Last week, Blizzard issued the latest update for World of Warcraft, its highly anticipated online role-playing game, to beta testers. As with earlier updates, this new version introduces new features and functionality, in addition to numerous tweaks that were made to existing features. World of Warcraft will allow thousands of players to adventure as humans, orcs, night elves, and other races from the Warcraft real-time strategy games. Needless to say, as soon as the patch was available, we downloaded it and immediately spent some serious quality time checking it out.
The biggest change in the latest patch is the addition of the hunter class. The hunter is the final class to be added, and it can be played by night elves, dwarves, orcs, trolls, and taurens. Hunters are like traditional woodsmen that you'll find in other role-playing games in that they can use ranged weapons, they have a variety of tracking skills, and they can tame animals to use as pets. We've logged in quite a bit of time with the hunter class, so let's take a look at its abilities and its role in the game.
Hunters are the only class to start with a ranged weapon--either a bow or a gun, depending on race. They will want to stay out of melee range of enemies so that they can shoot from a distance. Most of their abilities that we've seen so far relate to ranged weapons. Serpent sting adds poison to an arrow that deals damage over time to your target. Arcane shot inflicts additional arcane damage on targets that are successfully struck by your arrows. Concussive shot dazes your target, which slows it down. All of these abilities allow you to deal quite a bit of damage to an enemy before it gets within melee range of you or your group. When you are engaged in melee combat, you do have a few abilities that you can use to defend yourself. For example, raptor strike is a powerful swing that adds extra damage to your weapons. And you can use a large variety of weapons. In fact, hunters can use everything except maces and two-handed maces (although you'll have to spend skill points to train to use most other weapons). You'll also be able to dual-wield weapons after level 20. In terms of armor, you can only wear cloth and leather armor, and you must train to use mail armor at level 40.
The hunter also gets several other abilities. For instance, aspect is a passive effect that you can cast on yourself. There are no timers once you cast it, but you can only have one aspect at a time, which is similar to the paladin's aura. Aspect of the monkey gives a bonus chance to dodge attacks, which is useful when you're being attacked quite a bit. Aspect of the hawk increases your ranged power so that you inflict more damage with ranged weapons. The latter aspect is great when combined with hunter's mark, which is a spell that you can cast on a potential target that makes a mark appear above his or her head and on the minimap. Additionally, the target cannot use stealth or turn invisible, and ranged attackers will do extra damage against it. It's a great ability to have in groups, because the hunters can call out targets for the group so that everyone will know exactly which enemy to attack.
All of these abilities are great, but everyone wants to know about beast taming. The most asked question in the starting area is, "When do hunters get pets?" The answer is, "Level 10." When you hit level 10, you can learn several beast-taming abilities. Hunters aren't just handed pets. As the name implies, they must hunt animals and tame them. When you find a beast that you want to tame, you start a channeling spell. The target monster will immediately start attacking you, so you must be sure that you can defend against the attacks. This is easier said than done, because your armor is reduced for the 20 seconds it takes to channel, thus leaving you very vulnerable. This means that you won't be able to tame a monster that is higher in level than you, because it will tear you to shreds.
Once you tame an animal, it becomes your pet. Hunters are unique in that their pets are permanent companions. As long as you treat it well, your pet has the potential to stay with you for your entire career in World of Warcraft. The hunter is the only class that can name its pets as well. When you first tame your pet, it isn't going to be too happy about it. A pet has a happiness meter that determines its damage output. A happy pet will inflict 125 percent of its base damage, while an unhappy pet will inflict only 69 percent. Feeding your pet food will raise its happiness level. Each pet type only eats a certain type of food. For instance, vampiric duskbats eat only fungi-type foods. Your pet's hunger meter decreases over time, so you must carry additional food with you. The pet also has a loyalty level that presumably has to deal with the animal running away or rebelling against you. We weren't able to get this to happen at this stage in the beta--even with our pet at a happiness level of zero and at the lowest loyalty level possible.
Get even more information on the changes in World of Warcraft in our next section.
An Elf's Best Friend?
Fortunately, you aren't stuck with one pet for your entire career in World of Warcraft--at least not at this stage in the beta. You can have up to three pets but only one can be active at a time. The stable lets you store your pets for when you want to use them. A pet can never be higher in level than you, and its experience bar is lower than yours. As a result, you'll probably be able to level up each of your three pets in the same amount of time that it takes you to level up once. If your pet happens to die, you can revive it at any point. A lost pet can be called back to you, or you can outright dismiss a pet that you don't want. You can view your pet's statistics on a tab on the character information screen. Your pet has experience and will level up as you kill monsters. You can train your pets to learn new abilities as well. Currently, there is only one pet ability in the game: growl. Growl is a taunt that will attract enemy attention toward the pet, which allows you to run back so that you can start shooting.
Unfortunately, we haven't had a chance to see what the hunter will bring to a group. In theory, the hunter will be a big damage dealer in the group, what with its ranged abilities. We're excited to see hunters in diverse groups. There are many other abilities that we haven't seen yet, and talents aren't enabled for hunters, so we'll have to see how the class fleshes out as the beta test continues.
In addition to the new hunter class, Blizzard has tweaked some of the existing classes in the game. The priest, healer of wounds and dealer of holy smiting and shadow damage spells, now has access to its class talents. Talents for the priest fall under three categories: holy, shadow, and discipline. The holy specialization allows priests to increase the potency of the holy line of spells, including heals and the damage spell holy smite. For high levels of holy specialization, two new attack spells have been added--holy fire and holy nova. The shadow specialization is perhaps the most interesting of the three, because the shadow talents move away from the traditional healing role and instead work to augment the priests' shadow spells and abilities. The spell vampiric embrace will turn a percentage of the priests' shadow damage on an enemy into healing for the whole party, and at high levels, the priest can even assume a shadowform. The shadowform increases the priests' shadow damage and armor but prevents him or her from casting any spells from the holy line, such as heals or the resurrection spell. Finally, the discipline line of talents centers around increasing resistances to things like stuns, silence, and spell interrupts, as well as augmenting stat-boosting spells and mana regeneration.
Meanwhile, the mage class has been toned down, in that spells do less damage than before, abilities have been lost, and casting times have been adjusted. The class feels a bit weak right now, so, as a result, not many people are playing mages.
The level cap has been raised to level 55, and some new high-level areas are now accessible--thanks to the patch--like Felwood, the Burning Steppes, and the Ungoro Crater. Meanwhile, existing areas have new music, such as Darkshire and the mage quarter in Stormwind. Smaller, mini-dungeon-type areas were added to some existing zones as well. A new quest-share system also made its debut, which enables characters with a certain quest to "share" it with other members of their party as if they themselves had given out the assignment. The quest-share system can't be used to skip tasks that have a prerequisite in the form of a previous quest in the chain or a search for a special item, but it otherwise enables parties to all join in on the same quest without having to split up or head back to a city first.
The travel system has been improved, with new flight lines added between almost all areas and the introduction of zeppelin flights and boats to the game. Zeppelins and boats are used to cross between the continents of Azeroth and Kalimdor. They run constantly, so riding them is just a matter of waiting at a drop-off point until the craft appears again; then you hop on. The cross-continent trip currently doesn't take much time at all (there's currently a "warp" in the middle with a superimposed map screen), and the craft are accessible to both Horde and Alliance characters, making trips on the faction-versus-faction server risky business.
World of Warcraft also continues to quietly improve in other ways. Some new spell graphics have been added to certain spell lines, and new models were introduced to the tiger and panther mounts used primarily by the night elf race, making them larger and giving them a more fearsome appearance. Water surfaces in the game, which were previously opaque, are now translucent and allow you to see through the water and waves to what lies beneath. Additionally, subtle waves and ripple effects have been implemented in the game for when you swim or walk through water. As Blizzard continues to polish its massively multiplayer experience, new musical themes and sound effects have also been added to various areas in World of Warcraft.
World of Warcraft is (hopefully) scheduled for release later this year. Stay tuned to GameSpot for more updates.