WoW cinematics are some of the most impressive pieces of visual art the game industry has to offer and today we’re going to talk about why that is. World of Warcraft’s popularity among fans of MMORPGs may have steadily declined over the past few years, however, the game still manages to get us excited whenever a new expansion is announced.
Is it just nostalgia? Is it the hope that the game might finally be returning to its glory days? Maybe it’s a little bit of both. Or maybe it’s just the fact that a new expansion always brings with it a new cinematic.
To celebrate the announcement of Dragonflight, the latest World of Warcraft expansion, we decided to rewatch all the game’s cinematics and rank them from worst to best. Including the latest one, of course. In fact, we purposely waited until the new expansion got announced before putting together this list because we wanted to see how the Dragonflight trailer stacked up against all the other WoW cinematics. Spoiler alert: it’s not amazing, but we’ll get into that a bit later.
Before we begin, it’s worth noting that we won’t be ranking any in-engine cutscenes or animated shorts. Like the Warbringers or Afterlives series, for example. Some of those are good, very good even, but they’re not as visually impressive as the big budget cinematics we all know and love.
With that out of the way, let’s jump straight into it, shall we?
Mists of Pandaria: Bottoms Up
I’m guessing most people either aren’t familiar with this first one or have forgotten seeing it. Bottoms Up is a very short cinematic about an Orc and a Human having a drink in a tavern and discussing their encounter with Chen Stormstout.
Chronologically, it takes place shortly after the events of the Mists of Pandaria launch trailer. However, this 30-second cinematic came out about two years after that trailer, towards the end of the expansion. The short is pretty funny and features the same two characters we saw in the MoP trailer. But it’s overall not very memorable compared to most of the other WoW cinematics found on this list.
World of Warcraft (Legion) Cinematic Teaser
Next up we have another short cinematic, this one having a runtime of about one minute or so if you skip all the logos. Its name is simply “World of Warcraft Cinematic Teaser” on the game’s official YouTube channel, but that’s probably just a typo because this is a teaser for the Legion expansion rather than WoW as a whole. I think they meant to call it “World of Warcraft: Legion Cinematic Teaser”?
In any case, the cinematic is pretty interesting. It shows Gul’dan freeing Illidan from his prison and, in the process, setting into motion many of the events we see at the beginning of Legion. It’s somewhat ironic that Illidan is the one who eventually ends up killing his liberator. I’m not saying he didn’t deserve it, though.
We could go on about how Illidan became corrupted by the Skull of Gul’dan in the original timeline, and how he destroyed the skull of alternate Gul’dan in the current timeline. But we don’t want to turn this into a lore rant.
Suffice it to say that this video is a nice callback to Warcraft 3 and foreshadows the future of both characters. The main reason why it’s not higher up on our list is because it’s one of the shortest WoW cinematics out there. That, and the fact that it’s probably not very impactful for those unfamiliar with Warcraft lore.
Shadowlands Launch Cinematic: Beyond the Veil
Alright, so I’ll be perfectly honest here. I completely forgot that this cinematic even existed. Upon rewatching it recently, I vague remembered seeing it around the launch of Shadowlands but it evidently didn’t leave a lasting impression on me. And it’s not even necessarily bad or anything.
The problem with Beyond the Veil lies in the fact that it’s so incredibly generic that it makes Shadowlands look like a budget version of Warhammer Fantasy with a splash of Age of Sigmar thrown into the mix. Which, let’s be honest here, isn’t too far off from the truth. You can already feel a lot of those influences in-game but they’re a lot more apparent in this trailer.
Beyond the Veil does get some points for trying to replicate the old style of WoW cinematics we’ve seen in vanilla and TBC. The trailer focuses almost entirely on the new zones and factions introduced by the expansion, with only a little emphasis given to the characters. That was a breath of fresh air at the time. But looking back, the cinematic doesn’t hold up nearly as well as most of the others on this list.
Battle for Azeroth: Safe Haven
Battle for Azeroth was one of the worst World of Warcraft expansions in terms of content, but one of the best in terms of cinematics. In addition to the launch trailer, we got almost 20 minutes worth of additional cinematics. Which together form what is essentially a short movie.
Safe Haven is the third of these videos and sees Saurfang reuniting with his old friend Thrall. Thrall was one of the most interesting characters in Warcraft 3, but it always felt like Blizzard didn’t know what to do with him in WoW.
The former Warchief went AWOL at the start of Legion and wouldn’t make another in-game appearance until a few years later in BfA. This cinematic was meant to be a big reveal for the return of Thrall, but I don’t think it was as exciting as Blizzard wanted it to be.
As with all WoW cinematics, Safe Haven looks amazing but the narrative here feels rushed. One moment Thrall talks about being happy with his family in his new home in Nagrand, the next he does a complete 180, dusts off his weapon, and returns with Saurfang to the Horde.
And this is immediately after being attacked by assassins who may or may not have friends waiting around for Thrall to leave so they can attack his family. Presumably, he took some precautions before leaving but this isn’t shown or even implied in the cinematic.
All that aside, we still enjoyed this video and were happy to see Thrall in a WoW cinematic for the first time. We do wish the pacing was a bit better, though.
Legion Cinematic Trailer
The Legion launch trailer came out a couple of months after the teaser we mentioned earlier and didn’t feature either Gul’dan or Illidan. Instead, the cinematic revolves around the forces of Azeroth banding together and taking the fight to the Burning Legion. Sounds pretty epic in theory, right? Well, in practice the video is mostly about Varian Wrynn having an internal monologue, with only a couple of interesting action sequences here and there.
The problem with this trailer is that it focuses too much on one character. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself, but I feel like this would have been the perfect opportunity to show all the races of Azeroth fighting together against a common foe. Sylvanas is shoehorned into the trailer basically just to convey that this is what’s supposed to be happening. But she doesn’t say anything and there are no other characters aside from her and Varian.
On a positive note, the writing, voice acting, music and cinematography are definitely on point here. The fighting scenes are decent, the airships look amazing, and Varian’s speech for Anduin bears more than a passing resemblance to the speech Arthas received from his father. There are some interesting parallels we can draw between Arthas and Anduin, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves because their stories don’t come full circle until Shadowlands.
At the end of the day, if you’re an Alliance player chances are you’ll enjoy this cinematic much more than a Horde player. This is arguably one of the blandest WoW cinematics from the perspective of the Horde.
Blizzard did give more love to Horde characters in a lot of other cinematics, so we can’t blame them too much for wanting to focus more on the Alliance with this one. We just wish the trailer was a bit more interesting, that’s all.
Dragonflight Announce Cinematic Trailer
The latest World of Warcraft cinematic is finally here along with details regarding the new expansion, Dragonflight. The new expansion looks pretty good based on what we’ve seen so far but the cinematic is underwhelming. The cinematic does have a unique vibe but it features few standout moments. You can definitely tell that Blizzard’s art department wanted to try something new with this one.
The trailer starts by showing events that happened 10,000 years in the past, so I immediately assumed we would see something about the War of the Ancients. But we only got a passing mention of the events surrounding it.
Following the destruction of the Well of Eternity during the War of the Ancients, the world is being torn asunder and the dragonflights set out to help the races of Azeroth in their fight against the Burning Legion.
During their absence, stone constructs known as the Watchers are charged with protecting the Dragon Isles. But, based on what we see in the trailer, the constructs become dormant immediately after the dragons leave. So much for keeping an eye on things. The cinematic then picks up during the present and follows a Watcher as it attempts to reactivate the beacon that helps the dragons find their way back home.
There’s not a whole lot else going on here I’m afraid. We do get to see Alexstrasza and a bunch of other dragons near the end and that’s about it. I mean, it’s fine but nothing to write home about. The trailer feels painfully mediocre compared to other WoW cinematics but hopefully the expansion itself will end up being good.
Battle for Azeroth: Lost Honor
Lost Honor is the second cinematic we got for Battle of Azeroth, excluding the expansion’s launch trailer of course. We don’t have a clear timeline for the story, but it seems to take place shortly after the Battle for Lordaeron, which we saw in the aforementioned trailer.
Saurfang ends up getting captured by the Alliance during the battle and is now being held prisoner in Stormwind. The video opens up with a wide shot of the Stormwind port that looks simply glorious. While the city isn’t nearly as massive in-game, this video gives us an idea of Stormwind’s true scale as described in the lore.
The other thing that immediately stands out about this cinematic is the attention to detail. We get some nice close-up shots of Anduin in the opening seconds where he looks amazingly realistic. You can see peach fuzz on his chin, blemishes on his skin, wrinkles on his forehead, and various other imperfections and small details.
An enormous amount of work must have gone into bringing Anduin to life and we can’t help but be impressed by the quality of the first part of the video. The rest of the video looks great, too, but because it takes place in a dark prison cell, a lot of the detail ends up being lost.
Even though this is one of the best-looking WoW cinematics we’ve seen so far, it’s very predictable and doesn’t add too much in terms of narrative. Not really. A good cinematic overall but there are better ones out there.
Cataclysm Cinematic Trailer
Cataclysm remains one of the most controversial World of Warcraft expansions to this day. This was the expansion where Blizzard decided to give Azeroth a facelift by having a massive dragon set most of the world on fire. I think a lot of players would agree that changing the old zones, drastically in some cases, wasn’t a great call. But we do have to admit that the way in which they chose to do it was pretty epic.
The Cataclysm trailer is iconic for a number of reasons. First off, the voice acting and music are incredible and do a great job at selling Deathwing as a world-ending villain. Moreover, seeing beloved landmarks like the Booty Bay goblin statue or the Darkshore bridge get ripped to pieces was quite shocking when this trailer came out. It no longer has the same impact these days, but watching Deathwing’s path of destruction is still pretty cool even now.
Having said all that, it can be hard to enjoy the trailer without engaging in some good old suspension of disbelief. It’s not really possible for a dragon the size of Deathwing to tear apart the world like he does in the trailer. Don’t get me wrong, he’s big. But he’s not THAT big!
Meanwhile, towards the end of the trailer, we see Deathwing landing gingerly on a cathedral and inflicting minimal damage to it. The whole thing seems a bit inconsistent if you ask me.
Deathwing somehow manages to deal tons more damage to Azeroth than Sargeras did during Legion. And that guy is almost as big as the entire planet. Something doesn’t add up here. Still a pretty good cinematic, though.
Shadowlands Cinematic Trailer
I can already hear people complaining about this one. And I don’t blame you. Is the fact that Sylvanas was able to defeat the Lich King without breaking a sweat absurd and dumb? Yes, it is. But does the fight look awesome? Also, yes!
The story of World of Warcraft was already pretty nonsensical by this point and it quickly became clear that Blizzard was determined to give Sylvanas the strongest plot armor ever seen in gaming. She was essentially WoW’s main character by the time Shadowlands rolled around, so of course she was able to win the fight against Bolvar.
Some people might say that she fought the discount Lich King instead of the real one, which is true. But Blizzard ultimately still dropped the ball by making Sylvanas incredibly overpowered out of the blue. Still, at least they gave us an epic cinematic fight scene before ruining the character even more during Shadowlands.
Also, we do have to give it up to Blizzard for the amazing plot twist at the end. After playing World of Warcraft for years it’s pretty easy to predict where the story is going next, but that wasn’t the case here. I think few people would have expected Sylvanas to break the Helm of Domination instead of using it to become the first Lich Queen. Say what you want about the rest of the trailer but that scene was pure awesomeness.
Mists of Pandaria Cinematic Trailer
WoW cinematics aren’t really known for their humor, and neither is the game itself for the most part. Blizzard took a big chance with this trailer and it could have easily blown up in their faces. But fortunately it didn’t. While the expansion drew a lot of criticism at the time, the trailer was received positively by most people and continues to be one of the most popular World of Warcraft cinematics to this day.
I was one of those people who absolutely hated the idea of pandas in World of Warcraft and avoided playing the expansion purely because of them. In hindsight, I probably missed out on a lot of fun.
Judging by some of the expansions that came after it, it’s safe to say that Mists of Pandaria was actually really good in the grand scheme of things. I still haven’t changed my mind about the pandas, though. But despite unjustifiably hating the expansion for a long time, I could never bring myself to hate was this trailer.
The cinematic has everything: action, comedy, great music, great voice acting, beautiful cinematography, you name it. I feel like Blizzard should have used this same type of playfulness for some of their future cinematics, but sadly they never did. Well, you can see it in other Blizzard games like Overwatch but not in World of Warcraft.
So why is this cinematic not higher up on this list if we enjoyed it so much? Truth be told, it’s mainly because we enjoy the next ones even more.
World of Warcraft Cinematic Trailer
This is where it all began almost two decades ago. The very first cinematic trailer for World of Warcraft is so old that it predates YouTube and most other websites we take for granted these days. Despite its age, however, the trailer still looks amazing all things considered.
Blizzard became known for its high-quality cinematics even before World of Warcraft. The studio put together quite a few of them during the days of Warcraft 3, some of which continue to be remembered fondly to this day. But this was arguably the first cinematic that managed to break into the mainstream and capture the imagination of millions of people all over the world.
Now, I won’t pretend WoW’s first trailer is as visually impressive as its more recent ones. It’s not. The models and animations have aged a bit and the art style definitely looked more cartoony back then.
Later WoW cinematics would start to resemble short animated movies more and more while this one still looks very much like a traditional video game trailer. Which is by no means a bad thing. However, I feel like trailers that incorporate narrative elements are better than those that don’t.
Ultimately, this is still one of the most memorable game cinematics out there and did a fantastic job at getting people interested in World of Warcraft. I suspect many people started playing the game because of this very trailer. I know I did, and even made my first ever character an Undead Warlock because of this trailer. But, in hindsight, the cinematic could have been even better by incorporating some story elements.
Battle for Azeroth: Old Soldier
Next up we have Old Soldier. This is another Battle for Azeroth cinematic that follows Saurfang, as well as a secondary character known as Zekhan. The character isn’t particularly important to the overall story but he acts as a perfect juxtaposition to Saurfang in this video.
Just like Saurfang, Zekhan is someone who lost everything and now the Horde is the only family he has left. But unlike Saurfang, he is young, naïve, and still believes that there can be glory and honor in the battle ahead.
Needless to say, Saurfang doesn’t share the same sentiment. In fact, he is someone who saw more than his fair share of senseless wars, and plans to make the upcoming battle his last so that he can finally join his loved ones in the afterlife. That is, until Zekhan convinces him to “live another day.”
Chronologically, Old Soldier is the first cinematic in the series and one of the reasons why it works so well is because it gives some much-needed context. The trailer kicks off with flashbacks showing the death of Saurfang’s son and the burning of Teldrassil, two events that would ultimately lead the old warrior to give up hope completely. Well, almost.
Old Soldier is likely to elicit an emotional reaction, and maybe even a tear or two, even if you don’t know anything about World of Warcraft. It’s a shame that the actual expansion was so bad that it makes this cinematic feel like false advertising for the game.
Battle for Azeroth: Reckoning
Reckoning is the last cinematic in the BfA series and takes place sometime after Safe Haven. Saurfang alongside Thrall and Anduin bring an army comprised of both Horde and Alliance forces to the gates of Orgrimmar and are ready to lay siege to the city in order to stop Sylvanas once and for all.
In an attempt to stop further bloodshed, Saurfang decides to challenge the Banshee Queen to Mak’gora despite knowing that the duel will probably end with his death. This cinematic is jam-packed with tear-jerking moments. From Saurfang’s willingness to sacrifice himself for the sake of his people to his final battlecry which showed that, in the end, he placed the safety of Azeroth above everything else.
We also get to see the Horde turning against Sylvanas after Saurfang tricks her into revealing her true colors. You can even see a little smile on his face when that happens. Not only did he manage to fulfill his mission, but he knew that the honorable death he’s been yearning for is now finally at hand.
There are, of course, other great moments here, like Anduin giving Saurfang his sword or the undead flag bearer’s reaction when Sylvanas insults the Horde. Then, there’s the fact that Sylvanas cheated during the Mak’gora by using magic, thus winning the duel in a dishonorable way.
At this point, it feels like most Mak’goras end with one of the participants cheating. Gul’dan cheated during the duel with Durotan in the Warcraft movie, Thrall cheated when the dueled against Garrosh, and now this. I guess the lesson here is: don’t challenge magic users to Mag’kora if you’re a Warrior.
The Burning Crusade Cinematic Trailer
This is easily one of my personal favorite WoW cinematics for one simple reason – Illidan. First introduced in Warcraft 3, Illidan quickly became a fan-favorite thanks to his appearance, voice, and overall badassery. It’s no surprise Blizzard chose him as the main antagonist for WoW’s first expansion and years later made him the poster boy for yet another expansion.
Illidan’s introduction to World of Warcraft via this trailer was fittingly epic. The cinematic starts off with his menacing voice issuing a warning to anyone foolish enough to enter his realm, followed up by one of the most iconic quotes in WoW history. “You are not prepared!”
That line alone is enough to give goosebumps to anyone who was playing the game at that time. And we get to hear Illidan saying it twice in this cinematic. The second time much more threatening than the first.
As far as the rest of the trailer is concerned, it’s pretty similar to WoW’s very first cinematic. We get introduced to the two new races added in The Burning Crusade, and then get to watch a quick montage of awesomeness. Some of the scenes here are pure gold, like that mage using Polymorph on the Tauren or the Blood Elf Priest using Holy Nova. Even if you don’t like the trailer, you at least have to give it credit for showcasing actual in-game spells and abilities.
While not very noticeable at the time, it’s easy to see on modern monitors that there was a significant improvement in visual quality between the first WoW cinematic and this one. However, the biggest jump in quality happened with the release of the next trailer.
Wrath of the Lich King Cinematic Trailer
Next up we have what many would consider to be the best cinematic Blizzard has ever made. Now, I wouldn’t necessarily go that far, but I do think this is their most memorable cinematic. And their most important one as well.
More than just a World of Warcraft icon, the Lich King is a gaming icon and this trailer helped cement the character in the minds of gamers and non-gamers alike. To say that the Lich King is also one of the best World of Warcraft villains of all time would be an understatement.
Blizzard were fully aware of the popularity of the character even before WoW was a thing. Arthas’ journey from Paladin to Lich King in Warcraft 3 remains to this day one of the best storylines ever created by the studio. Having an entire expansion revolve around the character was a no-brainer, and so was making a trailer focused solely on him.
This is another one of those cinematics that hits hard if you’re familiar with the story of Warcraft 3. The speech we hear throughout the trailer was originally given by Arthas’ father, King Terenas Menethil II, back when Arthas was still a Paladin and prince of Lordaeron. His words were clearly meant for the person Arthas once was, and the person he was supposed to become once he ascended to the throne.
Instead, Arthas ended up killing his father, destroyed Lordaeron, and became the antithesis of what King Terenas had envisioned. Granted, in the end, Arthas did become a king himself. But an entirely different kind of king.
Blizzard recently revealed a remastered version of the iconic cinematic to celebrate the announcement of Wrath of the Lich King Classic. I’m curious to see how many people will return for the expansion. I know I will.
Battle for Azeroth Cinematic Trailer
The folks making WoW cinematics certainly had their work cut out for them during Battle for Azeroth. Cynics might say they were trying to compensate for the weak expansion, and we don’t necessarily disagree with that assessment. But regardless of their reasons, they definitely did a good job, especially with the Battle for Azeroth trailer.
The trailer picks up shortly after Old Soldier and sees the Alliance and the Horde battling among the ruins of Lordaeron. As far as fight scenes are concerned, this trailer has the best ones we’ve seen so far bar none. This was the first time we’ve seen a large-scale battle between the two factions in cinematic form and it looks just as epic as you would expect.
Unsurprisingly, the faction leaders get the most screen time, but we do also see plenty of regular soldiers fighting as well. There’s siege engines, magic, battlecries, drama, and everything else you could want from a trailer clearly inspired by Hollywood war movies. Only it’s arguably better than most war movies since this is a rich fantasy setting where visual artists can let their imagination run wild. And Blizzard’s artists most definitely did not hold back with this one.
I know this is going to sound cliché but the only thing wrong with this trailer is that they didn’t make it longer. Honestly, I think everybody would have been happy if Blizzard skipped this expansion and used the money to make a 2-hour animated movie instead. Or a Netflix series like Arcane. Here’s hoping they end up doing something like that eventually.
Warlords of Draenor Cinematic Trailer
And last but certainly not least we have the Warlords of Draenor trailer. It’s ironic that some of the worst expansions got some of the best cinematics. The story of Warlords of Draenor is even more tragic than that of Battle for Azeroth because this expansion had massive potential and everybody had huge expectations for it.
Those expectations grew even more after the release of this trailer, to the point where it may have been impossible for Blizzard to live up to them no matter how hard they tried. But we still wish they would have at least tried. The premise of this expansion was simply incredible and it’s a shame that we’ll probably never get to see it fully realized. We did at least get to see a small glimpse of it in this trailer, though.
Just like the Wrath of the Lich King trailer, this cinematic was also put together with long-time fans in mind. Blizzard combined the old with the new by having Garrosh travel back in time to stop his father and the other Orcs on Draenor from drinking the blood of Mannoroth and becoming corrupted by the Pit Lord and his crony, Gul’dan. By doing so, he basically creates an alternate timeline where Orcs become conquerors instead of slaves, as Grom famously puts it near the end of the trailer.
But by far the best part of the cinematic is the callback to Warcraft 3 when Thrall and Grom go up against Mannoroth. In the original timeline, Grom dies after slaying the Pit Lord and he would have also died here, much in the same manner, if it wasn’t for Garrosh saving him at the last second. The entire premise of this trailer was brilliant and perfectly executed as far as I’m concerned. It’s the best WoW cinematic to date in my opinion.