|Is WoW as good as they? Or is the good old hype machine at work again?|
World of Warcraft has been out in Europe for two months now, but I held off reviewing it immediately for a reason. I wanted to make sure this wasn't a repeat of the EverQuest II phenomenon; one week of gameplay brilliance
, followed by a sudden deterioration into boredom
. MMORPGs take a while to fully explore after all, so I wanted to take my time with this one.
To be honest with you, WoW and EQII are startlingly similar in theory. Both feature extensive questing and centre heavily around Tolkien-esque stereotypes. The prime difference is however, WoW is pulled off with much more panache, and thankfully keeps hold of your attention so much more in the long run.
|Quests are logged in your journal, which holds up to 20 simultaneously|
It all boils down to those quests. Even though the game has the framework of traditional MMORPG concepts - levelling up and learning skills - it plays differently to all others thanks to this emphasis on questing. Ultimately, performing missions is really the only way to level up in WoW - just killing random monsters repeatedly as so many are used to in these games, simply won't do it.
For this reason, you never find yourself going on monotonous "hunts" as per the norm, now groups go off on real fucking adventures
. Forget killing 500 rats to reach that next level, WoW marks the point where online games have finally progressed to using interesting, involving storylines. That my friends, is what makes it shine.
Not only are the quests great fun, but Blizzard have clearly planned their layout extraordinarily well too. In your early days, each new mission shows you that little bit more of the gameworld than the last. As a result, you continually unlock more and more of the content slowly but surely.
|Quests take you from the highest mountains down to deep, sunken ships|
Even though your hand is being held for the first 10 to 15 levels - showing you where you can go and what to do when you get there - you still feel like you're uncovering something new at every turn, and it's a wonderful intro to a magical universe.
As you progress though, things become much more open-ended, quests start to form expanding mini-storylines, and that's where WoW truly kicks in.
It's a shame these NPCs don't utilise full voice acting like in EverQuest II, because unlike that game, where quests were of a much more mundane and traditional variety, the ones in WoW are much more interactive, cinematic and worthy of full emotion. There's the usual emphasis on killing, sure, but then there's also exploring, conversing, tracking, escorting, crafting and a huge amount of incredible instanced dungeons too. Some missions even have a heavy emphasis on scripting, somewhat reminiscent of a single player game.
And that's really WoW in a nutshell; an epic single player sensibility, wrapped up in a 24 hour persistent multiplayer universe.
The MMO Comes of Age
I remember back in my first week of playing I came across an evil looking demonic character who asked me to kill some creatures for him. Now this is very formulaic MMORPG stuff, but never the less I agreed. A few hours later though, I happened to come across another NPC miles away who'd heard of this slaughter, chastised me for killing god's beautiful wildlife, then sent me off on an errand to earn forgiveness. That's not only an interesting twist, but a wonderful metaphor that sums up WoW's content perfectly; shame on you for killing all those rats.
|Instanced dungeons provide a more epic, challenging group experience|
The game just plays so much better than other MMORPGs thanks to this underlying switch to story-based role-playing, and kinda exposes its peers as having absolutely nothing to do in comparison. Whenever I pop onto other MMORPGs now, I realise how empty their worlds feel in comparison. These games have traditionally provided us with all the skills, races and territory that make up a virtual world, but critically forgot to give us anything to actually do
within them. With WoW though, there's always something to accomplish, no matter where you are, or what your level is. You may be collecting parts to build a magical weapon, or quelling a prison riot, but whatever the job is at hand, it's just such sodding great fun to experience a world so ripe with content.
Some quests are better than others, sure, but even the most mundane of WoW's are worth doing 'cos of the fantastic payouts. Money, XP and items - the game realises how much we want and need this stuff, and doesn't make us jump through endless hoops to get 'em. It's simple; do a job, get a wonderful reward - one that's perfectly tailored to the amount of time and effort you put in to get it.
|Combat is surprisingly balanced for such a recently released MMORPG|
Despite these breakthroughs in content, WoW's actually incredibly simple compared to its peers. There's no down time, no complex resource gathering, and perhaps best of all, crafting items now takes but one single click. All that excess fat from most MMORPGs is simply cut away here, leaving nothing but the very best and most fun elements of the genre. To summarise; it's the MMORPG for people who absolutely hate
There's a ton of other reasons that I could give as to why this game works so well. The combat is the first stat-based RPG system that I've been truly impressed with for instance. While fighting style alters depending on your choice of class, it still remains a lively, gripping and best of all tactical system at all times.
As a hunter, constantly juggling my long-range weapon skills with the abilities of my pet sidekicks, setting my traps and my last ditch feeble hand to hand fighting abilities results in the most epic battles that are forever going either way. As far as I'm concerned, it's a first for the genre.
|On death you respawn in spirit form, with the world taking on a fab negative tint|
The death system is also handled incredibly well. Death is a natural part of life, but much more importantly, it's a natural part of MMOs too. Rather than punish players for this though, WoW's death system is actually one of my favourite parts.
On death you reappear at the nearest graveyard as a ghost you see, in what is easily one of the most spectacular sights of the entire game. From here you can run back to your corpse and resurrect instantly with no punishment. If however, your corpse is in a particularly hard to reach spot, you can simply come straight back to life at the graveyard, and suffer some resurrection sickness and minor item damage in exchange. None of this is brutally annoying, and gets you straight back to gaming with no wasted time.
Rumour has it, there are even additional hidden quests you can take when in ghost form.
The Game World
|World of Warcraft is one of the most picturesque games I've ever seen|
It's not only the gameplay systems which shine so brightly, the world itself is also a huge
part of WoW's brilliance.
The entire universe just looks and feels so lovingly handcrafted. There's no sense of randomly generated terrain, or empty expanses of nothingness. Instead it honestly feels like the developers have meticulously gone through every single square foot and crafted the most perfectly natural, realistic environment ever seen in a game. There's always paths and roads connecting cities, houses and villages to explore, lakes and waterfalls to swim in, and huge amounts of foliage and trees right where they should be. With every new region I uncover, it never ceases to blow me away.
The graphics are amazing, if not for everyone. Models are incredibly simple and somewhat low-polygonal, but it frees up the game to run some of the most massive, epic scenes yet seen in an MMORPG. For the most part there's rarely a flicker of lag to be noticed, and when accompanied by the most luscious particle and glow effects, the game looks simply stunning. As I've said in the past, technically it may fall behind the likes of Sony's MMORPGs, but on an artistic level it absolutely creams them all. It's like a virtual, moving painting.
|As an Elf, Teldrassil is the place I call home. There's nowhere prettier|
In a move ripped straight out of Lord of the Rings, each race has it's own areas and societies; the Elven island differing hugely to the human districts for example. In fact, those eagerly awaiting Middle-Earth Online need wait no more - this is practically Tolkien's universe come to life in all but name, whether it be the cold grey walls of Ironforge (Moria) or the lava filled landscapes of the Burning Steppes (Mordor).
This entire playing area is so incredibly huge that it takes you a good few weeks of exploring before it truly dawns on you just how damn epic it all is. At the same time it's so gloriously beautiful that marathon travelling sessions between differing regions never feel like a chore to me. Heck, I kinda cherish the long walks through such beautiful locations, and when in a rush there's also spectacular Gryphon flights, boat rides and flying Zeppelins to fall back on (WoW's medieval public transport).
Likewise with the sound. The score is inspiring, and forever matches your actions perfectly. It's choral and eerie when in graveyards, light and ambient when out exploring the wild, then loud and orchestral on entering big cities. Pulling off an impressive soundtrack that doesn't grate is especially tricky in an MMO, one that people often play for hours at once, yet Blizzard truly do it with aplomb here. I just wish, as stated, that voices were more prominent.
The Perfect Game? Well, No...
|Get used to playing alone, that's all you'll be doing for the first 20 levels|
I could honestly gush about this game 'til well into the night, but I'll stop for now. In fact, I'll play devil's advocate for a while instead, as WoW, like its brothers and sisters, has its own share of flaws that are worth noting.
Primarily, it suffers hugely from social restrictions. If you aren't of similar level to your buddies, there's absolutely nothing you can do with them in fact. As a result, I rarely, if ever, see friends of mine who are more than five levels beyond me, and that's a huge downer for a multiplayer game.
While I don't mind flying solo, or even playing with strangers, some of the best fun I've had in MMOs in the past has been grouping up with my mates and seeing what crazy trouble
we can get ourselves into today. In WoW, that factor is conspicuously missing - a shame when the world is so ripe with potential for it. This is the only negative side to the quest system really, as quests above or below your skill level are either way too easy or simply impossible to complete.
|A late-night hooker hunt through the seedier alleys of Stormwind city|
Still, WoW could have made up for this in other areas, giving us at least some
reason to mingle and socialise with our friends outside of questing, but oddly there is none. There are bars to hang out in, but they serve no actual use in game, and while there are trade skills, such as armoursmithing and the like, all item sales are handled through the intermediary auction house that removes any need for face to face bartering. It's these sorts of reasons that result in you rarely interacting with other players unless specifically grouped up for quests.
Perhaps it's coming off my last online game, SWG, that makes this aspect feel particularly weak. While there's no doubt in my mind that WoW is the superior RPG, Galaxies did have a good third of the game dedicated solely
to socialising and player interactions. WoW on the other hand, can feel a lot like a single player game in comparison, where other players become little more than background scenery while you interact solely with NPCs for hours at a time, especially in those early levels.
Grouping becomes a lot more prominent as you reach higher levels, it just would have been nice to interact in other ways is all. One thing that drastically helps in regards to this area mind you, and a feature that WoW will forever have over the likes of EQII, is player vs. player combat. So while you won't be dancing and chatting much with your fellow players, you'll still be beating the snot out of them.
|Inter-player combat has a habit of breaking out in all but a moment's notice|
As far as PvP goes, the game pulls the actual battles off pretty damn nicely. They're surprisingly tactical and last just the right amount of time. For me, there really is no other way to play this game than on PvP servers, however more toned down PvE servers are also available for the, ahem, pussies.
Higher level questing areas often overlap between the two opposing factions of the game, so PvP is often something that you stumble across randomly and suddenly. You may be out delivering a package across barren wastelands when you'll accidentally bump into an opposing player, and just like that a delivery job has turned into a duel to the death. It adds a great spontaneity to the gameplay that I love, and keeps you on your toes at all times, as you venture into the darker territories of the world.
On the downside, while these encounters are for the most part a jolly good riot, they lack any true purpose. You gain nothing from taking out opposing players besides a rush of adrenaline and the odd boner, so any victory is very short lived. Corpse camping is also a small, but annoying problem, further compounded by what feels like a startlingly large number of WoW players who are, with the exception of my buddies, major twats.
|Horde players have a darker, more grotesque look. Gimp masks are optional|
My last gripe with the game, and actually something newcomers won't realise yet, is the fact that the current end game is somewhat lacking. With a maxed character at level 60, you ultimately have nothing but PvP and high level raid loot to keep you busy, and neither will last forever. The bottom line is that once you hit the level 60 cap, you've essentially finished the game, and in fact power gamers could easily pull that off in all but a few months.
It's not as bad as it sounds. The way the two factions of the game are setup, with their own territories and missions, means each one provides a completely different gameplay experience to the other. Hence, by playing as a second character on the opposing faction, you essentially get an extra 60 levels of questing to keep you busy. On top of that, Blizzard have extensive PvP enhancements lined up in the form of Battlegrounds (due in early summer) which will provide more incentive and true rewards for player vs. player combat, and thus more satisfying high end content.
For this reason, our much delayed European release of the game has been a minor blessing in disguise. While many of our American cousins are starting to quit the game already due to said lack of an end game, many of us should only just be capping our characters when these updates finally roll around.
Time For Me to Log Back in
|The sun sets on another day. Try as I might to resist, I'll be straight back on tomorrow|
It's no coincidence that web site updates have slowed down hugely around here since WoW was launched. The game is so addictive and fun that it's not only damaging to your social life, but life itself. It's the first MMORPG that I genuinely think gets it right, and as a long time addict of these games I don't say that lightly.
While there's been many successful MMORPGs in the past, this is the one we'll all look back on years from now as the first truly great game of the genre. Much like we think of Doom as the seminal FPS, or Street Fighter as the great grand daddy of beat 'em ups, WoW is the MMORPG that we've all been waiting for.
It's so good in fact, that I've joined a guild with a group of mates. Come say hi