See it in action!
"World of Warcraft." Try saying it out loud, and get used to the sound of it, because you'll be hearing it often in the foreseeable future. The title alone speaks volumes. Though Blizzard Entertainment is still hard at work polishing up its highly anticipated real-time strategy game, Warcraft III, for an early 2002 release, the company officially announced this brand-new product in the Warcraft franchise at the European Computer Trade Show in London on September 2, 2001. If all you knew about World of Warcraft was its name and that it would ship some time after Warcraft III, you'd wonder these two things, in this order: What's World of Warcraft? And why would Blizzard develop another Warcraft game so soon?
This preview will answer those questions, in that order, but will also reveal all the major details of this work in progress. Still, the project is but a year old, and its release date is undecided--and thus some of its details are as yet either undetermined or undisclosed. This preview will at least identify them as such. However, by the conclusion of this preview, you will still have more than enough evidence to conclude for yourself that World of Warcraft promises to be one of the most important massively multiplayer online role-playing games ever imagined. Simply read on and see.
Blizzard's Warcraft fantasy universe was first seen in the 1994 game, Warcraft: Orcs and Humans, and was made famous worldwide by its sequel, Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness, about a year later. Warcraft's fantasy world is instantly accessible: Determined human warriors can be found defending their country to the death against green-skinned, ferocious orc tribes. Up till now, the Warcraft games invited you to share in this struggle--to unite yourself with one of these two factions and to control its massive armies against its rivals. But whereas the Warcraft series has traditionally put you in the role of commander, merely overseeing the innumerable battles fought between these two races, World of Warcraft will be different. As the name suggests, the world itself will be the centerpiece; you will finally see this world firsthand and meet all of its personalities in earnest--not just in the heat of battle.
The concept behind World of Warcraft will be familiar to you if you know of games such as Ultima Online, EverQuest, Asheron's Call, and Anarchy Online--all of which are often referred to as massively multiplayer online role-playing games. These games allow for thousands of human players to coexist in a single gameworld, exclusively available over the Internet. It's still an exciting concept, even though Ultima Online, the first major game in this genre, was released back in 1997. The concept is made all the more exciting when applied to the Warcraft setting--one of the richest settings ever made for a computer game.
World of Warcraft will let you create a persistent character who will live, learn, and fight in the land of Azeroth. You'll have plenty of options even at the outset--namely, Blizzard has already announced three playable races (of an indeterminate total number) that will be featured in the game. These include both male and female versions of the stalwart humans; the fierce orcs; and the massive taurens, a bull-like race that will first be seen in the forthcoming Warcraft III. These characters look extremely impressive already, as does the rest of the game, if only from a visual standpoint, thanks to the game's striking visual design. Read on to learn about how appearances will be important to World of Warcraft.
Standing Eyeball to Eyeball
Probably the first thing you'll notice about World of Warcraft is its lush setting and vibrant colors. The world of Azeroth is rendered beautifully in the game, and even though screenshots and movies of Blizzard's Warcraft III have given fans a glimpse of Azeroth in the third dimension, it has never been displayed with this level of splendor before. "We didn't want to create a hyper-realistic look for World of Warcraft," explains Blizzard's Bill Roper. Indeed, the vibrant color palette from Warcraft III is very well represented in the game, as are the stylized settings, resulting in town structures that boast exaggerated or irregular angles, for example. This style of modeling and artwork combines to give World of Warcraft an almost cartoonlike look.
This same distinct style is also carried over to the appearance of all playable and nonplayable characters in World of Warcraft. The various character models seen in the game are often characterized by broad shoulders, brawny legs, elongated arms, and thick facial hair--at least on the males. It's clear that the intention of the Blizzard designers was to make each of the game's characters--no matter the race--look physically imposing. Roper explained that Blizzard didn't want players to feel like their characters would look like easy targets for others. Your character will look the part of a hardened survivor of a war-torn world."World of Warcraft's stunning visuals are just as much a testament to the technical prowess of the game's 3D engine as they are to the artistic abilities of the designers."
This visual effect is achieved well in the game, as even the smallest characters seem like they can hold their own against all but the largest of creatures in Azeroth. The player animations also relay a sense of self-confidence in all the characters in the game, as each human, orc, and tauren walks with a bold swagger that suggests a sense of pride. Adding even further to this effect is technology that will change the physical appearance of your character--that is, swap actual polygons for the character model, rather than just the skins--whenever you change clothes or armor. So while the average human male in World of Warcraft might already look pretty tough even in street clothes, he'll be much more daunting with a complete set of footman's armor. Blizzard is intending that, much like no two Diablo II player characters look completely alike, no two World of Warcraft players will look exactly the same either.
But World of Warcraft's stunning visuals are just as much a testament to the technical prowess of the game's 3D engine as they are to the artistic abilities of the designers. The character models all use facial animation to portray various emotions, and have individually articulated fingers that can be seen grasping the hilts of weapons during combat and weaving invisible webs during spellcasting. From a technical standpoint, the environments are equally impressive. The sky, for instance, is procedurally generated, which allows the designers to include impressive weather effects like morning haze or clouds of varying densities with relative ease. Likewise, oceans and lakes in World of Warcraft are also composed of various undulating polygons, which give these bodies of water a lifelike aspect to them that would have been otherwise impossible to create using simple texture maps.
In addition, day and night cycles will dynamically affect the lighting of the surrounding environment, and the visual transition between the times of day will be so seamless that you'll hardly even notice the passage of time--especially since the rich, midnight blue of Azeroth's nighttimes will still be bright enough to allow you to see through the darkness and continue with your adventures. But the graphics aren't the only immediately engrossing aspect of World of Warcraft. Read on to find out just how easy it will be for players with and without previous experience with the online role-playing genre to get immersed into the game.
Entering the World of Warcraft
One of Blizzard's central design philosophies--not just in World of Warcraft but in any of its projects--is to make its game extremely accessible to new players, without compromising its depth and complexity for advanced players. Considering that the online role-playing genre, up till now, has largely demanded that players overcome steep learning curves before being able to find their way around, this focus on an elegant, accessible control scheme and user interface should be a real benefit to the game. That is, you probably won't need to pore over an instruction manual or a readme file just trying to figure out how to get started--it'll be obvious.
Blizzard showed a mockup of the clean, colorful interface that will be used both in the game and to create the character you'll play. Character creation was handled with the utmost simplicity. Essentially, you'll just choose your character's race, gender, and appearance; that is, you'll choose the look of your face, your hair color, your hairstyle, and your skin tone. Blizzard says there will also be various archetypal character classes to choose from (though none were specifically disclosed). These classes will be designed to set you on a particular course, but not necessarily on a particular path. For instance, a class that's highly proficient in casting magic spells may not be as physically powerful as a class focused on traditional hand-to-hand combat. Yet characters within either of these classes could still grow their skills differently and would not be confined to a strictly linear development. Blizzard made reference to the branching skill system found in Diablo II and its expansion set as analogy for how the character classes will work.
This sort of depth will pervade the entire game. The world of Azeroth will be filled with real-life players, to be sure--but the computer-controlled characters found in the world won't be simple, either. That is, nonplayer characters won't simply exist in the world for the sake of it--they will move about, do things, and generally behave in a lifelike fashion. This seems obvious enough, and yet compared with the decidedly static and predictable nonplayer characters found in many online role-playing games, it should make for a world that's much more engaging.
Towns and villages will be bustling with activity. Monsters and other dangerous beasts corrupting the wilderness will act true to their nature, and may have communities of their own. As with Blizzard's previous games, one of the goals in World of Warcraft will be to have a cast of characters--playable or not--that will be memorable and interesting, both in their appearance and their action.
Interacting with these characters and navigating the world will be easy, thanks to the simple, ideal design of the game's interface. You'll use your mouse to move a context-sensitive cursor around the screen, which will let you interact with the environment and everything in it in an intuitive fashion. For instance, floating your mouse cursor over a friendly innkeeper will likely let you initiate dialogue by default; floating it over an angry kobold will, on the other hand, initiate an attack.
You'll also have easy access to your inventory, your skills, and more--these respective interface panels are all collapsible and will never overlap each other or obscure the entire screen. At higher resolutions, you'll be able to have all these windows open yet still have room to see the action onscreen. Good thing, too--that kobold might not wait for you to strike first. Find out about the combat in World of Warcraft next. You knew there would be combat, right?
The "War" Part
Though the online role-playing genre is sometimes criticized for being fundamentally focused on combat, rather than role-playing in the purest sense, Blizzard has no qualms about making the battles in World of Warcraft one of its greatest features. And Blizzard knows how to start a good fight, if its recent games like Diablo II and Starcraft are any indication. Like in those games, the battles World of Warcraft promise to be spectacular, fast-paced, and highly tactical.
In particular, the fast pacing of the combat immediately stands out. If you've ever played other online role-playing games, you'll know that the combat is generally characterized by how slow it is. In most of those games, at low levels, you can't hit the broad side of a barn, and at high levels, most monsters can withstand a tremendous amount of punishment. Battles should be rather quicker in World of Warcraft. This should make them appeal both to fans of Blizzard's previous games and to more casual players, who won't be frustrated to find their fledgling characters getting trounced by weak creatures but will instead be able to go toe-to-toe with dangerous-looking foes even from the outset.
That's because another one of the key ways in which the combat in World of Warcraft will be entertaining lies in the fact that the fights will all seem consequential, thanks to Blizzard's uniquely honed character design and sense of style. Even when you first start out, you'll be fighting against imposing creatures that will be worthy adversaries, rather than near-defenseless critters that don't deserve your wrath.
Meanwhile, those who are accustomed to the more deliberate tactical combat found in other online role-playing games should find plenty of options in World of Warcraft, as the combat promises not to lose any of the depth you might associate with the slower pacing of the battles in other games. Being one of the core aspects of the game, the combat will have a lot to it. What else would you expect from the developer of games like Starcraft and Diablo II--games that fundamentally revolve around the delicate balance found in their complex battles?
Blizzard demonstrated both melee combat and some of the spells you'll get to use against your foes. Some of the spells were reminiscent of those found in Warcraft II (and, presumably, Warcraft III), including high-level teleport and death-touch spells, as well as the blizzard spell that rains down a torrent of ice on groups of foes, just like in Warcraft II. Expect to find other popular Warcraft spells like bloodlust and polymorph in World of Warcraft. Casting spells will be a simple point-and-click affair, just like in Blizzard's other games. Presumably, player-character classes will be designed to offset one another in battle, to promote players to join forces. Then again, characters will be able to fend for themselves, too. Blizzard is designing the game to appeal to both hard-core and casual players--and both those who like to play with other players, and those who like to adventure by themselves.
What happens if you die? And what if you want to fight other players and not just computer-controlled monsters? Find out next.
Death, Dealing It, and Dealing With It
Though Blizzard did not disclose details as to how player-vs.-player combat (or PVP) would be integrated into World of Warcraft, it did plainly state that PVP is intended to be a significant, interesting, and optional part of the game. Optional, in that players who'd rather not face the possibility of being set upon by other players won't have to worry about it. This implies a system similar to the one found in EverQuest, where player killers can only fight other player killers, except on dedicated PVP servers. Blizzard noted that it has other original ideas in store for PVP combat but that it is not ready to disclose those details yet.
So, if there's so much combat in World of Warcraft, it's safe to assume that you won't always win the day. Blizzard has yet to provide the exact details of what will happen when player characters die, but made it clear that death wouldn't pose any permanent problems. Nor did Blizzard explain how the game will justify resurrecting defeated players at a set location--but that's the gist of what happens. You'll find monolithic "bind stones" scattered about the land, which will serve as save points for your character to return to, with equipment intact, if you happen to fall in battle. Blizzard noted that, though there will be consequences for being struck down, these consequences are being designed such that they're not quite as devastating as in some other online role-playing games, where getting killed means losing many hours' worth of gaining experience. World of Warcraft will have other features that generally make it more enjoyable to play, such as a persistent minimap that not only shows you the topography of your surroundings but also points you to quest locations and other areas of interest.
Blizzard would not elaborate on many other specific aspects of play that will no doubt be points of fervent speculation among those who follow the development of online role-playing games. For instance, just as Blizzard did not reveal any character classes, so too did the company not discuss the specifics of the skill system. Though melee combat and magic was shown, no special attacks were revealed. There will be social animations in the game--the fully articulated player models certainly beg them--but none were actually shown. World of Warcraft will indeed have a story, or at least a context, which will be supported and built upon by a live team of about 15 to 20 dedicated Blizzard employees, who will help shape the game once it's released and being played. But even the story was not revealed, aside from the interesting fact that it takes place four years after the events in Warcraft III. At least it's clear, then, why Blizzard can't give any details about the events leading up to the game, seeing as how Warcraft III isn't even out.
Yet the fact that the game takes place shortly after Warcraft III helps answer one of our initial questions--the one about why Blizzard would develop two Warcraft games concurrently. The answer is that they will build upon each other, even though--or perhaps because--they're entirely different types of games. World of Warcraft, aside from its striking perspective, looks essentially similar in style to Warcraft III. Thus, if people end up enjoying Warcraft III and its characters, then World of Warcraft should be an amazing encore. On the other hand, clearly, the success of World of Warcraft hinges on the success of Warcraft III. Regardless, the game will be different at its core: For instance, questing will play a more major role in World of Warcraft than in Warcraft III. Blizzard demonstrated a rather involved quest even at this early stage in the game's development. Read on to learn about it, and the quest system in general.
Questing in Azeroth
Like the other aspects of the game, the quest-generation system in World of Warcraft has been purposely created to be straightforward. Quest goals, rewards, and relative challenges will generally be made clear--you'll have a sense of whether you'll be capable of completing one of the multi-staged quests that the game's non-player characters might offer you. To demonstrate just how accessible World of Warcraft's quest system will be to new players, Blizzard's Bill Roper created a human male character named Lothar in a matter of seconds, and quickly set off on a starting quest.
The quest was obviously put together for the sake of demonstration, and it involved defeating a treant, an ancient treelike beast called Ironbranch, that had been terrorizing travelers in the jungle zone of Stranglethorn Vale. As Lothar, Roper began his quest in the small town of Moonbrook, where he started talking to the various characters that were meandering about. One such character, Antaris the Trader, told Lothar about Ironbranch and how it had slain two of his fellow associates. Naturally, to entice Roper's character into taking some action, Antaris also mentioned that the beast always kept a treasure stash nearby. Antaris' story was short and to the point, and upon choosing to seek out the tree beast, Lothar's minimap instantly displayed an arrow pointing him in the direction of his next goal--another character who could provide additional information on the matter. This feature of the minimap will constantly convey a sense of progress and maintain the overall pace of the game every time you receive a new quest goal. You won't find yourself stuck, wondering what to do or where to go next.
Lothar eventually found Veraina the Apothecary, who advised him to seek a powerful sword called the Firestar, which would make it easier to dispose of Ironbranch. Roper took this opportunity to show off another interesting feature of World of Warcraft. Characters will always look in the direction of whom they're speaking with, or who they are fighting, depending on the circumstances. Why? Mostly because it adds to the suspension of your disbelief when you're out adventuring on quests. Imagine that you happen across a band of travelers, and one of them exclaims, "Look out for the ogre!" In other online role-playing games, you'd have to swivel about in place, trying to locate the monster. However, in World of Warcraft, all these characters might already be looking in the direction of the rampaging ogre. It's a subtle feature, to be sure, but it's not insignificant, and it's one of the many aspects that will differentiate World of Warcraft from games like it.
Veraina explained to Lothar that the Firestar was being held by a particular thief, who Lothar then found and confronted, and was forced to fight to the death--only to find that the sword was broken. That was quickly remedied by a conversation with Blasthelm the Smith of Goldshire, who effortlessly restored the Firestar to its former glory--as an impressive two-handed sword whose blade licked with magical flames. At that point, a few more characters (piloted by other Blizzard designers), including a Tauren and a female human, joined Lothar and headed off to Stranglethorn Vale to slay Ironbranch.
Ironbranch, a huge monster who literally shook the screen with his every step, proved a challenge for this stalwart band. And though a quest such as this one might be for more experienced characters rather than those first setting foot in World of Warcraft, it was still characterized by a general sense of clarity and purpose--no nonsense, no fumbling around. Blizzard did not disclose how the game would deal with multiple player characters attempting to take the same quests, but did make it clear that World of Warcraft would not involve players having to compete for quests or wait in line for them, or wait around for monsters like Ironbranch to respawn. Will the quest system be the best thing about World of Warcraft? How will it all fit together? And when will it be out? Find out in our conclusion to this first look at Blizzard's most ambitious game to date.
Expecting the World
Hindsight is 20/20, and in hindsight, perhaps Blizzard's decision to develop a massively multiplayer online role-playing game is an obvious one, for three reasons. First, the online RPG is perhaps the most popular, most prominent genre in PC gaming right now. Second, World of Warcraft is based on Blizzard's most venerable gaming franchise.
Third, it's being developed by a team that's extremely familiar with the territory--both from a gamer's perspective and from a technical point of view, as Blizzard's free Battle.net gaming service stands as one of the most successful online player-matching networks to date. In light of all this, some of the other rumors as to Blizzard's mysterious game announcement seem almost preposterous--a Starcraft shooter? An entirely new game? These ideas may be fun to think about, but they're nothing compared to the staunch reality that Blizzard is, in fact, making an online role-playing game. If nothing else at all, it's just good business sense--it's hard to imagine a better course for the company to take."A lot of questions yet remain unanswered--questions that are fundamentally important to whether or not World of Warcraft will finally turn out to be a great game."
As to the freeness of the Battle.net service, it's worth noting that World of Warcraft will likely not be free to play online like Blizzard's other games are. Though a pricing plan has yet to be determined, presumably Blizzard will charge a monthly fee of some sort that's in the ballpark of what other online role-playing games cost--about $10. As with other games, this pay-to-play system is justifiable in light of the necessity for regular server upkeep and maintenance costs, and also because Blizzard does plan to maintain a large team dedicated to developing the game and broadening its world. It will be a dynamic, constantly changing place. Blizzard also plans to have plenty of in-game support representatives available at all hours, and it also plans to have dedicated servers located around the world--much like the Diablo II "realm" servers--which should help provide a fast, lag-free experience for players everywhere.
Blizzard of course intends to test the game extensively but would not provide details as to when and on what scale a testing period would occur. The game is still very much in development, after all. Indeed, a lot of questions yet remain unanswered--questions that are fundamentally important to whether or not World of Warcraft will finally turn out to be a great game. It's easy to get excited about it already, though, in light of the many details that are available; and it's easy to try to guess at what Blizzard will do to make World of Warcraft at least as enjoyable as its previous offerings.
Blizzard is not committing to a release date for World of Warcraft. But by inference, if you consider that a typical development cycle is two years long and that the game has been in development for a year already, then World of Warcraft may be ready for prime time as early as Christmas of 2002. Of course Blizzard's development cycles tend to be anything but typical, so such speculation isn't very meaningful. The fact is, Blizzard intends to produce a rock-solid, highly accessible, fun, fast-paced, great-looking, great-sounding online RPG that will be very polished straight out of the box--one that almost anybody could enjoy immediately and indefinitely--and that will take time. Fans of the company's previous products would certainly expect no less.