Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, September 08, 2004
World of Warcraft Opinion

As promised, part two of my World of Warcraft review, describing what I likes and where I see the weaknesses of this game:

The short version of my opinion on World of Warcraft is that I like it, and that I will buy this game when it released. The open stress test beta had to limit itself to 100,000 players, and that number was filled very quickly. And most people I met in the beta wanted to continue playing in the release version, so this stress test will generate even more free positive buzz for Blizzard. One doesn't need to be much of a prophet to predict that this will be a huge commercial success, one of the few games with several 100k of players.

Strangely it is hard to point out any unique new features which make this game so much fun. The game is chock-full of features, but each single one of them has already appeared in a similar form in some previous game. For example, public transport on a flying gryphon is very cool, but not fundamentally different from public transport on a horse in Dark Age of Camelot. The difference between World of Warcraft and lesser games is how well done every feature is, how well balanced, and how the features work great together in creating the atmosphere of a believable world.

The strongest point of World of Warcraft is the quest system. A player in WoW will never feel lost, not knowing what to do next. You still have unlimited freedom, but if you are in need of guidance which monsters to hunt next, or which zone to go to after out-leveling the current one, the quest system will provide help. And this help is in-game, you do not need to look up information on some website. Quest descriptions are accurate enough for you to solve them without outside help most of the time, but not as mindless as marking the monster to kill on your map. Quests are even color coded by difficulty.

If World of Warcraft has any weakness, then it is the fact that it is not a very social game. Being able to solo is great, but it often means that you don't bother with the difficult process of setting up a group. Instead of groups that stay together for hours, like in Everquest or Final Fantasy XI, you get groups formed spontaneously in front of the harder to kill boss monsters, dissolving directly after the task has been completed. Of course the non-permanent character of the open beta stress test might have added to this. Maybe in the release version the higher levels and the guilds will make groups more frequent in WoW. Some places like dungeons have spawn points quite close together, and if there aren't too many players in that place, hunting in a group could well give more xp per hour than soloing, and be less dangerous.

More groups would definitely be needed to make some of the character classes viable. For example the priest with his healing and resurrection is great in a group, but with only cloth armor and the least powerful aggressive spells he is rather hard to solo. The same is true for the shaman, whose major ability is casting totems, area-of-effect buffs, which are great for a group, but if you use them in solo play, they cost too much mana to be really effective.

The chat system could also be better. Actually it already *is* better, but needs a lot more documentation. By default you have 2 text windows, one for chat, and one for combat messages. Few people know how to create new chat windows, how to make more than one of them visible at the same time, or how to create new chat channels. This area of the interface is the least intuitive.

Social interactions can add a lot to the longevity of a game. But sheer size also helps. The world of WoW is huge. While there are no "zones" with loading screens (unless you change continents), the world is cleverly partitioned into areas with the help of mountains and other borders, with passes, gates, and the famous flying mounts connecting the different areas. The impressive thing is not the size of the world alone, but the variety. The areas are obviously hand-crafted, not just produced by some random-number algorithm. And the quests blend in perfectly with the areas. For example the plains of the Tauren lands fit well with American Indian culture theme of that race, and the natural spirits theme of the quests there.

One particular problem of the stress test, which most likely will reappear during the first week after release, is that monsters are sometimes hard to find, due to competition from other players. If there are 100 players in a small area like the humans newbie zone, each of them with the same two quests to kill 22 kobold workers, the poor kobolds have a life expectancy measured in seconds. I have seen 6 and more people camping a single kobold spawn point, which looked quite silly. One could finish the quest faster by grouping, every kobold killed counts as one kill for every group member, but the experience points per monster are much lower if you group. The monster shortage has already been addressed by the developers during beta, and will be much less of a problem once the game is past its first month, and people are stretched out over a wider range of levels.

So why do we have to wait until November or so before we can play the live version of World of Warcraft? WoW in its current form is stable, bug-free, and filled with enough content, but only if you judge it by the abysmal standards of previous MMORPG releases. There still are some minor lag problems, some minor bugs, the talent system seems only half-finished, and closed beta testers report of high-level content being still thin on the ground. The additional 2 months before release will help here. A few power gamers will always be able to "outlevel" a game. But the average player will have many months, if not years, before he runs out of content.

World of Warcraft further stretches its content by making it favorable to have several characters. There is a lot of fun to be had by trying out the different character classes, and experiencing the quests of the different races starting areas. And by alternating between the characters, you can always get a "rest bonus", doubling the xp you gain in combat. As long as your characters are on the same side, Horde or Alliance, you can even send items and money from one to the other via mailboxes. That is not only helpful for "twinking" (giving stuff to your low level characters), but also very useful if your different characters have different tradeskills, so for example one alchemist can provide all your characters with potions.

I'm not sure yet how long the fun will last, and if WoW will keep me playing for many months. But this is definitely a game worth buying and playing.

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