Sunday, September 05, 2004

World of Warcraft (PC, *****)

This is an early review. I did not get in the WoW beta, but for this week only they accepted a massive number of new participants to see how their servers handle it. I get to play until the week is up and no more, until the retail version comes out, or until another round of beta keys get sent and I get lucky.

Full disclosure: I am very, very biased in favor of anything Blizzard puts out. For further disclaimers and apologies about that, you can see the beginning of my Warcraft III review.

More disclosure: I haven't played Everquest, Dark Age of Camelot, or any of the other "new" crop of massively multiplayer online games. Until City of Heroes came out and I personally convinced a bunch of Fools to buy it. Lately people have started dropping out of CoH, and I understand why. While the game is very fun in the early and middle stages -- designing a hero concept and costume, exploring the first few skills, and so forth -- the mid to late game is lacking in variety. Lots of repetition in the types of enemies and indoor quests; way too much gameplay emphasis given to fighting wandering monsters, so it's not too important to experience the game's story or content. Once you hit level 14, it takes a very long time to gain additional levels and there's not much variety to look forward to.

I started the game by creating a fighter, figuring this character would have the easiest time advancing as quickly as possible in a week. I decided a dwarf would be the most appropriate race. I started off in a dwarf village, surrounded by other newbie dwarves and gnomes. At first I was struck by the game's similarity to Diablo. As you walk around, some people have exclamation marks pop up over their heads; you go to them and get a quest. Some tell you to kill monsters; some tell you to visit new places. Each quest has a lengthy and well-written block of text which you can read or not read, depending on whether you care about story or not. Power gamers can easily ignore the flavor text -- the objectives are clearly summarized at the top, and the reward you will get for finishing it is noted on the bottom. However, the content of the game is interesting, and if you enjoyed reading the history of the Warcraft universe in the manuals of other games, which I did, then you will want to pay attention to this as well.

Unlike Diablo, there are no attribute points to distribute. As in Warcraft III, your heroes automatically get boosts of strength, dexterity, mind, etc that is appropriate to their class. This is fine with me, as I hate having to figure out exactly how many hit points I'm going to need in exchange for attacking accuracy. This is also the case with City of Heroes.

Unlike City of Heroes, questing is important. I've spent periods of time both fighting wandering monsters and running errands, and I definitely feel like I gain experience much faster when I complete quests. And there are tons of quests to be had all the time. In just about every building of every city you find, you'll meet someone with an exclamation point. I have around five quests in my log most of the time, and they are conveniently sorted and color-coded to let me know if I will take a beating when I attempt to do the quest. Questing is a full-time job in World of Warcraft. You can certainly choose to fight wandering monsters, but mostly what you'll want to do is identify particular monsters that tend to give you stuff you want and fight them until you have all the stuff you need.

For example, I'm a novice cook, and I only know a couple of recipes. One of them is cooked boar meat. To practice my cooking in the early stages, I pretty much have to fight a lot of boars. I don't do it for the experience, I do it for practice.

See, in WoW, trade skills and the level treadmill are kind of like two separate games. Trade skills are the traditionally "boring" MMORPG activities such as cooking, sewing, smithing, and so on. As you gain experience and level up, you will get skill points to spend, but you can go to any trainer in town and learn whichever skill you want. The earliest levels of each skill cost relatively few points, so it doesn't hurt much to dabble in different skill trees before deciding to build one up to high levels. The online manual even gives helpful hints about which skill trees are likely to be useful to each class, but these are guidelines only.

But training a skill only gives you the ability to practice it. Once you train cooking, you will get a couple of recipes (cook boar meat, cook wolf meat, cook eggs) and a proficiency that is somewhere around zero. To improve your skill, you simply cook a lot of these meals, which you can then sell or use to boost your health later. Once your skill is high enough, you can buy more recipes from the trainer. So basically, you only need to practice the skills you actually find useful at the time; you don't have to waste a ton of time practicing skills just to get them to the level where they can do anything useful at all.

The really nice part is that you can't destroy resources by practicing with a low skill. If you have the right objects (such as meat) to practice with, you will succeed. The reward for improving your skill is not to improve your odds of not screwing up; it's to make better stuff at higher levels.

Let me recall my experience with being a blacksmith in Ultima Online many years ago. First I had to spend hours mining ore and, more often than not, not finding any. Then when I had a bunch of ore, I had to smelt it. If I failed my skill roll, I didn't make any metal bars AND I lost the metal. Then once I had a stack of metal, I had to decide what to make. If I failed to make it properly, I didn't make any armor AND I lost the metal. So frequently I put in a whole lot of work and had nothing to show for it.

In World of Warcraft, the emphasis is always on exploring, not sitting around clicking one thing over and over again. As a miner you get a skill called "find ore". This skill is always on if you want it to be, and the effect is that ore deposits which spawn randomly will be visible on the minimap. If you find an ore deposit, you just walk up to it and right click, and you hack out some copper ore. Guaranteed. Then you go back to the forge, smelt the ore, and you get copper bars. Guaranteed. Then you open your blacksmithing skill, choose a "recipe", and make it. Guaranteed. In the process, your blacksmithing and mining skills both go up.

That may sound like it's too easy, because you can't lose your materials. Blizzard decided (I think correctly) that it's not fun to watch an hour of work go down the drain because your skill is not high enough to craft anything without destroying your stuff. But, you can't get experience forever by making the basic stuff. At first you can craft copper bracers for the cost of two copper bars. But you only improve your smith skill for a little while doing that. Once it starts to drop off, you need to start buying higher level recipes, such as copper chainmail vests. That will cost you six copper bars, and some "flux", which you buy to remove impurities in the metal, and some linen cloth, which you get by fighting certain monsters. As you improve, you rely on more elaborate materials, and that requires you to go out and fight or explore. The emphasis is never on repetitive tasks; it's always on going through the world and discovering things.

There are really three kinds of points you get. Standard experience points get your character to higher levels, which improves your stats and allows you to train new fighting skills. Trade points allow you the POTENTIAL to learn any trade skill you wish, but you only get good at these trades by finding materials and practicing. (Note added later: This is no longer accurate in the retail version. Trade skill points were removed and a cap of two skills was implemented. Learning trade skills costs money, but not points.) Then when you get to level 10, you start getting talent points. These work in a manner similar to the skill tree on Diablo 2; you get three talent trees where you must acquire some abilities to acquire others.

For instance, my warrior has offense, defense, and fury. But in practice, it looks like I'll only be able to effectively choose ONE tree to develop. This is because the items in the offense tree all work in harmony with each other; to get the higher offense talents, the requirement is "Must have at least 20 talent points in offense". So if you divide up your points among the three trees, you'll be unable to get the really good skills.

This forces you to specialize your character. You can have a powerful offense fighter or defense fighter, but not both. Fury, I think, is the tree that allows you to buff your party with warcries and things like that. I don't know what talents are for the other classes because I'm not level 10 yet.

One thing I find smart about the game design is that you aren't offered choices until you know what you're doing. As I said, craft skills are cheap at low levels, so you can experiment without permanently nerfing your character. And because the talent points don't come until level 10, you should already have a feeling for what kind of abilities you can get, which means you probably won't make a big mistake picking talents for things that don't interest you.

Finally, the architecture is impressive. All the races start in their own training town, but as you get out into the world you see gradually larger towns until you finally get to your race's big city. When I played a human mage, I found Stormwind Keep for the first time. This may sound cheesy, but it was literally awe inspiring. I was like "Oh my God, that is an enormous friggin' castle!!!" Then you get inside and there's an entire city inside the walls. Guards are posted everywhere, and you can ask them for directions to anything you might be looking for (trainers, merchants, inns, etc). And believe me, you'll need them.

For the dwarves, there is Ironforge, a tremendous subterranean city with a giant anvil in the center for blacksmiths, stores and classes arranged in a ring all around the edges, and an enormous moat of lava dividing the inner and outer rings. I have played an orc character, but I haven't seen their city of Orgrimmar yet.

So far in the game, there's so many things to try that I often can't decide what to do. My quest log is always full -- you not only get quests specific to each map region, but you also get class-specific quests (warrior, mage, etc) and quests that are based on your trade skills ("We need to supply the war front with six copper axes and six copper bracers, pronto!") You can run around practicing skills, collecting resources, and levelling up without questing. You can even join large parties who are running to raid the nearby orc cities. I went with a team of about 30 characters and we beat off several high level guards before I gave up and went back to town. Tip: if you're going to attack a city, bring lots of characters with resurrect abilities.

I probably have only a few days left to play, and the game's not out until around Christmas time. It's going to be a frustrating wait. The game has a lot of minor bugs right now. Sometimes a monster will be standing around but won't attack anyone and can't be attacked. I fell through a crack in the polygon ground once while mining in a quarry. I fell for a few hundred feet, got to see the underside of the landscape, and then when I went below a certain point, I was instantly teleported to my home town. Still, apart from the regular server crashes (this *is* a stress test after all) the game was remarkably stable and smooth, and I could go about my business for long periods of time without noticing any major problems. Someone who joined my party said, "If this were Everquest, this would be the retail version."

Final score: ***** out of 5

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