The Way Back Machine - WoW's First Impressions
It's often talked about how the olden days of World of Wacraft were far more appealing that what the game's become today with over 12 million worldwide players. People like to fondly look back on Azeroth's fledgling times as though there was nothing better in life than strolling about Dun Morogh when Gnomes were still hangers-on and Trolls didn't have a home. So for this week's Wayback Machine, I thought it might be interesting to go all the way back to 2004 and read up on our site's initial First Impressions of WoW's beta. It's interesting to see Richard Duffek's thoughts on repetitive "kill X rats" quests even then, as well as the standard hotbar combat. Basically, Richard was calling out for innovation and change upwards of four years ago, stating that while WoW was bound to be fun for droves of people, he felt it could have done much more to innovate. It's interesting to me because a lot of the comments he has for WoW and what kind of game it is, echo the sentiments years later about another newly released fantasy MMORPG. Dig in and read up... if nothing else, it's interesting to remember what WoW was like long ago.
I've been a part of the World of Warcraft beta for some time now. I originally wrote this Preview LONG ago, well before the Stress Test took place even, but due to several mishaps, the biggest of which being a Hard Drive crash, its publication has been delayed quite a few times now. So here I am, rewriting it after losing it in the crash, and updating it to be a bit more current. As with any review or preview I write anything expressed herein is based solely on my own opinion of my own experiences while playing the game.
Easily one of the most fought about aspects of the game, Blizzard has decided to take a unique approach to the graphics in World of Warcraft. Most companies these days are trying to make their game as realistic as possible, both in environment and in character models. Blizzard has stuck to the true feeling and look of the Warcraft game world from the RTS series. They've given it more of an artsy cartoon feel that most people who have played any of the Warcraft games from the past will instantly recognize and feel at home in.
Even though they're not my particular taste in graphics, I have to admit the graphics in World of Warcraft are extremely well done. Everything from the player characters to the bosses to the lowest level monsters to the world around you is very bright and colorful and visually stunning. There are great amounts of ambient touches throughout the world also. In the savannah there are random packs of gazelles and giraffes and such just running around. Small touches like this REALLY go a long way in bringing the world alive around you.
The world around you is stunning. The cities are very well done and definitely do not have a cookie cutter feel to them. The differences between one town and the next are some of the best I've ever seen. From the towering steppes of Thunder Bluff to the arid desert wastes of Crossroads. You never get the feeling that you're just in another copy of a previous town you were in. There are plenty of NPCs in the towns and they definitely do their part to help make the towns feel alive.
There's nothing really to complain about in the sound department. Nothing overly worth getting worked up over either. It's well done for what it is. It serves its purpose and isn't obtrusive or annoying. If I were going to be playing WoW for any extended amount of time I would more than likely end up turning it off and booting up my mp3 player. Not really because there is anything WRONG with the sound in the game, but more because there's nothing really to it to keep me interested in it. Like I said, it's done well and serves its purpose, but it's not impressive in any way in my opinion. I guess this could be considered a good thing in its own right, because if it doesn't stand out at least it isn't standing out in a bad way, but to me it just means I'll be listening to mp3s while I play.
But truth be told, this isn't a problem with World of Warcraft as much as a problem with the genre as a whole. Just by the nature of the game you spend FAR more time playing MMORPGs than you do standard single player games. Single player games have the luxury of knowing when and where you'll likely be at any given time. They can spend so much more time making those specific areas look and sound perfect. And once you're done in that area you're likely to move on and never come back. Overall you spend FAR less time in each individual area of a single player game than you do in the areas of a MMORPG. Because of this the music and sound effects in a MMORPG are bound to get old eventually. I can't think of a single one that I've played where I didn't eventually switch over to my mp3s.
The game definitely plays smoothly. It plays just like you would expect a MMORPG to if you've ever played one before. It is very easy to just sit down and start playing. I can see that Blizzard is planning on a lot of their customers coming from the Warcraft RTS series and having never played a MMORPG before. If you've played just about ANY MMORPG out there then you'll do just fine in World of Warcraft. There's nothing new here. Basically they've taken things that are known to work from previous MMORPGs and put them into the game. WoW is a prime example of "if it isn't broke don't fix it." Rather than take a chance on more innovative features like some games in production are doing, Blizzard took the safe route and stuck to things people know and are used to.
The quest system is nicely done, if a bit repetitive at times. A lot of bragging has been done about the massive amount of quests in the game. One of my biggest problems with the MMORPG genre is the inability of most games to differentiate between "Quests" and "Tasks". To me a quest is something I have to think about. Something with a lot of story behind it, that spans several areas; something that I have a sense of accomplishment when I finish it. To me going and killing 5 rats is NOT a quest, it is a task. Delivering a letter from NPC A in one town to NPC B in another town is NOT a quest, it's a task. Taking this philosophy into account WoW has FAR fewer quests than they advertise. I can't count how many times I had to go kill X things, or take something to some random NPC. I know this isn't just a problem in WoW but in the genre as a whole, but most games out there don't brag about their quest system to the extent that WoW does. I was expecting so much more because of this and was so severely let down.
And to make matters worse they would string several of these "quests" (read: tasks) together and try to play it off as a quest storyline of sorts. For example, I had to go kill 5 of a certain creature. Upon getting back to town, I was informed that I then needed to go kill 10 more or something. So I go do that, then go all the way back to town, and am informed I need to go back and kill a certain named version of said mob. Whew! Let me tell you my legs are killing me at this point from all the running back and forth! But none the less I make my way back out there, because surely this is a vital quest which is important to my kingdom! Anyway, I find the named bugger and dispatch him and make my trek back to town. Guess what?!?! I get to go back and kill ANOTHER named variant of the same mob... Anyway, you can see where I'm going with this. And this isn't a lone example; I did that same basic storyline with quite a few different mobs as the targets. Basically it's around 5 different "quests" which could easily all be accomplished in one go. The NPC coulda just told me "Go kill 5 of MOB A, 10 of MOB B, named MOB C, named MOB D and named MOB E then come back for your reward." And yes, I know for a fact this is possible in the game mechanics because there are several "quests" like that in the game.
Even though they can get a bit repetitive at times, there are a lot of quests, and some of them are very nicely done and are a great story to follow. Almost all of them give really nice rewards and are worth the time spent doing them. And having a lot of quests is a good thing in the aspect that it helps alleviate the grind of a lot of other games on the market. You can knock out a good sized chunk of the experience needed for each level through quests, thereby decreasing the amount of time you need to spend just out grinding out the rest of the experience for the level.And while there are indeed many of the repetitive task like quests in the game, there are a couple that have really well done and immersive storylines as well, particularly as you get into the higher levels. Also of note there are quite a few "special" quests that are a kind of new idea. Some quests are "started" from a rare drop you find off of a mob, or can only be done at certain times of the day, etc. These do a bit to help break the monotony and add some variety to the quest system.
Combat is pretty much what you'd expect it to be. It is pretty much what has become the typical form of combat in MMORPGs. Some people call it "sandwich" style combat, meaning hit auto-attack and go fix a sandwich, come back and loot the corpse and move on to the next target. Granted, much like any other game out there you have your special attacks and abilities that you can hit during combat to expedite the target's demise. Once again, there is nothing new or innovative here, if you've played DAoC or EQ or just about any MMORPG on the market you'll feel right at home.
Character customization in WoW isn't bad. Given games which have been released recently with outstanding customization though, WoW isn't great by any means. They offer enough options to keep most people happy, and it is definitely better than some games which have released lately which should have been titled "Attack of the Clones" or something. Personally I just feel that games like CoH and SWG have raised the bar on character customization and now games should strive harder to reach that bar if not surpass it. It totally destroys the immersion levels of the game to come across another player whose character looks exactly like yours.
As for powers and abilities and skills and such there's some variation here. You can customize you character to a certain extent as to what he's good at, what weapon he uses, etc. Talents will go a long way in adding to the chances that two Warriors of the same level won't be spec'd the same way. But this is a PvP game, and as with any PvP game you're going to end up with the "ultimate template" for each class. Or at the very least you'll have the "Flavor of the Moment" templates that will prevail until the nerf bat begins swinging. If you've ever played Shadowbane or DAoC you know what I'm talking about.
Tied in with the customization of skills are the tradeskills. There are plenty to choose from here and it's very easy to over extend yourself and try to take on too many things. Luckily in beta you can just untrain things and get all your skill points back, because being the crafter at heart that I am I went hog-wild with tradeskills. ;) I wanted to try everything I could and I did. Eventually I settled on a couple I preferred over the others though and untrained the rest.
Considering the game is still in closed beta and the community is nowhere near its full final potential yet it's hard to judge this one. However I will say that it definitely seems that WoW is drawing a younger crowd than previous MMORPGs. More than likely it's the followers of the RTS series coming over. There have been several times ingame that I've been grouped with people who could not have been more than 12 or 13. And if they were older than that, they sure didn't act like it. Also if you've been to the official forums you can see this in action there too. I can't imagine what it's going to be like once the game goes live and there are thousands of people on each server... Hopefully there will be some RP specific servers as these tend to attract an older or more mature player base.
While the ability to RP is definitely available in this game I really don't see it happening much at all. Especially if they don't provide RP specific servers. I don't feel that the community is of the nature to really support a lot of RPing on the normal servers. This is something we'll just have to see when the game releases though, who knows, maybe I'll be proven completely wrong. I hope so, but somehow I just don't see it happening.
Fun & Value
I can see World of Warcraft being extremely fun for a LOT of people out there. It is an extremely well made game. It succeeds very well at what it's trying to do. Unfortunately, in my opinion it's not trying to do enough. It really brings nothing new to the table. In my opinion at this stage of the MMORPG evolution you have to be innovative to some degree. Granted you don't take the whole mold and throw it out the window. You keep some stuff that has worked in the past and you mix a couple new innovative ideas into the recipe. But this is based on the fact that I've been following the genre as long as it has been around, I'm constantly looking for new ideas and features in games as they come out. I love when I'm playing a new MMORPG and discover some new feature or idea and am pleasantly surprised.
But like I said, I feel that the game will be fun for many people out there and well worth the money. A lot of the customers the game will attract will be new to the MMORPG genre, coming over from the Warcraft RTS series. Therefore they won't have the problems with the game that I do. If you're looking for a solid well made MMORPG this is definitely the game for you. On the other hand if you're looking for something new or innovative then I'd suggest looking elsewhere. As well made as WoW is, the biggest reason for that is because they really took no risks with the game, they stuck to tried and true methods and systems. For most people this isn't a negative aspect of the game but a positive, for me however it was a negative.
One of my biggest complaints in this category would have to be how easy the game seems. Leveling is quite fast. The death penalty is almost non-existent. A lot of people complain about the grind in most games; however I think that World of Warcraft has gone too far in trying to alleviate that grind. In my opinion it just seems like it's too easy to level up and basically max your character, leaving you only the options of starting another character or continuing to use that character in PvP battles and such.
Overall World of Warcraft is an extremely well made game. Technically and artistically speaking there is little to nothing to complain about here. If you've been following along you should have noticed all of the things I listed as "problems" were only really problems to me based on my own preferences in a game. Most people out there will be very happy with the game. It is easily one of the most well made games to come out in a long time, if not ever. But coming from Blizzard you really can't expect less, they've built a pretty solid reputation on releasing well made games.
So in the end it comes down to what you're looking for in a game. If you're looking for one of the best made MMORPGs to hit the market, if you're looking for a game you can just jump right into and not have to learn about new features and such, World of Warcraft is definitely the game for you. If you've been around the genre for quite a while like I have and are looking for a game that's going to revolutionize the genre and introduce tons of new features and innovations then you'll be better off looking elsewhere.