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World of Warcraft

Friday, January 07, 2005 by Helly

World of Warcraft
Overall: 5
Graphics: 4
Interface: 4
Multiplayer: 5
Perhaps you’ll remember back in the day, we here at XPD8 released an in-depth preview of Blizzard’s World of Warcraft. Back then, the alpha had been completed, the closed beta was just beginning and many a fan was taking up the merest front edge of their seat in anticipation of release. Well that day has come (and gone…what can I say, I’ve been busy playing the game) and we now present you with our review of World of Warcraft.

Usually with MMOGs, I’d do a simple preview and then, several months down the road, do a full-on review once the game had a chance to “burn-in” and the bugs/game play issues could reveal themselves. But this time, I’ve been lucky enough to have been playing the game for so long, that I already know what game play you can expect and what bugs you’re likely to run into during the course of your experience. I feel safe enough in my experience with this game to call this a straight-up review.

Some things haven’t changed since the Alpha/Beta: the World of Warcraft still features a large world consisting of an Eastern and Western kingdom comprised of three continents (four, if you count the Night Elf homeland of Teldrassil as a separate continent and not just an island/tree thing) and two distinct groups; The Horde and The Alliance. Within each group are several races. For example, The Horde consists of Orcs, Trolls, bull-like Tauren and the forsaken Undead. The Alliance is made up of Humans, Dwarves, Night-Elves and Gnomes. Racial traits and abilities help differentiate the races from one another (Undead have limited resistance to charm and sleep spells and can cannibalize humanoid corpses for health gains, Trolls have bonuses to thrown weapons, Night Elves have bonuses to resist nature-based damage, and so on).

Character Creation

You’ll be able to view all the races and their racial benefits in the Character Creation process. Creating your character is a simple process that will feel familiar to MMOG veterans but will be easy for new players to understand. Blizzard has many, many “realms” to choose from when creating your character. Each realm is a world where your character will live and play (also called “servers”). These realms are located all over the world to provide good network connectivity to a worldwide audience of players. Realms are further divided in Normal, PVP (player versus player) and RP (role playing) systems, which will dictate the style of play within the world you choose. Blizzard is very lenient when it comes to the number of characters you can create (up to 50 on any combination of realms).

After picking your race, you can modify your gender, choose your name and play with your looks a bit as well. World of Warcraft’s options for customization are a bit limited when it comes to modifying the appearance of your character (you can’t select a size, only a few options per feature), which is a bit disappointing. However, Blizzard states that the reason for this lack of variety, specifically height/weight options, is that the animations for each race is so unique that height/weight changes would throw off the animations, making them look, in their words, “wonky”. Once you experiment with some the race-specific animations (e.g.: dancing), you’ll understand what they’re talking about.

Once you’ve got your base character created, you choose a Class, which will determine your character’s primary path in “life”. Choose a Warlock and summon demons to serve you; or be a Rogue and stealth around the world stealing and assassinating; or be a Mage and nuke the crap out of things (as mages are wont to do). As a note: some classes are unavailable to some races, so choose wisely. You’ll see what classes are available for your race during character creation. Each class has a dominant role it can play, but Blizzard has done a good job of balancing out abilities amongst each class so you should never find yourself desperate for a group and excluded because you don’t fill a necessary role. Several classes can heal (some to a better degree than others: Priests and Shamans can both heal, but Priests are more effective); some classes can be an alternate tank (Druids in Bear form), and so forth. This variety also means that each class can be a viable solo class, if that’s your thing. I’ve successfully soloed with a Warlock (using my Void Walker demon as my tank while I nuked/debuffed from a safe distance) and a Rogue (deals massive damage and can sneak all over the place) and I’ve heard many others saying the same with their chosen classes.

Talents and Professions

With release, Talents have been finalized and are available for all classes. Once you hit level 10, your character starts earning Talent points (one per level) that are spent on, you guessed it, Talents. There are usually three trees of Talents that a character can focus on, although you’re free to mix and match as much as you want. These talents generally give you bonuses to your core Class abilities. Since every character has the same basic attributes at start (based on your Class), talents allow you to customize your character more to your tastes or more to the role that you want your character to play (either solo or in a group).

Eliminated in the retail release are Skill Points. Instead of accumulating Skill Points and purchasing your trade skills, you now choose two Primary Professions. These professions are trade skills such as mining, leatherworking, blacksmithing, alchemy, herb gathering, and more. Several of the skills are complementary, such as herb gathering and alchemy (an alchemist needs herbs to make potions). Three professions are now referred to as Secondary professions and all are available for training: first aid, fishing and cooking. By limiting the Primary professions to two per character, Blizzard has helped focus the various trade skills and changed the dynamic of the economy and players in general. Those who don’t want to participate in a trade can still learn so-called “gathering” skills (such as herbalism, mining, and skinning) and sell their gathered goods to their fellow players for a nice profit. For example: my Rogue’s Primary professions are Skinning and Leatherworking. With this combination, I can make my own armor as well as pieces for my friends, guild-mates and for sale to other players. I’ve also spent some time developing my fishing and cooking skills, which allows me to supply some cool fishes required for some potions to an Alchemist buddy, who in turn keeps me supplied with healing potions. While it doesn’t cost anything to learn Professions, the recipes/plans that you must learn so that you can do something useful with your profession (eg: a Tailor’s pattern for a robe with bonuses to a character’s Intellect) do cost money (and the costs only get higher the more powerful or rare the recipe). New recipes/patterns can be found either as drops from mobs, quest items or bought from trainers.

Economy

As hinted at above, the game economy is largely player driven. Items are sold primarily in the Auction Houses, found in the major faction cities, and the Trade Channel of the chat screen. Beyond selling the items you craft or gather to other players, there are many uncommon and rare “drops” off specific creatures as well as more powerful items from “named” monsters (monsters who have their own names are generally more powerful than the rabble that surrounds them and are generally the focus of quests) that are often prized on the open market. A good deal of looted stuff is what we refer to as “vendor trash”, in that it serves no purpose for the development of trade skills or is of such a poor quality that its value is in the price it brings from selling it to a vendor. Of course, selling off your loot is extremely important to the development of your character because your skills and spells cost money to train (more on that later). Other items, such as rewards for quests or very rare drops, are “soulbound” and may only be used by the character that loots or earns the item. Such items cannot be auctioned but can still be sold to vendors, which is useful, as occasionally the character class that completes the quest cannot use some quest rewards.

Graphics/Display:

This section will detail not only the graphics of the game, but the actual game play itself. For reference, I’m running a P4 3.0GHz with 1 GB RAM and an ATI Radeon 9800 Pro 128MB video card. I’ve tweaked the settings to be pretty dang high and run at 1024x768 in game with no frame rate problems and only limited lag in cities (generally when first loading into the game in an area packed with players).

Anyone interested in playing WoW has no doubt heard the arguments for and against the style of graphics that Blizzard chose to employ. Simply put, the world is more cartoon and less realistic. I personally find this to be refreshing and am on the side of those who feel that trying to make a game ultra-realistic makes it seem less fantastical. Since this is a world of fantasy, I believe the choice of intentionally unrealistic graphics does a wonderful job of immersing the player into the world. The graphics are not over-the-top or goofy, but the artists are definitely not trying to create a lifelike Orc or Troll (as if there were such a thing as a lifelike Troll anyway) and instead have some fun with the design.

That said, the world is still a beautiful and varied place to visit. From the frozen Dun Morogh, home of the Dwarves, to the scrubland of Durotar, home of the Orcs, to the greenery of Elwynn Forest, home of the Humans, each section of the world has a unique appearance. There are some great water and snow effects in the way the light reflects and refracts off their surfaces. Water areas, such as lakes and oceans, can be explored and often times harbor bottom dwelling predators or potential treasure. Of course, characters can’t breathe underwater (although the Undead can “hold their breath” longer than any other race) so you’ll need to time your dives accordingly (or have the proper spells and/or potions close to hand). Your character has the opportunity to spend time in green forests, along rough coastlines, in barren deserts, on top of mountains, in deep tunnels and exploring numerous static and instanced dungeons.

Your choice of race will also determine your starting area in the world. This will be your first interaction with the graphics and landscape of the World of Warcraft. Humans start in a traditional forested environment (think the woods of Robin Hood fame); Dwarves and Gnomes start off in the snowy lands of Dun Morogh; Night Elves call the enchanted (and colorful) forests of Teldrassil home; Orcs and Trolls begin in the rocky wastes of Durotar; the Tauren call the grassy plains of Mulgore home; and the Undead rise from their tombs in the haunted woods of Tirisfal Glades.

Beyond that, you will explore such colorful and aptly named lands as The Plaguelands, Searing Gorge, Stranglethorn Vale, Desolace, Thousand Needles and the Shimmering Flats (to name a few). Each new area has a unique look and will make your exploration of the world an interesting experience.

While the graphics are definitely enjoyable, they are also not on the bleeding edge. This means that the hardware you have in your old system should still be able to ably play the game, even if you have to turn down some of the graphics options. For those with newer, more powerful systems you should experience no problems with the settings tweaked to the max. The minimum requirements are quite forgiving: for Windows systems (and the game does support Mac users), you’ll need an 800 MHz or higher CPU, 256 MB or more of RAM, a 32 MB 3D graphics card with hardware transform and lighting, such as GeForce 2 or better, 4 GB or more of available hard drive space, DirectX® 9.0c or above, and an internet connection.

Sound is extremely well done in the World of Warcraft. Each area has its own particular music and sound. There are great ambient effects when you’re exploring the land, each unique to the area in which you are wandering. Happily, the developers wisely decided not to include combat/post-combat music. While such treats are enjoyable the first couple of times you hear them, they rapidly get old. Instead, the player is treated to the sounds of their battle, their spells firing off (all sounding different depending on the type of magic) and their grunts of exertion. Of course, there is still the explosions and fireworks that sound when your character achieves a new level of experience; some things are best kept around.

Gameplay

As I discussed in the preview (and my other MMOG reviews), I’ve always been concerned with level grinding. I’m a solo player by nature and I tend to level slower than my guild-mates, but if I’m forced to kill the same thing over and over again in order to gain a level, I swiftly get bored. WoW addresses my concerns in a few ways.

Not a whole lot has changed in regards to general game play since I first wrote the preview, except that there are more quests and more areas of the world to explore (both big positives). Firstly, the developers have instituted a strong questing system that not only keeps me interested but also keeps me moving around and discovering new areas. Multiple NPCs will have quests for characters in any given town, and the last of these quests invariably ends up sending the character on to another location in the game. The base of the quests vary from simple “kill 8 beasties” to “collect 6 items from beasties” to “deliver item”. These are pretty standard quests, but the storylines given for each of them from the NPC helps set the tone and deliver some storylines that give a history of the world, or at least the history the NPC believes. Several quests are level-spanning journeys with layer after layer of quest unpeeling as you travel the world and complete its various sections. This helps with the immersion quotient of the game. Many quests can be completed solo (as I’m wont to do) but others, termed Elite, require the assistance of others in order to survive the experience. Oftentimes these Elite quests take place in an instanced dungeon where you and your group have the whole dungeon to yourself (as opposed to a static dungeon where anyone can waltz in a disrupt your plans).

The availability of quests depends upon the level of the character, so you may see an NPC who has a quest for you that isn’t accessible yet (NPCs with quests appear with a gold exclamation point floating above their heads – when you’re aren’t high enough level, the exclamation point is grey), but as you gain levels you’ll be able to get the quest from the NPC. Rewards for quests are generally equipment, cash and experience, but as the character grows higher in levels without completing the quest, the amount of experience rewarded drops, making it worthwhile for the player to group up to complete the quest sooner rather than later.

Of course for those who simply love to grind out there experience, there is always the prospect of simple hunting. This can be done either purely for XP or to gather materials and resources for a trade skill (such as collecting various kinds of cloth, which are drops from humanoids). Hunting styles will vary and each class has several different hunting strategies that you will perfect as you play them.

WoW implements a group experience bonus system that makes grouping with other players of similar level a worthwhile experience, experience-wise. However, this same bonus doesn’t apply when grouping with players of vastly higher/lower levels, and low-level players grouping with high-level players generally won’t get much, if any, experience. This addresses the problem of grouping to power-level characters (although power-leveling is still easily accomplished) without outright banning players of different levels from grouping.

Something that Blizzard has managed to do at launch, that many other infamous MMOGs did not, is to have plenty of content for high-level players. Blizzard understood that some players are going to have the time and motivation to level to the cap (currently at level 60) quickly. Instead of launching the game and attempting to throw new content in as players leveled, Blizzard did it right and developed high-level quests and tough dungeons that require multiple groups of high-level characters to work together (in what is called a Raid Group, which is basically multiple 5-person groups connected together) in order to take on the big creatures.

For Player Versus Player fans, there is some form of PVP in all servers. For the die-hards, Blizzard has dedicated PVP servers with the following rules: “Players in friendly territories are safe unless they decide to engage an opposing faction player in combat. Players in enemy territories will always be at risk and can be attacked by all players that belong in the territory. All players can be attacked in neutral (contested) territories.“ Once in PVP mode, a character is considered “flagged” for 5 minutes, meaning that they can be attacked by opposite faction players even in supposed “safe-areas”. On non-PVP servers, there is still the option to participate in PVP raids or battles. What generally happens is that groups of players will travel to an opposite faction’s lands and start killing off the NPCs (which is annoying for the local players, who find that they can’t sell their goods or complete quests when the NPC is dead, although they will respawn eventually). Attacking an opposite faction NPC sets the PVP flag on, and any opposite faction player can then attack the person (which will turn on their own PVP flag). It’s not uncommon to see a group of Alliance characters beating up on the town of Crossroads in the Barrens (an early to mid-level town only to have a crew of high-level Horde players show up and wipe out the invaders, and vice versa in Alliance areas like Darkshore. However, the player always has the option to ignore PVP on the non-PVP servers, so participation is purely up to the individual/guild.

For even more tasty tidbits on upcoming enhancements to the PVP system (namely, Battlegrounds), check out the information on Blizzard’s site

Interface/Controls:

The in-game controls are pretty standard, and include some useful functionality seen in previous MMORPGs. The HUD consists of a series of hotbars along the bottom the screen, a chat window on the bottom left, and character icons in the top left and a compass in the top right. The hotbars include a configurable toolbar where you can add and remove icons representing your characters abilities, skills, usable inventory items, attacks and so on. This hotbar is actually navigable via arrows on the right, opening up multiple hotbars where you can store more buttons, allowing for combat-oriented bars, trade-oriented bars, and so forth. There's a small ping indicator nestled between the previously described hotbar and the next toolbar, which contains buttons for character information, in-game help, options, abilities and so forth. Next there is a smaller, 6-slot hotbar where additional bags, the in-game storage device similar to backpacks in Asheron's Call, are placed. Finally is the main backpack every character starts the game possessing.

Blizzard supports third-party tools to extend the functionality of the user interface. Currently, the hottest tool is the Cosmos UI. This tool adds a ton of new features to your UI, including extra hotbars, macros to make tasks like fishing easier and tons of informational additions (like a damage per second calculator, in-game clock, and map notes that allow you to make notes about specific areas of the in-game map). You can also make your own or do a mix and match of only the interface additions you want.

With a limited bag system for storing loot, players will have to eventually find ways to store their extra gear or crafting materials. Enter the Banks. Each major city has a bank where players can freely deposit a good number of items. Further slots are available for purchase at each bank, allowing for greater storage capacity. Items stored in one bank are available at all banks.

All items in WOW have a “durability” rating. For example, a dagger may have a durability rating of 35. As you use the item (your sword or your armor or a wand), the durability of an item slowly drops (displayed as 30 / 35 when examining the item). Once it is at 5 or less, a small character image shows up on your HUD with the low-durability item displayed in red on the body of the image (e.g.: if your bracers are low, the wrists of the image will be red). While an item’s performance is not affected by the dropping durability, once an item’s durability reaches 0, it will no longer function. All items can be repaired at vendor NPCs in the majority of towns and cities. Of course, this costs some in-game coin, but there’s no limit to how many times an item can be repaired.

The ability to create custom macros has recently been added to the game, which will allow players to create simple scripts for repetitive tasks. Macros are assigned an icon, which can then be dragged to one of your hotbars making activation of your new macro a snap.

In-game chatting is handled via several channels and commands. The “say” command will broadcast your comments to the local area, while the “yell” command sends it much further so that more people can read your words (use judiciously, folks). Worldwide channels, such as the generic General channel, exist as well and are places where everyone can chat regardless of location. Other channels, such as Trade, exist as well, and can be joined or departed with simple commands. As found in other MMORPGs, there is functionality included for group chatting, guild chatting and private chats.

I use standard WASD/Mouse controls for movement and combat, but controls can be mapped to other keys. My background before MMORPGs was more FPS-related, so I'm comfortable with this structure, but other combinations are certainly possible (including the standard MMOG movement-by-mouse controls). Combat is handled in a pretty standard fashion: click on the target, initiate attack and go. However, it's not entirely point-and-click as you will have multiple combat options to choose from as the fight progresses, based upon available resources. For example, Mages use Mana for their spells, as indicated in a small blue bar underneath the health indicator in the character display in the top left. Similarly, Rogues use Energy to complete their moves, which is yellow. Slightly different are Warriors, who must build Rage points, gained by fighting and special abilities, in order to pull off their special moves. The multitude of available attack and defense options coupled with limited resources for using them within combat means that the player will have to develop fighting strategies in order to survive combat.

Death penalties are present in game. Currently when you die, you are resurrected at the nearest graveyard (found in many towns and cities) as a ghost. You must then make a “corpse run” to the location where you died and where your body waits for you (a pointer to your corpse is placed on your compass). Once there, you will have the option to resurrect within a certain range of your body, allowing you to avoid resurrecting right next to an enemy. As a ghost you are invisible to others (including creatures) and you move faster, but you are in a state where you can perform only limited functions (since you're dead, as it were).

If you don’t want to make the corpse run, you can always speak to the Spirit Healer, an angelic being that is present at the graveyard and visible only to ghosts. Speaking to the Spirit Healer will allow you to resurrect instantly, but your equipment will take a 25% durability hit and you will have “resurrection sickness” for 10 minutes, which negatively affects your character’s attributes. This setup is a nice compromise of penalty for dying (so as to make one avoid it) without penalizing too harshly (the anguish of losing high quality items or hard-earned XP is not present) while still providing an option for immediate resurrection. But this quick fix is expensive enough to dissuade players from simply getting killed just to get back to a town quickly (using death as a cheap portal). Some classes will also have the ability to resurrect players, so you may not have to worry about corpse runs or paying the durability costs for instant resurrection.

Multiplayer (if any):

That’s pretty much what this game is all about, unless you’re like me and mainly like soloing and annoying the squares with your Gnomish booty-shaking.

Summary:

World of Warcraft is perhaps the most complete MMOG released in recent memory. The world is well developed, the character classes are polished and there is content for all levels to enjoy. Blizzard is also working to develop more Warcraft-style PvP action, which is a bonus for all you teamwork and strategy freaks who want to take your group-leading skills out of the instance dungeons and into the battlefields. Blizzard also seems to be willing to treat their customers with a little more respect than some companies in this business (*cough*SOE*cough*) and has extended their free month of play a bit to cover some of the server tweaking and maintenances they needed to perform to keep things running properly. There is also plenty to look forward to as Blizzard works to develop new content, new dungeons and expanded rewards for PvP.

Finally, I guess my strongest positive statement about WoW is the fact that I’ve been playing it since the initial Alpha test through the closed Beta and plan to continue playing well into the retail release.

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