World of Warcraft

Review

posted 12/30/2004 by Randy Kalista
other articles by Randy Kalista


But first, a disclaimer: Some will be unimpressed with the visual elements in World of Warcraft. Some prefer a greater graphical degree of realism to coat their world of fantasy. Some prefer their fiction to be caught up a little more snuggly within preconceived constructs. I am thankfully no longer one of these individuals.

The opening motion video does not depict legions of marauding armies. Nope, no burning cities either. No signing of peace treaties or war contracts. Instead, there is the individual. The singular, player-controlled entity placed within the elements, casting about their conundrums or fascinations, alert to an underpinning level of mounting unrest. Then: snap. One-on-one clashes erupt between Alliance and Horde members, tearing away at your computer screen, giving you a bone-crushing handshake with the world that is Warcraft. Seen small, it’s a subtle and brilliant illustration of that world’s shift from an RTS to an MMO. Seen big, it’s a testament to the TLC that went into every inch of this game.

If this isn’t your first foray into a Warcraft title then you will be treated to some familiar elements, despite the paradigm shift. The storyline picks up where Warcraft III: Frozen Throne left off (albeit indulging in some plot changes since), geographical names remain, and obvious ties like the races and monstrosities populating the planet are immediately recognizable.

The Alliance gives you brawny dwarves, ingenious gnomes, resourceful humans, and ascetic night elves to choose from. The Horde offers war-mongering orcs, spiritual (minotaur-inspired) tauren, tribal trolls, and the unknowable undead. Each race’s history is embedded deep within the war-torn mythos of Azeroth, yet roleplaying prospects are open-ended enough for all personality types. Although tempting, generically labeling the Alliance as Good Guys and the Horde as Bad Guys would be a misnomer. Each race has definable struggles, greater and lesser ambitions, as well as ignoble and righteous undertakings, all panning out through countless quests.

Your quest begins like most quests begin: with a character. Of course, one character is often too limiting, so you may create up to ten characters (!) per server (!) on every one of the now 80+ “realms” available. Far be it from Blizzard to stop you from maintaining over 800 characters.

Initial character class selection is basic and final, although specialization breeds itself through skill choices you make as you ascend the leveling ladder. Not all races have access to all class types; as examples, paladins are unique to the Alliance, but only the Horde raises the shaman. Likewise, within each faction are limitations: only dwarves and humans may become said paladins, whereas only the undead do not possess a shamanistic class within the Horde. In addition to these examples, opening options span the warrior, rogue, priest, mage, and warlock professions. With easy access to all of these at first level, there is no reason not to try them all out firsthand. This is an excellent opportunity to find your particular niche early on, as opposed to systems that require developing a tenth or twentieth-level character before specializing in a class you may not like anyway. It is difficult to create a “broken” or unplayable character due to inexperienced developmental choices.


As a nice change of pace, all noobs aren’t forced to start off in the same playpen. Most races have a starting point unique from the others—the exception being that gnomes and dwarves both begin in the mountainous recesses of Dun Morogh, while orcs and trolls start off in the badlands of Durotar together. Humans commence their careers in Elwynn Forest, night elves atop the world tree of Teldrassil, tauren in the plains and mesas of Mulgore, and the undead emerge from tombs in Tirisfal Glades.

Each location provides stark visual contrast to all the others, instantly immersing you neck-deep into your homeland. This racial segregation prevents you from getting comfortable with seeing your enemy wandering around early stages with you. Sure, it fosters a xenophobic atmosphere, but we’re not here to be sympathetic towards our enemies, are we? It’s a world at war, after all. Political soapboxing aside, this method of introduction develops camaraderie with “your own kind,” slowly developing a rapport with other races in your faction as you’re gradually introduced to them. Since open communication often fosters peaceful solutions, the Horde and the Alliance have a fixed language barrier: opposite sides cannot understand one another even if they tried. Yet another stroke of brilliance from the Blizzard team.

By spanning across the entire geographical gamut, you will easily find a landscape that suits you, a place to call home. If that’s amidst the lavender and rose-colored forests of the night elves, or the throat-parching barrens of the orcs, every landscape, structure, and creature is painted with a brush that is uniquely Warcraft. You can argue that it’s graphically far-fetched, even “cartoony”, but you can’t argue with the total sensory immersion it provides. Even in a place that sounds as graphically starved as “The Barrens” you will find numerous landmarks and fascinating bends of Blizzard’s imaginative canvas. Enough can’t be said for the artistic conception behind WoW. Such blatant and unrestrained usage of the color pallet, coupled with such a convincing push away from stale fantasy norms, will surely convert the masses. Believe that!

But this is not a case of style without substance. No, admittedly there is nothing truly groundbreaking; but a series of small innovations in gameplay mechanics—all of them positive—create a momentous shove in the right direction. Less downtime, confident stat and ability progression, energetic storytelling, blessed RPG depth…it all adds up to a stronger, more memorable, more rewarding gaming experience.

The basic mission structure found within most MMOs is cut-and-pasted here, but it is hidden beneath the excellent storytelling acumen of Blizzard’s writers. Gather this many ingredients, kill that many enemies, deliver this message, return with another. Most online games fall prey to the worst of this obvious and formulaic repetitiveness, whereas WoW somehow gets you to care more about the plot than the prize. The missions flesh out culture and character, not just objectives and accomplishments. Beneath the entire warfare meta-narrative is a world rife with internal struggles, denials, revelations, and lies. With so much lore to unearth within arm’s reach you’ll often forget there is a factional enemy beyond the scope of your own adventurous world.

There are virtually no load screens to serve as borders; just the slowly emerging, evolving landscape, stream-loading to your compass needle’s content. Even transportation by griffin or ship is rendered in real-time, cutting out the teleportation-like effect that plagues public transit in other games. I used to get a lot of reading done during load screens, but that opportunity just doesn’t manifest itself in WoW. Another very welcome innovation to the gameplay schematic.

Three types of servers exist: PvP, normal, and roleplaying. Again, you have more than enough room on your account to try them all. While roleplaying servers cater to a distinct audience, it adheres to the same core rulebook as the normal servers. They are both PvE (player vs. environment, meaning that they are against the creatures and humanoids placed by the game), both have a consensual dueling system, and a combative free-for-all on the arena floor in Stranglethorn Vale exists on each server type.

PvP servers operate on fair rules of engagement, with all areas broken down into one of three categories: Horde Controlled, Alliance Controlled, and Contested. Your home territories are a green safe zone; the enemy cannot attack you unless you have specifically tagged yourself for PvP combat, or you attack them first. These rules apply vice versa should you enter red enemy territory; you can only initiate combat against NPCs, those players tagged for PvP, and players that attack you first. Yellow contested areas automatically tag you for PvP combat when you enter them.

With these rules intact, you may run around your homeland in safety until you build up to a level ready for warfare. There are also certain tweaks done to player abilities to place them on par between the classes. To further ensure fairness, an honor system is in place to reward players engaging in combat with characters (player or non-player) of a higher level. Punishment hits up players who attack characters that are much lower in level. Garner enough positive points and you will have access to rewards, merchant discounts, special tabards, and other items. Titles and guildhalls are in store for groups that can pull of several team-oriented missions on a PvP server.


Which is to say, guildhalls proper are notably absent from the normal and RP servers. All may create a functional guild, but being granted a physical structure to huddle in is reserved for the PvP realms. Player housing has also been left out of WoW, so those MMO fans wanting to flex their interior decoration skills will be left out in the cold. Martha Stewart fans should be pissed.

But, to make up for it, insider-trading scandals abound in the auction house. Just kidding. There’s no purchase or sale of stock for the Azeroth Trading Co. But you can certainly enjoy the simple beauty of a player-run economy through the auction houses that reside in select cities. Minus the auction houses, a postal system is in place to send messages to other players, gather responses of issues sent to the game masters, or to conduct a little trading (you can even send things COD.) With that last possibility, trading items with other players doesn’t have to take place face-to-face.

As regular MMO artisans know, crafting is a road paved with many, many gold pieces. You may select up to two manufacturing professions, most having at least one applicable partner profession. As examples, mining and blacksmithing logically hold hands, as do skinning and leatherworking. The crafting scheme itself is basic by most standards but often creates items that are immediately useful. No more long sessions smithing ‘crude spikes’ and ‘tin bars’ that serve no immediate benefit to the crafter. (Everquest II players know exactly what I’m talking about.)

Aside from these manufacturing professions, all three of the secondary skills are available from trainers: cooking, first aid, and the oddly unavoidable fishing skill. Again, even at their lowest levels, these skills provide you with immediately useful items for selling, trading, sharing, or using for your own greedy consumption. Hardcore MMO artisans with a love for complex crafting models and procedures may feel shortchanged here. But those of us that have been intimidated by mind boggling crafting formulas can breathe a huge sigh of relief.

Another relief comes from dying. Sort of. At least the penalties aren’t as harrowing as in most titles. When you die your spirit materializes at the nearest graveyard (there are many scattered throughout every area) and you run your ghost back to your dead body for re-absorption. Dying gets your attention without putting your experience bar in debt or even leveling you down. Other options exist that have some additional penalties attached, but they are by no means devastating. It finally seems as though a fair balance has been struck without completely trivializing death as an inconsequential matter.

Stepping in boldly as a matter of consequence, however, is one of the best musical scores to ever lace a roleplaying videogame. Whenever needed, the soundtrack steps in as a major storyteller, covering every theme from the understated and contemplative, to the aggressive, chopping block drums-of-war. This, along with so many other things that are done right, are executed with masterful precision. The sound effects themselves range from playful to powerful, and the voice acting (though only given in short, emotive spurts) is everything you could hope for.

There is little not to like about WoW. If this game is your gateway drug into Warcraft or into online games in general, then you’re in for a treat. If the art style turns you off, consequentially you are missing out on a finely-crafted game MMO that at least makes you feel as though your accomplishments and failures bear plot-driven consequences—a difficult reaction to evoke due to the gameplay structure of the genre. But what if you already approve of the standards, the rules, the snail-paced composition of the Everquests and the Final Fantasy Onlines? Then, sadly, World of Warcraft might not do it for you. Though it gains heartfelt converts daily, WoW is especially bred for those of us that have thrown our hands up in the air, exasperated and exhausted from the time-killing and life-leeching requisites driving most other MMOs. And best of all, in this time of graphical resource-hogging, you don’t need a machine built by God to enjoy it.





A
The acronym says it all: WoW! At its gorgeously-animated heart is a thoroughbred MMO, but one that has tweaked all of the standard settings and gameplay nuances to effectively set it apart from its contemporaries.