Pros: Fabulous detail; amazing variety; a new experience each time
Cons: The problems of any online community; growing pains and server issues
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
First published 3/7/2005
Also published on Epinions.com
For Mac and PC
I’m writing this review from the point of view of someone who has never played an MMORPG (massively multiplayer online roleplaying game) before. I can’t compare “World of Warcraft” (for the Mac) to Everquest or tell you how much better or worse it is than your favorite game. I can’t discuss the evolution of the technologies behind the experience or kinds of communities that usually form around these things. But there are plenty of reviews out there already by such old hands, and anyone who needs that kind of in-depth analysis probably already knows whether or not they want to play. I’m here to give a newbie’s perspective, so that other people considering whether to play an MMORPG for the first time can perhaps get a better idea of whether WoW would be an enjoyable experience for them. Warning: this is a long review.
The basic concept of an MMORPG isn’t something that has particularly appealed to me before. You play a computer game online with lots of people you don’t know–sounds like a recipe for having all the worst aspects of your average online community interfering with what would otherwise be a reasonably fun game.
However, Blizzard has taken advantage of the fact that they have such a large player-base and game to work with and really gone to town with it, creating an experience with a number of aspects I wouldn’t have expected. For example, the fact that they have so many people paying them a regular monthly fee to play the game means they can keep people on staff to constantly work out bugs, issue patches, and create new content for the game.
There’s a fair amount you can do to individualize your character, which is wonderful. There are hundreds of thousands of players, and it would get old pretty fast if all of the characters looked the same and could do the exact same things.
Faction and races
First of all, there are two main factions: Horde and Alliance. In theory you might call these the bad guys and the good guys, but playing them for a while and seeing the stories of the world unfold proves that things are more complicated than that. There are functional differences between the two; they’re made up of different races, and you can only “party with” (or play with) people of your own faction. Also, only Horde members can be shamans, and only Alliance members can be paladins. You can play humans, night elves, gnomes, dwarves, trolls, orcs, tauren (sort of like a cross between a bull and a person), or undead.
There are quite a few character classes, and each race can only choose from a subset of the character classes (usually a race is only excluded from a couple of classes). The basic warrior, priest, and mage classes exist, of course. Warlocks are specialized mages who can summon demons; hunters are sort of like warriors who specialize in long-range combat and can tame wild beasts as pets. Druids can take on various animal forms to allow them different combat modes or to enable them to travel quickly from place to place. Paladins can heal themselves and others, as well as resurrect others at higher levels, and they can cast blessings that confer special bonuses. Shamans create elemental totems that have certain area-based effects.
You’d think that the characters would still seem somewhat the same, but there’s a lot left to individualize. For instance, when you create your character you get to choose your appearance. You can use the randomizer button, or you can individually select such characteristics as facial features, hairstyle, and hair color. Some races or genders get piercings or facial markings as well.
The game contains a wealth of different items and pieces of armor (ranging from cloth to leather, mail, and plate), each piece of which looks different and affects the appearance of your character. So, every time you switch out a piece of equipment the appearance of your character changes. Sometimes this means you can end up with a kind of patchwork appearance if you simply choose to wear the best of whatever you’ve found so far, but you can deliberately try to find matching items, and many people do so for a more coordinated appearance. The game even has a carefully-designed sort of style, such that the higher-level the items you wear, generally the more ornate they look (in fairly specific ways–for example, higher-level cloaks are almost always longer).
Characters can also learn professions (two primary and any number of secondary) in addition to their class. Primary professions include mining, blacksmithing, tailoring, enchanting, herbalism, alchemy, skinning, leatherworking, and engineering. Secondary professions include cooking, first aid, and fishing. In practice people usually pick professions that match their class–for example, since a mage can’t wear better than cloth armor, there’s little reason for him to learn leatherworking or blacksmithing. Also, people usually choose one resource-oriented profession and the production-oriented profession that goes with it (such as taking mining and blacksmithing together). But you don’t have to do things this way, and certainly there are people who don’t.
To further differentiate characters, once you reach level ten (out of a current maximum of 60) you get “talent points” to spend at a rate of one per level. All character classes possess “talent trees” that affect their abilities based on where those talent points are spent. Since you’ll never get enough talent points to fill up your talent tree, you have to make some specific choices about where you spend those points. Thus your mage character might specialize in fire spells, making her rather different from a mage specialized in frost spells.
All of this means that once characters get past the first handful of levels, they can be quite different from one another–in appearance, yes, but also in function. You can also differentiate your character through the personality you express, both through your words and through your emoted actions. “Emotes” are commands executed with a “/” that cause your character to take a visible action, or that tell the people around you that you have taken an action. For example, “/laugh” causes your character to laugh out loud. If you select someone’s character and use the “/wave” command, your character waves at that character. Each race and gender even has its own different style of dance for the “/dance” command.
This is a breathtaking game. It contains truly panoramic vistas. The scenery is different in every region. There are wetlands filled with shallow water, reeds, and crocolisks (crocodile-like monsters). There are barren, rocky wastelands sporting wild boars and giant scorpion-like creatures. The forests are quite beautiful, including streams and even lovely waterfalls, but they include their own dangers–wolves, giant spiders, and bandits. Most areas seem beset by their own brand of trouble-maker, whether it’s gnolls with their hyena-like cackles, centaurs sporting clouds of flies, or the Defias brotherhood hiding their features behind red masks.
The details are amazing. In fact, the only complaint I’ve had is that some of the landscapes are on the dark side, making it difficult to see what I’m doing or where I’m going. While the basic types of critters get repeated fairly often, the details change. Higher-level spiders aren’t simply higher-level spiders–they’re a different type of spider, usually at least a little different in appearance, providing different types of treasure. You don’t simply loot critters for money and wonder how it is that a spider ends up carrying around copper pieces; instead, you loot things like pincers and spider silk. Many of these items turn out to be useful for alchemy, item construction, or even recipes (ahh, those Kaldorei spider-kabobs!).
The sound-effects are handy, and add both atmosphere and information to the game experience. I really like the music, which is different for each region and city, but turned it off after a while when it became repetitive.
On the one hand, it can be difficult to keep track of everything your character can do and execute it properly and quickly in the heat of battle. On the other hand, given how many things characters can do in this game, I think the interface is about as easy-to-use as I can imagine in most respects.
All of your character’s abilities are contained in a “spell book” (whether or not they’re magical in nature). At the bottom of the screen you have a bar with slots that correspond to the numbers 1 through 0 on your keyboard, as well as – and =. You can drag any ability’s icon to any place you wish on that bar, then either click on it or press that number or symbol to activate the ability. There are other bars that you can access by holding the shift key and pressing an arrow key either up or down. The difficulty comes in when you have enough abilities that you might want to quickly access during combat that you fill up more than one bar. Quickly switching between them during combat can be tough, and more than once I’ve ended up on the wrong bar and used the wrong ability. That can cause disaster when, for example, you accidentally activate an ability that uses up all of your mana (spell-casting energy).
The only other difficulty I’ve found is that there are several different things you do via “right-clicking” (on the one-button mac, apple-click). This includes interacting with almost any item in the world, selling items to merchants out of your inventory, equipping items out of your inventory, and reading (or opening) items in your inventory. On several occasions I’ve noticed while I was selling things to a merchant that an item was able to be opened, and accidentally sold it instead of opening it because I still had the trade window open. Oops! Same with a couple of items I had intended to equip.
Still, given the vast number of things you can do in this game, I think Blizzard did a surprisingly good job with the commands and interface. There are a couple of commands that don’t come pre-bound that it can be helpful to bind to open keys, however. I found that playing in a party of other characters became much easier once I bound a command to essentially “follow that character!” to the “i” key–otherwise following other characters as they run around can get kind of confusing. Also, running distances can get hard on your hands if you have to hold the keys down, but there is a “run continuously” command that you can bind.
I should note that one handy thing Blizzard did was to introduce public transportation into the game. You do have to do some amount of running around to get places, which is occasionally tedious. However, you can discover “flight paths” between certain towns that allow you to ride winged creatures from town to town, and there are even some ships and a public tram between certain locations.
While you could certainly just go around and kill monsters, it wouldn’t be fun for very long. So instead, the world is filled with literally thousands of quests for you to accomplish–enough that there’s just no way you could accomplish all of them with one set of characters (not to mention the fact that you can’t do the Horde quests as an Alliance member and vice versa).
Non-player characters with gold exclamation points over their heads have quests for you. Such quests might be as simple as recovering a lost pocket-watch or collecting ingredients for a stew (usually by killing certain monsters for their parts), or they might involve clearing out vast dangerous cave networks and bringing the head of a nasty bad guy to the local law enforcement. As you advance in level more quests become available to you. Early quests teach you how to interact with the world and help you to explore the area of the world you start out in.
You have a quest log that keeps track of the quests you’ve accepted–up to 20 at a time–and color-codes them by how difficult they should be for someone of your level. It also marks some of them “elite,” which means that you shouldn’t attempt them alone; you really need to bring a group of friends with you. If you decide to abandon a quest you can do so, but some quests are “chain quests”–if you don’t finish them, you don’t get the follow-on quests. These, of course, are the quests that tend to lead to the greatest rewards. They also tend to relate bits and pieces of the story and back-story of the world.
Up to five people can join together as a “party,” and the game will handily split up experience and loot and such depending on how the settings have been toggled. “Free for all” looting allows anyone to grab whatever they can off of the bodies of the fallen. Other looting schemes might, for example, hand out items in round-robin style until an uncommon or rare item comes up, at which point everyone “dices” (rolls a random number) and the high number wins.
Variety of quests
The game contains a surprisingly wide range and variety of quests. You can find a little girl’s lost necklace at the bottom of a lake, or a merchant’s missing statuette from a village of nasty murlocs. You can defuse a bomb underwater at the base of a dam, or fetch a shipment of horseshoes for a blacksmith whose iron is all going to supply arms to the local militia (then you can go kill black dragon whelps for their underbelly scales to help him pay for the shipment!). You can destroy the centaurs’ invasion plans or set fire to the orcs’ catapults. You can verify that someone’s brother died in a mining expedition by finding his medallion, or prove to your prospective mentor that you’re worthy of his instruction by doing a good deed for someone.
Variety of servers
There are also three different types of servers you can log onto, and this affects the type of game you play. “PVP” is a player-vs.-player server. On this type of server Horde and Alliance battle each other. “PVE” is player-vs.-environment, and you can only battle other players under certain conditions (such as duels)–if you don’t want to fight other players you don’t have to. “RP” servers are roleplaying servers, and on those servers you’re generally expected to stay in character and roleplay your character. So far I’ve been playing PVE and have enjoyed it quite a bit.
You can carry out many of the quests, particularly the low-level ones, solo if you so desire. Pretty much any non-elite quest, in fact, you can probably take on alone with the right preparation and care. However, you’re going to miss out on a lot if you never group up with others. There are a number of ways you can go about doing this.
First, you can always go into the game with someone you already know. I prefer to team up with my husband on those rare occasions when he has a few spare moments to relax playing a game. Make sure you play on the same server as anyone else you might want to play with, and make sure you play members of the same faction.
Second, you can join a “guild.” Guilds are in-game groups of characters that tend to help each other out, team up to take on quests, or hang out together. Guilds mean different things to different people, however. Some people prefer to join in guilds only with people they know and share similar play-styles with, whereas others will drag anyone they can find into their guilds simply to be able to say they have several hundred members.
Third, the game includes access to a handful of chat channels to allow you to converse with others in the game. One of these is a “looking for a group” channel on which people announce their need for a group or a character for a certain quest. You can say that you’re looking for a group for a certain quest and pull together anyone who answers, or you can wait until you see someone advertising that they have a spot or two left for that quest and then join up. Along the way you might meet people you like whom you can add to your “friends” list and team up with again in the future. (This also allows you to figure out whom you don’t want to team up with again.)
People and your game experience
Naturally an MMORPG is a very social sort of thing and to a certain extent your enjoyment will depend on the people you end up interacting with–this is one reason why it’s a good idea to find some people you like, one way or another, to hang out with in game. There will always be creeps and immature people to drive you insane. There are people who will literally get in your character’s face no matter which way you turn and try to aggressively flirt with you or get you to fight with them. I’ve certainly had days where people will just sit there and keep hitting the button to challenge me to a duel over and over again no matter how many times I hit “decline,” and then call me names for refusing (usually they do this when I’m in the middle of trying to turn in a quest, of course). Thankfully Blizzard introduced a wonderful little command of “/ignore” that lets you shut out any communication from someone who’s bothering you, and if someone behaves badly when you party up with them for a quest you can simply choose not to join up with them again afterwards.
There’s a burgeoning in-game economy that I find quite fascinating. Characters trade items, services, and money, and there are several in-game auction houses that allow the trade of goods. Unfortunately you have to actually get to their in-game locations, which isn’t always easy, in order to place bids or put items up for sale. When an auction ends or someone out-bids you, however, you can pick up your item or money at any in-game mailbox–basically, at any town.
Technical issues and service
I don’t think Blizzard had any idea that they’d get anywhere near this number of people playing. This means that the servers have had problems handling the load. Lag problems pop up from time to time causing odd glitches. To some extent the depth of the problem depends on what time of day you play, which server you play on, and what you’re doing/where you’re doing it on that server. It helps to play at off-peak hours, and on a low-population server (however, today’s low-population server can end up as tomorrow’s high-population server, so that’s hard to arrange). Also, there are certain popular in-game places that get a lot of traffic (like any of the three auction houses), and those areas tend to be the worst when there are issues, so sometimes you can have a better experience just by heading out of the city and doing some adventuring–or even heading to a less-populated area of the city. Another good idea is creating a set of alternate characters on different servers; that way if one server is having trouble you can simply play a different character for a while.
Every Tuesday morning for about four hours the servers go down for scheduled maintenance; it’s nice that Blizzard has a well-known time set aside for it. The company seems to put out regular patches and updates and seems (to me at least) to be fairly dedicated to keeping up with things as much as they can, even if they’re having some troubles on that end. Their web site contains a great deal of helpful information, not to mention a server status page (so you can see which servers are up or down) and forums that include a realm status forum that contains posts about latency issues, restarts, and scheduled maintenance.
Certainly for the amount of money I’m paying (after a 30-day free trial period you have to pay a monthly fee in addition to paying for the game) I think I’m getting a pretty amazing amount of playable time per month, so I don’t think that I have a lot to complain about. I understand there are people on particularly popular servers, however, who’ve had a much harder time of things, and I can understand their complaints.
I really love World of Warcraft. I’ve had some mild frustrations; sometimes I wish one or another quest wasn’t elite, or that it was a little easier to solo when I felt like it. I love the variety of quests, characters and landscapes. I’ve explored a number of the character and class options and still feel like I have so many new and interesting options open to me. It seems as though the game is capable of being many things to many people, and I find that quite impressive.
There’s something satisfying about using your own “hands” to create nifty items in game and sell them to others, or about accomplishing a particularly difficult quest. I think it’s wonderful that “death” in-game is mostly an inconvenience (it forces you to either run back to your body and resurrect close to where you died, perhaps putting you in danger again but not ending whatever it is you’re working on, or resurrect in the graveyard at the price of taking damage to all of your items), allowing you the freedom to try difficult things. Indeed, sometimes it takes several tries to accomplish a quest.
Perhaps the only real problem with World of Warcraft is that it’s very addictive. I have to remind myself when the weekend comes that it would be good to get something done other than just WoW. But it’s certainly been a lot of fun, I’ve met some great people through it, and I definitely feel as though I’m getting my money’s worth so far.