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World of Warcraft Review

Blizzard does it again.

2004-12-10

MMOs are a strange beast. They are designed to make you play as much as possible, yet addictiveness does not always equal fun. In the field of pyschology, there are several kinds of rewards systems, and the one that seems to be the most successful is the random reward introduced at a random time. Sometimes you click the button, and nothing happens. Sometimes you click and get the food pellet. It's this mechanism that fuels the slots in Vegas, and when you walk away empty, as is statistically inevitable over a long enough stretch of time, you tell yourself that the overall value was the experience itself, since you come away with nothing tangible. MMOs take away your time and they never deliver a discreet conclusion.

I played a ton of Dark Age of Camelot shortly after it launched, and I find myself reminded of it negatively every day that I play World of Warcraft. To discuss the differences in favor of WoW would be an article in itself, but I'll try to keep to the main points.

First, let's talk about The Grind. In a traditional persistent online RPG, you advance your character by killing an endless string of monsters, and by doing "FedEx" quests where you get some money and/or experience points by delivering an arbitrary item from Point A to Point B. As your character advances, his or her progress begins to slow. It takes longer and longer to get to the next level, because you need more and more experience points each time, yet the experience returned from monsters and deliveries does not scale accordingly. Yet you feel compelled to continue because at Level X you get a really cool spell or other ability that's supposed to make the game more "fun."

The second part of the grind is "downtime," the amount of time it takes to recover from each monster (or "mob") encounter. When I played DAOC, it typically took every ounce of my resources to defeat an enemy that would give me respectable experience. Then I would sit down and wait while my energy bars slowly refilled. Then you'd have to wait awhile for the next batch of monsters to spawn again, and you'd typically be competing against other players and "camping" this same spot all day long.

Now, imagine an MMO where your experience is a string of quests where you're rewarded with a cool item, recipe, or a decent amount of pocket money. A game where the grind is virtually eliminated--a game where downtime is relatively nonexistent, where enemies respawn rapidly and dynamically according to how many players are in the local area; where you can use a healing spell, or bandage yourself, or eat some food, or all three, before diving right back in again. Your character's death doesn't result in the loss of many hours of experience points, or one of your items, or any money (although there is item decay, so whatever you have equipped currently takes a 10% durability hit). When you die, you resurrect as a ghost who moves quickly, runs on water, and cannot be harmed on its way back to its body. You can also have a player resurrect you in a matter of moments, even after you have entered ghost form. This is a game that understands Fun.

Welcome to World of Warcraft.

WoW has been described widely as a "newbie-friendly" game, but after playing since the closed beta phase that started back in Spring of this year, I can honestly say that WoW is friendly to everybody. Everything from the colorful art style to the endearing player animations, to the countless quirks of personality makes WoW an inviting experience. Blizzard's passion for gaming joy is infectious, and its sense of humor disarming.

Let's talk about the geography for a moment. The world of Azeroth is split into two continents: the actual continent of Azeroth (confusing, I know) and Kalimdor, where the Orcs, Trolls and Tauren live. The Night Elves, members of the Alliance, are stuck over there, just as the Undead, member of the Horde, are stuck in Azeroth with the goody-goody humans, dwarves and gnomes. Travel in between the continents is done by Zeppelin for the Horde, and by boat for the Alliance. The bus will come along every few minutes, and it only takes a few minutes to get across. You can also fly in between cities, and there's a free and very quick underground train between Stormwind, the human capital, and Ironforge, the dwarf capital. Both continents are broken into many zones of increasing difficulty as you go farther and farther from your faction's seat of power. At around level 30, halfway to the current cap, you'll start entering zones where each faction has quests. Some of these quests are "instanced," meaning your group gets loaded into an "instance" of the zone that won't contain any other players. This is quite handy in those contested zones, and in areas where you'll be competing for mobs and key quest requirements.

And it's the quests that weave the experience together, from the moment you first step into the world. They act as an excellent introduction to the game and are designed to guide you smoothly from zone to zone. The starting zone has mobs around level 1-10, the second zone is 10-20, and you should have quests the whole way through. Are these quests uniformly exciting? No. There are three types: kill quests, collection quests, and a few delivery quests (which are almost always used to introduce you to new areas, instead of making you run the same route back and forth, or sending you through dangerous territory, or being ridiculously long just to pad the amount of time you spend sitting in front of the computer, playing the game).

The kill quests aren't that bad. Yes, you could argue that this is nothing more than grinding with a twist, but the experience boost you get from completing them, and the concrete rewards you earn when successful, and the camaraderie you can develop with your fellow players in the meantime, ends the monotony and the vague sense of spiteful condescension on the designer's part. When you group up for one of these, everyone gets credit each time a mob is taken down. This is good, and it goes by pretty quickly as long as your buddies keep their heads and don't get too risky.

The collection quests, however, can be a bear. I like WoW a lot, but the frequency with which the quest items drop is pretty low. Say you need ten wolf ears or whanot--it could take thirty wolves before all ten of those ears drop, even though you should theoretically be able to rip the suckers right off, stick them in your pocket, and be on your way. And when you party up for these, the drop only occurs for one person at a time, unless you select the Need Before Greed loot mode. It can take a long time to collect certain items, to the point where you start feeling a little cheated and toyed with. It's rare, but it stings me every time.

There are several loot modes, which is excellent, but none quite prevent the problem of simple greed, even NBG. There's the default "Uncommon" mode, where all players can roll in-game dice to get the uncommon item, but there's no way to filter out certain character classes, so you have a warrior rolling for a mage staff, simply because they want to sell it or because a friend might need it. WoW does a respectable job of trying to make sure everyone gets a fair distribution of valuable monster drops, and they've made massive improvements to the system over the course of the beta phase, but it looks like there's a little more work that needs to be done, like an option window for the group leader that gives him or her some advanced filtering abilities. I'd also like to be able to have more than five people in a party, but then again, there are many quests where you can never have enough people.

What's more is how the quests are introduced. In the town you fly into, there will be people standing around with yellow exclamation marks above their heads. If it's gray, that means you're not high enough level to do it. When you accept the quest, it turns into a gray question mark that turns yellow when you've satisfied all the requirements. There's very little hunting around for someone who's name you've been given by another NPC, or just hunting around for anything to do.

With the instanced quests, though, WoW isn't quite so newb-friendly, frankly. It can take hours to finish some of these, and a lot of people just don't have that much time to sit down and play. As your character progresses, you'll be introduced to more and more involved adventures, some of which take you into territory controlled by the enemy faction, which is frustrating on the player-versus-player (PvP) servers. In PvP, the zones are green, yellow and red. In a green zone, the enemy can't attack you until you attack them. In a yellow zone, it's anybody's party. So when you go into someone else's green zone, you'll be unable to proactively clear a path to your destination. You also can't communicate to the other faction in the general chat window, and the game has built-in language differences that translate your words into gibbering (although the assumption is that you'll eventually be able to learn the languages of other races). So you can't just tell the locals that you come in peace and won't be staying long.

And since they have no particular reason to trust you anyway, it's a pretty risky endeavor for a Paladin to head to Silverpine to get one of the items for Verigan's Fist, a very powerful mace accessible to this player class at level 20--provided they gather all the ingredients. During beta, I took my level 20 Undead warlock into the Wetlands, the third-tier Alliance zone (levels 20-30). Since PvP wasn't implemented at that point, all I had to worry about were the hostile non-player characters wandering around, and the challenging monsters blanketing the zone. Adding hostile players would have made it nigh-impossible to do solo, and there isn't a lot of incentive for people to party with you and go out all that way, since they're not getting any quest reward for it. Perhaps Blizzard could introduce side rewards for party members who help someone complete one of these large quests, but cap the reward with diminishing returns to prevent guilds from powering their low-level members through the mission all day.

Although Verigan's Fist is a drool-worthy weapon, it's not necessary in the way that the warlock's Succubus is. The creatures he or she can summon are part and parcel of the class--an extension of their list of spells. The warlock can't "tank" like a melee fighter--he can't just sit their and soak up damage, so he needs someone to keep the enemy distracted from him while he whales away with powerful spells. He does a better job here than the mage can, but he needs a minion to add the extra damage that a mage can do on his or her own.

Still, when you put it in perspective, these issues beat the heck out of swinging at the same dumb mobs all day. It beats taking several minutes to recoup from each fight and wait for another mob to appear. Several minutes might not seem like a lot, but when most players do the MMO thing for several hours a day, those minutes add up fast. Since the retail release, I've spent around 100 hours of play leveling my warrior up to 30, and I spent a few more hours testing out a mage on both the Alliance and Horde sides. (My warrior is a member of the I Got Nuggets guild, created by the IGN editorial team and consisting of a few of us and the Insider members that play the game and asked to join up with us.) That's a lot of time that usually spent running or sitting down, but the quick, inexpensive and extensive transportation system and the tools to eliminate downtime pack so much content into the experience that it puts the genre in the shade. DAOC was, when I played it, more of a graphical chat room than a game, because of all the time spent not actually playing. This may make for a strong community, but what's the reward when it's a community of people sitting and running in between the actual content phases?

On the other hand, to be fair, the amount of action in WoW makes it relatively difficult to communicate and plan effectively. Many players resort to chat macros to say, "Hey, I'm being attacked, I need help," or, "I'm going to cast a spell on this mob that will remove it from combat, so please don't attack it and thereby pull it back in." WoW could use a more robust voice macro system for when things get hairy. And with the dynamic spawning system, things can get hairy indeed. It's definitely the lesser of two evils, the other being waiting for the mobs to appear when they're good an ready, but it still needs work, as there will be times when they just keep coming and coming until the whole party's been wiped out.

However, the instanced dungeons are a different story, and there are some simply eye-popping set pieces, like the final stage of the Deadmines in Westfall. There's a bunch of screenshots of that in the gallery, as well as many other images I've taken over the past several months I've been playing.

And here's where I talk about the graphics. World of Warcraft is not cutting-edge in this department, but the artistic direction is top-notch. Take the Undercity, for example, the Undead capital beneath the ruins of the former human city of Lordaeron. It's like Beetlejuice meets A Nightmare Before Christmas, with fanciful shapes, bright colors, and lots of endearingly silly touches of spookiness. Then there's Orgrimmar, the Orc capital, with its mesas that look almost painted by hand, with the layers of soil and soil streaking and banding like streams of water. Or perhaps Ironforge, the massive city built into a mountain and featuring a central forge large enough to house a football stadium, with lava pouring from the ceiling and giant gears churning all day long. You can also use the countless braziers to cook food, which is one of the equally countless touches that makes WoW so friendly. Then there's Darnassus, with the Ancients (like Ents, but much larger), slowly wandering the city with booming footsteps.

Still, the relatively low number of polygons will not help WoW in the long run, as strong as the art style is. People's hands are particularly blocky, and each gender has one body type, making a mage as beefy as a warrior, which looks a little silly. You can make an argument for a barrel-chested Merlin making the player feel heroic, but I would like more options for character customization. The other big MMOs offer an order of magnitude more here, and the lack of differentiation makes people look a little too similar to one another. Variety is a good thing, especially when you put so much play time into the game and see countless other players in a single session.

Thankfully, the environments do not suffer this, and they also transition smoothly, with no loading times. Yes, you read that right. Entering the underground train puts you in an instance, but flying from one end of the continent to another will not require staring dully at a single progress bar as it inches painfully from one side to the other. The game also starts up impressively fast, probably thanks to the low complexity of the objects and character models. Like I said before, there's not a lot of waiting around in this game. At any rate, each zone has a distinct character, almost as if a completely different art team worked on each one, and they may have. At the same time, the transitions are never jarring. As you fly from, say, Ironforge to the Wetlands, you'll descend down a snowy mountain, gradually making your way down to the green and brown marshes full of crocolisks (six-legged crocodiles), gnolls, and many other beasties. You can still definitely sense when you're moving into a new area, so they must have done a lot of work on getting this balance just right.

I also had the mouse pointer lock up a few times, about ten seconds into the session, and it's reportedly related to how the game deals with nVidia's mouse acceleration on 6800 cards. You can use software mode, but it's a little sluggish. I found that if I just spun the pointer around until I felt I was clear, I didn't have any issues. The 9800 Pro on my work rig did not have this issue.

Last but not least is the full-screen bloom effect. While it gives the game a warm glow, it also makes textures blurry, removes antialiasing, and makes the names above people's heads difficult to read from a distance. I found that *not* using bloom made things sharper and more vivid. If you like it, then more power to you, but it just wasn't my cup of tea.

Sound is also a large part of the WoW experience, and they've done an excellent job with the score--the music just doesn't get old. It's apparently just subliminal enough to withstand hundreds of hours of play. Each zone has its own distinct theme, whether it's the sad strings in Westfall, the tribal sounds of Stonetalon, or the slow dreaminess of Ashenvale. You can also disable music and play your own stuff in the background, as WoW cooperates very well with the ALT+TAB and CTRL+ESC command. Running in the background, WoW usually takes up 70-90MB of RAM, so you can quickly pop onto the forums or check out thottbot.com if you need a quick answer to a tough question. When the queues were bad at launch, I just let WoW sit in the taskbar while I checked out the latest forum topics. On a side note, you can quit the game immediately, instead of having to wait on the traditional 20-30 second timer, unless you're in combat.

And not only is Azeroth an interesting place to explore, it's pretty easy to go about things under your own steam. You see, the usual MMO model is that you pretty much have to group up in order to continue at a reasonable pace, because the mobs that give reasonable experience start getting really tough, and eventually they're impossible to fight alone. This is not the case in World of Warcraft, although there are many "elite" quests where you really can't go alone. Still, you can spend most of your time just puttering around, beating on bad guys, getting cool loot, improving your trade skills, and trading at the auction house. It's actually a pretty pleasant way to while away some gaming hours.

What's also cool is that each player gets a "hearthstone," for free, which allows them to bind themselves to a large town or city and teleport back there once every 60 minutes. I'm bound to Ironforge, where the Alliance auction house is. The underground train and the flight paths make it a quick trip back to anywhere on the continent--no more than ten minutes, unless you're heading out to the fringes. And the Mage can teleport to the capital cities under his own power starting at level 20, which can take as little as one weekend to reach, if you're serious about reaching that goal. At higher levels, he can even open portals to certain cities that his or her party members can use for a quick trip back home. Similarly, the Warlock can eventually summon a fellow player from anywhere in the world. Getting to where you need to be never takes a long time in WoW.

Now, I have to say that the player classes are not perfectly balanced, and each one went through significant changes over the course of development and will very likely continue to evolve. You long-time MMO players will be familiar with the "holy trinity"--mage, priest, fighter--and the same pretty much holds true here. A mix of those is pretty much all you need for any given group quest, and the poor Rogue is the one who often gets left out in the cold, to the point of general party invitations informing rogues in the vicinity sometimes that they need not apply.

You see, the rogue dishes a lot of damage in a short amount of time, but he or she can only wear leather armor at most, so he also gets a lot of pain dished back, making him the focus of the priest's attention. At the same time, his skills don't include much "aggro hold," meaning he can't keep attention away from the priest who's healing him, or the mage in the back who's also dishing a lot of damage. So he ends up complicating things a lot, and many players would rather do without the complication. The rogue can knock out an enemy, but this ability has to be used before combat has begun, and it can be resisted, and he has to creep up slowly to the mob. And the mob may be close enough to a buddy so that sapping in general will get their attention.

The other classes, like the warlock, hunter, and paladin, do all right here, because they can fill in the gaps in the trinity. The paladin is a hybrid class, since he's a fighter with some healing, buffing, and protection abilities, and he's usually next in line to the trinity. Paladins are always welcome, since they can boost people's stats on an individual basis and cast a single aura the whole group benefits from and that doesn't expire like the buffs do. The warrior doesn't do as well as he used to, since his Charge ability, which allows him to rapidly close the gap and stun a mob, can no longer be used after the combat phase has begun. He also no longer has the Pummel ability, a close-range attack that allowed a warrior without a shield to stun a mob.

Now, you pretty much have to have a shield to fight a spellcaster, a situation where stunning them (and thereby canceling the spell cast) a matter of life and death for the whole group. Having a shield gives him or her more armor, but it also means less damage, since you're only using a one-handed weapon. The warrior also misses a significant amount of time, which is frustrating since he needs to land a hit in order to generate Rage (their version of mana) and use all of his special attacks. To top it off, his only way to generate Rage without fighting uses up 100 points of health, which used to not be the case. He needs some love.

The warrior is also a gear-dependent class, since he gets hit a lot, basically, and needs all the boosted stats he can get to stay alive and be effective. I had to take up the Mining profession and stop often to pick up ore from the nodes placed throughout the zone, just so I could turn around and sell it at the auction house and pay for new armor and weapons. Being in a guild helps, but someone still has to go around and make a lot of money to keep him nice and shiny. Thankfully, the auction house is intuitive, and it uses the in-game mail system to deliver your goods the minute a successful auction has gone through. You can mail items and money to other players within your faction, with an attached note, and it takes about an hour to arrive, and you can grab your package from any of the mailboxes scattered throughout the world. And you even get a new mail notification in the interface. It's really a great system.

At the auction house, you get an estimation of how much longer the auction will last, who's selling it, a pop-up describing the item in detail, and the seller can set an instant buyout price (which has to be at least the cost of the item). You just click-and-drag the item from your bags to the auction interface, and the game sets a basic price for it, which works out to twice what a vendor would pay you for it. You can set this number to anything you like, and you will see some outlandish prices set by people who really have no clue, or just have no space left in their inventory or at the bank, but prices are generally competitive. Since a mob will almost never drop an item equaling the level it's at, you'll want to stop at the auction house from time to time to pick up the best stuff you could get, which is either crafted or obtained by a higher-level player.

Speaking of crafting, I have to say that, although it's great that a failed attempt doesn't make you lose materials, and you can now click once to craft multiple items, there is still a definite problem with your character progressing faster than the skill. As your skill increases, it takes progressively more and more material to make a higher-level item, so it takes you longer and longer to gather all the materials when you'd probably rather be out questing. People will offer to make you the item for free, as long as you provide the materials. This way they don't have to gather their own materials and waste them skilling up to what they really want to craft, and you don't need to have the crafting skill to make the item. But if the scaling was just a little gentler (or, dare I say it, the character leveling a little slower), I'd be more inclined to take up crafting.

Also, I think it's a bit unfair to the leatherworkers and tailors that their blacksmithing friends can make weapons as well as armor. Blacksmiths can also take up Mining as their other profession and thereby get almost all their materials "in the field," whereas leatherworking requires both Skinning and materials collected with the Mining skill. This wouldn't be so bad if you could do more than two professions at a time (with your skill resetting if you unlearn it and re-learn later on). But to be a Leatherworker requires you to buy stuff. And tailoring recipes will eventually need leather and Mining materials as well.

Does this make the economy stronger? Sure, it probably does, but the fun factor is also reduced. I'm still debating which option I'd take. Alchemy and Herbalism go together, but they're both Primary professions, locking you out of trying out other stuff if you want to be able to get your own materials, which most people do. Maybe I'm making a mountain out of a molehill. But I like fun, and World of Warcraft likes me to have fun, and that fun factor gets a little inconsistent here. It feels too much like work.

PvP could also use some more fun factor, to be honest. Currently, you don't get any experience, or additional abilities, or money, or items from fighting the other faction or dueling other players, so it ends up feeling tacked on. They have plans, which include PvP arenas, but it's pretty undercooked for now. There's also no free-for-all PvP, which is good or bad, depending on your tastes--just an FYI. Personally, I prefer not getting ganked by my fellow players, which happens a lot when a group from the enemy faction comes rolling into town, looking for trouble and averaging ten levels above the players questing in that area.

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