Blizzard's highly anticipated massively multiplayer game World of Warcraft is about to launch. When it does, players will finally be able to create a single character from one of eight fantasy races, step into the highly popular world in which the Warcraft strategy series takes place, and then go off on adventures with thousands of other players. And as we've seen, although the game has a very strong emphasis on quests, it will also feature faction-based competitive play in the form of player vs. player combat, complete with an "honor" system designed to promote fair play. We've taken an advance look at an all-new player vs. player battlefield, as well as new looks at upcoming areas that will not be available until after the game launches. Read on for our final update, and be sure to watch our exclusive video interview with the developers of Blizzard Entertainment.
The new player vs. player battlefield we saw in action was Alterac Valley, an area that, appropriately enough, lies just below the Alterac Mountains. This valley was characterized by designer Rob Pardo as a "mid-level area" intended for characters of levels 40 to 49 (players will be able to reach a maximum character level of 60 at launch), and, like Blizzard intends for all its battlefields, it will also be asymmetrical. Pardo explained that Blizzard plans to have all battlefields be in line with World of Warcraft's other environments--hand-crafted areas that stress the game's lore and history, rather than quick-and-dirty gameplay.
So while battlefields will still have tactical considerations (each faction will enter the area from a different point, and each faction will have a starter town and graveyard), they will actually have non-PvP quests, like pretty much every other environment in World of Warcraft. That's right--you'll actually receive quests that require you to run through these battlefield areas in search of specific characters to talk to and items to collect. But since you'll also be risking your neck against hostile players, you'll likely stand to earn greater rewards than you might have in a safer zone.
Interestingly, World of Warcraft's primary player vs. player gameplay in battlefields will also be based on quests. That is, although battlefields are instanced (they're loaded up as areas that are separate from the main gameworld), they won't simply be a place where two huge mobs of players collide. Instead, they'll be the site of a series of quests that culminates in an eventual team-based goal. For example, the primary goal of Alterac Valley (and likely that of other, future battlegrounds) is to hunt down and destroy a computer-controlled commander character who belongs to the opposite faction. However, you can't make this character appear unless you complete a series of ancillary quests on the battlefield first. The game will use a faction-wide broadcast system to inform you of when each of your side's quests has been completed. If you can complete your faction's mission first, and limit your player vs. player skirmishes to enemies of about the same relative strength as you, you'll earn "honor," a new distinction that was added to the game at the very end of its beta test.
Accruing honor lets your character gain rank, moving from private, to corporal, to sergeant, and so on. Climbing the ranks will earn your character rewards, ranging from discounts on items at certain shops to top-level items like an exceptionally powerful magic sword. These rewards are intended to be in line with Blizzard's approach to developing player vs. player and player vs. environment play--namely, that neither should be mutually exclusive, and that players should be able to advance their characters and enjoy themselves in either way.
The Price of Victory
Pardo also shared his thoughts on the final days of World of Warcraft's beta, including the most recent, and most controversial, changes to the game, including the new death penalty. Essentially, when you die, your character's items sustain damage, and you must then have them repaired to get them back into perfect working order. The system is intended to scale with the relative power of characters, and accomplishes this by charging a percentage of the item's value for the necessary repairs. So, low-level characters will pay a small percent value of their rusty swords to have them repaired, while high-level characters fully equipped in gear acquired from dungeons, raids, or player-versus-player combat, will also pay a percent value of their items--though since their gear is far more expensive, the actual monetary cost will be higher.
According to Pardo and several other developers, this change was actually planned for many months as a way to make players "respect the world," rather than allowing them to exploit a relatively painless death system to do things like instantly return to their hometown by dying and getting resurrected there. Apparently, the system had simply not been implemented until the late beta, despite claims by some beta testers that the costly death penalty, which arrived during the last few weeks of beta, seemed like a bait-and-switch tactic.
Pardo also shared his thoughts on the close of beta, which was marked by an invasion of high-level demon monsters that went on a rampage, slaughtering testers left and right. While the team at Blizzard found this to be a fun one-shot event, the game's future world-changing events will probably be very different, and may instead involve unlocking new quests and new areas (such as weekly fishing contests or a fall harvest festival), and even holiday-themed content, in tune with the time of year, since World of Warcraft uses a real-time 24-hour in-game clock and calendar.
In the meantime, Blizzard's design team is still at the drawing board, creating new content to be released in the game after launch. Some of this new content will be new mid-level and high-level areas that feature epic encounters and quests involving Warcraft lore, like opening the "dark portal" (the magical gate through which the dark forces first invaded the world in the earlier strategy games). We took an advance look, for instance, at the unreleased cave dungeon of Maraudon (in the Desolace region), an area intended for players of levels 40 to 49 that consists of three major wings: a purple crystal cave, a cavern inhabited by evil satyrs, and an orange crystal cavern. These three areas include different monsters and quest content to resolve--you can expect to fight centaurs (the result of the unholy union of night elves and demons from the story of Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne), boss characters, and other nasty critters before purifying the area and emerging into a pastoral landscape dominated by a waterfall.
We also took an advance look at other postrelease areas, including Dire Maul, a ruined night-elf city whose previous inhabitants fled the area, leaving it for ogres to move in and take over, and Karazhan Tower, a three-level dungeon placed within a lofty and foreboding stone tower that has three different entry points (another measure to prevent overcrowding). Blizzard plans to put most raid content--that is, monsters so powerful that they're intended to be fought only with an experienced war party--inside dungeons like the Molten Core (a fiery cavern that's home to a fire-breathing dragon), which was unveiled late in the beta. But interestingly, you may find a few raid-level monsters, like the frost-breathing Azurgos (a gigantic blue dragon) or the towering Lord Kazzak (a "doomguard" demon), wandering outdoors in a few specific areas. These outdoor raid monsters are intended to be the exception to the rule of keeping raid content indoors and instanced--as designer Jeff Kaplan explains, sometimes it's good to have a little competition to see who can defeat a raid enemy first.
In addition, Blizzard plans to systematically unveil new weapons and armor, including powerful armor "sets" that provide composite bonuses as you acquire and equip more and more parts. Equipping a full set of armor will grant your character exceptionally powerful bonuses--as it happens, the last phase of beta introduced at least one new set of warrior armor that testers weren't able to complete. They'll have plenty of opportunity to chase down magical armor and weapons (and hopefully not have to repair them too often) when the game launches this week.