March 14, 2005
Online role-playing games can be a love/hate relationship for many gamers. On the upside, the possibilities are nearly endless. Exploring huge and complex worlds? Check. Creating your ultimate hero or heroine? Battling monsters and evil villains? Embarking on dangerous quests? You bet, all of the above. All this can be done while playing alongside (and sometimes against) fellow players, creating a more realistic environment and making everything feel so much more “alive” compared to standard single player games. You’re basically living one of the Lord of the Ringsmovies.
Sounds fun, right? But typically, the downside of these games can all but kill the fantasy. The excruciating side of RPGs can bear its ugly head when it takes forever to “level up” your character, and making any progress can require you to play a ridiculous number of hours per day. Oftentimes, you’ll be required to team up with other players to achieve any success, which can take hours. Your (real life) friends and loved ones will wish you had taken up stamp collecting instead of video games for a hobby because they never see you anymore.
But fret not. Tackling problems such as these is where World of Warcraft shines. Blizzard Entertainment has somehow found a way to take the pain out of online RPGs, and they’ve created a fascinating world where players of all kinds can be satisfied. Hardcore gamers who forgo sleep to create their uber RPG character will always exist. But now, even the casual player who may only play a few times a week can also accomplish something and not feel like they’re falling too far behind the rest of the pack. Blizzard has incorporated a “rest system” where the experience you gain through fighting multiplies if you are away from the game for an extended period. The amusing irony in this is once you start playing, you’ll become so addicted that you won’t want be away from World of Warcraft for very long at all.
Each player is distinguished by the choices they make at the beginning of the game. The first major decision you need to make is whether you want to side with The Alliance (Humans, Gnomes, Dwarves, and Night Elves) or The Horde (consisting of Orcs, Trolls, The Undead, and Tauren). Suffice it to say that these two groups have a very uneasy truce going on in the game world of Azeroth. While each side has their own well-guarded territories, the majority of the areas in the game are considered “contested” where both sides are fighting for power. If you pick a normal server, you’re safe from being attacked by other players in these regions, but if you enjoy a little extra danger, you can choose a Player vs. Player server where anything goes. After picking your side and race, you can choose between some typical classes like mages, warriors, and rogues, among others. Also, each player is allowed to take on two primary professions – examples include mining, alchemy, leatherworking, or blacksmithing. These are used to enhance your character’s personality, create valuable items, and hopefully to earn a little gold. These professions create a fun subplot to your story, but the majority of your time will be spent on various quests and adventures.
Quests in World of Warcraft are extremely well done. A large majority of them include the standard “kill this monster” or “collect this item,” but much thought has been put into the story behind these quests, making them very interesting. For the casual gamer, they are also very manageable in a short period - instead of long, complicated quests, Blizzard has created thousands of smaller ones. The game’s interface is outstanding, making it very straightforward to discover exactly what you need to do, and where you need to go. Maps of each region and the entire world are available, and sometimes, key areas are marked on your map by computer characters as a guide. Of course sometimes you’re on your own to explore and discover which can be half the fun.
Speaking of that, if you enjoy exploring strange worlds, you’re in for a great time. There are dozens of unique regions to check out, each with it’s own environment, sub-regions, and multiple dungeons. There’s a whole host of ways to get around, and your options increase as the game progresses. Right out of the gate, you’re going to have to walk or run, but as you discover major cities, you’ll get access to “flight paths” that allow you to travel a little faster between key points via flying beasts. Unlike other games, most of the world is seamless, meaning there are no “loading zones” as you travel, a huge plus in not breaking the immersion of the game. The only time a load is required is when you travel between the two major continents, which is done by ship or zeppelin. A nice additional plus is the fact that you gain experience points for each new mini area you uncover within a region, in essence rewarding the player for exploration. And there are tons of places to explore, not just in the wilderness but within the six major cities as well (including stores/shops, auction houses, banks, and inns). One last note on getting around – once you attain a high level and a significant amount of gold, you can purchase a “mount” (such as a horse or a wolf) to travel on, which doubles your speed cross-country.
Of course there’s going to be fighting and killing, and some of it is the usual “hack and slash” fare that most RPG players should be used to. But again, Blizzard has managed to make it all more fun, much of the credit again going to the fantastic interface. The best part of warfare however is the minimal recovery period after one of your battles. Many of World of Warcraft’s predecessors have required that you sit around for several minutes after each battle as your health and magic power replenish. This waiting period has been significantly reduced, so you can hop back into the fray as soon as possible. Leveling up is also much quicker than other games, making progress quicker and more attainable. A major advantage to this is the ability to experiment and start up multiple characters without having to quit your day job. Incredibly, there is no experience penalty for dying (which will occasionally happen). The only thing you’ll lose is time, as you’re required to run back to your corpse as a ghost from graveyards scattered around the world. Many of the points made above may make World of Warcraft sound too easy, but that’s not the case. It’s just a situation of Blizzard taking all the bad parts out of your standard online RPG and enhancing the good ones.
Another online RPG myth that Blizzard has trounced is that success can only be attained through grouping with other players, especially at higher levels. Not so here, as going solo in World of Warcraft is a breeze. The only areas of the game where you won’t be able to do it are the “instances”, where groups can enter their own unique version of a dungeon and not be bothered by other players in the game. These areas hold many unique monsters and items, and even if you are primarily a solo player, you might eventually want to take a shot at one of these special sections just for the experience. Related to that, the social aspect of the game works great. Using chat channels, you can easily ask others for advise, talk about current events, team up for quests, or try to sell off some of your goods.
On the technical side, the graphics are fantastic. Even now, after playing for several months, I often stand and just look around at my surroundings, taking in the sights. The game world leans slightly towards the cartoony side as opposed to the photorealism of other games, but it works extremely well and gives the game a great sense of style without being cutesy. I’ve never once felt silly as if I was playing Mario or The Legend of Zelda. Check out the screenshots for yourself and you’ll see what I mean. The sound and music are good, nothing you’d consider a masterpiece but they set a good mood for each particular zone. The only minor technical area I can warn you against concerns PC hardware, memory in particular. I have 512 MB, and when entering a major city where sometimes hundreds of players are walking around, my computer slows to a crawl for a minute or so while the area loads up in the background. After it’s loaded however, I have no problems getting around.
I don’t want to ruin any more of the fun of discovery with this game, so you’ll have to trust me when I say World of Warcraft is a blast to play, and incredibly addicting. The interesting thing is, Blizzard really hasn’t created anything innovative or revolutionary here. They’ve just cleaned up your standard Dungeons and Dragons style online RPG and made it super fun, extremely refined, and exceedingly accessible to gamers of all levels. If you’re new to RPGs, don’t be scared off by the complexity of these types of games, World of Warcraft is incredibly intuitive, and it’s extremely easy to dive right in and start playing. And because of the depth of the gameplay and the potential for future expansions, it may be a game that you play for years to come. Just be warned, it may occupy any free time you have to offer.
Final Grade: A+