World of Warcraft
World of Warcraft, or WoW, to give it the truncated title favoured by Blizzard's press releases, is the first MORG' to come from the studio behind StarCraft, Diablo and of course Warcraft. MORG if you hadn't already guessed, is what Blizzard call a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, a now-familiar concept that seems brilliant in theory, yet one that most gamers refuse to embrace for one reason or another. Nevertheless, Blizzard is determined to eradicate the usual turn-offs and ensure that as many of us as possible join them in the land of Azeroth, the setting for a decade's worth of Warcraft strategy games.
Apart from anything else, the one reason Blizzard might just succeed in enticing both the reticent and the online faithful is that, as with their strategy games, their aim is not to offer the biggest, most realistic world, but one that at its core is simple and satisfying.
Stars In Their Eyes
Though the entire team are huge MORG fans, they've taken as much inspiration from single-player games as they have from the likes of EverQuest. The interface is clean and functional, yet appears to be very powerful - not something many MORG gamers will be used to. More importantly perhaps, Blizzard is aiming to ensure that each and every player, despite being among a cast of thousands, is made to feel like they're taking a leading role in the world and the way its events unfold, rather than a bit part on the sidelines. This aspect is shown off best in the early part of the game, where rather than starting in some huge city with not a clue as to how to begin, newcomers start off in a small village where everyone knows your name, with missions that require the elimination of ravenous wolves rather than fluffy bunnies. As Allen Adham, Blizzard cofounder and spiritual leader on WoW says: We want players to feel like heroes.
Quite apart from the stylish and powerful 3D engine, WoW looks sure to be an incredibly rich, varied and vibrant game. Locations are hugely diverse, with sprawling cities merging into barren arctic wastelands, and literally hundreds of dungeons, undersea caverns, wrecks and arenas to explore and expire in. Standard issue player classes (fighters, wizards etc), weapons, spells and missions are supplemented by a whole host of Warcraft-issue items and creatures, from Dwarven Hunters with their blunderbusses and pet taming skills, to Night Elf druids and Orc Shamen. Warcraft fans will need no convincing, but seeing locations like Stormwind and Black Rock Spire and hearing the plans Blizzard have in store, it's evident the Californian developer is on track to deliver a stunning online experience.
The Words grind and level' are all too familiar to veteran online roleplayers. It's the curse of the genre, but curiously, the one ingredient that appears to keep people playing. World Of Warcraft, as anyone who has not been living on Mars for the last few years will know, is Blizzard's debut entry to the genre, and is quite justifiably sitting at the top of RPG wish lists the world over. We asked Mark Kern, team leader on Wo W, how the renowned development team intends to avoid the pain of level grind.
First and foremost, at the core of World Of Warcraft is an expansive quest system with a wide variety of quests for characters of all races to undertake," claims Mark. "We're incorporating an unprecedented level of variety to how players obtain and organise quests, what they must do to complete them, and what their rewards will be. This helps to make combat in the game feel more goal-oriented, and as a result, players will often find their characters levelling up almost as a pleasant side effect of exploring the world and completing quests, as opposed to levelling up being their primary motivation for adventuring in the game."
The Wow Factor
It sounds great in theory, but will it stop power gamers falling over themselves to find the fastest way to level? Of course it won't, but Mark is adamant WoW will be the mythical Holy Grail of online roleplaying - a MMORPG that appeals to both hardcore and casual players.
"World Of Warcraft will be accessible to gamers of all skill levels, and it will have the right mix of content to offer a satisfying and rewarding experience -whether players only have 30 minutes to play at a time or are able to pull multiple all-nighters, boasts Mark. "We love this genre, and we've logged thousands of hours playing all sorts of RPGs and MMORPGs, and this extensive experience is helping us make the right decisions for WoW and avoid the pitfalls that other games have encountered.
It's fighting talk and no mistake, though with the disappointment of Star Wars Galaxies still souring every breath we take, we'll remain cautiously optimistic at this stage. Certainly however, Blizzard's impeccable track record promises a smoother release than most rushed-to-market MMOGs, and that's half the battle already won. For once, a developer can sit cosily on its perch and make lofty claims knowing it has both the tools and the know-how to make it happen.
I'll Admit that prior to entering the beta for World Of Warcraft, the game hadn't reached out its scaly hands, shaken me roughly and shouted "You must play me!" through Orcish halitosis breath. It seemed too simplistic; a mite bit cutesy around the edges and an enormously lengthy client download didn't help either. Now my level 28 Rogue (as of writing), my level 15 Paladin and all the other characters I've tried out, are a virtual all-singing, all-dancing chorus to the fact that I was wrong. Well, sort of. World Of Warcraft certainly is a less hardcore MMORPG than the current offerings, but you know something? It works. Like with so many of its games, Blizzard has taken some simple ideas and executed them beautifully.
The Great War
Currently Blizzard is providing both non-PvP and PvP beta servers for Europe. The main difference being that the war between the Alliance and the Horde is intensified in PvP so that you're free to indulge the age-old Warcraft battle, with certain limitations from territory to territory.
Already the PvP server is proving to be very popular, and certainly it's one aspect of MMORPGs that players are taking very seriously at the moment. The game's chat window constantly updates to tell you which territory is being attacked, and chats are full of 'Level 32 Troll Shaman on the Long Wash'-type alerts. However, there are still a few problems that are proving rather annoying to beta players. The first is corpse-camping where your enemy stands over your dead body and kills you when you resurrect. The second is the fact that on the appropriate territory any level of character is free to attack any other level of character. Although there's an unwritten code that it's strictly not cricket to attack newbies, many low levellers have found themselves being killed just because they happened to wander into the wrong place. Them's the breaks you might say, but since WOW is trying to attract more of a casual audience, making things a bit more comfortable for newcomers would be welcome.
Spit And Polish
Nevertheless despite the fact that it's still in beta, World Of Warcraft is remarkably stable with an unprecedented level of content. There's still a bit of bug hunting going on, but it really feels like a finished game. It's a stable and seamless world, and that's exactly the right image a MMORPG needs to attract newcomers. There are lots of little details to love, like the way Orcs dance like MC Hammer's backing troupe, the giant mechanical chickens, the in-game auction and postal service, and the view you have from the back of a gryphon as you soar over the landscapes. Blizzard has certainly taken its time making sure that World Of Warcraft is as good as it can be. It's the company's ten-year-old baby after all, and now definitely isn't the time to be pushing it recklessly into the wilderness with just a stick and some sandwiches. If the state of the beta is anything to go by, then it has more than lived up to its reputation. EverQuest II beware!
There's nothing more dangerous than peaceful woodlands. They lull you into a false sense of security. It can be so easy to just wander along without a care in the world. Then, just when you're stopping to admire the sunset, a giant Taurean warrior rises up behind you, steam billowing off its shaggy hide and nostrils flaring like the gates of hell itself.
You could try and make a break for it. You could run, maybe try to get to Alliance territory and seek help. But by the looks of that wickedly sharp axe he's toting, you wouldn't get far. Especially without a head. Besides, the weapon is already arcing its way down, preparing to cleave through muscle and sinew as if they were water. You don't stand a chance really, and before long you're looking at the sky wondering why you never saw it coming.
When you enter the spiritworld of lights and shadows, you immediately head for the site of your recent demise, your ghostly form gliding across the ethereal landscape. When you reach your prone, lifeless body, you see that the Taurean is still standing nearby. Waiting, just waiting: waiting for you to resurrect so he can begin again. Dirty... Rotten... Camper!
But he's made one error in judgement. His back is to you and you never, ever, turn your back on a rogue, even if it's dead. You resurrect close by to some bushes and immediately stealth yourself, sinking back into the foliage to gain your strength and chuck a few potions down your throat. And then you wait.
With your daggers at the ready - twin harbingers of sharp and pointy death - you sneak up behind the warrior and execute a lethal ambush manoeuvre, driving your daggers through his skin and deep, deep into the flesh beneath.
You're visible to the Taurean now, but that won't do him much good. You dance around him, daggers flashing, repeatedly hitting him with your sinister strike and gouging the bovine meat from his bones. You barely notice his axe blows as you hit him with your last and final move, Eviscerate; the roguish kiss of death. He slumps to the ground, and his nostrils flare for the last time. Cow pie all round! You stand over his corpse, gloating over your sweet victory. Perhaps you might just stick around.
And it happened just like that. Honost Along with thousands of other battles aboard the good ship World Of Warcraft as it makes the franchise transition from the relatively calm waters of strategy gaming into the big bad seas of MMORPGs.
It's certainly been a long voyage. Warcraft itself is ten years old. Can you really believe it's been ten years since we first heard Ooohhkay Den" from the mouths of pixellated orcish peons? But make no mistake - Blizzard is not taking any chances with its great white hope that's sprung forth from the bastard love child of Dune 2 addicts and overactive GMers.
As a result, what Blizzard's done with World Of Warcraft is incredibly slick, with high production values and more importantly, it's tremendously good fun. Visually it might not be quite up there with EQII, but it has a style all of its own that just screams Warcraft!.' at every turn.
If you're reading this, chances are you have a fair idea of the origins of Warcraft and the ancient battle between the Alliance and the Horde. If not, then stop right now and go and get yourself the last three games. You won't regret it. In essence, World Of Warcraft represents the very literal translation of this world into a 3D environment. Only this time, you're the peon and you won't be saying Ooohhkay Den" to anybody. Although I've played on both the Player vs Player and Player vs Environment servers. I'll be referencing the former a lot more than the latter. This is because for one, the Horde vs Alliance battle is something intrinsic to the Warcraft universe - and also because it's a feature that EverOuest II doesn't offer.
So on that note, perhaps the first minor disappointment you're going to find with WOW is you can't play both sides of the fence. You're limited to one character per server, meaning it's Alliance or Horde, but not both. Daddy orchips.
What more than makes up for this though, is that Blizzard has made sure that the eight races in the game (Human, Night Elf, Gnome, Dwarf, Undead, Taurean, Troll and Orc) and their available classes do play noticeably differently. Using the brute strength of an orc warrior and playing a rogue night elf that fights by harnessing a series of combo moves are worlds apart. Likewise, learning to play with a pet by your side as a hunter or warlock is an art in itself.
Each race also comes with its own innate traits. Gnomes have an intellect bonus, while night elves turn into wisps when they die, allowing them to move 50 per cent faster. So even if you're going to have to make that daddy or chips' decision, there's definitely a lot to love whichever side you opt for.
So your first experiences of WOW are about firm choices. But once you've selected your race and profession, Blizzard has limited the number of times you have to make decisions that you can't go back on. Yes, there is a certain amount of choice when it comes to the skills you can buy from the relevant class trainers, but given enough coin you can buy everything if you want to. Even your talents, the skill-tree-based class abilities, can be rearranged if you're not happy with them.
There's no statistic-juggling in WOW either, so when you level up, all those annoying now do I put two in strength and one in agility or... ' thoughts are taken care of for you. And you know what? You really don't miss it.
For this reason, WOW is likely to attract a large number of new MMORPG players, something Blizzard has always been keen to do. Consequently, there's much less time spent worrying about doing things right and more time spent enjoying yourself. This is aided further with an easy-to-use interface and fight system. And because the game is so accessible, it can really make hardcorers out of anyone.
Then, before you know it you're sporting a guild tabard and making jokes about the sex lives of gnomes. Sliding neatly in beside your main class abilities are hands-on professions, including things like blacksmithing, mining, enchanting and leatherwork. You can only adopt two at a time, but like many things in WOW, it's possible to change them. These work brilliantly on a number of levels. First, because the majority of professions are useful straight away, they can greatly aid the development of your character. They're also important in creating strong guilds or aiding your party. Lastly, they're essential for bringing in the money, and believe me that's something you need a lot of. So suddenly, your character is more than the sum of their hit-points and the game isn't just about the relentless pursuit of the kill. It's not what you've got it's what you do with it that counts.
War Is Glorious
Personally, I feel that Blizzard's use of PvP is going to be the defining factor if you're making a choice between WOW and EQII. It's so cleverly designed that the Horde vs Alliance war isn't all-consuming or detrimental to the gameplay if you're after an easy life. In fact, there are even some towns in WOW where Horde and Alliance co-exist in an uneasy peace. Still, there's really no feeling like gathering up a posse to raid an enemy territory, then legging it back to town because you've got to defend your homelands, or even a one-to-one face-off.
PvP also makes for an interesting microcosm of human behaviour, a window on your virtual soul. You get to see what you're really like. Will you, as a member of the Alliance, kill a Horde as soon as look at them? Or will you pass on by or help them out? Are you going to walk round the corner and be faced by an enemy who'll stab you in the back while you're fighting, or one who'll attempt an emoticon flirtation session boarding on Victorian levels of coquettishness? You never know just quite what to expect.
Blizzard has done what every MMORPG should be trying to do - it's ticked all the right boxes and really tried to forge the link between the heart and the head in a hugely immersive virtual space. This is what creates the stories in your imagination. These aren't just battles, they're adventures. Now that's what role-playing should be all about. The battle lines are firmly drawn with EverQuest II - now it's up to you to fight the war.
Download World of Warcraft
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features:Single game mode