Release Date: TBA
Pre-order 'WORLD OF WARCRAFT': PC
When Blizzard announced many, many years ago they were bringing the WarCraft universe to a persistent world, fans of the genre got giddy for one simple reason: Blizzard games actually work when they are released, which is a far cry from the usual MMOG launches of late. While there have been plenty of Blizzard games I haven’t liked, the attention to detail that Blizzard places on their QA allows me to judge the game on their content, not whether it’s a buggy mess.
Currently, World of WarCraft is in Phase 1 of beta, and it’s quite apparent that the “Blizzard Quality” is there already; this game is more stable, and arguably more fun than most games out there now. Oh, sure, there are problems; this IS a beta, after all. I’m not going to waste much ink going over technical issues, given the early stage of the beta. WoW is so confident of the current status that they’ve taken the radical step of not having an NDA, even during the early beta. That’s a significant change from the usual modus operandi, where the legal work involved in testing the game can be significant. Instead, the only limitation Blizzard has placed on us is related to posting in-game movies; we can’t. Other than that we are free to discuss the game. Blizzard does have a lot to be proud of, even in the early beta, so it’s nice to see them step out from behind the NDA curtain and enjoy some of the praise.
That said, World of WarCraft isn’t a revolutionary game. There aren’t any radical changes to the formula all MMOG’s are based on: kill stuff to get better loot and the higher levels needed to go kill bigger things and get even better loot. The leveling treadmill you know, and probably don’t love, from any other MMOG is still there. However, instead of a treadmill where you stand in one place looking at the wall, WoW’s treadmill is one of those futuristic ones that make you think you are actually going someplace. What I mean by that is Blizzard has done such a great job at burying the treadmill, most times you don’t realize you are even on it.
The way they did that is a questing system that has more in common with a single-player game than a multiplayer one. The first thing you see when you enter WoW is an NPC with an exclamation mark over his head; that means he’s got a quest for you. Once you finish the quest he’ll have a question mark over his head indicating he’s the next step in a quest. There are so many quests you can do per level that if you have less than 6 quests active, you’re not only slacking, you’re missing out on valuable XP. My highest-level character at this point is 14 and he has easily gotten 3/4 of his XP from quests.
The quests themselves are a mixed bag. While they are a fantastic source of XP, a high majority of them fall into the “I so don’t want to do this quest again when the game goes live” category. The quests are made up of three flavors: FedEx quests, where you must deliver an item to another NPC; Collection quests, where you must kill a specific monster and collect 8 candles, as an example; and Slaughter quests, where you need to commit WarCraftian genocide and kill 10 Kobolds, again as an example. The downside is that even in the limited beta – right now, there’s an average of 900 players on at night – the areas for the collection and slaughter quests are already kill-stealer utopias; I shudder to imagine what they will be like when the unwashed masses called “consumers” show up. It’s not a complete showstopper right now; Blizzard has proven they listen to customer feedback, so I’m expecting this to get balanced as the game goes through its 5-month beta cycle.
EverQuest was the MMOG that was my “first”, and like most “firsts”, there’s a fondness that’s hard to beat – it may not have been the best, but the magic I felt when I first set foot into Norrath hasn’t been matched. Until now, that is. World of WarCraft is the most immersive game I’ve played yet, which is the result of excellent art direction and implementation. That comes with a caveat: if you hated the cartoony, overblown buildings in WarCraft 3, guess what? You’re going to hate them here. You will, however, feel like you are sitting smack dab in the middle of WarCraft, which is the point, after all. While the graphics aren’t as hyper-realistic as the ones in we’ve seen demoed in EverQuest 2, they have an advantage over EQ2: you won’t need to put your wife – or husband – on the street so you can afford the hardware upgrades needed to run the game. Also, the cartoon style will actually stand the test of time better than EQ2. The more realistic you try and make CGI look, in my mind the more fake it looks. WarCraft’s graphics do an excellent job at making me feel like I’m in their environment – I don’t need it to mimic the view outside my window; that is the reality I’m trying to escape after all.
The immenseness of the scale of the world hits you when you enter Stormwind, the major human city in the continent of Azeroth (that’s after the lag wall that this zone causes smacks you in the head – word from the Dev’s says this will be MUCH better in the next push). This city is modeled after any given Medieval City – with a smattering of Disney tossed in for extra effect. It’s also – with apologies to the late, great Douglas Adams – big. Really big. An end-to-end run, without the lag, feels like it will take about 20 minutes of walking through at least four distinct areas and a canal zone. It’s a beautiful city, and is the closest I’ve seen yet to actually capturing the look-and-feel of a bustling city.
As impressive as that human city was, it was the Night Elf areas that floored me. Blizzard could have gone with the over-used Drow theme for their Night Elves, but instead took the high road and made their Elves protectors of a woodland who happen to like it best when the lights are out. Standing next to one of the moonpools – under the requisite and omnipresent moonlight – was one of the most peaceful, tranquil moments I’ve ever experienced in any game – until that wandering monster showed up and beat the snot out of me, that is.
The sound effects are likewise impressive in all their 5.1 surround sound glory. Your avatar is also apparently nutso, since you talk to yourself. A lot. If you don’t have enough mana to cast a spell, in addition to the onscreen cue, your very snide self’ll verbally assault you. WoW might go down in the record books as being the first MMOG where you nag yourself.
If there is a let down in WoW’s graphics, it’s the character models. Oh, don’t get me wrong they look decent, it’s just there is about as much variety in the character shapes as there was in the first run of the Model T. While you can change your facial characteristics, hairstyle and the like, your overall body shape is the same as everyone else’s, which is a downer. While we’re on the subject explain this concept to me: as my female paladin gets better armor, why is there LESS of said armor? I’m expecting at Level 60 she’s going to be wearing pasties and a thong, which will at least solve her money problems.
However, the idle animations for the races really capture Blizzard’s sense of humor. Leave your human standing there too long, and they’ll shrug their shoulders in apathetic boredom; the night elves have a hyperactive bounce as their animation. The combat animations are likewise well done, and you actually feel like you are hitting the target instead of waving your sword in their general direction. Your spell effects reach out and touch the mob as well; where most games just show the mob as having the effects of the spell on them, in WoW you’ll actually see that lighting bolt going from your hands to its face.
The interface in WoW is as if God’s own hands reached down from the heavens and crafted it Himself, or at least exerted “Divine Influence” by whacking the designer upside the head with the clue-by-four. That’s heavy praise I’ll back up with the following statement: in my first online game session, all three hours of it, I didn’t need to read the manual, look through the keyboard commands, or act like a complete n00b by yelling simple questions in global chat once. The interface felt so natural, my fingers instinctively translated my desires into keyboard commands. You’ll need to pay attention though; some of the keyboard commands are a little different than you may be used to. The “I” key doesn’t bring up your inventory, instead it brings up your spellbook. Once you realize it does something different, all you need to do is hold the mouse over the button and it will tell you what the button is for, and even better, what the shortcut is. It’s very easy to re-learn the few different commands, and the hot-button placement is very intuitive as well.
The interface continues the level of detail right down to the in-game maps. You won’t be getting lost anytime soon, as there are two maps to help you get around. There is an excellent mini-map that shows you your surroundings, as well as a full-blown regional map that shows where you sit in the grand scheme of things. As an added bonus your group mates show up on all these maps, putting an end to the oft-asked question: “Just where the heck ARE you guys?” You can also pull up maps to other regions, so you aren’t confined to only viewing the map for the area you’re in, unlike the map system in EverQuest. The latest patch made a big change to this, though. Originally, most of the area you are in was mapped on your main map; now you need to reveal the map as you go along. It’s a nice idea, but I’d like to be able to buy a map to reveal most of the map for me.
Getting from Point A to Point B in any MMOG is a hassle as the developers try and balance world size to travel convenience. Each game has offered up their ideas: in EQ we had the infamous boat rides, while in Camelot you could rent a horse. WoW’s is probably the coolest, where you rent a Griffin – or other race-specific flying beast. Granted, the Griffin runs on a rail so you can’t deviate from the programmed path, but the first time you fly over the volcanic areas of Azeroth as you head from Stormwind to the Dwarven city of Ironforge you can’t help but be impressed. They’ve balanced the rides with discovery as well, since you need to visit each Griffin tamer to unlock that route. For instance, to take the Griffin from Stormwind to Westfall, you must first trudge down the road to Westfall and greet the tamer. He will then tell you, “New flight route discovered”, and you are able to take a Griffin to and from that location. The idea seems to work, since you don’t ruin the first experience by bypassing some of the content by flying there the first time, but it sure makes those repeat visits to wrap up quests a lot easier.
The other touchy subject in MMOG’s is the death penalty. You have to punish the player somehow when they die, and as with traveling, there have been many variants. EverQuest’s is the most harsh: you spawn naked, having lost a boatload of XP – and your level if you were close to the beginning – and need to possibly run through many hazardous areas to get your body. Camelot takes the other extreme, where you spawn with all your belongings, loose a decent amount of XP, but rather than running a gauntlet to get your stuff back, you have the option of returning to where you died and praying at your corpse to get 1/2 the lost XP back. The death penalty in WoW is the most forgiving yet – although it’s hotly discussed on the message boards, so it’s not writ in stone just yet. When you die in WoW, you are given a release timer. If another player resurrects you, you don’t lose any XP and respawn with almost no health or mana. On the other hand, if you are forced to release, you respawn at a Bind Stone as a ghost. From there you have two choices: run back to your corpse in spirit form to not lose any XP, or just have the nearby Spirit Healer resurrect you for a XP penalty. While the penalty allows you to write off a death that might be a long recovery, at higher levels the XP hit is enough to make you think twice about having the Spirit Healer do the dirty work for you. To me, it’s perfectly balanced as it is right now and just needs some minor tweaks.
Class Balance in an MMOG is a moving target, which allows me to postulate “Crump’s First Law of Balance”: there is no Balance, only a period of “optimum behavior” that is immediately followed by a retail expansion that sets us back to arguing what class is better for the next year. That said, while there is obviously a metric ton of work to be done on class balance, right now the classes compared against each other balance fairly well. You’re starting to see class roles show up, and they make every class bring something to the table, but don’t make it so the group is a complete failure without a given class. The Warrior is the main tank of the game, but unless you are going after high-end mobs, that Paladin can tank if you can’t get one – although the Paladin lacks the ability to sit really high on the mob’s hate list, which is the prime thing that the Warrior does very well. So, while a lot of work needs to be done fine-tuning the individual abilities, the classes stack fairly well against each other – at least in PvE; the PvP component is as yet untested. Also, Blizzard has designed the classes so they can – you’re going to want to sit down for this one folks, trust me – solo. That’s not a typo, or the result of too many Margaritas at happy hour. Each class in World of WarCraft can solo. Granted, you’ll be much more effective in a group, and there’s a lot of quests appropriate for your level that will require you to be grouped to actually finish them, but it’s sure nice to log on with only 2 hours to play and not spend 1:59 of that looking for a group.
It’s clear to me that what Blizzard calls a rough beta is what other games call a launch, and if I really wanted to be cruel I could even hint that it’s better than some games I’ve played months after release. However, WoW isn’t about revolutionizing the genre; instead it’s about applying a fine coat of polish. That’s not a slag – I’d much rather play a finely tuned “formula” piece than a revolutionary pile of crap. A conversation I had with a guild-mate in Camelot, though, defined for me the approach people should take when deciding whether to try WoW. When I commented I was in the WoW beta, she asked: “Is it THAT good? I just got a point in DAoC where I’m hitting my goals, and I don’t want to start over”. My advice is this: if you are perfectly happy with your current subscription game, move along, there’s nothing to see here folks. Sure, WoW may actually live up to the hype, but if you’re happy in EQ, or Camelot or whatever game you play, it’s not really worth quitting over. However, if you are one of the vocal people on the respective message boards stating you can’t wait for WoW to come out so you can finally hit the cancel button I’ve got two things to say: firstly, you can hit the cancel button now, you don’t need to wait for WoW; and secondly, the odds are pretty good WoW fixes what you’re pissed off about in that other game.
Literally, right as I had this article ready to hit the virtual presses the dev’s rolled out the second major publish in the game, which now allows you to play the evil Horde, where instead of playing the Humans, Gnomes and Dwarves from the Alliance, you can play Trolls, the Undead, and of course, the Orcs. Since it’s also a bug-fix and balance patch, it’s a safe bet that they’ve fixed some of what I’ve complained about. One interesting thing they added is a “Rest State”. The short explanation is after a given amount of time, your character needs to stop killing things and “rest”. If you are fully rested, you get a 200 bonus on killing xp – your quest xp stays the same. Once that drops down, you lose the bonus and need to rest to get it back, and the rest period is 8 hours. Needless to say, this has gotten the rabid-masses we call beta testers going on the boards. Most people are against it. On the other hand, most people haven’t had a chance to fully test it either – myself included. Word on the street is some people have managed to play for a full 8 hours and never dropped below “Well Rested”, so it’s just too early to tell how this is going to play out.
Check back later when we’ve had a chance to evaluate the current push. The first blush is quite impressive, and I hope to report back that it’s gotten even better.
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