Summary: Jakub got re-hooked on the latest beta of World of WarCraft and took the time away from his rehab program at the Betty Boop Gaming Addiction Clinic to write up an updated preview in which he covers the major changes over the past 6 months. Come check out our 19 screenshots and Jakub's wussy troll warrior! Oh, and stuff about auction halls, talent systems and whatever.
First, however, we'll recap what hasn't changed. There are still quests in abundance and they're much better balanced now. Surviving the Dead Mines is no longer an epic achievement, and the quests that were too easy or not enticing enough have been fixed up. That's not to say that all adventures will be the same level of difficulty - some of them are definitely party-oriented - but the extremes have been toned down. Players can still expect to get anywhere from 10-25% of their experience per level from quests, depending on how active they are in finding and finishing them.
Soloing is still a viable option and at least the warrior we played was able to keep up a pace similar to that which we had during the first beta. Our Hunter experienced a little more trouble but that is likely due to the fact that hunter pets are bugged and doing very little damage at the moment. Through our discussions with fellow players it seems that most classes are able to solo their way right until the end, but grouping is slightly faster and of course more rewarding.
The experience is much smoother overall thanks to numerous gameplay and interface improvements Blizzard has made. Quest sharing, formerly a feature of 3rd party mods, is now standard. So rather than having to drag your party around to get everyone the same quests, you can all share with each other and do them together. Characters - at least the standard ones like trainers, shopkeepers, the guild master and gryphon master - are much easier to find in the big cities since city guards will now give directions complete with a marker in the minimap!
Trade has become exponentially easier, if less exciting. Gone are the glory days of the trade channel that often scrolled by faster than it could be read, where bidding was a chaotic and exciting experience not unlike a real life auction. Nowadays most players settle for the Auction Hall, which automates all trade transactions. Items are dropped into the auction, a fee is paid which increases the longer you want the auction to last, and eventually you become notified whether or not the auction was successful.
Players can set buy-out prices if they need cash fast or to simply encourage fast sales. Buy-outs seem very popular with trade goods like leather, hides, cloths and various minerals. Often craftsmen need the goods now and are willing to pay a small premium for them. Alternately, if the player needs cash soon rather than 8 hours later, he can set a low buy-out price to encourage a quick sale.
The only addition we could wish for is notification of being out-bid. Only the major cities have auction halls, but all have mailboxes. It is through mail that the seller and winner are notified of - and given the benefits - of their efforts. Items and cash money are delivered even to the most remote camps. Currently, winning a hot bid requires babysitting it to make sure you haven't been surpassed as the highest bidder. Mail notification would be a good way to ensure good participation.
Blizzard is really better than most at being able to mask the fact that this is a game about randomized 'dice' rolls done by the server. Few competitors other than EverQuest, and to a more limited extent Dark Age of Camelot, can boast such fleshed-out zones (though the world is seamless) and consistent and good art. World of WarCraft might never garner accolades for breaking technological boundaries like Doom 3 and Half-Life 2 will, but the somewhat cartoony look of the world promises longevity.
This all translates into a more believable experience, it's easier to forget that everyone will be the same level sooner or later and that most people will have similar equipment. Here too, however, Blizzard does a number on the traditional thinking that all the best equipment means that all players will be clones of each other. The talent system has been revamped and radicalized. Talents are divided into three categories - Arms, Defend and Fury. Presumably the player is encouraged to spend points as much as possible in one of these categories because the requirements for certain abilities often mean X amount of talent points being dumped into a previous ability in the same category.
Talents vary up the way characters work. In Arms, for example, adding points to the Axe gives an increased chance of a critical hit, but to the sword it increases the chance to hit. The Fury category permits the player to increase the critical chance of any weapon or extend the length of time his Battle Shout.
This also means that you might actually want two different kinds of priests or warriors in your party - since, due to their customizations, they can fulfill multiple roles. While no warrior is likely to out-damage a Rogue, the Fury path helps him fulfill a fighting rather than tank role. Best of all, talent points come every level and we find ourselves looking forward to them more than the every-2-levels ability upgrades. Finally, if you're unhappy with your talent selection you can visit a Talent Master and have them wiped.
With its rapid advancement, newbie-friendliness and variety of gameplay - while minimizing the tedious aspects - World of WarCraft seems to have it all. The only question we have is how this player-reliant economy is going to work with no item attrition.
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