Blizzard gave us quite a pleasant surprise this evening when the company announced that the highly anticipated beta test of World of Warcraft was imminent. World of Warcraft has been on legions of gamers' most-wanted lists since it was announced back in 2001. This online role-playing game, styled after games like EverQuest and Dark Age of Camelot, obviously takes place in Blizzard's immensely popular and richly detailed Warcraft universe and features the company's signature stylistic touches. Moments after the beta was announced, we received a confirmation e-mail with our account info and a download link to the 2GB install file for the game. Fortunately, we managed to download the massive file without incident and zealously installed and dove right into the game to quickly check out as much of the game world as possible to report back to you with our findings.
Let's just say our findings are very positive so far. The game gives a great first impression. Those familiar with Blizzard's Warcraft III will instantly feel at home using the game's streamlined, intuitive interface, and those familiar with other massively multiplayer online role-playing games would likely be flabbergasted at how quickly the game loads up. Indeed, after we created our first character--a night elf warrior named Erekose--we were stunned to find ourselves in the game world within a matter of seconds. And once in the game world, we experienced no loading times whatsoever. The action seamlessly transitioned between wildly different-looking indoor and outdoor areas as we explored about. Admittedly, though, we were wary of venturing too far past the outskirts of our starting location, what with just a first-level character on hand.
But let's back up for a second. We would have started off with an undead character instead of a night elf, because, frankly, we like the undead better. We couldn't possibly count how many of those worthless night elf huntresses we mowed down with our necromancer armies in Warcraft III. Yeah, those were the days... Anyway! For now, Blizzard is focusing the beta test (which, for the record, truly is for testing purposes and is not just a promotional opportunity for the game, we're pretty sure) on the Alliance races: the humans, the dwarves, the gnomes, and the night elves. Of those, the night elves are the coolest, and we figured warriors would be the easiest to play (other options included rogues, paladins, mages, and warlocks), hence our initial choice.
Our night elf character started off in an appropriately night-elf-looking area--a dense and ancient forest. Standing before us was a nonplayer character with an exclamation point above his head. We figured that was someone to talk to. Sure enough, this character tasked us with helping clear the woods of a little wild boar infestation, and then we were off on our very first quest. Combat in World of Warcraft is just as easy to execute. You just right-click on a target to initiate auto-attack. Combat is fast and smooth and packs much more of a visceral punch than that of most any other online RPG we've ever seen. In between watching you and your opponent exchange blows, you may attempt to use your character's various special abilities, so it's hardly a passive experience.
The game's interface is superstreamlined. You can easily and instantly bring up your character's backpack and character sheet, intuitively equip and unequip items, and more. Default controls have you maneuvering around as if you were playing a first- or third-person shooter, and the mousewheel lets you seamlessly switch between a behind-the-back and a first-person perspective. We've never been able to just pick up and play an online RPG as quickly as this one, and we didn't even need to read any of the optional tutorial information to get going.
Our first hour and a half or so was spread thin across all the available character races and most of the different classes. Distinctions between classes seem readily apparent. For instance, our night elf warrior cannot use spells, but he gains "rage" as he successively hits his opponents. The rage meter gradually runs down, but while it's in the red, you can use it to execute various powerful special moves. Meanwhile, our female human warlock (Wait! Aren't warlocks all supposed to be male?) could use magic to aid her defense and attack foes from afar, as long as she had sufficient mana, which would gradually recharge. Our dwarven paladin packed a mighty warhammer right from the get-go and could dish out significant damage with it, plus he could use a couple of holy spells.
In the wintry areas in which the dwarves and gnomes start out, we noticed some cool graphical details, such as how characters leave footprints in the snow and how vapor can be seen wafting from characters' mouths as they breath. Little touches like this, along with some hilarious social animations (Night elves can dance hotter than Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights!), really reminded us that this was a Blizzard game. In fact, we're really impressed with just how polished the game seems already. Granted, maybe it's just the front-end and low-level content that feels like it's done, but the game exhibits that overall level of polish and quality that's generally lacking from many other games of this genre.
Is World of Warcraft a revolutionary game? We have no idea, so let's not get ahead of ourselves here. Certainly, it's not drastically different by design than what we've seen before from this genre. It's heavily combat-oriented, and there's also a heavy emphasis on finding loot and questing. In fact, the game in some ways is reminiscent of Blizzard's own Diablo II (and Warcraft III, of course) more so than other online RPGs. Our night elf character gained himself some pretty decent equipment after only about an hour's worth of play. Plus, as we gained experience levels, we were able to level up our characters the way we wanted to. A variety of different "talents" were available, allowing us to boost our core stats, specialize in certain weapons or against certain types of enemies, and more.
The game looks really impressive as well. Colorful, imaginative, yet familiar locations and characters were all around us, and the game ran smoothly and looked beautiful with all the detail settings cranked all the way up. The audio, too, is excellent from what we've heard so far. Hard-hitting sound effects, well-done character voices, and nice ambient sounds all helped immerse us in the experience.
We haven't died yet in World of Warcraft--the game is quite forgiving at first--so we don't know what death is like in the game. However, thus far, we think life is good. Again, we have no real clue as to how well balanced the game's character classes are, how much content there is in the game, how the grouping system is (much less the player-versus-player system), or whether the game stays fun over the long haul. Remember, this is just a knee-jerk impression of a broad sweep through the beta. But we certainly like what we've seen so far and can't wait to play more. Stay tuned for further details.