Of orcs and men. Preview

Of orcs and men.

With a land ravaged by not one, not two, but three wars (plus a couple minor skirmishes), a calm has settled over the World of Warcraft. The Alliance works hard to rebuild their shattered land, reclaiming territory lost in the Orcish invasion. The Horde, having freed itself from the Burning Legion, is rediscovering itself and its history as it attempts to carve a more permanent home in what was once a foreign land. The peace is tenuous, often broken with both minor and major struggles. This is the land into which you must carve your own destiny.

NOTE: The following preview of World of Warcraft is based on our experiences with the lengthy beta test. As such, the game is in an almost constant state of change and some items discussed here will not be in the final release, while others not discussed will be. We at Game Revolution officially love the fact that Blizzard is having such an unusually long beta test, especially for a Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) game, and wish that more companies would follow the same design schedule. Okay, back to the preview…

As with any MMO game, the first step is deciding who you are going to be. World of Warcraft gives you plenty of character design options beyond just choosing between the Horde and the Alliance. On the side of the Alliance, you can opt to be a Human (squishy), Dwarf (short), Gnome (even shorter), or Night Elf (metrosexual), whereas on the Horde, you can be an Orc (big and ugly), Troll (thin and ugly), Tauren (milky), or the Undead (zombies!). On top of that, you have to choose the class of character - Druid, Hunter, Mage, Paladin, Priest, Rogue, Shaman, Warlock, and Warrior - which is sometimes constrained by your race as only certain Alliance races can be Paladins and only certain Horde races can be Shamans (Shamen?). On top of that, the game implements a skill system that includes Herbalism, Enchanting, Mining, Engineering, Leathercraft, Blacksmithing, Fishing, and a number of others. Then there's an entire Talent system, which hasn't been implemented yet. You want character creation depth, you'll get it.

Given those options, "ElKabong" was born! Starting life as an Orcish Warrior named after a mysterious masked horse, he tried his hand with numerous thug weapons like swords and axes. But his life took an amazing turn when, in keeping with his namesake, he hit someone over the head with a giant two-handed hammer. Now a warrior poet, he uses his giant hammer to physically imprint his art on any unfortunate soul that happens to get in his way. Kabong!

ElKabong's life in the World of Warcraft is very similar to many other MMOs out on the market right now, from Lineage 2 to Asheron's Call 2. The standard view is third person, allowing you to use the mouse to interact with the world as you travel around killing monsters, gaining experience, dealing with other players and going on quests.

The world itself is huge. Two main continents separate the two factions, each with their own home cities large enough to house whole armies. The Orcish city of Orgrimmar serves as the capital of the Horde lands, and exists as a twisting city of valleys carved into the rock cliffs.

The design is remarkably organic, and despite a layout that doesn't always make sense, it looks really pretty. It's a realistic approach that allows for further immersion in the game's universe. Small communities exist in each major city. If you're a mage, go to the mage's quarter to find what you need. ElKabong managed to find everything he needed to encourage his hammering in Orgrimmar.

But if you had a hammer, you'd hammer all over this land, right? Indeed, you need to travel the world (often by horseback or, to really cover ground, griffonback) gaining experience and raising your level, so you can buy an even bigger hammer! Er, well, that's just ElKabong. In any case, the main way you gain experience is through combat, which is handled the same whether you're a mage or a warrior.

Once combat begins, you have a basic attack which is then augmented by your character's skills and spells. Whereas magic users always have to watch their Mana, warriors have to watch their Rage; Mana builds while resting and Rage builds while fighting. Character skills require certain amounts of either in order to work. So even if you learn the ultimate attack, you can only use it sparingly and when the time is right.

The quest system gives you reasons to run around killing things. Be it simply "take a message to my cousin" or "kill the guy who killed my cousin," quests add the undercurrent of a storyline to a game genre that classically has issues with maintaining some sort of developing plot. Because the game is in beta right now, the system is constantly being updated with new and different quests. One can only expect that the trend will continue upon the release of the game, giving players new goals as they work through the existing ones. Specific character classes and skill classes have quests, too; the Cooking trainer may send you on the quest for the ultimate steak sauce, which just happens to lie in the middle of a demon infested forest. A delicious forest, surely.

Speaking of the skill system, it works in the same way as experience: the more you use a skill, the better you get at it. Trainers add to your skills by giving you recipes for making things. As a miner, you get the skills to learn how to smelt different metals, creating an alloy you can use to craft items with your blacksmithing skill. Skills complement one another, such as fishing and cooking or herbalism and alchemy, requiring you to be more of a Renaissance man (or Orc) and less of a single-minded creature.

As with any MMORPG, the issue of Player vs. Player (PvP) combat is a big one. Some games removed it entirely (City of Heroes) while others let it go crazy (Eve Online). World of Warcraft just introduced PvP combat on a newer beta server and confined it to two forms: Duels and Horde vs. Alliance. Duels are fairly basic and can be declared between two People; winner kills the loser. Horde vs. Alliance combat is a bit trickier. The main areas for lower level characters are all declared safe spots. While the other side can venture in those areas, they can never be the aggressor. However, the majority of the land is contested, meaning that players are free to attack those of opposing forces. Eventually, PvP will be expanded further, with a suspicious looking Coliseum located in Orgrimmar.

There is no penalty for death in World of Warcraft, aside from the fact that you have to run back to your corpse. You do not lose items or experience when you die. If you make it back, you can resurrect in an area around your corpse, allowing you to hopefully avoid what just killed you. Alternately, you can choose not to make the run and take an experience hit, but it is almost never in your best interest to do so.

Perhaps the most debated feature in World of Warcraft also happens to be one of its most unique. As in any online game, there are players who can dedicate 9 hours a day to the game, and there are others who, to put it politely, have other things to do. To combat the inequity of that situation and in order to woo more casual players, Blizzard has introduced the "Rest" system.

When you log off in an inn or major city, your character begins to rest. When you log back in the next day, your character will be rested and everything he kills will give him more experience than if he was tired. The system has three stages: Rest (200% experience), Normal (150%), and Tired (100%). While you may be rested when you log in, there are stages of that, too. It takes about six days to earn the maximum amount of rest; if you're a weekend warrior and never play during the week, for instance, your accrued rest time is sort of pooled together so that you can enjoy a lengthier play period at Rest state, thereby getting more XP by the minute.

Unsurprisingly, the more hardcore gamers take issue with the fact that they feel penalized by playing nonstop, but in reality, the Rest system simply gives all gamers an incentive to mellow out and take a breather every once in a while. You'll still gain XP if you play constantly, but playing while Rested is simply more efficient. Makes sense to me, though it will likely be tweaked further all the way up until the game is finalized.

All in all, World of Warcraft is shaping up to be a solid MMORPG. While the experience itself won't be particularly new to the avid MMO gamer, the design and execution is more polished at this stage than just about any other MMO thus far. And with many months left to go on the beta test, that polish will continue. Expect it to be mighty shiny when it comes out at the end of 2004.