8:30 PM - Hillsbrad Foothills - West of Tarren Mill
I'm running to Hillsbrad Fields to kill a set of NPCs in an attempt to complete a quest. Off to my left I see a troll rogue a few levels my junior attacking a bear. Behind him comes a human hunter. I stop running and watch from a distance. The hunter pauses, considering his action, then marks the troll and sends in his pet. I immediately mark him and sic my pet on him. The rogue turns around and attacks the hunter just as my pet gets there. He feebly attempts to turn his pet on me, but between me, my pet and the rogue, he drops like a sack of cement. That'll teach him to pick on my Horde brethren!
Zones are big but not huge, so running is a viable means of getting about, but the preferred method is flight. All cities and many smaller towns have flight masters that offer flying beasts on predefined courses. The city must be reached on foot first and the wrangler must be visited before the flight path is open. Once the path is established, the player may travel to and from other towns on the same continent. The trick is that not all cities are directly connected, so getting from point A to point B may require a stopover in town C, therefore it pays to make a mental note of which cities connect. Travel between continents is accomplished through zeppelins or boats which run on regular schedules. Players wait at towers or docks until the ship arrives. Once the vehicle hits the zone boundary after debarking, the map pops up and shows a dotted flight path to the other zone, so transoceanic travel is fairly swift.
Travel on the back of a bird or bat takes a bit more time, but it's a great ride. The flight paths are not circuitous, but they are often less than direct, giving the player a chance to see other parts of the world as he flies over. Travel between zones is seamless, so the flight is uninterrupted. It's a fun, yet practical way to get around. Teleportation (which is also an option in some instances) is quicker, but flying over mountains, around trees and through cities is more enjoyable and keeps the player connected to the world.
Zone landscapes transition nicely. Even going from a desert to a jungle in one crossing doesn't feel unreal. The world of Azeroth is alive in more ways than just heavy player population. The landscape is beautiful and genuine and is more than just real estate. The world is highly detailed and full of life, and not just life that was thrown in as an afterthought. The designers planned the fauna of each area carefully.
The Shimmering Flats is a perfect example. This area in the southeastern corner of the Thousand Needles zone is a flat arid desert that is home to a goblin racetrack. However, it is obvious that it was once a body of water. Not only are there hulls of wrecked seagoing vessels and remains of large aquatic animals about, but the zone is also teeming with turtles, normally aquatic reptiles who, apparently, have adapted to the new environment after the recess of the water. There are other subtle touches, like the clock tower in the town of Tarren Mill that keeps correct time and chimes the hour. It's this level of attention to detail that takes World of Warcraft to the next level. Most games won't bother with particulars like these, but WoW is not most games, a fact which becomes more evident as one continues playing.
10:00 PM - Stranglethorn Vale - North of Grom'gol Base Camp
My partner and I are killing trolls and collecting their necklaces. He's a 36 shaman, I'm a 35 hunter. Off to the left appears a 39 alliance hunter. He obviously wants to kill trolls, too, but can't resist trying to take out a solo 36 Tauren shaman. He didn't see me until he was committed. By then it was too late. My pet cat sliced him to ribbons while my partner blasted him with totems. The ranks of the alliance decrease by one.
Another aspect of the world that makes it so captivating is the humor that permeates the landscape and its inhabitants. For example, high in a cliff above the Shimmering Flats raceway is a smoking race vehicle. It's a wry reference to the urban legend of the guy who attached a jet engine to his Chevy on a straight strip of desert highway and ended up impacted in the side of a mountain. In the city of Orgrimmar one may visit Droffers and Son Salvage where orc Dran Droffers and his son Malton are proprietors. The names can be unscrambled to spell Fred Sanford and Lamont, respectively. All that's missing is Dran clutching his heart and screaming, "Azibethel! I'm comin' to join ya, honey!"
The developers at Blizzard have always maintained a sense of humor in their titles, and it goes deeper than mere pop culture references here. Animated emotes, of which there are many, are well done and often humorous, particularly the dance moves for the orcs. Watching one of these supposedly savage, ferocious creatures bust out into some MC Hammer-like steps is hilarious! Even the mobs get into the act, such as in Windshear Crag, a logging camp of goblins. A couple of the loggers are operating some of the funniest looking robot vehicles ever conceived. Just seeing one come shaking over the hill is enough to induce laughter and make the player forget that it's a deadly opponent.
But, humor aside, there are many opponents throughout the lands and some are particularly nasty. In World of Warcraft there are regular mobs and there are elite mobs. Elites are considerably harder to fight and kill than normal mobs and are usually found in out of the way areas, such a caves and keeps. Fighting elites doesn't give much more experience, but the rewards are often greater, particularly from quests that require the player to take on elite opponents.
Most of the world is seamless and requires no zoning, but there are many areas that are instanced, and often here is where elite mobs are found and tougher quests take place. Instanced areas require zoning and have entrances that resemble a swirling vortex. A player can easily handle a solo mob that is up to one level higher than him, and may often be able to defeat mobs that are two or three levels higher, but elite mobs, even those a few levels lower than the player, are tough to solo, so oftentimes players will hang around instanced doorways looking for groups to help with their quests. There are multiple quests within an instanced zone, so what incentive is there for a team on one quest to allow a player on another quest to join? This is where Blizzard has provided another simple, yet brilliant solution to a common problem: quest sharing.
A player's active quests are kept in the quest log and may be grouped by zone. Many quests can be shared with party members so that the entire group can benefit from the effort. If two members of a group have two different quests, each can share his quest with the other group members. Rather than requiring the entire group to wait for that one member to run halfway across the world to talk to the NPC quest giver, the player is quickly allowed to start the quest and gets full credit upon completion. Not all quests can be shared, particularly those that have prerequisite quests, but for those that can be, it's a great time saver and does not detract from the game. In fact, it has become a sort of ritual of politesse when joining a new group in an instanced area to share all quests relevant to that zone.
7:45 PM - Dustwallow Marsh - Northeast of Theramore Isle
There are three of us and we've wasted at least four alliance players who were way below our level and had no chance. We're all feeling pretty good about ourselves when I spot out next victim - a 32 human warrior. I tag him and send in the pet. He rushes forward and hits me. It's then I notice that my comrades had taken the other fork and weren't at my side. Still, I'm not worried. I'm four levels above him. Suddenly he strikes two critical blows and I'm dead. He laughs heartily and runs off. How the devil did he do that?
Outside of quest items, many higher level mobs and even some lower levels will drop nice items that the player may use or sell. Items are color coded - green for uncommon items, blue for rare items, and purple for epic items. If the player equips the item, it becomes soulbound to him and prohibits anyone but him from using it, ergo it cannot be sold or traded to other players. Items that have not been bound may be transferred, and the best way to do that in World of Warcraft is to visit the auction house.
Orgrimmar and Ironforge both have auction houses which allow players to place their goods on the open market. The player pays a small fee up front, then sets the starting price and the duration of the auction. He may also optionally set a buyout price, allowing a bidder to pay a flat fee. Anyone who has ever bid on eBay will find the auction house concept easy to understand. The interface is well designed, allowing searching for items by category, usability, rarity and other criteria. The auction house is another excellent concept Blizzard has incorporated into the game, and it meshes well with yet another well-designed and much needed medium: the mail system.
In each city and in most towns there are mailboxes that allow a player to send and receive in-game e-mail. Items won at auction are mailed to the player, as is any money he put up if he was outbid. Players can send each other messages, money and items through the mail for a small postage fee. A player who gets an item his friend can use may simply mail it to him and not worry about having to carry it around until they're both online. He can even send items to one of his other characters, so there's no need to find a trustworthy soul for an item transfer when twinking a second toon. There's no capability to mail to more than one player at a time, so no one will be appropriating the system for spam anytime soon. The system originally had a few bugs, but they seem to have been worked out. The in-game mail has proven so useful that other games will likely try to implement something similar into their own games.