World of Warcraft

World of Warcraft

We understand if you’re skeptical. We were skeptical too. Because let’s face it: What was supposed to be PC gaming’s next great frontier—online massively multiplayer games—is becoming a bit of a bust. With one high-profile, hugely hyped massively multiplayer game after another coming out and then failing to deliver, we figure you’re as sick of reading about them as we are of writing about them.

That is why, in agreeing to do a cover story on Blizzard Entertainment’s upcoming massive multiplayer game World of WarCraft, we established one primary condition: We had to be able to play the game for hours, as freely as we wanted and with any characters we wanted to create. We also needed all the remaining details—like unannounced classes and races—Blizzard has been keeping secret. No promises or hype or smoke and mirrors.

So in early July, with the game on the verge of going into beta two years after Blizzard first announced it, we took a flying machine down to Blizzard’s office in Irvine, California, for two marathon World of WarCraft playing sessions.

Two days later, they had to tear us away from the machines.

The air is heavy at the Blizzard offices when we arrive—and not just from the smell of unwashed black gaming T-shirts. The tension is high. The stress is palpable. The team—now at more than 50 people—is obviously in full-on work mode. Most only emerge from their offices and cubes twice in our two days there: once when a giant tray of ribs arrives, and again when a stack of pizzas are delivered.

They have good reason to be tense. In translating their best-selling strategy series to an online massively multiplayer role playing game, in which gamers pay a monthly fee to live in an online world, Blizzard is venturing into a genre now increasingly littered with failures and disappointments. Copies of Star Wars Galaxies sit on practically every desk, and while no one at Blizzard would be so undiplomatic as to criticize the competition in the presence of a game journalist, no one was openly singing its praises either. (And neither are we. See our review on page 110.) As a growing number of developers are now finding out, creating an entire world is not an easy job—nor is it a guarantee of success.

Still, this is Blizzard we’re talking about. You don’t create the WarCraft, Diablo, and StarCraft franchises by being stupid, or even just lucky. The true genius of those franchises is that they are hardcore games made utterly accessible to newbies—which is exactly the sort of thing the MMORPG genre is lacking. And, sure enough, from the second they sit us down at our PCs and let us boot up the game, it’s clear even in a pre-beta stage that we’re once again going to be in good hands.

So, enough of our yakking. Let’s look at the game already!

For the Alliance

As in all MMORPGs, your first job in World of WarCraft is to create your character, your persona who will live and fight and grow in Azeroth, Blizzard’s war-torn fantasy universe. In keeping with Blizzard’s long-standing design philosophy, character creation is butt simple: Pick a race and class (see the sidebars “Race War” and “Class War” for a breakdown of the new stuff), pick a name, customize your look, and you’re in. No fiddling with numbers or deciding on religious factions or any number of other chores with which other MMORPGs bog down the game’s beginning and alienate or overwhelm newbies. In less than five minutes of sitting down with the game for the first time, and with no tutorial, manual, or cheat sheet of keyboard commands, we created our first characters—a Night Elf rogue and Dwarf paladin (both new classes)—and were off and running in Azeroth.

To keep things simple, Blizzard gives us just one cheat: We start from the same location, the Dwarf starting zone of Anvil Marr. In actuality, all races will have their own starting zone, so the Dwarf and Night Elf would have had to trek a-ways to find each other. (The game’s built-in buddy and e-mail functions, however, allow you to invite players instantly into your group, no matter where they are.) To keep things consistent with the strategy games, by the way, Alliance races can only group with other Alliance players, and the same goes for the Horde. Early reports that an Orc player may be able to group with a Human, for example, have proven false.

Once inside Azeroth for the first time, we take a few minutes just to look around. And immediately feel like a couple of backwoods Okies getting our first glimpse of a big city. In short, the game world is beautiful. Blizzard has truly realized its goals with the game’s graphics: It really feels like you’re inside the WarCraft strategy games. The landscape and architecture boast Blizzard’s distinctive painterly, slightly surreal perspective—not quite realistic, but not overly cartoony either. Character animations are also brilliantly realized, with each player race exhibiting distinctive gaits and expressions. Over the next two days, we try out a number of different characters, and each feels completely different: the lurching, zombified Undead; the lithe, graceful Night Elves; the lumbering, bull-like Tauren. We don’t want to attach too much importance to eye candy here, but the game’s look is indeed a major achievement—it looks unlike any other game you’ve ever played.

Ready to work

We’re not in Azeroth to admire the scenery, however. We want to do stuff. Kill stuff. Become überbadasses in this fantasy world. And right away, Blizzard delivers where most MMORPGs have so far failed. There is no random wandering around looking for someone to talk to. No consulting a website for a clue as to where a decent newbie quest might be found. No three-hour “farming” of bats and rats to kill until we’re sufficiently leveled up to start playing the real game.

Instead, World of WarCraft opens almost as if it’s a single-player RPG—giving you very specific goals, cool rewards, and an easy, gradual introduction to the world around you. In fact, if you want a succinct description of our World of WarCraft experience, think not of other MMORPGS, but instead of, well, two other Blizzard games: Diablo II and the recent RPG-like Orc campaign in The Frozen Throne, in which Thrall and other NPCs send you out on a series of increasingly more difficult missions, while giving you pieces of a larger story at work.

World of WarCraft takes its quest interface almost straight from WarCraft III. NPCs with quests to offer appear in the world with large yellow exclamation points above their heads, just like in the strategy game. As soon as you warp into Azeroth for the very first time, you’ll see such an NPC right in front of you.

To receive a quest, you simply right-click on the NPC to initiate a dialogue, and you get a description of the quest, exactly what you need to solve it, and what your reward will be when you do. Most quests offer a choice of rewards, say, between two or three pieces of armor, or maybe a choice of weapons. By mousing over the reward options, you can see the exact stats of what you’ll be fighting for before you accept the quest, and decide whether it’s even worth it to you.

The early World of WarCraft quests are easy and abundant (Blizzard says it’s written hundreds so far). Before you know it, you have three or four quests in your log and the unique MMORPG experience of having to pick what to do first rather than spending five hours looking for something to do.

Game philosophy 101

The focus on quests does a number of things all at once. First, it allows Blizzard to keep telling its stories of Azeroth in a nonlinear fashion. As WarCraft veterans know, Azeroth is more than just a generic fantasyland with bats in it. It’s a richly detailed, complex fantasy world with a dramatic ongoing story line. While part of the point of a MMORPG is to let players craft their own tales, Blizzard has its own agenda and will keep the story line going over time.

Second, it gives Blizzard an organic way to “breadcrumb” players, as the company puts it, to new areas of the game world. Newbie quests keep you right by your starting zone and are easy kill or delivery missions. But as you begin to level up, the quests get more complex (see the “Abomination Quest” sidebar for a great example) and have you venturing out into the world at large. Before you know it—somewhere around the time you hit level 5—you’ll have abandoned your starting zone completely, without even realizing it’s happened.

This leads to the third and most important goal of the quest structure: It takes the focus away, and gets your eyes off, the dreaded XP bar. Make no mistake: World of WarCraft, like any other MMORPG, is largely about leveling up. Hitting that next level is still the big event—you’ll get new abilities, spells, points to spend, and so on. Blizzard has not reinvented the wheel here. But what the company has tried to do—and, from our early impression, succeeded in doing—is to make that wheel a lot more entertaining. By keeping your quest book filled with smaller goals with the carrot-and-stick promise of tangible, cool loot dangling in front of you, Blizzard keeps your minute-to-minute gameplay experience fresh and rewarding—rather than making you long impatiently for that one fleeting moment of glory every two or 10 or 40 hours.

Before we started playing, Blizzard told us that one of its goals was to achieve what it did in Diablo II—make World of WarCraft so fun that “level ups” come as a surprise. We’ll be darned if that didn’t happen a number of times throughout our two days of playing.

Further distractions

When you do level up, you get those glorious new skills, points, and stats. Blizzard decided early on that each class’ core skill points would go up automatically. Thus, a warrior will automatically get a set increase in Strength, for example, upon hitting a specific level, rather than the player misappropriating points in a useless category.

To allow for customization, however, without which this game wouldn’t be much of an RPG, Blizzard includes two other sets of skills you can tweak as you please: talents and secondary skills.

Talent points allow you to add a small bit of extra points pertinent to your character’s specific class—adding more mana regeneration to mages or priests, for example, or specialization in a particular weapon type for hunters or warriors.

Secondary skills are the more crucial, and will likely be where many players focus much (and in some cases, probably all) of their game time. Depending on your race and class, you’ll be able to specialize in a number of diverse skills, such as first aid, alchemy, cooking, languages, herbalism, mounts, and lockpicking. The point, again, is to avoid the level grind and make the world more interactive. As with the quests, the rewards for specialization in secondary skills come early and often. Once Jeff’s Tauren druid took a side speciality in herbalism, for example, it was hard for him to stay focused on the larger quests at hand, because he was too excited about hunting for flowers that would yield him the key to specific magic recipes. An Orc player specializing in mounts will, at higher levels, be able to ride creatures normally available only to Alliance players. And a lockpick expert will be able to open treasure chests—often with unique, valuable loot—scattered throughout the world. Other players will have zero access to those treasures.

Playing with others

And what about those other players? World of WarCraft, more than any other MMORPG we’ve tried, plays much more like a single-player RPG—something Blizzard designed very much on purpose. Blizzard actually designed the game so that the “outside world” is indeed conquerable by solo players. No outdoor territories are too dangerous for those who want to play alone. Furthermore, while there are plenty of tough monsters in the outside areas, none will yield any of the kind of unique “phat lewt” for which other players will want to camp or steal or grief other players.

For the cooler rewards, the best loot, the most XP, and the toughest monsters, you have to group with others and venture underground or into the caverns of WOW’s 100-plus “micro dungeons” or 20-plus giant dungeons—the biggest of which might take a guild full of players an entire real-world week to clear out.

We found a few of the smaller dungeons to be pretty brutal, inhabited by what the designers call “plus mobs.” While the monsters in outdoor zones are all level appropriate for solo players, “plus mobs” monsters may each be 7 to 10 levels above you—or, in other words, instant death if you aren’t grouped with other players. As such, the gameplay in the dungeons is much slower, more strategic, and more cooperative than that outdoors—but the rewards are much greater.

The best part about all these dungeons, large and small, is that they are yours and yours alone, created for your specific use when triggered by a quest. Anyone in your party can join in the “instance” (as Blizzard calls it) of your dungeon, and you can even send messages to friends outside the dungeon, inviting them in. (And should you disconnect accidentally, as we did, you’ll land right back in the dungeon—not 800 miles away.) This applies to the game’s largest überdungeons as well, which Blizzard has tailored specifically for large guild-style raids. No “raid collision” is even possible in World of WarCraft—guilds won’t have to camp the game’s biggest monsters, because every guild can create its own instance.

Off we go, then

Unfortunately, we have only scratched the surface here. If we could, we’d go on for 10 more pages. Actually, if we could, we’d really still be at Blizzard’s office playing the game. It’s that fun. It was everything that made Diablo II and the WarCraft games so addictive, and more. And that’s the bottom line. The biggest worry all along might have been that Blizzard would be out of its depth here, in a tough genre in which it has no experience. Instead, Blizzard has taken genre and done the best thing it could possibly have done: made a Blizzard game.

The beta is coming soon. Get ready.

Copyright © 2004 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in Computer Gaming World.