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World of Warcraft Preview

Friday, March 19, 2004 by Helly || [0 Comments]

World of Warcraft Preview
The MMORPG market is almost at its saturation point, but that doesn’t stop companies eager to tap into the initial sale+monthly fee = payday formula from releasing new titles. However, at this point a developer had best have either a revolutionary game concept or an established brand in order to be successful.

Enter Blizzard, a company that has plans to tap into not only the power of its brand name, but the strength of its long-running Warcraft series of RTS games. Fans of Warcraft have been drooling over the prospect of a Warcraft-themed MMORPG ever since Blizzard announced development. Currently finishing up initial testing and going into an open beta, World of Warcraft is finally going to be available to the public. Having been lucky enough to be allowed into the game, the reviewers at XPD8 are pleased to introduce you to the World of Warcraft and give you, the gamer, an idea of what to expect from Blizzard’s first foray into the volatile MMORPG market.

The World of Warcraft features a large world consisting of three continents and two distinct groups; The Horde and The Alliance. Within each group are several races. For example, The Horde consists of Orcs, Trolls, bull-like Tauren and the undead Forsaken. The Alliance is made up of Humans, Dwarves, Night-Elves and Gnomes. Right off the bat, the player has a large selection of possible races to play. It should be noted that each race does have race-specific abilities and class limitations. While not implemented as of yet, there is the possibility of Horde vs. Alliance PvP as well, so race selection will determine on which side of the struggle you’ll be fighting.

Character creation is a straightforward process: simply select a race and pick your gender. The character creation screen allows for limited manipulation of character skin tones, facial expressions and hairstyles to customize your character. Blizzard has promised to implement a much larger number of available options to allow users to achieve a more unique look.

Once your race is selected, the player can choose from several classes within the game. The melee-oriented can choose from Warrior or Paladin, the criminals amongst you can pick Rogue, and the magic fans can choose from Priest, Mage, Shaman and Warlock. None of the distinctions I’ve made in the list above are hard and fast, as Priests are decent melee players and Paladins have holy spells to develop, but the class selection is standard fantasy genre fare. Other classes are available but have yet to be implemented, such as the Hunter and the Druid.

When starting your character, all players share the same basic level of stats. However, as time goes by and your character gains levels, you’ll earn points to put towards talents. These talents benefit specific attributes and, therefore, will be different for each player and class. Warriors will spend more time training their strength and weapons specializations, while a Mage will focus primarily on spirit and mana-based talents. All classes and races have the ability to train specific damage bonus talents (such as additional damage against beasts or the undead) as well as specific resistances (such as nature, magic, fire, etc.).

Characters are also given a set number of Skill Points, which allow you to purchase, not surprisingly, new skills and trade skills. Skill points can be spent on something like learning a new weapon or put towards a trade skill, such as enchanting items. There are a multitude of different skills to learn: mining, first aid, cooking, leatherworking, fishing, blacksmithing, alchemy, herb gathering, and more. Several of the skills are complementary, such as herb gathering and alchemy. Trade skills generally have recipes or patterns associated with them, such as a traditional recipe for a new meal in cooking, a pattern for chain mail leggings or heavy bandages. New recipes/patterns can be found either as drops from mobs, quest items or bought from trainers. A nice, and relatively recent, addition has been the ability to unlearn skills and reclaim the spent skill points. This allows a player to experiment with the many available skills to find the best fit for their character without incurring penalties for changing one’s mind as your character progresses.

While class and career paths do provide a certain amount of variety for player characters, there is a concern that the sheer sameness of the different races, despite their disparate looks, locations and backgrounds, will lead to some frustration. One wonders why a tiny Gnome is the same strength as a massive Orc or Tauren at character creation time. We here at XPD8 have been discussing the pros and cons of this approach but have yet to reach a consensus. Some of us feel that it is a wise decision on the part of Blizzard to keep all races and classes the same across all the races as it will make the task of balancing classes much simpler, since they won’t have to account for race-specific attributes in the process. Others of us feel that the sheer unreality of two completely different races being exactly the same at start destroys game play choices and negates the player’s earliest decisions. The available race-specific skills or bonuses are just not compelling enough to make up for the lack of variety in the race’s stats or classes, so we can’t even bring those into the equation. We, just as the rest of the WoW players, will have to see how this design choice works out as the game moves towards final release.

The economy of WoW is at this point a mix of both player and NPC vendors. The large pool of crafting and trade skills means that there is a market for player-made weapons, armor and clothing but a good deal of this crafting relies on NPC vendors selling components of recipes. NPC vendors also offer armor and weapons of their own which is generally pretty solid quality, although not as good as what can be crafted. Players can sell both their spare loot or the items they craft to any available vendor for some quick cash. There are chat channels dedicated specifically to auctions and trade so that players have a venue built-in for sales of their items. Players can also sell gathered materials, such as leather, cloth and wool, to crafters in need of such components for their recipes.

OK – so far, so good. You’ve got an idea of the basics of character creation and an idea of what drives your character’s development. Once you’ve entered the game world with your new character, what are you going to discover?

Graphics/Display:

This section will detail not only the graphics of the game, but the actual game play itself. For reference, I’m running a P4 3.0GHz with 1 GB RAM and an ATI Radeon 9800 Pro 128MB video card. I’ve tweaked out the settings as much as possible, but there are still some options that are unavailable at the time of this testing. I run at 1024x768 in game with high settings and have run into no frame rate problems and only limited lag in cities and towns. As more people join the game, it will be a test of the graphics engine to handle the additional load, so we’ll leave the video lag question as “fine for now, but we’ll see what the future holds”.

The world of World of Warcraft is a varied and involving affair. From the frozen Dun Morogh, home of the Dwarves, to the scrubland of Durotar, home of the Orcs, to the greenery of Elwynn Forest, home of the Humans, each section of the world has a unique appearance. There are some great water and snow effects in the way the light reflects and refracts off their surfaces. Water areas, such as lakes and oceans, are fully explorable and often times harbor bottom dwelling predators or potential treasure. Of course, characters can’t breathe underwater (except for the undead Forsaken) so you’ll need to time your dives accordingly. Your character has the opportunity to spend time in green forests, along rough coastlines, in barren deserts, on top of mountains, in deep tunnels and exploring numerous static dungeons.

I’ve always been concerned with the inevitable level-grind that is found in all MMORPGs today. My goal in playing an MMORPG has never been to hit the highest level as quickly as possible, but many other players disagree with me and find it entertaining to push as fast and as hard as possible up the ladder. Usually this progression comes at the expense of entertainment as players kill the same thing over and over and over again just to earn XP. Groups are formed purely based on how much XP they’ll earn together and high XP hunting zones are camped out at all times. For me, this kind of repetitive behavior gets boring, quickly. WoW has addressed this problem in a few ways.

Firstly, the developers have instituted a strong questing system that not only keeps me interested but also keeps me moving around and discovering new areas. Multiple NPCs will have quests for characters in any given town, and the last of these quests invariably ends up sending the character on to another location in the game. The base of the quests vary from simple “kill 8 beasties” to “collect 6 items from beasties” to “deliver item”. These are pretty standard quests, but the storylines given for each of them from the NPC helps set the tone and deliver some storylines that give a history of the world, or at least the history the NPC believes. This helps with the immersion quotient of the game. Some of the quests can be completed solo but very often you’ll need the assistance of others in order to survive the experience. WoW implements a soft level cap for grouping, meaning that a level 8 can group with a level 18, but that level 8 character won’t receive any experience for the kills. This prevents high level characters from power-leveling low level players.

The availability of quests depends upon the level of the character, so you may see an NPC who has a quest for you that isn’t accessible yet (NPCs with quests appear with a gold exclamation point floating above their heads – when you aren’t high enough level, the exclamation point is grey), but as you gain levels you’ll be able to get the quest from the NPC. Rewards for quests are generally equipment, cash and experience, but as the character grows higher in levels without completing the quest, the amount of experience rewarded drops, making it worthwhile for the player to group up to complete the quest sooner rather than later.

Secondly, the developers have included instanced zones in some of the bigger dungeons, known as World Dungeons. These instanced zones allow a single party to enter into a generated dungeon where they are the only occupants, except for the things they are hunting. This removes the need to spawn-camp kills or camp treasure sites, because the dungeon is unique for each party. The group can even invite other players to join them in the instanced zone, which allows for modifications of the group on the fly. Unfortunately, for the non-instance dungeons, which are generally smaller, there is a tendency for them to get overcamped as players hunt for the same quest drops off the specific mobs. Hopefully Blizzard will work out a way to keep smaller, quest-oriented dungeons and areas a bit more player friendly until said players reach the levels where instance dungeons are available.

Of course for those who simply love to grind out their experience, there is always the prospect of simple hunting. This can be done either purely for XP or to gather materials and resources for a trade skill (such as collecting raw leather or cloth, which are drops from animals or humanoids). Hunting styles will vary by class, but there are several different strategies for hunting. As a character progresses and trains new abilities and spells, new strategies emerge. For example: a Rogue can stealth up behind a creature and use his Sap ability to stun, pick pockets for some extra cash and then backstab to begin combat proper. Throw another stun in there, such as gouge, slip around behind the creature and backstab again and chances are you’re walking away the winner. Mages will be able to use a multitude of bolt spells to pull their prey from a crowd and mix in both root spells (a spell which roots a creature to one spot, basically freezing them in place) and instant-cast damage spells and you may be able to kill a creature before it even reaches you. Warriors build up Rage in order to pull off their special moves, and there’s no better way to build rage than by simply rushing in and beating some creatures down.

New Abilities and Spells can be learned, for a price, from trainers located in major cities and towns. New Abilities and Spells can generally be learned every other level, providing some motivation to continue earning those levels.

The lands in World of Warcraft, as hinted at earlier, are varied and diverse. Races start off in different lands, each of which has a distinct look and feel. Humans start off in Northshire Abbey, a mix of grassy and forested areas. As all races will do in the course of their questing, humans will move on to other locations. Westfall, which once was a desolate farming community, is now infested with bandits and fierce creatures. Darkshire, a slightly cobwebbed, haunted looking forest where you expect things that go bump in the night to leap out at you. The fount of human civilization is the city, Stormwind, a massive fortress with featuring just about everything a player character will need, be it goods, services or training.

The Dwarves start off in Dun Morogh, the frozen, mountainous lands north of human habitation. A once thriving forest, Dun Morogh has been caught in a never-ending snowstorm. As your character moves out of this beginning locale, the world begins to thaw. Soon you’ll discover the lakes and forestlands of Loch Modan as well as the boggy lands (complete with swamp creatures) known as the Wetlands. The dwarf capitol city is Ironforge, a huge city built on top of a giant forge tucked inside a mountain, quite appropriate for the dwarves who are renowned for their mining and smithing skills.

The Forsaken lands are the darkest of the bunch. Starting off in Tristfall Glades, most of the undead areas are dark, overcast and moody, resembling the setting for a horror movie. You’ll move through the heavily wooded areas of the Sepulcher into the large open areas of the Hillsbrad Foothills, where the Forsaken are based in a overrun town called Tarren Mills. The Forsaken's main city is the Undercity. Built long ago under the ruins of Lordaeron by Prince Athas, it was taken over by the rebel Forsaken. It is a large city, with lovely green toxic waste running in channels throughout.

The Orcs and Trolls start off in the same land, Durotar, a rocky, desolate place, featuring the deep orange shades of mesas and clay. After exploring the ruined ships and jungle islands of the coast, you are off to the Barrens. These vast lands are barren of flora, perhaps, but are teeming with fauna, all savage, ready to attack you for the food that you represent. Beyond the Barrens are new dangers in the Valley of Giants, where you might find the slithid (everyone's nightmare) and further into Duskwallow Marsh, another dark and haunted location. Then, if you didn't get the feeling you were in the Grand Canyon or Arizona back in Durotar, you enter Thousand Needles. Comprised of great spires of rock, this dry land is packed with nasties, similar to the ones you would find in the desert. From there, you move out into an area called the Shimmering Flats. Here, you can find the racetrack, where goblins pit their racing machines against the gnomish machines. Its not all fun and games out here though, this land is also filled with lots of creatures, from Basilisks to Giant Turtles. The major Orc and Troll city is Ogrimmar, a magnificent horde city, built into, and around rocky bluffs.

The grasslands of Mulgore make up the initial Tauren lands. Mostly flat, grassy lands, broken up by the occasional tree dotting the landscape, it’s quite a contrast to the bordering Barrens mentioned above. The major city though, is quite different than most of the others. The Tauren live closer to nature than the other races and, as is their wont, live in tepees on a high plateau named Thunder Bluff. This city in the skies, which is divided into different mesas connected by bridges(suffice it to say, you do NOT want to jump off from here), is decorated with pictographs, totem poles, and other artwork of the Tauren.

The Night Elves call the lands of Teldrassil home. The forest home of the Night Elves, colored in rich shades of purple, blue and green, actually exists entirely inside of a tree, known as the World Tree. After leaving the World Tree, you venture to Darkshore, a misty, dark coastline that melds into a darkened forest. Here you will find a mix of natural wildlife, corrupted Furbolgs, ghosts and spirits. After your adventures in Darkshore, you move on to Ashenvale Forest, more akin to the starting Night Elf lands. Darnassus is the major Night Elf city, consisting of ancient ruins and marble buildings with new structures and open-air dwellings representing the rebuilding efforts of the Night Elves.

There is obviously a great deal to explore and see in the World of Warcraft. Movement is facilitated by mounts, which have not been fully implemented, and by means of a transit system. Players, as they visit new places and meet the NPCs who oversee the use of trained beasts of burden, learn routes between places. Once a route is established, a player can purchase a ride between routes. This is similar to the horse system in Dark Age of Camelot, but in this case the rides are more accurately described as flights. Another method of travel exists, magical in nature, where certain classes can learn portal spells in order to facilitate travel for players. There's also a spell which allows a player to summon a specific player to their location, a handy treat for groups trying to stay together after a player's character dies.

Interface/Controls:

The in-game controls are pretty standard, and include some useful functionality seen in previous MMORPGs. The HUD consists of a series of hotbars along the bottom the screen, a chat window on the bottom left, character icons in the top left and a compass in the top right. The hotbars include a configurable toolbar where you can add and remove icons representing your characters abilities, skills, usable inventory items, attacks and so on. This hotbar is actually navigable via arrows on the right, opening up multiple hotbars where you can store more buttons, allowing for combat-oriented bars, trade-oriented bars, and so forth. There's a small ping indicator nestled between the previously described hotbar and the next toolbar, which contains buttons for character information, in-game help, options, abilities and so forth. Next there is a smaller, 6-slot hotbar where additional bags, the in-game storage device similar to backpacks in Asheron's Call, are placed. Finally is the main backpack every character starts the game possessing.

With a limited bag system for storing loot, players will have to eventually find ways to store their extra gear or crafting materials. Enter the Banks. Each major city has a bank where players can freely deposit a good number of items. Further slots are available for purchase at each bank, allowing for greater storage capacity. Items stored in one bank are available at all banks.

The ability to create custom macros has recently been added to the game, which will allow players to create simple scripts for repetitive tasks. Macros are assigned an icon, which can then be dragged to one of your hotbars making activation of your new macro a snap.

In-game chatting is handled via several channels and commands. The “say” command will broadcast your comments to the local area, while the “yell” command sends it much further so that more people can read your words (use judiciously, folks). Worldwide channels, such as the generic General channel, exist as well and are places where everyone can chat regardless of location. Other channels, such as Trade, exist as well, and can be joined or departed with simple commands. As found in other MMORPGs, there is functionality included for group chatting, guild chatting and private chats.

I use standard WASD/Mouse controls for movement and combat, but controls can be mapped to other keys. My background before MMORPGs was more FPS-related, so I'm comfortable with this structure, but other combinations are certainly possible. Combat is handled in a pretty standard fashion: click on the target, initiate attack and go. It's not entirely point-and-click and you will have multiple combat options to choose from as the fight progresses, based upon available resources. For example, Mages use Mana for their spells, as indicated in a small blue bar underneath the health indicator in the character display in the top left. Similarly, Rogues use Energy to complete their moves, which is yellow. Slightly different are Warriors, who must build Rage points, gained by fighting and special abilities, in order to pull off their special moves.

Death penalties are present in game, and have gone through some changes as the testing has progressed. Currently when you die, you are resurrected at the nearest binding stone (found in many towns and cities) as a ghost. You must then make a “corpse run” to the location where you died and where your body waits for you (a pointer to your corpse is placed on your compass). Once there, you will have the option to resurrect within a certain range of your body, allowing you to avoid resurrecting right next to an enemy. As a ghost you are invisible to others (including creatures) and you move faster, but you are in a state where you can perform only limited functions (since you're dead, as it were). There is also the option of using the Spirit Healer at the bind stone to resurrect immediately, but this option will cost you XP, a pricey deal for sure. This setup is a nice compromise of penalty for dying (so as to make one avoid it) without penalizing too harshly (the anguish of losing high quality items is not present) while still providing an option for immediate resurrection. But this quick fix is expensive enough to dissuade players from simply getting killed just to get back to a town quickly (using death as a cheap portal). Some classes will also have the ability to resurrect players, so you may not have to worry about corpse runs or paying XP costs for instant resurrection. Of course, player resurrections come with “rez sickness” where your attributes, such as strength and spirit, are dropped by several points for a few minutes.

Other useful (and entertaining) features include a wide variety of animated emotes. Indeed, each race has its own unique /dance emote, which are generally pretty amusing (especially the gnome's booty shaking). There are also in-game maps, which are currently a little less than useful, but which should receive touch-ups as the game's development progresses.

Multiplayer (if any):

This game is a multiplayer only game, as are all MMORPGs. The idea is to become part of a larger community, and the game strives to give you a plethora of choices designed to help you find a unique place within this community.

The question many people have is “what's the point of this game”? That's a hard one to answer, as it is with most MMORPGs. There is no hard and fast goal to achieve within this game. The idea is to get immersed in the world and your character, exploring and discovering new lands and new challenges. The developers, in turn, will continue to add content as the game ages, keeping the world fresh and interesting for characters of all levels. There is plenty of backstory for all the different races in this game, and Blizzard has a solid brand on its hands to work with, but other developers have had strong brands and floundered in the MMORPG market (and they shall remain nameless...Luke, I AM YOUR FATHER!). We'll be very interested to see how Blizzard handles the idea of end games/high-level play, such as Realm vs. Realm combat in Dark Age of Camelot, or the Notum Wars of Anarchy Online.

The end-game question may not be important for all players, but some players enjoy gaining levels and power as quickly as possible. It may be a bit more difficult for them to enjoy the game if they've maxed out the levels their character can achieve within weeks of release, but then it's the developers' responsibility to make sure that the game is challenging enough that no one player can shoot through levels without a significant investment of time and effort (and trust me, there will be plenty of players who will want to test this – reaching the highest level first is always seen as an achievement, regardless of the hours invested or the exploits employed).

The developers will have their hands full keeping the game exciting and interesting for power-levelers while still keeping the pace acceptable for the more casual gamer who doesn't have the hours available to power level. As Blizzard enters the world of the MMORPG, where every customer is a paying customer who expects their voices to be heard, we'll keep our fingers crossed that they're ready for the technical and social obstacles that are unique to this genre of game.

Summary:

I can honestly say that we've all enjoyed playing WoW enough to tentatively agree, amongst ourselves, to buy the game and reform our guild upon public release, which is pretty a strong endorsement. The polish and depth of the game currently bode well for future development. Even in this early stage there is plenty for a character to do either alone or in groups, and there is plenty to look forward too (such as how PvP and Race interactions will be handled). Obviously, those of you in the beta will be able to make your own judgements, and those of you waiting for the official release will have all those opinions, plus ours, to help you decide whether this is the MMORPG for you. As for XPD8, plan to see us in-game.

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