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Imagine if you will, a world of ancient mystery, forgotten lore and forbidden power; Where nature lays corrupted by the infernal influence of an otherworldly evil.
Enter a time of diverse nations and proud peoples in an age of wonder. Become one of many, as legions both blessed and damned, clash in a fight for survival.
Explore a realm filled with new discoveries, mystic landscapes and fey magic; Where old hatreds threaten civilization, hastening the resurgence of ancient horrors. Welcome young adventurer, to the World of Warcraft.
Released almost a year ago to rabid fan anticipation and industry skepticism, World of Warcraft has taken the MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) genre by storm. In one fell swoop, Blizzard Entertainment has seemingly outmaneuvered and outclassed such giants as EverQuest II, Star Wars Galaxies, Final Fantasy XI, Asheron's Call 2 and others, to emerge as the most successful game of its class.
In an era overflowing with online gaming, where the time tested formula for MMORPGs has led to the rise and proliferation of the genre, Blizzard not only came, saw and conquered; they took this mold and shattered it... or did they? Now on the eve of Blizzcon, the first annual convention for Blizzard titles, which will be celebrating the success of World of Warcraft, we're going to take an in-depth look at the online behemoth to see what all the fuss is about.
In the beginning...
The World of Warcraft begins several years after the conclusion of Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne. With the defeat of the Scourge and their tainted influence, the fragile bond formed between the Horde and Alliance has all but dissipated. With the new peace, old prejudices between these faction races began to resurface, dividing them once again.
In the Alliance, the war weary Humans returned to their capitol city of Stormwind and the surrounding townships, hoping to live a better life. Guarding from remnants of the undead Scourge to the North, they remain on an eternal vigil. The reclusive Night Elves, having lost their immortality as well as their home with the destruction of the world tree, Nordrassil, would begin anew. Despite internal disputes, the Night Elves succeeded in planting a second world tree off the coast of Kalimdor, naming it Teldrassil. Among its great boughs, the capitol city of Darnassus grew and prospered. The Gnomes were also displaced; with their fantastic technopolis of Gnomeregan poisoned by radiation, these diminutive tinkerers would seek refuge within the mountain city of Ironforge, ancestral home of their cousins, the Dwarves.
Among the Horde, the once warlike Orcs were slowly returning to their shamanistic roots under the rule of their young leader. The race would settle on the peninsula of Durotar, within the fortress city of Ogrimmar. The Trolls, heirs to a former world spanning Gurubashi Empire, would be given sanctuary within the great Orc city, but also held onto remnants of their jungle kingdoms in southern Azeroth. Sharing similar shamanistic roots with the Orcs, the nomadic Tauren remained allied with the Horde, settling in the steppe city of Thunder Bluff. Finally, the most unusual member of this union, the Forsaken, would hold sway over the corrupted lands of Tirisfal Glades. Having freed themselves from the taint of the Scourge, these renegade undead under the leadership of the Banshee Queen, have turned the once proud capitol city of Lordaeron into their Undercity.
Gamers familiar with the mythology and lore of the Warcraft series will feel right at home in this fully realized version of the world of Azeroth. Several core characters from the RTS games are alive and well in WoW and are major players in the sometimes nebulous storyline. Players unfamiliar with the series and storyline need not worry, as they will be brought up to speed on the tales of the ongoing wars between the Alliance and Horde races as they begin to play the game. Those who do wish to brush up on the legends of the World of Warcraft; Blizzard has included a complete chronology here: http://www.worldofwarcraft.com/info/story/....html
Upon entering the World of Warcraft, the faded drums of war begin to beat anew. Players will begin their journey into legend via story-driven quests to further the survival and supremacy of their nations. Along the way, they will discover corruption within their own governments and forbidden truths behind forces manipulating from the shadows.
For the first time in any MMORPG, World of Warcraft (WoW) manages to bring back real storytelling as a major crux of the game. Resembling a single player RPG more than any of its online contemporaries, WoW uses both solo and multiplayer questing as its major hub of gameplay and advancement instead of meager varnish. The plot itself is enormous, spanning several thousand individual quests, both singular and series. Gamers will journey across two continents and encounter over a dozen races, with more being added on a monthly basis. Players will see shades of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and even Indiana Jones in quests that range from dramatically intense to tongue-in-cheek.
While the sheer girth and quality of the tale in World of Warcraft is fabulous, the game lacks the astute presentation of pivotal storyline events that gamers enjoyed in Final Fantasy XI. Outside of the opening cinemas for each race, there is a complete lack of storyline cut scenes that FFXI was lauded for. Many of the scripted events in WoW play out in-game, in real-time; and while effective, they lose a significant amount of dramatic punch we've seen with more cinematic presentations. Also, the limited voice-over minimizes events that would have otherwise been more memorable. For example, the unmasking of Onyxia, brood-mother of the black dragonflight, would have had more impact if I didn't have to filter out my chat channels and private tells to keep up with the prose. If SOE can voice-over every major NPC in EQ2, and FFXI can set a cinematic standard with its cut scenes, surely Blizzard can liven up the drama with a few chatty thespians and a more dramatic camera. Despite this, World of Warcraft fully realizes its virtual world via a remarkable network of storyline quests, well-defined characters and involving events. The most remarkable aspect of the experience, however, is the complete faithfulness to the realization of Warcraft lore.
A feast for the eyes...
Visually, the World of Warcraft is remarkable, filled to the brim with a plethora of diverse locations, imaginative creatures and inventive architecture. Fully rendered in real-time, WoW won't win the MMORPG polygon-count race, but achieves a visual talent most MMOs blunder over — art. By using dramatically detailed artwork, an incredibly vibrant palette of colors and brilliant lighting, they were able to achieve a level of visual prowess that rivals other titles without taxing your PCs. While more visually demanding MMOs like EQ2 push the envelope for realism, World of Warcraft aims for a more stylized "animated fantasy" portrayal, and succeeds in spades.
On that note, by concentrating on art style over technical realism, Blizzard has had more flexibility over the scalability of the graphics. This means that the game can be run on a broad spectrum of PCs, from the high-end gaming rig to the average PC with a decent video card. Gamers with top-of-the-line video cards can run WoW in incredibly high resolutions with all the latest DirectX shaders and filters, enhancing the visuals without a major hit to the gameplay frame rate. Players with lower end machines can still run the game with confidence without losing a majority of the visual appeal or smoothness, even on a Mac.
The player character models are well done, though some of the races are more aesthetically appealing than others. Many of the masculine avatars do appear overly bulky and simplistic in comparison to the more well-defined females. Players will be able to choose one of eight races, divided by alignment, when they begin. While each race is visually unique, the spectrum of distinguishing feature options within each is limited. In comparison to other MMOs with vast player creation options, like Star Wars Galaxies, this is disappointing. Thankfully, WoW sports one of the largest selections of player equipment in any MMORPG. Since most pieces of armor have a unique model and skin, players won't have to worry about being fashion clones. The biggest problem gamers will have to worry about is finding matching pieces, as putting together the best selection of statistical gear doesn't necessarily mean completing a specific armor set. The design variety is incredible, but many optimal configurations outside of class pieces lead to players looking like Christmas trees. Gamers do have the option of turning off the visuals for the helms and capes to help with overly gauche combos, and thankfully so — many of the helms in-game border on hideous. Hopefully an armor dye option will be available in the future.
Another laudable aspect of the World of Warcraft's graphics engine lies in the fact that the entire world is seamless. Outside of dungeons and crossing to a new continent, players will never have to worry about loading new areas. The variety of locales found in both landmasses is impressive: the steamy jungles of Stranglethorn Vale, the arid open savannahs of the Barrens, the winter wonderland of Winterspring and the immense desert of Tanaris are but a few of the places adventurers will visit on their journey. Sadly, while there are many aesthetic touches that breathe life into these locales, like the falling leaves in the perpetual autumn on Azshara, there aren't any weather effects. Now, there are certain locations where the sky is a different color, overcast, sunny or cloudy, but they never change unless you leave the area. In other MMORPGs, players had to contend with sand storms, moving tornados, pouring rain and blizzards; Azeroth, however, seems to be liberated from atmospheric disturbances. While the game does have a night/day cycle every 24 hours, the lack of something as intrinsic as weather detracts from the immersive potential of this seamless world.
Overall, World of Warcraft is a real beauty, but not quite the belle of the ball. The experience is rich in detailed artwork, vibrant color and smooth animation, but falls short of the realism we see in many MMORPGs today. Instead the game relies on stability, scalability and style for its graphics punch — which is more than enough for such an enchanting world.
A melody is worth a thousand words...
Acoustically, there's not much to say about World of Warcraft. There are many tracks that are remixes from the RTS games and a few original pieces; all of which are quite good. There are the requisite epic orchestrated pieces, filled with horns and brass. There is a large selection of more ambient pieces with periodic vocal effects, such as the background music in Ashenvale forest. These tracks are some of the most enjoyable, but they are very short. Unless the player chooses to loop them in the options, the silence is deafening.
Sadly, many melodies are repeated elsewhere in the game; for example, the haunting siren song first heard in Blackfathom Deeps is also the music for the Tanaris desert. Another large faux-pas lies in the fact that there are entire dungeons with no background music at all, such as the Temple of Atal'Hakkar. With so much obvious effort placed upon the artwork and settings, it seems a gross oversight to have put the music on the back burner. No matter how dramatic the artistic visual presentation, a lack of music lends to a bland experience — a lesson every developer should have learned by now.
Thankfully, the character voices present in World of Warcraft are not only superbly acted, but lines aren't reused. Unfortunately, this caveat is extremely limited in scope. Players who enjoyed repeatedly badgering NPCs in the Warcraft RTS games to hear their silly quips will enjoy the fact that they can continue to harass poor peons in WoW. Outside of this, each player race has a collection of vocal emotes ranging from social to "suggestive." Avatars will grunt when hit, scream when killed, having a rather small range of combat speech limited to sound effects. Thankfully, almost every boss encounter in the game has some vocalization such as a taunt, and is quite menacing: the challenge issued by Hakkar, blood god of the Gurubashi Empire, is simply bone-chilling. Sadly, the buck stops there — outside of the opening cut scene for each of the eight races, there is a lack of speech of any length.
Even though the scope and range of the score in World of Warcraft is very limited, for a game in the MMORPG genre, the performance is commendable. Most adventurers tire of the stock soundtrack within a month, no matter how commendable the orchestration. The voice-overs again, while limited, are impeccably performed. However, the blatant recycling of music in several different regions of the game is inexcusable. Hopefully Blizzard will consider patching new music in these duplicate areas, or adding tunes to liven up the bland soundless dungeons.
The art of War...
One could spend volumes outlining the length and breadth of the gameplay choices adventurers in World of Warcraft have available to them. We'll try to keep this brief...
Players begin by selecting a race from either the Horde or Alliance; from there they select their class and begin customizing their avatars. The Alliance races are of typical fantasy do-gooder stock: humans, night elves, dwarves and gnomes. The Horde races are the more monstrous of the bunch, Orcs, Trolls, Tauren (homo bovinus) and Undead. After character creation, players are treated to a lengthy introduction to their race, their mission in life, and the state of the union between the races and allegiances. They are then placed in the beginner's area where they will become acclimated to their new professions.
The player classes are mostly straight from the RTS series, with a few interesting twists and combinations. Warriors are the men-at-arms in Azeroth - capable of using almost every kind of weapon, masters at heavy armor and enemy aggravation; they are the requisite "tank" class. Priests are the spiritual center of every team. Namely, they are the major healers and resurrection class in the game, but they are not alone. Paladins, while being able to wear heavy armor and use many weapons, can also heal and resurrect. Druids are the chosen ones of nature, having the ability to shape shift, cast healing and damage spells, along with limited resurrection abilities. Shamans are a hybrid class. Able to wear chain mail and cast recovery or destructive magic, they can also draw on the power of totems to aid or destroy. Mages are the masters of elemental and arcane magic, adept at blowing things up and polymorphing baddies into sheep. Hunters are the woodsmen of the game: expert trap setters and marksmen, they are aided also by their loyal beast companions. The Warlock is a more specialized spell casting class; using powers of demonology, they can control beings of darkness to do their bidding and enslave others of their ilk, even those of the elemental plane. They are also masters of infernal and demonic magic on their own, as well as through their hell-spawned pets. Rogues are the assassin class, capable of dealing enormous damage in a short time, picking pockets, then fading into the darkness. Sadly, many classes are tied specifically to certain races/alignments. Shamans are exclusively Horde, Paladins are exclusively Alliance, only Tauren and Night Elves are capable of being Druids, Gnomes cannot become Priests etc.
As players level, they will learn new abilities and upgrade old ones by frequently visiting their class trainers and paying the requisite fee once they reach higher levels. To further enhance the standard roles and abilities of these classes, there is the Talent Tree. Upon reaching level 10, players will have access to three schools of training for their class. For each subsequent level, they will earn a point to assign along these paths, unlocking new abilities and enhancing role definition. A priest, for example, can choose between the Holy, Shadow and Discipline trees to augment their basic powers. With the Holy path, they will gain new healing abilities, reduce the mana cost on healing spells and have increased effect of their restorative magic. On the flip side, if they pursue the Shadow tree, they will specialize in shadow-based magic and vampiric powers, culminating in the ability to assume a Shadowform: an ethereal transformation that boosts their offensive and defensive potential. Finally, the Discipline tree focuses on mana recovery and protection-based ability. The beauty of this system is that it allows a great range of options within each class, giving players a chance to break out of the mold of classic class roles and play uniquely. If adventurers feel they have made a mistake with their talent choices, or wish to try something new for a different role, they can reset their points. Be warned, it costs more and more each time you ask the trainer to reset your points, so indecisive players might have in-game fiscal problems down the road if they're not careful.
The Legend Begins...
Not surprisingly, the story-driven quests which are the main hub of gameplay in WoW, is the very same device that throttles the MMORPG competition. While other virtual worlds depend on the players to further plots that are more vaporware than substance, adventurers in Azeroth find themselves participating in a plethora of quests in an ever evolving legend. In this respect, WoW duplicates the same gameplay found in typical single player RPGs, but with added incentive.
In other MMORPGs players are usually left with monster slaying, the level treadmill, endless item collection and socialization as their modus operandi; not so with WoW. For starters, players will obtain experience points not only from monster killing, but from successful completion of quests. Adventurers will notice that they progress much faster through the current level 60 limit by questing, instead of mindlessly killing monsters. Since most quests involve a degree of monster slaying, they actually go hand-in-hand.
There are also additional rewards to this system - many quests will reward players with money, rare equipment and reputation. Reputation is a statistic that is familiar to the genre, but never quite as well utilized as it is in WoW. As they complete quests, players will progress through various levels of reputation with many different factions. From "Hated" to "Exalted," reputation rating determines several aspects of NPC behavior. Firstly, it determines if members of a specific faction are openly hostile or friendly to the player. Even prices at vendors, both discounts on items and profits on reselling, are also influenced by your standing. Next, certain key quests are tied to standings with certain groups. In fact, many of the high-end crafting recipes and items cannot be purchased at vendors without the right level of fame with the corresponding sect. How many to be exact? Currently, there are over two dozen factions implemented in-game, but new additions are commonplace as new areas are added.
One of the most pleasant aspects of the quest system in WoW is the fact that most of them can be done in the space of half an hour. This allows casual gamers to actually play in a genre that was once limited to gamers who could afford to spend several hours online at a time. In today's busy world, even the most die-hard gamers have lives and responsibilities. With this in mind, Blizzard has created a game that appeals to not only the hard-core, but the casual. To even further this quest brevity, there is the Rest XP system. This allows players who have been away from the game for extended periods of time to progress at an accelerated pace to catch up to their friends. This is achieved by virtue of doubling experience points gain for monster kills for a certain amount of experience points. The longer a player is away from the game, the more this limit of double xp points grows. However, at no given time can a player accrue more than a level and a half worth of this Rest XP "state."
As an extension of the quest system, World of Warcraft is home to almost thirty unique and massive instanced dungeons. Namely, an "instance" is a private version of that dungeon that is created for you and your party upon entering the dungeon's portal. This eliminates problems with competing for quest related monsters, bosses and loot. By giving each team or raid group a private dungeon, they can adventure without the hassle posed by too many additional people in the area. While these instances are private, they are by no means random — Blizzard has orchestrated many scripted events and climactic boss showdowns that involve the environment that would be ruined by random map generation. There are three flavors of these dungeons found in Azeroth — the first and most common is the single party instance. The single party instance is designed with a balanced five-man party in mind, with quests and challenges for a single band of players. The next flavor is the raid dungeon. This instance type doesn't appear until the very end-game, and requires anywhere from 20 to 40 players to complete. Raid dungeons usually require the completion of a lengthy series of quests before their key can be earned, and are home to battles of epic proportions. The last and newest flavor is the PvP (player vs. player) instance, called Battlegrounds. This was introduced with the advent of the Honor system, which bestows military ranks to players based on their performance against other players in combat. Not to be confused with the Reputation system, the Honor system awards players of sufficient rank with access to restricted areas within cities and the ability to purchase incredible equipment. Currently there are only 3 Battlegrounds available, sporting capture the flag, resource defense and full-scale warfare themes. Not to be outdone, since each Battleground is an instance, namely a private arena for combatants, Blizzard has added quests with goals within the skirmishing for further Honor.
What would an MMORPG be without crafting? World of Warcraft sports several such skills, but players will have to be judicious with their choices, as they can only learn two. There are three free trades that can be learned without taking up a slot: Fishing, Cooking and First-Aid. The remaining crafts fall into either a production category or a resource gathering skill. For example, Leatherwork produces leather and mail armor, but requires large amounts of leather from creatures killed in battle. This leather can be obtained with the Skinning resource skill, which also requires the purchasing of a skinning knife. Blacksmithing is used to create metal weapons and armor, but is reliant on ore that is obtained with the Mining skill and smelted. Tailoring requires cloth pieces found off of bodies of humanoid foes, and does not require a resource skill per se, but many robes require gems that can be found mining or scraps of leather that need to be skinned. Alchemists can create potions, but require herbs gathered with the Herbalism skill. They can also transmute metals and elemental objects, which in turn require other resource gathering. Enchanters can bless items and equipment with statistical bonuses or new effects, and do not require a support craft. Instead, they must disenchant other enchanted items for raw materials. Inventing is the broadest trade skill, since it requires reagents from almost every school of craft.
To further deepen the crafting school, after a certain skill level is obtained, crafters can choose to specialize into an elite branch of that craft. Blacksmiths will become armor smiths or weapon smiths. Weapon smiths, for example, can then become Sword smiths, Axe smiths or Hammer smiths. Almost every high-end trade skill recipe requires a specialty craftsman, so players have added incentive to choose a path. Learning and progressing in a specific craft is amazingly easy. Upon talking to a specific craft trainer, they will ask for a small fee to begin training in that skill. They will give you the first few recipes in that school. As you successfully craft these first items, your skill level will rise. Every few levels, your trainer will teach you new recipes for a price. Once you reach the maximum level for the trainer of that rank, you will be directed to a more skilled trainer. Here you have to pay another fee to upgrade your training rank and give you access to the next spectrum of levels. At crafting level 225, players will have to embark on quests to reach Artisan level in their craft and unlock the next series of levels they can gain. Unfortunately the artisan quests are level capped, so industrious crafters who progress to that point early, will have to obtain avatar levels 35-40, depending on craft. Also, not all the recipes for crafting are available at trainers. There are rare recipes that can be found off certain enemies or from specific out-of-the-way vendors in limited supply.
Once items are created or found, they can be sold on the auction house. Similar to most MMORPGs, this area is the hub for in-game economy, for a price. Players who choose to sell items on the auction house have to put a non-refundable deposit on the item based on how long the auction lasts. If the item sells, they will receive their money directly via in-game mail, but if the auction fails, the item is returned and the fee kept. As an unfortunate side effect of this system is inflation, but that is normal for online role-playing games.
Unfortunately, Blizzard saw fit to have only three auction houses in the game. For the Alliance side, auctioneers reside in Ironforge, the Horde in Ogrimmar, and a seldom used neutral auction house in Gadgetzan. The problem with this system, especially in a seamless world, is the amount of traffic these areas get. This results in the game freezing for moments on end while our PCs try to handle all the player models being loaded. The bandwidth overload upon entering these areas has resulted in numerous disconnects. With several major cities on each side of the conflict, I don't see why Blizzard didn't duplicate the auction house in each city to handle the overload. Currently, the cities of Darnassus, Stormwind, Thunder Bluff and Undercity lack this function, so are nearly vacant outside of beginning players.
Overall, the gameplay depth and diversity found in World of Warcraft far rivals that of other MMORPGs on the market. Players can embark on a plethora of solo, team-based and raid content, as well as a remarkably well-designed PvP system. The story-based singular and epic quests are not just window dressing; they provide players with the means to level-up their characters without tedium, and gain additional rewards in the form of money, equipment and reputation. The numerous options inherent in the classes via the Talent Tree give adventurers the opportunity to play outside the box. The crafting system, while simple to learn, is a challenge to fully master and rewarding to the industrious gamer.
The future is a devious thing.
Granted, with any MMORPG, players have to play a monthly fee, but for the first time in the genre's history, we have a game where content additions are not only a regular occurrence, they're massive. For example, the October patch highlighted not only a major revision of the Druid class' abilities, but added a new city with an enormous amount of high-end storyline quests. This also includes new crafting recipes, new equipment, and several new outdoor raid bosses. Last, but not least, they also added events for "Hallow's Eve."
The community for World of Warcraft is also one of the most active. Thanks to the flexibility of the programming (and Blizzard's tolerance) many independent coders have made their own Add-Ons to the game. These range from simple revisions to the Graphic User Interface (GUI) to raid interface enhancements that help with coordination of attacks. In fact, many of the most popular add-ons that were used in the early months of the game's release have been integrated into the game by the developers. How's that for fan appreciation?
Despite the well deserved accolades, there is an ugly truth to the success. Sadly, once players reach the level 60 limit, the gameplay changes drastically. While there are still plenty of quests to go around, many of them are reduced to being tools for reputation and raid dungeon keys. While the level treadmill is not a problem, the endgame turns into an item hunt for better equipment, but to what end? The casual adventuring is all too quickly replaced with raid content and itemization reminiscent of EQ and FFXI.
This is unfortunate, because at this point, the micro-community guilds formed in the formative levels are no longer effective for end-game content. With the emphasis on these epic encounters, we see many smaller guilds disband as players are lured into large raiding guilds to tackle the content. More often than not, friendships forged over 60 levels are shattered as people gravitate to organizations that can provide them with the means to this end. Even more unfortunate is that raid content requires a level of time and commitment most players attracted to the game for its casual nature don't have time for. With the upcoming expansion announcement, let's hope to see a change in this trend.
In conclusion, what could be said about the remarkable achievement Blizzard has made with the World of Warcraft? With fantastic art direction, technical stability, a compelling storytelling, addictive and enjoyable gameplay — we have the recipe for success. One might even overlook the few glaring issues present with the audio in light of everything else the title achieves. I just hope that Blizzard remembers the throngs of casual players that brought them to this success at endgame.