“Rise. Rise from the dead...”
Quite a way to begin a new game, is it not? It is rare for any game to get my attention so quickly right from the first words of the game. But I was so by the astonishing fact that I found my character actually and literally dead or, more accurately, lying about as one of the Forsaken being summoned to a new life.
You see, I have arrived at the World of Warcraft party uncomfortably late, a paltry eight years after everyone else. It’s hardly likely that this will start a new trend, particularly given that most games these days last only a year or two before closing or overshadowed by the “next big thing”.
Still, the old adage “better late than never” seems to apply quite well to my arrival in Azeroth. Convinced by my friend Shelassa, a true WoW veteran, to try it out, I have become an ardent member of the Cult of WoW. By playing the game through level forty-ish, I am of the opinion that it is still the finest example of a high fantasy theme park MMO on the market. Younger games have not been able to topple the WoW juggernaut, and for good reason.
As a caveat to this article: I do not in any way pretend to be an expert on any aspect of World of Warcraft. It does help that I partner with a walking WoW lexicon in the form of Shelassa but any errors in the article are entirely mine.
It's Easy to See the Attraction
Entering World of Warcraft for the first time, I wasn’t totally sure what to expect. Of course, I’d seen plenty of screenshots and videos over the years but, still, seeing something live is a completely different experience.
It’s easy to see that WoW is an aging title given the limited number of character customization options and the overall graphic look of the game. There are are actually more races to choose from than there are character model options and all of those are presets with only minor differences between them. Still, it isn’t bad exactly, just different and one of the places where WoW shows its age.
Maybe it’s idealistic of me to think that overhauling character customization might have been a relatively easy thing to do over the years but, then again, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Where World of Warcraft really begins to shine is when characters actually enter the game. With a wide variety of starting points based on a character’s race, one can take those first baby steps into the game more than once without repeating the same content for a good long while. I compare this to more modern games like Neverwinter, for instance, where every class and race begins in the same spot each and every time thereby severely limiting the desire to start a new character.
Today’s game developers could learn a thing or two from World of Warcraft by simply allowing for a multiplicity of starter zones. That one small fact in and of itself gives a strong replayability option to any game as amply evidenced by WoW.
Graphics, at least in the early to mid-levels of the game, are very dated. In some ways, it reminded me of the difference between Act I and Act 5 in Diablo 2. Judging by the screens and videos from Mists of Pandaria, the team has taken what they have and made improvements in the graphics at that end of the game. It will be interesting to watch the progression as we move through the game. I wonder, though: Is it worth Blizzard’s time to go back and “spruce up” the oldest areas of the game?
Even with the dated graphics, World of Warcraft is still one of the prettiest games I’ve ever played, both visually and aurally. I actually like the color palette and the ways in which the team put together all of the zones through which I’ve traveled and the music score only enhances the feel of each area.
To my way of thinking, the lore in World of Warcraft is amazing. Not only is the in-game story well-thought out and executed, but there is a huge library of novelizations based on both the Warcraft strategy games and World of Warcraft itself. Players can immerse themselves in the universe in a far deeper way than in any other game I’ve experienced, including any game based on Dungeons & Dragons.
The story in World of Warcraft isn’t a static creation either. The world shifts and changes both in the game and in the novelizations based on the universe. The Lich King rises and dies. The world undergoes a cataclysmic alteration in look and feel. Deathwing terrorizes and is ultimately defeated. Blizzard has kept players on their virtual toes for years, not always pleasing the player base, but done nonetheless. In some ways, this way of altering the world laid the groundwork for game evolution such as the ‘living stories’ in Guild Wars 2, dynamic events as in Rift and more.
With the delay of Titan, the door swings open again for World of Warcraft and at least one more expansion between now and 2016. What will it bring to Azeroth this time? Will, as Shelassa opined, Sylvanas become the main antagonist as she slowly evolves to resemble the Lich King. Even Argent Apothecary Judkins in the Eastern Plaguelands says that "I once worked for the so-called "Banshee-Queen", Sylvanas, as an apothecary. I used to admire her, but something's changed within her. She's not herself anymore.". It is possible her sister Alleria will return from beyond the Dark Portal to carry out an epic sister-on-sister battle for supremacy with neutral Vereesa standing helplessly by. After all, there is a loading screen that hints at Alleria's return. While this might be an interesting plot twist but, ultimately, it seems as if it might be a mistake on Blizzard’s part. The antipathy between the sisters could be explored for years, distracting players while another, more malevolent evil arises. It’s a thought anyway.
While I’m on the story, I have a bone to pick based on my limited experience thusfar: My first character is a Forsaken, one of the chosen people of Sylvanas Windrunner and part of the Horde. Here’s what I don’t understand: The Alliance calls the Forsaken abominations and look to their utter defeat. Yet they oddly embrace Death Knights, creatures originally forged in malice. What’s up with that? But I digress....
The bottom line is that the story in World of Warcraft is top notch. The team has kept players interested for almost a decade now and it’s unlikely to stop there.
Game play in World of Warcraft has set the standard for every other MMO since its release. How many times have we all heard “WoW clone” tossed about as if it is somehow a dirty word? Some also claim that imitating the unarguable leader of the entire genre has somehow stifled true innovation. Perhaps, perhaps not.
It can, of course, be argued that WoW’s predecessors Ultima Online and EverQuest also brought a lot to the MMO space in terms of gameplay but it is Blizzard and World of Warcraft that perfected it. WoW streamlined the now-familiar routine to all MMOs since then: Quest hub, quest gathering, quest completion, quest reward, and so on. Even the much maligned exclamation point over the heads of NPCs found its footing in WoW. On a more negative note, WoW certainly epitomizes the “kill 10 rats” type quests but Blizzard has also thrown in tons of one-of-a-kind quests like bombing raids, beating things to death with a shovel and many more unique and breathtakingly fun quests. All of these and a top-notch story breathe life into the typical quest grind.
Azeroth and the Outlands are enormous. Shelassa got a good laugh one of the first times I was on a flight from one point to another and remarked at how much of the world we had conquered already. She dryly told me to right click a few times. Suffice to say my chin hit my desk when the entire game map was revealed. Good thing there are flight paths and fast mounts (thank you, level 40!).
PvP is great fun with a variety of different types to take part in. Battles are fiercely fought though it's hard not to feel a stab of guilt when I am called out (rightly so...) as a noob. Said in the way it is, it's not a compliment. That's part of the problem arriving so late: Nobody seems to remember their noobish days. Even so, I've had a great time and am making strides to hide my green side.
Don't even get me started on Shelassa's new obsession with the ultra fun pet battles. She's given up questing, PvP and crafting in favor of training Cocky the Undercity roach.
What’s not to like about the way World of Warcraft plays? Sure, it’s not as detailed and visceral as more modern games. That is a function of its age and the features put in place in the early days of MMO development. But even so saying, I have never seen a broader, more astonishing variety of skills to use and ways to use them. Of course, this didn’t all happen on launch, but Blizzard has kept improving World of Warcraft over the years.
The World of Warcraft community is a mixed bag. It is wise for new players to seek out knowledgeable partners or guilds to assist in making sense of the myriad lore and game play options out there. Without such, the WoW experience is daunting, to say the least, and can easily overwhelm n00bs. Blizzard has put some nice touches into the game to help out in this regard including a guild finder and the ability for players to add their friends’ Battle Tags to make finding one another much easier.
The add-on modding group is another amazing aspect of the overall community. There are enough fabulous addons out there to keep an explorer busy for a good long while finding just the right ones to maximize the gaming experience. I have honestly never seen anything like it in all the MMOs I’ve played. Blizzard has again set the standard for what modern MMOs need to embrace: An add-on community. ArenaNet has recently added this type of functionality to Guild Wars 2 and it’s something that breathes longevity into any game.
The First, Last and Best of a Dying Breed
I suppose that all of the lead up to this point is my way of marveling at something “so old” (in Internetland) but that is so amazingly complex and entertaining even all of these years later. There is a reason that World of Warcraft has been the top dog all these years. Not only has Blizzard made a commitment to the game by releasing expansions and improving on game mechanics, but they have kept the community engaged in any one of a hundred ways, both in and out of game.
To say that WoW is a dying breed is a certainty. The days of Free To Play are upon us and more than one subscription based MMO has gone the way of F2P or hybrid model. Even venerable old World of Warcraft is feeling the pinch, losing over three million subscribers in the past three years. It’s hard to call WoW “failing” with eight million subscribers, easily double that of any other MMO, subscription or not. Let’s also not forget the incredible amount of money the IP generates through subscriptions, merchandise, books, clothing, toys, etc. Blizzard doesn’t have to take WoW F2P any time soon. Subscriptions could fall in half and it would still be the most-played subscription MMO in the online game space.
For those who have played World of Warcraft, you have taken part in an anomaly in the industry, a game that has lasted through the years and that has kept an incredible number of players happy for months, if not years. Assuredly, we will also witness WoW’s decline and eventual cessation but that is still years down the road.
So what does the future hold for MMOs in the post-WoW world? Most assuredly, more money spent, better graphics, new and innovative features are already here. The cost, however, is that money-making machines the likes of WoW will never exist again, consequently leading to early and painful deaths for highly anticipated titles. People will bandy about “WoW clone” for years as if that is a bad thing. Now that I’ve seen it for myself, I believe that that statement is actually a compliment to the breadth of experiences and game play that comes with World of Warcraft.
Still, it is safe to say that World of Warcraft is the first, and the last, of its kind. While there are older and moderately successful MMOs out there including EverQuest 2 and EVE Online, they pale in comparison to the powerful success that has been WoW. There never was, nor will there ever again be, another game like it. Subscription based games of its ilk are a dying breed and WoW will be the final casualty. I am just glad that I took the time to find out why this game, above all others, is as special as it is and why it has been so wildly successful.
VICTORY FOR SYLVANAS!
PS: Yep, I subbed up, so sue me.
Suzie Ford is the Associate Editor and News Manager at MMORPG.com. You can follow her on Twitter @MMORPGMom.