World of Warcraft

Developer:  Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher:  Vivendi Universal Games
Year Released:  2004

Review by Rosemary Young (June, 2005)
Well I might just have made a big mistake dipping into World of Warcraft (WOW). Never played an online RPG before because I was well and truly scared off by tales of newbies being beaten up by bullies (otherwise known as player killers). I didn't expect to last long enough to get used to the experience. I might never have tried had I not got my arm twisted by a couple of friends. And it's all too late to turn back now.

So before I start this review I have to say that I can't compare WOW with any other MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game), and please excuse me if I get any of the jargon wrong. What I intend to do is call on my long experience of CRPGs. I should also point out that I am playing on a pve (player vs. environment) as opposed to a pvp (player vs. player) server, so not once have I been attacked by another player outside of duelling which I've tried a couple of times. So life is easy in this respect.

WOW, what a wonderful world
The plain truth is that after five weeks I'm well and truly hooked on WOW and the world of Azeroth where the action takes place between two warring factions: The Alliance and The Horde. Although I've heard complaints that the graphics are too cartoonish, they certainly aren't coming from me. It's an amazing place of amazing, varied landscapes and I've hardly scratched the surface yet.

Quite simply the graphics do a conjuring trick in creating the world, they constantly dazzle, and immerse you in your journey. You control the camera and view the world from any angle, from ground level to god level, so you can sit above or behind your character during play, or close in and take a first person perspective. And not only do the graphics fabulously depict awe-inspiring cities with great monuments and towering cathedrals, but there are quaint little villages with wooden cottages and ornate roofs; rolling hills speckled with caves, ruins, rivers and waterfalls; towering forests of giant trees; burnt, brown landscapes; sandy beaches with islands and shipwrecks to explore, and much, much more.

WOW literally comes alive as you make your way through it. Creatures growl nearby, water trickles and gushes, birds twitter and you can hear the crickets at night. The feeling of being in another world is heightened particularly in highly populated places where there are all sorts of weird and wonderful characters milling about. Tiny gnomes with cute topknots, priests in strikingly colourful gowns, tattooed dark elves, sturdy dwarves, you name it. A paladin might race by on a black horse with flaming hooves; and magnificent cats, rams, wolves, and other creatures also make impressive mounts. Hunters have their pets in tow, more cats, owls, raptors, spiders; almost any creature you can name, real and imaginary. Warlocks are accompanied by their other-worldly familiars too, and a druid may have taken the form of a bear.

Some characters are chatting, you can hear the laughter and the hoots of delight, and watch them wave, cheer and bow. Others might be dancing, duelling, shopping, or simply speeding on their way (and these are all real people in another more mundane life). A friendly passer-by might buff your character to add extra stats of some description, and you can turn and wave if you can pick who did it. Or you might stop to chat and get some help with directions or pointers for solving a quest. You can join with others to tackle a particularly tricky problem, join a guild of likeminded players and go on enemy raids, or simply make friends. Maybe you are going places, you can take a tram or a boat, or soar overhead on a gryphon or a hippogryph. Or you can post mail to other players. There is so much going on and so much to do it's impossible to do justice to WOW here.

Designer characters
Of course on logging into this online world your first task is to create a character from either of the two warring factions: Alliance or Horde. There are four Alliance races: Human, Dwarf, Night Elf and Gnome; and four Horde: Orc, Undead, Tauren and Troll. The latter aren't very pretty but you can dress all your characters up with different hair colouring and styles, different skin colouring, face markings, horns, or whatever is appropriate. For each race there are the familiar class options such as Warrior, Rogue, Priest, Mage, Warlock, Druid, or Hunter although not every class is available to every race. Pointedly the Paladin and Shaman hail from the Alliance and Horde respectively. All this is taken into account in the character creation screen and you can pick and choose and adjust till you get the perfect character, name him or her, and off you go.

And not only do you have these initial choices in designing your character but as WOW progresses characters are further moulded via their skills and talents. Combat skills increase automatically with experience but other skills: mining, blacksmithing, herbalism, alchemy, enchanting, skinning, leatherworking and tailoring, are there for you to take your pick. Of these primary skills you can only take two and often the two are related such as mining and blacksmithing, and are a good choice for warrior types to manufacture weapons and armour. Mages, on the other hand may be better served by herbalism and alchemy (or enchanting) and other classes by other combinations. Cooking, fishing and first aid are there too, as secondary skills, and they come in handy to survive in WOW.

Talents, on the other hand, only become available after level 10 when you can choose to specialise in different streams of your character's natural talents. Mages, for instance, might specialise in one (or two) of three spell channels: Fire, Ice and Arcane; Hunters have Beast Mastery, Marksmanship and Survival, etc. etc. Whatever class, you can build up their particular talent streams to suit your style. Fortunately you can experiment with talents because you do get several chances to re-think your strategy and redistribute points.

Playing the game
It's simple. Apart from movement which is keyboard only, everything else has keyboard and mouse support. Menus sit along the bottom of the screen and you can add more according to taste. Everything is labelled when hovering the cursor, including all icons and inventory items. Weapons and armour display their strengths and attributes and special items have crucial instructions for use.

I was mightily impressed with all this information and feedback from WOW which you can also adjust to your liking. Added to the above a small log confirms each action taken by your character and reports on combat blow by blow. Of course there are backup health and mana bars, and the screen shows damage points during combat. Another small overlaid log keeps track of conversations both general and personal. If you keep an eye on this log you might spot someone call for help, or they might be willing to trade something you want. Or you can offer to trade with anyone nearby and 'whisper' to talk personally to a friend.

Shopping is very well organised too because when you select an item its description is matched by a description of your equivalent equipped item so you can immediately tell if you want to buy. Quests are logged with a little potted history to make them more interesting, they are colour coded for level of difficulty, and the list goes on. The only thing I did miss was the ability to write to the maps, but I don't suppose you can have everything. Also, as you complete quests they disappear from your log, never to be seen again. A list of completed quests would be nice, if only to make you feel good!

A final word on quests. They come in several varieties such as delivery, escort, collection and kill quests. Yes, they do get a bit repetitive but this, apparently, is usual for MMORPGs. Still there is a good variety as some quests merge into a thread that tells a little story within the context of the warring world, others are tricky and demand a good fighting strategy or, better still, a little help from your friends. This is where you can form a party to get the job done. I should add here that there are quests galore, and quest givers are marked by a strong yellow 'Exclamation' so you can pick them out in the crowd. Once the quest is completed the 'Exclamation' changes to a 'Question Mark' so once again it's easy to pick out the person to return to for your reward.

My experience
I must confess, I started out with some trepidation. The introduction was awe-inspiring and then came the gameworld ... some hawkers standing near their colourful carts, rolling green hills and an ornate building nearby. Everyone looked so relaxed, happy, and comfortable, but I just stood, dumbfounded, admiring the scenery. It wasn't long, though, before I spotted a quest giver nearby and that was it. My cute little gnome won a heart right from the start when a friendly dwarf offered help in searching a cave. I nearly fell over when he bowed and that's when I went to the manual and learned how to bow, clap, wave, dance, and get up to all sorts of tricks.

A bit of too-ing and fro-ing, and a couple of untimely deaths, and I was getting the hang of it. Death, I should point out, isn't such a bad thing. Resurrection is offered at a mouse click and all you have to do is find your way to your clearly signposted body and continue. To save time a gracious spirit will resurrect you in the graveyard but there is a small penalty of equipment decay for this privilege.

I had no trouble with the real-time combat. It's easy to master and not too frantic. The starting areas are populated by low-level creatures so you begin gently. From here the quests channel you to progressively more challenging areas so that you are always within your limits if you don't stray too far. It's also very reassuring that the main winding roadways are relatively safe so you can travel from place to place mostly unscathed.

Of course this, coupled with the magical gameworld, means exploration is a treat in WOW, which is a good thing because there is some trudging around to do till you earn enough experience to acquire a horse or whatever other majestic creature you want to eventually sit astride. Meanwhile, as you walk or run beneath the trees, the light and shadow continually play on your character and switch their clothing from dull and murky to brightly coloured.

The world is so interesting I do a lot of sightseeing in WOW, always finding something new. Sometimes when alone I feel like a first-time traveller in an eerie, untouched land. There are many grand vistas to admire, so I might stop to do some fishing in a breathtaking spot, or just stand and stare. At night it can be creepy under the great full moon and there's always the expectation that something might jump out and say 'boo', and indeed, something might jump out if you don't watch your step.

All the characters in WOW look fascinating, I wanted to try them all and luckily you can create more than one character and swap between them. After training my mage up to level 13 I couldn't resist a change. Next I tried a Hunter and took her and her spider pet to level 31. When time permits I will continue.

Of course the one big thing to note if you are not familiar with MMORPGs is that there isn't a strong, tight story running through WOW leading to an ultimate end. This worried me at first, but only briefly, and the quests do sit within an overall framework of the two warring races of Azeroth. Neither have I been worried too much by lag. It's happened a few times in highly populated places but I managed to cope. Also, after playing solely CRPGs I do admit I have to make a special effort to acknowledge those around me as other 'real' players like myself. And I confess I don't always remember to watch the flow of conversation either, so I miss personal messages and greetings. This player interaction is something you get used to, although I'm sure I must have seemed discourteous sometimes! I am mending my ways at the moment and it's doubling the fun.

In fact, apart from the world itself, the great attraction of World of Warcraft for me is the community. Making friends and helping each other out is especially enjoyable. You can arrange to meet with friends, or make up a party, or join a guild when more experienced players will offer good advice, and even help your puny character improve their lot. You can also chat casually with strangers and have a laugh, especially if they dare to kick your spider. Although the one thing I have noted, my tiny Gnome Mage as been challenged to dozens more duels in half the time than my tall, sturdy Dark Elf Hunter ... wonder why? rating:  

Copyright © Rosemary Young 2005. All rights reserved.

System Requirements:
Windows 98/ME/2000/XP, 800 MHz or higher CPU, 256 MB or more of RAM, 32 MB 3D graphics card with hardware transform and lighting, such as GeForce 2 or better, 4 GB or more of available hard drive space, DirectX 9.0c or above, A 56k or higher modem with an Internet connection.
Mac System OS X 10.3.5, 933 MHz or higher G4 or G5 processor, 512 MB RAM or higher; DDR RAM recommended, ATI or NVIDIA video hardware with 32 MB VRAM or more, 4 GB or more of available hard drive space, MacOS X 10.3.5 or newer, 56k or higher modem with an Internet connection.