Summary: Blizzard. The Oxford English Dictionary of Jakubisms defines it as "the golden touch", the "sure thing" and "hot love on a compact disc". Now, they're going deep into the turbulent waters of an industry that's in retreat - massively multiplayer games. He begged, he pleaded, they had to pry him off Blizzard's PR staff with a crowbar - and he still wouldn't let go until he got his beta account. Now, after threatening to stop paying him, we finally got our article about it. See why he's hooked.
The most surprising part about World of WarCraft is that it doesn’t actually try to deviate from the MMORPG formula all that much. It's like Blizzard did delicate plastic surgery on the whole MMO idea, not changing the actual core but touching up all the rough spots and adding rather generously in the areas where the genre could use such enhancement.
Another factor that increases WoW's appeal - one that certainly can't be underestimated - is the familiarity of the world. Odds are you've visited Azeroth before, perhaps as many as five times counting expansions. World of WarCraft obviously draws heavily on the WarCraft universe, particularly the third installment. There are legions of fans already familiar with the war between orcs and humans, which extended to include the night elves and undead. There's a great deal of comfort in knowing the characteristics of Tauren, Trolls and Undead. Classes like the Shaman, Hunter and Warlock seem as familiar as the more traditional Warrior, Priest and Mage.
These classes and races retain the characteristics that made them stand out in the real-time strategy games. Hunters, although not playable yet in the beta, we saw last year at E3 and they could tame and train their pets. Warlocks still play with demon summoning, as they have since the original WarCraft, and Paladins still have auras. The Rogue is the only element foreign to come into the game, bearing a rather striking resemblance to his EverQuest counterpart.
World of WarCraft borrows heavily from EverQuest, Dark Age of Camelot and a bit from Asheron's Call. The combat and skills are quite reminiscent of EverQuest - skills even progress at up to 5 points per level. However, crafting is more along the lines of Dark Age, since it's not limited by character level (well, to a point). In fact, why don't we cover crafting on its own page, since it's such a big part of the game.
Most skills in the game are limited to the player's level times 5. That means that a level 3 warrior can have a maximum of 15 skill in axes, shields, defense. However, crafting skills work different. There are three levels of crafting - apprentice, journeyman, and master. An apprentice can have up to 75 skill, journeyman 150 and master 225.
The level of your skill determines what you can do. So gathering some herbs would require 50 or 100 skill, and to learn recipes to make potions from these herbs requires a certain skill level. The success rate is determined to an extent by your skill - so just having gotten level 50 blacksmithing and trying to make a level 50 item might lead to a few failures - but worry not, components are not lost.
I was somewhat concerned at how quickly skills increase at first, but they really do slow down quite a bit once you hit the journeyman levels. The odds of finding sufficient components drop down, and without these components, you can't make the items, and if you can't make the items, your skill level won't increase.
This has some interesting results for the economy. When the beta was new, the first quality crafted items went for a premium. Now, there are so many, they barely fetch more than standard vendor prices (which are at least somewhat reasonable.) However, the items that few people can craft or find on monsters, are incredibly expensive. The iridescent pearl is a rare component used for a paladin's mace, and the early ones sold for as little as one gold. Now smiths are constantly shouting in the trade channel of Stormwind (the biggest city in the game) for the pearl, sending the bidding well into the 3g range. The economics of the world are thus divided into two extremes - either items are ridiculously expensive or incredibly cheap. Very few manage to maintain a balanced price.
There is no item decay and given the way the rest of the economy is set up (around incredibly rare drops and hard-to-develop skills), we doubt Blizzard would implement it. To be honest, it's quite nice to get attached to a remarkably good item you got at a low level and it lasted you until your teens. Most of the quality items worth keeping tend to be soulbound - that means once equipped in the proper slot, they can only be used by you (though for some reason vendors still pay for them.) This also keeps their sale price fairly stable, as they're in demand because of their quality, but since they can't be re-sold, it keeps enthusiasm down. The one exception to this is near level 30 gear, since level 30 is currently the highest available in the beta, and nobody would sell the best items anyway - so the prices for even binding equipment are through the roof.
It's very interesting to see how the trade skills all work together. Smiths need ore from mining of course, but also occasionally other equipment. Engineers need some smithing products, and leatherworkers can make upgrades for armor made by a smith. It's impossible to have all the skills, but it's likely that by level 60 (the expected level limit in the retail version), a character will be a Master craftsman in about four trades (such as smithing, mining, skinning and leatherworking, for example.)
However, I can't help but remain skeptical. After Earth and Beyond, which was the bees knees and the cat's pajamas at the same time for the first month, before succumbing to "enhancements" which nerfed gameplay down from casual fun to EverQuest grind levels, I think my skepticism is understandable. MMOs are constantly changing and being patched - particularly during beta and the first few months of release. There's no guarantee that Blizzard won't relent to the powerwhine… er… powergamers and increase the grind factor exponentially, in order to extend the "pleasure" of working for every level. There's also the seemingly clear economic advantage of keeping your players playing longer - the longer they play, the more money they pay. All we as the press and fellow gamers can do is hope that Blizzard won't pull a fast one at launch or a month or two after.
The most remarkable difference between WoW and the other major MMOs is that you can solo. That's right, Mr. Brad McQuaid, my dwarf warrior can stand toe-to-toe with a monster of equal or slightly higher level, come out on top and be back on his feet in less than a minute. Oh, you know what else, Verant? No stupid pet that costs a handful of bones and ten seconds to summon is going to beat up on a warrior who took weeks to build.
All bitterness aside, every class in the game is a capable solo or group partner. Even the-ever-so-frail Mage can freeze his enemies in position and blast them from long range with fireballs. Grouping isn't a necessity for anyone, and quite a few people solo for much of their time in game. Usually, groups form for specific quests. Like naval task forces, they're assigned a mission and often disband after it's done.
The classes fulfill their familiar roles admirably. Warriors make the best tanks, especially when in defensive stance and using taunt. Rogues deal incredible damage thanks to their quick dagger attacks and backstab, but are at the biggest risk because they attract monster attention very quickly. Mages are like rogues with the advantage of range, Warlocks are pretty much the World of WarCraft equivalent of EverQuest's Necromancer since they have pets and many damage over time spells. Paladins and Priests are the healers, with Paladins having auras and being better at melee and tanking, while Priests are better spellcasters and can keep monsters calm. The Shaman, Hunter and Druid aren't activated yet in the beta.
The best and most surprising part about World of WarCraft isn't just the level of polish and the minute changes, but the one big change - the quests. From level 1 all the way to my current 18, I have never been without a quest in my queue. I don't always do them and can occasionally be found soloing or grouping just to kill monsters, but should I ever want a more specific task, I just go do a quest. The only point of confusion is the difficulty of these quests. Upon reaching an area and taking the new quests there, most will be marked in the yellow color (average difficulty). However, some of these are almost impossible to do until you gain a few levels and the quests become green, or unless you group - while others are simple courier or "kill X monsters" missions which aren't difficult at all.
All in all, World of WarCraft looks like the most polished and gamer-friendly MMORPG out there. It does lean more towards the casual players, which seems fair given that the other MMOs are dominated by the powergamers. However, despite this, it really doesn't depart from MMO conventions at all. It's just leaner where it needs to be, polished in the right places and has some extra meat on the bones in the form of quests. And like everything else with the Blizzard tag, this works.
Oh and for you warriors out there: the late newbie levels (6-10) may seem dull, but keep at it. Once you get to the early-mid teen levels, the difference is like between a handjob and sex.
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