Slowly I creep into the disheveled shack by the edge of the river. Using all the shadow-hugging stealth and subtlety at my disposal I sneak past the patrol of Defias thugs and enter the decrepit building. In front of me, in the middle of the room, is the Defias Dock master; a short little Goblin, who’s standing there looking all smug with that grin of his. Suddenly, he starts to turns in my direction, has he seen me? A few seconds pass as I hold my breath in anticipation; nothing happens and I feel a wave of relief wash over me. With catlike skills, I evade the Dock Master and utilize my pickpocket abilities; I’m duly rewarded with success in the form of the Defias Shipping Schedules. But wait, I bump into the blissfully ignorant Goblin as I retrace my steps and my stealth abruptly fails! As if from nowhere guards materialize and immediately begin attacking me. I have but one option – run away! Taking advantage of my sprint ability I avoid all but a few of the guards’ frantic hits as I dash away, succeeding in my quest.
That’s just one example of the hundreds of carefully planned and creatively written quests you can play in World of Warcraft, Blizzard’s foray into the world of MMORPGs (Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games). After two years of delays, multiple additions, and the most comprehensive beta test in online gaming history, Blizzard’s most anticipated game is finally unleashed and it’s ready to take the online world by storm.
World of Warcraft is the culmination of ten years of excellence on the part of Blizzard’s flagship series; and what a way to celebrate such an anniversary by creating a lavishly constructed world set in the Warcraft universe. Literally everything that’s ever been born into Warcraft mythology, from the events of the video games to those covered in the books, it is all represented in World of Warcraft. For those who are fans of the series, the entire game world is set several years after the events of Warcraft III and The Frozen Throne, so if you haven’t played either of those, now’s the time to acquaint yourself with the story.
Once again war grips the world of Azeroth and, through membership of either the Alliance or the Horde faction (good and evil respectfully), you must venture into the ravaged landscape and make a name for yourself and your chosen faction. Each faction has four races rallying beneath its banner. Representing the Alliance are the Humans, Dwarves, Gnomes, and Night Elves, while the Horde is represented by the Orcs, Trolls, Taurens, and, out of convenience, Undead. The game is separated into only two continents, but each is subsequently divided into multiple zones, dungeons, cities, etc., so that one can hit World of Warcraft’s maximum level of 60 and still not have explored the entire game. Many of the zones have familiar location names and playable maps from Warcraft III so fans of the series will experience considerable nostalgia while journeying through such areas.
It is worth noting that due to the game’s two-year delay and massive feedback from its testers, Blizzard managed to launch World of Warcraft in a completely finished state. Distinctly, it lacks the bothersome bugs and errors found during most MMORPG launches. However, as of opening day, it appears that Blizzard perhaps underestimated the sheer number of people who were waiting to play World of Warcraft as every available server has since been filled to capacity. Nonetheless, as you step into World of Warcraft you are greeted with a wide range of choices as you pick your desired race and class, and then begin to customize your avatar’s character details from a vast palette of features designed to make yours unique from others of the same race. Since each race is distinctive in terms of racial traits, and obviously looks visually different, it’s easy to find yourself making multiple characters. In fact, because Horde and Alliance factions cannot interact with each other without the need for Player vs. Player combat (PVP), or partake of opposing faction’s quests, multiple character creation is almost encouraged in order to fully experience the game. Unlike other RPGs, where choosing a different race only creates a superficial difference that projects little impact on gameplay, World of Warcraft offers zones that are clearly controlled by one faction or another. These zones come complete with different quests and rewards, as well as battleground zones where your objective is to pursue war with an opposing faction to prove your worth to your own.
Currently there are only nine character classes in the game; they are: warrior, mage, warlock, priest, druid, shaman, hunter, rogue, and druid. While this selection may seem somewhat slim in terms of variety, not only has Blizzard made each one unique, they’ve also managed to somehow bestow them with balance so that one class is never significantly more powerful than another. Even priests – a class that’s traditionally limited – can successfully solo due to the large amount of damage spells at their disposal. Essentially, you can complete a comparable number of quests playing as a priest as you’d expect if you were playing as a mage or a rogue. Also unlike other MMORPGs that require, and almost force, your reliance on the classic mage, warrior, priest combination to survive, you can complete a dungeon adventure just as well with a full group of rogues or hunters. Talents, skills, and special abilities attained progressively via leveling add flavor to the classes since the number of proficiencies to be gained over the course of your characters’ lifetimes is limited – even though they’ve three different sets to choose from. It’s very similar to the ?skill trees’ from Diablo 2 (another Blizzard title); embarking down particular skill paths makes for significantly different playing styles.
Similarly, trade professions are also unique in World of Warcraft. There are two distinct types of professions; those involving the gathering of materials, professions such as skinner, miner, and herbalist; and those that create products from the gathered materials through alchemy, leatherworking, tailoring, enchanting, and engineering. However, you can only have two trade professions in total, so it’s best, for the sake of balance, to choose one gathering trade and one producing trade profession. For example, you can first choose to be an herbalist, and happily gather herbs from various plants. Then you can opt for alchemy as your second skill in order to create valuable potions from your collected herbs. It would appear that Blizzard took classes on economics when they created their in-game economy. By limiting players to two professions, they’ve created a dependency amongst players for goods; though, once again, a player can create a different character and choose different professions with that new character. As players progressively level up and adventure through higher level zones and dungeons, they’ll also find various recipes and schematics that will allow them to create rare and powerful potions and items. Picking up a trade profession is also useful since they are often a significant source of money for your character during the game. Thankfully, Blizzard has paid enough attention to trade profession inclusion so that a player can advance through the game at a normal pace, gaining profession skill at the same pace they gain skills through leveling – without the need for ?farming.’
Blizzard also paid attention to inflation – a nagging problem in older online RPGs – by creating various money sinks to prevent situations where there’s too much money floating around the world in players’ pockets. In addition to spending money while procuring equipment and items, players must also spend in order to learn new skills, and, as they progress in levels, the cost of learning skills become increasingly expensive. Similarly, as the player travels throughout the world fighting monsters, their equipment becomes dented, worn out, and begins to lose its durability. Not investing in equipment maintenance while at the local armory means that, eventually, equipment becomes so badly damaged as to be deemed useless until repair.
Though it features no tutorial World of Warcraft’s interface is setup so that players unfamiliar with it can pick things up fairly quickly. Everything is labeled or represented by a button or hotkey so that one can dive in without necessarily needing to trawl through the instruction manual. There’s a log to keep track of game quests, as well as various statistical and inventory windows that can be keyed up to keep track on character development. The interface also features a mini-map and compass along with a large screen-sized map, which displays how much of a zone has been explored in order to help players get their bearings. Combat mainly consists of quick battles where your character stands before a monster and exchange blows with it until a victor emerges. However, each character class gets enough unique abilities that they can hotkey, which makes combat engaging enough to include a fair degree of strategy for every battle.
World of Warcraft’s gameplay is seamless. Most of the game focuses on having your character run around various zones completing quests for different NPCs. Upon completing a quest, you’re bestowed with experience, money, and sometimes rewards. Some quests also invoke a series of connected quests called chain-quests, where completing one quest will start another following an extended storyline. Blizzard has outdone itself with the quests; providing hundreds throughout the game world, each with a well-written background story that provides believable premise for the type of quest you’re doing. Unlike other games, in World of Warcraft, level advancement feels much more like a direct cause and effect product of focused questing. There’s very little of the ?exp grind’ normally associated with MMORPGs. In fact, at least half of your levels will come from just completing quests rather than slaying wave after wave of salivating monsters. There’s always a sense of need in the game: needing to accomplish something, go somewhere, find something, etc. Very rarely will a player find themselves with nothing to do. Downtime – periods of rest between battles – is kept low since players can regenerate hit points and mana through food and drink, which, though readily available, is not necessary in many cases as players regenerate fairly quickly outside of battle anyway.
Since this is a Warcraft game, there has to be rather a lot of bone-mashing conflict included – there is – and it all takes place through Player vs. Player combat. Even though the vast majority of servers are mainly Player vs. Environment (PVE) orientated, the sheer nature of Warcraft screams out for PVP combat. Blizzard encourages this with an honor system. Essentially, you gain honor by killing players and certain NPCs of the opposing faction when you’re flagged for PVP. At the end of the day those players who’ve amassed the most honor receive rank and item rewards. There are also several battleground zones where towns of opposing factions are located literally opposite each other, making it extremely tempting to venture across and stir up trouble by attacking an opposing NPC or PVP flagged player. Of course, attacking them flags you for PVP, which in turn flags anyone who attacks you for PVP; in these instances, battles form quickly and resemble a close-person version of what usually goes on in Warcraft games.
Death – the downside of any online RPG – is a nuisance but, thankfully, it’s not as harsh as in other games: you’re not penalized through experience loss when you die. However, you do have to run all the way back to your prone corpse in order to resurrect yourself and, each time you do, you lose a degree of item durability on everything you own. Should you not wish to run back to your lonely cadaver, you can always use a spirit healer and resurrect right there on the spot; you will lose a significant portion of your item durability, though, and get resurrection sickness, which negatively affects your stats. My only complaint is, although death is (always) a nuisance, its occurrence never intrudes upon the gameplay in such a way as to inspire players to avoid it at all costs.
In graphical terms, World of Warcraft is simply phenomenal. Everything is beautifully rendered as to look and feel like the Warcraft games but on a significantly grander scale. Even playing on an older computer running a Geforce2 card, one can still appreciate the beauty of the game. There’s so much loving detail poured into every building, tree, and animal that it creates an authentic sense of atmosphere?almost as though you’re actually in a Warcraft game yourself. Blizzard has even added little detail touches like footprints in freshly fallen snow and birds wheeling high in the sky. You start to get a definite sense of how vast the game world truly is while using air travel to get around; it’s really quite something to gaze down upon environments and buildings from a gryphon or wyvern’s eye view. You can see how each zone streams perfectly into another, even to a point where you’ll notice the delicate, gradual shifts from mountains to forests to deserts. While a large repertoire of the creatures and races from Warcraft III have been used to populate the world, there are also a lot of unique, and sometimes humorous, creature creations such as the Harvest Golems, who look like scarecrows gone wrong, or the Gnomish Battle Chicken. Yes, that’s not a misprint: Gnomish Battle Chicken. In keeping with Blizzard’s traditional sense of humor, players will find various references to pop culture littered throughout the game. From Goblin transporter operators named Kirque and Spotty, to an outrageously Zelda-like Gnome named Linken – subtle extras like these add that invaluable touch of lightheartedness to a game whose primary theme is war.
The sound is also vitally important to the game. Blizzard has seemingly managed to bring back every aural actor ever used during the previous Warcraft games to perform the voices for the many various characters in World of Warcraft. Just clicking on random NPCs rewards you with actual voices tailored to the type of character you’re talking to. Your characters themselves will laugh, cry, and tell jokes when you emote accordingly; there’s also a full set of hotkeys that trigger audio messages such as “Low on health” and “Attack my target” to grab the attention of group members. The rest of the audio is also extremely impressive; you can hear metallic sword clangs, heavy club strikes, gunshots, beastly roars, monsters howling in pain, etc. The game music, while not overly impressive, does a good, solid job of providing satisfying ambient sound for the individual zones you travel through.
World of Warcraft is clearly a product of superior craftsmanship from a group of dedicated people constantly vying to outdo themselves from game to game. Blizzard’s commitment to both gaming excellence and its player base shines in every aspect of the game, and even those unfamiliar with Blizzard products would find it hard not to have fun picking this up. Despite the fact that many of the concepts in the game have already been established in other RPGs, World of Warcraft still successfully addresses many of the popular issues players have previously highlighted. The only complaints I can possibly think of are as follows: If you want to play with your friends then you must belong to the same faction, and preferably follow the same quest since most groups are only for the duration of one quest. Also, those who are veterans of leveling treadmills in other games will find they can easily hit maximum level in a month or two due to the relaxed difficulty of the game. Though at times it may seem too easy, World of Warcraft is still able to effortlessly provide countless hours of quality entertainment, and there are still many remaining aspects of Warcraft that will no doubt be introduced in future expansions. If you want a highly polished and lavishly designed MMORPG set across a sprawling fantasy world made popular by millions of devoted fans, then I strongly advise that you familiarize yourself with World of Warcraft immediately.
And yes, I’m well aware of the rather high score but, damn, it is truly difficult to find any strong criticism worth leveling at the game. Don’t believe me? You will.