Blizzard’s latest offering from its Warcraft series of games is just around the corner, and promises to possibly be one of the biggest things in the MMORPG scene this year, if not the gaming world as a whole. World of Warcraft is just now finishing its open beta phase and will launch in retail next week, and if you weren’t one of the more than five hundred thousand people who played the open beta, here’s a chance to get a look at what you missed before the game comes out on Tuesday.
Before I start, though, the reader should note that my most recent MMO experience is from playing Final Fantasy XI since May. Prior to that I played Ultima Online for about a year not long after Renaissance was released, and during the time that Third Dawn was released. My impressions of World of Warcraft are largely based on comparisons to FFXI, which may or may not be relevant to you.
Let’s keep this short and to the point. WoW looks good, even on my laptop (P4-1.8GHz, 512MiB RAM, Nvidia GeForce 4 420 Go). The cartoonish visual style is in keeping with the graphical style of the Warcraft series, and occasionally reminded me of Kingdom Hearts. The controls are keyboard/mouse-driven, with no support for joysticks or gamepads. At first I found this to be annoying, since I’m used to playing FFXI with my PS2 controller plugged into a USB converter, but I soon found that the WoW user interface is very friendly to keyboard and mouse and should be a no-brainer for anyone used to playing PC games.
WoW’s combat system is fairly simple: you right-click on a mob to begin attacking it. Spells and abilities can be selected from the spellbook, or from the hotbar. While all classes have health points, only mage-types and hunters also have magic points. Warrior-types have rage points, which are similar to the limit break bar in FF7, while rogues have energy bars and accumulate combo points.
Blizzard put a lot of effort into trying to ensure that WoW wouldn’t be a merely a level-grinding experience, unlike some other MMORPGs I could name. Experience points are very easily earned at low levels, with points being gained for killing monsters, doing quests, and even exploring new areas. In fact, unless you’re deliberately spending a lot of time farming for drops or experience points, you’re likely to gain the bulk of your experience points as quest rewards, or in the course of completing those quests. The quests also push you to explore new areas and broaden your familiarity with Azeroth. I also particularly enjoyed being able to login and immediately start having fun, instead of having to sit around for hours hoping for a party offer.
In an effort to thwart would-be campers, and the potential “gil farmer” phenomenon (people spending time earning money ingame to sell for real-world money), Blizzard came up with idea of soulbound equipment. Similar to the “exclusive” flag in FFXI, soulbound equipment cannot be sold or traded to other players, although they can be sold to NPC vendors. Equipment can become soulbound in one of two ways: binding on pick up, or binding on equip. Gear that binds on pick up, usually quest rewards or higher-rarity equipment, becomes soulbound to your character the moment it enters your inventory. If it binds on equip, then it only binds when you equip it to your character, and until then can be freely traded or sold to any other player. This makes it hard for people to camp monsters which drop the really valuable items, since most of those bind on pick up, and most items which bind on equip are relatively random drops off regular monsters, making them almost impossible to camp reliably.
In WoW one almost never needs to worry about one’s financial status. Money is easily obtained, though not so easily that it becomes meaningless. Short of cash for your new spells? Go kill some bears and skin them for leather, and sell the leather to player crafters, or to NPC. Or go mining. Or fishing. Or herb-gathering. Or just kill stuff and sell all the stuff that drops off them. Money is also easily earned during the course of simply completing quests or exploring an area, and one doesn’t need to spend inordinate amounts of time playing the game with the sole purpose of acquiring cash to buy that level 40 Sniper’s Ring, or whatever equivalent there may be in other MMOs.
Crafting professions are divided into 2 main groups: primary and secondary professions. Each character is limited to 2 primary professions out of 9, and any number out of 3 secondary professions. The primary professions are themselves divided into gathering (skinning, mining, herbalism) and processing (enchanting, smithing, engineering, leatherworking, tailoring, alchemy). The three secondary professions are first aid, cooking and fishing. The restriction on primary professions force players to be interdependent on one another to a certain extent. However it should be noted that it is largely impossibly (or at least very very difficult) to create a solely crafting character who participates in no combat whatsoever. Go ahead and try if you like a challenge, but it’ll be difficult.
In-game transport is mostly provided by hippogryphs for the Alliance or wyverns for the Horde, and boats. In order to utilise flight routes, one must first travel to the destination and speak to the gryphon/wyvern master at the location to unlock that location’s flight path, in order to prevent players from flying to places they’ve never been to before. Boats run between specific ports, with the main one running between the two major continents. There is also the Deeprun Tram, a free underground train running between the human capital of Stormwind and the dwarf capital Ironforge. I don’t know if there’s a Horde equivalent as I spent very little time playing my tauren character.
Partying is an important but not vital aspect of WoW. It’s completely possible to solo most of the game, but there are some quests which would be so much easier or so much more fun to do in a group. Some quests are marked as elite, meaning the mobs involved are much tougher to beat than their level would otherwise indicate, and are best taken in a group. A party can consist of up to 5 characters. There are also raid groups, which are made of multiple parties banded together, usually for the express purpose of invading the opposing faction’s territory (on a PvP server) or for handling difficult raid quests. I personally spent very little time in a group, but I understand its importance grows greater as one’s level gets higher.
So what happens when you hit the max level? According to some high-level players, that’s when the fun really starts. High-level raid quests are planned, with at least one already implemented in the beta as a contest. Blizzard challenged players to defeat Onyxia, one of the easiest raid monsters planned. Last I heard, the closest a raid group managed to get was to bring it down to about 65% health. Rumours also abound about Hero classes being made available later, as well as various other activities.
What really shine in WoW are the little details Blizzard put into their game’s world. From the numerous voice emotes, to the dancing-around-clucking-like-a-chicken emote, there’s no end to the humour they’ve injected into the game. A dwarven fisher named “Gubber Blump” who raves about how great crab meat is (a parody of Bubba from the Forrest Gump book/movie; you have to see it ingame to really appreciate the humour). A weaponsmaster in Stormwind named “Woo Ping”. The woman on the street who slaps you if you make a rude gesture at her (/rude). There are plenty of little things to look out for in WoW that make the gaming experience so much more immersive.
I’d love to talk about PvP, but unfortunately I can’t say much about it. I live in Asia, and I have horrible ping times on the servers which make it difficult for me to PvP efficiently. Worse, the limited RAM I have on my laptop forces my computer to use a lot of virtual memory, and laptop hard disks are hardly fast. I spent a lot of “PvP” time waiting for my computer to load textures and models into memory, only to find myself dead when it finally caught up. Most of you shouldn’t have this problem, I hope. What PvP I did manage to experience, however, was pretty fun; the game’s backstory makes PvP almost a necessity between Horde and Alliance. Several times my night elf stood in defense of Auberdine, entangling incoming orcs and trolls and helping to prevent the sneaky rogues from running all over the place and hiding. It was great fun and I’d love to see an RP/PvP server come release (servers in beta were divided between RP, PvP, and PvE).
World of Warcraft, thus far, seems to be the MMORPG killer everyone’s been waiting for. Based on reading the forums at Blizzard’s website, as well as some other community fansites, a large majority of future WoW players will be migrating from other MMORPGs, with the largest group (it seems) coming from FFXI. I can certainly say that I had a great of fun with the beta and am looking forward to playing it in retail. Someone commented that it was great to finally find a game that played on his side, instead of against him, and I can only agree.