When Blizzard cancelled Warcraft Adventures: Lord of the Clans, it was absolutely the right call. I can understand why people might feel like they missed out: Adventures was born out of a golden age of adventure games, and the notion of early, story-rich Warcraft is appealing on paper. But after playing the near-complete version over the weekend thanks to a mysterious Russian, one thing is clear: the game is far better served as a reclaimed relic of Blizzard's past.
Warcraft Adventures is a Full Throttle knock-off that has very little ambition for pushing the adventure genre to new places. The hero, Thrall, is lifeless, and his escape from captivity to reclaim the glory of the orcish Horde has as much thematic oomph as the bedtime stories my parents invented when I was four. But what it does provide is a flawed, goofy snapshot of Warcraft before it grew into the juggernaut it is today. It's like opening Warcraft's yearbook and laughing at what an awkward blunder it was in its teens.
As I continue to play through , it's easy to forget how silly Warcraft used to be. Sure, there's still bits of whimsy and comic relief scattered across the MMO, but the Warcraft of today is dramatic and dour. In Legion, the rise and fall of lead characters is orchestrated to pull at your heartstrings, and Blizzard is becoming increasingly good at it. But what I love about Warcraft Adventures is the way it teleports me back to a time when Warcraft had very little bite—when its heroes and villains were still trying to destroy the world but only if that led to a good laugh.
Warcraft Adventures feels like fanfiction, and since it never had the chance to become official canon, it pretty much is. But that's where it's best suited—free to be its own curiousity independent of Warcraft entirely. Considering how it messes with the story in ways that would have drastically impacted future games, that's a good thing. Remember Deathwing, the massive world-destroying black dragon that an entire World of Warcraft expansion focused on? Yeah, Thrall kills him singlehandedly.
When I first saw screenshots of Deathwing smoking a hookah in Warcraft Adventures, I thought that this would surely be the height of its absurdity. Here was the most menacing dragon to have ever lived, a black terror who brought Azeroth to its knees on multiple occasions, depicted like the zoned-out caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland. Thrall defeats him by climbing inside of the carcass of a cow that Deathwing swallows whole, and, from inside of his stomach, uses a bear trap to pinch shut the organ that spouts his fiery breath. Meanwhile, in the real Warcraft universe, players had to slog through a highly coordinated multi-stage battle just to bring Deathwing down—and even then, many found it an unsatisfying conclusion.
Characterizations like this are in big contrast to the way Blizzard now treats its characters, who tend to be as threatening as possible as a way of raising the stakes in the story. But back when Warcraft Adventures was being developed, villains could be more than menacing—they could be stupid, ignorant, or just plain lazy. Their demise wasn't meant to be poignant or ‘epic,’ but funny.
For fans of World of Warcraft, Deathwing isn't the only character who seems to have lost their edge. Zul'jin, the badass troll who slaughtered thousands of elves and chopped off his own arm to escape captivity, gets the same treatment. As the final boss of the Zul'Aman, Zul'jin calls upon powerful ancestral spirits to help him destroy the players who dare to challenge his mission to wipe out all blood elves. In Warcraft Adventures? He's a harmless merchant. Though he lightly references his vicious past, it's only funny in light of what a dejected has-been he's become.
Lord of the Clans is full of these moments, and it frequently feels like peeking into a first draft of Warcraft's story. But like a first draft, Warcraft Adventures' merit is found through the context of what Warcraft is now. I can now look back and realize how far it has come from days of bad masturbation jokes and paper-thin characters whose only real quality is being silly. When Thrall breaks into a gnome workshop and finds that their secret weapon is jetpack chickens, it's not the situation that's funny, but the understanding that this could be the first seed of Blizzard's absurd obsession with .
Cancelling Warcraft Adventures was smart not because it's a mediocre adventure game, but because its treatment of Azeroth is only appealing in hindsight. It's fun to look back into this alternate history and think that Thrall escaped prison by disguising himself as a chaplain and catapulting himself over a wall, but that doesn't stop him from being boring. Adventures' take on Thrall represents one of the biggest flaws of the '90s' obsessions with disinterested 'cool guy' heroes: If the main character can't be bothered to care about what's happening around them, why should we?
Part of what makes Blizzard such a respected developer is its willingness to mercilessly kill any project that doesn't reach its high standards. And it's remarkable to see that philosophy predate Project Titan and Starcraft: Ghost by almost a decade. If Warcraft Adventures had been released, it would've suffered a far worse fate than being mediocre, it would've been forgettable. But playing it today is a different story. Warcraft Adventures serves as a great testament to how Blizzard and their storytelling has evolved, but also their commitment to being better. There's much to be gleaned by studying Blizzard's numerous successes, but with a company famous killing its darlings, Warcraft Adventures offers the rare chance to learn from one if its failures.