there is no Cow Level, but we know differently. It's even referenced in Diablo III, as the ghost of the Cow King appears in Old Tristram Road. Your player character references the old Cow Level out loud, but even the Cow King himself says there is no such thing. This is in spite of the fact that he stands next to the portal to the game's own secret level, Whimsyshire, which is inhabited by unicorns and teddy bears.
Corrupted Blood – World of Warcraft
Let's keep it light for a while longer. Even though the "Corrupted Blood" incident isn't part of the lore of Warcraft, and wasn't even planned by the writers or developers, it remains one of Blizzard's most memorable moments. For a week in September 2005, World of Warcraft was infected by a plague.
Hakkar, the final boss of the raid Zul'Gurub, used an ability which put a debuff on players. It only lasts a few seconds, but drains your health pretty rapidly. The most dangerous part, however, is that it's highly contagious. So when a bug allowed the Corrupted Blood debuff to exit the raid and spread among the general population, chaos ensued. Low-level characters were killed instantly and had no idea why. People who knew what was going on fled the highly populated cities.
It was all very silly, but the reactions of the players were real. As such, epidemiologists actually studied the event, finding how people would react to a real-world outbreak. Characters who could heal offered their services, other players directed people away from infected areas, and of course there were the trolls who intentionally tried to spread it around. The latter group were studied by anti-terrorism officials, who noted the implications of a planned biological attack.
The Death of the Lich King – World of Warcraft
Arthas's path eventually took its darkest turn when he merged with the Lich King. He telepathically ruled the Scourge for a time from the Frozen Throne in Icecrown Citadel. That is until those meddling millions of players got in his way.
Arthas was main antagonist of the Wrath of the Lich King expansion and final raid boss. When you're that high profile you know you don't have much time left on this world. However, when the raids arrived at his doorstep, it appeared to all be a trap. He imprisoned Tirion Fordring in ice and thanked him for bringing the most powerful heroes in the world to him. Following this, Arthas effortlessly killed all of the players.
However, thanks to a bit of magic, Tirion managed to break free and shattered the Lich King's evil sword. The souls of everyone the sword had ever claimed came rushing out, and aided the now resurrected players in defeating Arthas once and for all.
There are so many here because just about every time there is a Blizzard cinematic, it's an exciting event. The trailers for all of its games, the cutscenes between acts: there's always something cool going on. We've gone all this time without mentioning Malfurion and Illidan Stormrage, Thrall, Grom Hellscream, Diablo himself, and we barely touched upon Jim Raynor. Here's hoping that Blizzard will return to single-player storytelling one day, and create many more memorable moments like these.